Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Rabbit of Seville (1950)

Bugs Bunny as The Rabbit of Seville
When discussing the musicals of the 40's and 50's, it is easy to forget that over at Warner Brothers, a group of talent led by Chuck Jones, Michael Maltese, Carl Stalling, and Mel Blanc, among others, was busy making some of the finest musical shorts of the day. The Rabbit of Seville is one of two Bugs Bunny shorts from the 1950's (along with 1957's What's Opera, Doc?) which combine animated slapstick comedy with traditional operatic forms and music in a way that both highlights their similarities, and minimizes their differences. It is not so much that opera has been made to look like a child's cartoon, rather than Jones and team are showing us how similar the two forms already were.

The music used here, the overture to The Barber of Seville, combines a delightful originality in the form of added lyrics, with one of the most familiar melodies in history, although I have to wonder how much of its presence in our cultural consciousness is due to its use in this short. Certainly there is a basic familiarity with opera, particularly the iconic tunes and images from Barber and Wagner's Ring, that those of us who grew up watching Bugs Bunny cartoons picked up subconsciously, without ever listening to a note of "serious" opera. I don't think it would be going too far to claim that Carl Stalling, the musical director of these films, did more for popular appreciation of opera than anyone else in the last century, a distinction I am certain he would be proud of. For all its mocking, the use of opera in Bugs is always affectionate, even reverent. For instance, The Rabbit of Seville utilizes the overture to  Barber virtually in its entirety. Although a few repeated passages are truncated, and the tempo is faster than that conventionally used, the music is not otherwise cut or rearranged to suit the action on screen. From start to finish, the action is designed to fit the music.

The Rabbit of Seville, like Disney's Fantasia a decade earlier, begins by introducing the viewer to what they're about to see. Jones establishes the setting at The Hollywood Bowl, and the program, The Barber of Seville.  We hear and see the orchestra tuning up. Bugs and Fudd rush in from outside, breathless from some chase they've been conducting on their own before the film started rolling. Their chase happens to take them on stage at the opera, a bewildered conductor takes this as his cue to start the overture, and the pair's antics become the performance.

Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd
The plot of their performance has nothing to do with that of Rossini's opera. Indeed, the staging of the set, a fully functional barber shop, doesn't even seem designed for Barber. Although Figaro is identified as a barber (and thus the title of the work), he never practices his profession on stage and wouldn't have worked from a modern barber shop if he had. So much for taking the plot of this film seriously. If you try too hard to make sense of anything Bugs Bunny does on screen you're missing the point. Nevertheless, these films can and do reward an approach that looks more closely at what's going on behind the surface silliness.

So, Bugs is a barber, and because he has a shop, Fudd must need a shave. Fudd submits to the inevitability of this logic, and takes a chair. Bugs climbs up onto the chair, pinning Fudd helplessly beneath him, and bares his blade. He wields his weapons like the seasoned killer we all know Bugs to be, and there is a demonic glint in his eye reminiscent of that other barber no one wants to visit. While we're here, I would like to suggest, although I certainly can't prove anything, that we could draw a straight line from this re-interpretation of Rossini's opera to Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Although the legend of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street had been around at least since the 1840s, the first musical adaptation of the story was an English ballet by Sir Malcolm Arnold in 1959, followed by Sondheim's musical in 1979. The popularity and dissemination of Bugs Bunny is such that at the very least we can be reasonably certain that Sondheim had seen The Rabbit of Seville. I leave you to speculate on the rest.

Bugs' frenzied shave of Fudd.
From their first duet, Bugs and Fudd move into the ballet portion of the program, a pas de deux that takes this one central plot device, a barber and his customer, and plays it out in a string of variations. As he generally does, Bugs takes a turn in drag, but even this is reminiscent of the conventions of operatic staging. Oftentimes male characters are written for female performers, so opera audiences are used to seeing gender lines blurred on stage. Furthermore, the way the gags are played out is not simply about being funny, although it is certainly that. Bugs and Fudd race upwards in their barber chairs, stretching any possible sense of realism in the sets by zooming hundreds of feet in the air. Bugs drops a sandbag on Fudd's head, sending his chair twirling back down to the floor. Bugs' chair remains elevated while he glides down the pole, spiraling around and around like the red stripe on a barber pole. It is a small touch, one a casual viewer is likely to miss, but its elegance speaks volumes. It's a lovely image, perfectly matched to that point of the music, as the orchestra takes a breath, as it were, for the next attack. It recalls the principle image of the ballet, the barber shop itself, but poetically, through the physical interpretation of the human (well, rabbit) body.

The Rabbit of Seville does not depart from the conventions of animated shorts of the day, it simply combines them with those of classical opera. In doing so, Jones and his team remind us, for those who need reminding, that opera itself can be funny, and need not always be taken too seriously, and that simple cartoons can be beautiful in their own right, and can reward a serious viewing with more than a few laughs.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent look at this Chuck Jones classic! I grew up watching this (and later intro'd it to my kids). My daughter still does that head massage scene while she hums the melody. Thanks, Allex.