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Analysis: The Wacky Wabbit

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Tonight’s short under the microscope was the Bugs and Elmer short The Wacky Wabbit, a 1942 cartoon (complete with war bonds ad) by Bob Clampett. I sat down and wrote out 291 short descriptions of what was going on on-screen at any given time, trying to summarise the cartoon from action to action.

What awes me is that the summary notes make me laugh. Even dissected on a table like a pinned rat, this material is still funny. Pretty amazing. I hope I can write something that funny one day.

Again, spoilers follow. Watch it first.

Plotwise, there’s not much to write about – Elmer is introduced as a gold-seeking, ill-tempered buffoon and Bugs is introduced as a cocky, nonchalant troublemaker. It should be noted that this is a Bob Clampett’s cartoon, so Bugs doesn’t need Elmer to cross him before he starts making mischief. Bob’s Bugs is happy to just entertain himself at the expense of fools. (Buckaroo Bunny is a more extreme example where Bugs is an actual outlaw.) You might also not recognise Elmer because they were trialling a different model of him.

So. The analysis.

Like Bad Luck Blackie yesterday, I spotted riffs in this. There’s a character riff set up early on with Elmer where he’ll see something, realise what it is, then respond – except very slowly. Sometimes between seeing and realising, he’ll act completely incongruously with how you’d expect someone to act under the circumstances, which makes the ensuing overreaction (either anger or terror) even funnier.

There’s also progressive escalation – Bugs starts out pretty cocky but he just gets sillier and sillier – by the end of the short he’s dancing and singing to himself, completely secure in the knowledge he’s got Elmer licked – until, in a twist of events, he hasn’t. Elmer’s stupidity by contrast stays about constant.

Bad Luck Blackie more or less winds up its premise and sets it going at a rapid-fire pace; Wacky Wabbit works with longer cycles of set-ups, anticipations and pay-offs. It’s more patient. It milks the audience’s anticipation much more because its main comedy hook is a dim-witted character, and dimwits by their nature take their time to pay off. There is another instance of a rhythm being established, then being played over and over again, faster and faster, until it stops midway through – only to be concluded after a pause. (That would be the scene with the dynamite, where Bugs himself supplies the BLAM noise.)

Elmer is sublimely stupid in this short. He politely greets a talking skull as he walks past. He sings a duet with Bugs without realising it until Bugs showboats one last time before disappearing. He braces himself against a spiny cactus while waiting for dynamite to go off. He rips out his own gold tooth at the end of the short and considers his quest for gold a rousing success.

Aside from the characters’ own personalities, the comedy in the short plays off subverted expectations (dynamite goes pffrt), exaggeration (Elmer and Bugs doing gravity-defying wild takes), misplacedness (witness the electric elevator that brings Bugs to the surface), unexpected symmetry (Elmer dives into the ground and Bugs is pushed up out of it), allegory (Elmer diving into a rabbit hole like a swimming pool), sudden surprises (Bugs suddenly snogging Elmer out of nowhere), sarcasm (Bugs says to the audience about Elmer: “Smart boy!”) and general contrariness/absurdity (while holding a stick of dynamite that’s about to go off, Bugs puts a finger in the ear furthest from the hand holding the dynamite). Elmer gets humiliated with kissing, having his clothes cut off at a vulnerable moment, being wolf whistled at and other unkind behaviour from Bugs.

It’s got me thinking mostly about what it is that allows a character to be so productively funny. WIth Elmer in this short, his slowness to catch on finds itself in the presence of someone who has no trouble outwitting him. Part of this comes from Elmer’s own personal character riff.

Bugs didn’t seem to have a riff in the analysis – Bugs feels more like a reagent. Some have referred to him as a mischievous pixie. That description seems to work here – at least until he gets the crap beaten out of him. Pixies don’t cop that sort of abuse usually.

Bugs still prevails in the end after all hope seems lost for him, so I guess that makes this a weird cartoon which kind of starts with Elmer and finishes with Bugs – Elmer becomes too aggro to fit the role of the protagonist. In one possible reading, the antagonist and protagonist roles almost switch midway through the story.

Warner Brothers animation fans will know that Elmer’s stupidify became so vexing for Friz Freleng that Yosemite Sam was born to give Bugs a bit more of a challenge – and fair enough too.

Anyway. It’s interesting to see comedic principles at play in different ways between different directors. I’m looking forward to doing more analyses and I hope someone out there is getting something out of them, even though I don’t claim for a second to really know much about what I’m talking about.

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Analysis: Bad Luck Blackie

Editor’s note: Bad Luck Blackie has evidently disappeared from the interwebs.

So. Bad Luck Blackie. Directed by Tex Avery at MGM in 1949. Voted the fifteenth greatest cartoon of all time. Inspired by the advice of Bob Camp, I sat down to analyse how it works as a series of events by writing down what happens and when – even down to the individual frame numbers when the gags get really intense during the final payoff. It took half a day but it was totally worth it.

If you haven’t seen Bad Luck Blackie before and you have seven minutes, watch it before reading on. This analysis may spoil some of the gags.

Bad Luck Blackie works with “event riffs” (events happening in a particular sequence) mixed in with both subversion of expectations (both of reality and in the riffs) and ever-escalating gags.

The riff in the opening sequence is pretty simple – cat gets away from dog, dog outwits and cruelly humiliates cat (eating him, letting him fall onto the floor, trapping his tongue in a mouse trap, squishing him into a book). This riff isn’t really broken until the cat escapes from the dog. As the riff plays out, we learn that this is a cartoon world (major subversion of normality where the cat runs over the tongue staircase from dog to.. er.. dog), the dog is a horrible cruel simpering bastard, and the little cat is defenceless.

We get four repetitions of this sequence of events, plus a fifth aborted one when the cat escapes.

The riff in the middle sequences starts off as “Blackie walks in front of the dog, something hits the dog on the head” – this causality is even verbally explained by Blackie himself. “Just whistle,” he says, adding another element to the front: whistle, Blackie, wham.

This then becomes the slightly longer “dog accosts cat, cat sees dog, cat blows alert whistle, Blackie crosses the dog’s path, something hits the dog on the head, cat escapes”.

A fragile normality is established – the whistle and hence Blackie keep the cat safe from the dog. (Naturally one wonders what happens if the cat loses the whistle – of course he loses it.)

What hits the dog on the head gets more and more absurd and unlikely (flowerpots – believable because they’re near a building; a trunk – not quite as believable; a piano – now you’re being silly; a bomb; a cash register; a horseshoe.. followed by three more horseshoes and a horse). The ways in which Blackie crosses the dog’s path become more absurd and unlikely (appearing from a nook, appearing from behind a barrel, appearing from a tiny tin can and disappearing into another; floating by on a balloon, appearing out of a drainpipe – on a unicycle.) The sight gags for Blackie’s appearance and the dog’s comeuppance escalate into lunacy and subvert everyone’s expectations – especially the dog’s.

There’s secondary associative gags at the end of a couple of the riffs as well: the dog gets hit with a piano, its teeth turn into keys which the cat plays; the dog gets hit with a cash register, the cat escapes its mouth from a cash drawer; the dog accidentally clobbers itself with a single horseshoe, only for three other horseshoes and an entire horse to clobber him immediately afterwards.

Another note is soon added to a variation on second riff after a fade to black – cat is wandering along happily, cat sees dog, cat blows whistle, Blackie crosses the dog’s path, dog gets clobbered.

But the dog is starting to get wise. The riff gets altered by the dog clamping a hand over the cat’s mouth, stopping the cat from blowing the whistle – until a fly ruins everything. Whistle blown, Blackie trots into shot, fire hydrant drops on dog’s head.

Next, the riff appears to start again with the cat wandering along happily, but a jack-in-the-box derails it. The whistle is dropped (as anticipated earlier) and the dog steals it, thinking he’s outsmarted the cat and Blackie.

A part of the riff is now under the control of the villainous dog who wants his revenge on Blackie. It’s as if the riff has gone from major to diminished – what happens now that the villain has control of one of the very elements of the riff? If he blows the whistle, will Blackie still appear?

Expectations all around would indicate yes.

Accordingly, the dog hoists a safe up on a rope, draws an X on the ground where the safe will drop, then blows the whistle. Blackie appears, sees what’s going on, nonchalantly kicks the X across to underneath the dog and about a second later the dog cops his own safe. This establishes a shorter variation of the riff – “dog gets ready to take down Blackie, dog blows whistle, Blackie appears, something falls on the dog”. So even when you think the riff can’t happen, through a surprising gag it finds a way.

This riff variant is repeated – dog gets ready to hit Blackie with a plank of wood, dog blows whistle, Blackie appears (walking across a plank upside-down with suckers on his feet), dog is hit with a ton of nearby bricks.

The new variant is played one last time – the third time. Comedy comes in threes, they say. This time, as Blackie appears the dog paints him white. Blackie’s crossing has no effect. We suspect that the cat has to be black for the bad luck to actually work. Blackie runs back and forth in front of the dog to summon the next event in the sequence, but the riff is broken..

…until the little cat leaps into some black paint, walks in front of the dog and finishes the riff we all know. The dog passes out briefly and swallows the whistle.

And so we come to the final comedic riff of the short, a Blackie-less variation on the middle riff: the dog hiccups, the whistle inside him blows, something falls on his head. After a couple of blows to the head, the dog gets wise and the last event changes to something narrowly missing him – though frame by frame suggests they draw it coming straight for him and he blips out of the way at the last possible frame. The fact that cats aren’t crossing his path breaks the rules of the world slightly, so presumably in order to distract us from this inconsistency the pace of the action speeds up.

By now, we kind of expect unlikely stuff to fall out of the sky; the falling stuff escalates in absurdity and the intervals between hiccups and falling objects become shorter and shorter while the escalation gets completely absurd – a sink, a bathtub, a piano, a steamroller, an airplane, a bus and finally a battleship. It’s an accelerating crescendo of absurdity with the final event of the riff coming quicker and sillier until the villain runs off into the hills, vanquished. And it serves him right, too.

After this there are no more riffs, just ten seconds of the characters shaking hands on a job well done and the small now black cat making evil faces as we iris out of the short.

From doing this analysis I got a lesson in how audience and character expectations can be set up through establishing a pattern of events which then play out like a musical riff – except instead of notes, we have events. Sometimes it’s what we expect and sometimes it isn’t. The biggest turning points in the two initial characters’ respective fortunes came when the riff of events was waylaid by something getting in the way (an incinerator in the first instance, or white paint in the second).

The mid-section of Rock-A-Bye Bear seems to work the same way – once the setup is established, for a couple of minutes we get a riff of “miscreant dog makes guard dog make a noise (usually by hurting him), guard dog rushes outside to make noise out of earshot of grouchy sleeping bear, guard dog dashes back inside”. Again, there’s escalation (from pin on chair to hammer on foot to dynamite on tongue) and the surprising subversion of expectations. (How can someone walk out of a house when their feet and hands are occupied? He finds a way.) But before that we also get a riff of “noise is made, bear comes out and shouts about it”. This is subverted utterly when the bear’s house explodes and he doesn’t wake up.. then it’s quickly unsubverted again when someone wolf-whistles at the Red pin-up.

What makes it funny? Subverting expectations both in terms of established riffs and common sense, progressively escalating one or two events in already established riffs towards greater and greater absurdity.. and of course timing/staging/pacing it all so each event on the screen and soundtrack can be taken in clearly and unambiguously. In the end that’s a bit of a joyless dissection of comedic principles.. but hey, it still makes me laugh.

Admittedly, this analysis has all been pretty writerly, but writing is the part I’m most interested in at the moment. Maybe the concentrated riffing is a Tex Avery trademark or maybe everyone riffs – I guess I’ll find out once I do a few more analyses. I’m keeping my cup of expectations empty for now.

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Happy dance!

This is from Congo Jazz, the second Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoon ever. You can watch it here.

The tiger looks so happy. 🙂

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Video analysis: Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!

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“Smile, Darn Ya, Smile” isn’t the very first Merrie Melodies cartoon (that honour belongs to “Sinkin’ In The Bathtub”) but it’s one that I’ve had echoing around in my head a lot lately. Mainly the bass clarinet melody timed to the cow chewing. At least I think it’s a bass clarinet…

A lot of the early WB black-and-whites were pretty much the music videos of their era – Warner Brothers specifically wanted the shorts for promoting their back catalogue so people would buy the sheet music. Into colour and beyond, even as far along as Tiny Toon Adventures, WB’s cartoon composers would continue quoting these pieces in their soundtracks. They’re great tunes and they still sound great today.

The animation style isn’t as crude as say the Felix the Cat shorts of the early 1920s but it would be a few years before Walt Disney started pushing the techniques of animation towards fine art (see the twelve principles, or even just read The Illusion of Life). Stylised “rubber hose” motion was still AOK – it seems to be a lost art these days after over 70 years of higher artistry prevailing. (I wonder if it can be done using 3D-based CG…)

Anyway, I’m definitely up for rubber hose animation that bounces along to a swung 2/4 beat with a sense of playful mischief. It’s properly uplifting stuff made for seriously downtrodden times, even if sometimes the casual racial caricatures are a bit cringeworthy. (Witness Harman-Ising’s original Bosko demo to WB where a newly-drawn Bosko jokes about being “just out of the pen”. Ouch.)

“Smile, Darn Ya, Smile” is available in restored form as part of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection box set (Volume 6, Disc 3) along with other old black-and-white cartoons from the 1930s.