What's Opera, Doc?

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(1957, directed by Charles M. Jones)

- inducted 2018 –

“Warner Bros. animation director Charles M. ‘Chuck’ Jones was known for his love of the snootier aspects of culture, specifically opera and ballet. He also craved far more lowbrow material like comic wordplay, violent slapstick and parody, characteristics for which the Termite Terrace brand of shorts were notorious. Jones’ 1957 Merrie Melodies feature What’s Opera, Doc? is the quintessential synthesis of these seemingly disparate elements, a take on Richard Wagner that is simultaneously a parody and a working example of what it mocks. Under all the jokes, there’s an earnest respect for opera and dance; Jones and his animators were serious enough to ensure the physical accuracy of the ballet moves of his characters, despite the fact that they are a rabbit in Bavarian drag and a lovestruck bald man armed with a spear and magic helmet.

“That spear and magic helmet allows screenwriter Michael Maltese to provide unforgettable lyrics for Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. ‘Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!’ yells Elmer Fudd as he jabs his spear into the home of his antagonist since 1940, Bugs Bunny. Maltese scripts Elmer’s usual first line, ‘be vewy quiet, I’m hunting wabbits,’ but this time Elmer sings it in fealty to the operatic rules. Bugs sings too, working in his trademark ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ over Wagner’s horn melody. The expected chase ensues, with Bugs toying with Elmer’s emotions and occasional obliviousness while casually outsmarting him at every turn.

“Or so we think. What’s Opera, Doc? is Jones plopping a standard issue Bugs and Elmer cartoon into a more ominous structure, making it the greatest cartoon Warner Bros. ever produced. As his Road Runner cartoons prove, Jones loves to exercise creative discipline, and he’s a stickler for the obstructions he gives himself. So, spoofing Wagner means incorporating the tragedy and magic integral to his plots. This makes Elmer an actual threat rather than simply a comic foil; his ‘sample’ of spear and magic helmet power is far more accurate in its destruction than his usual shotgun marksmanship. ‘Bye!’ Bugs says to us just after the tree he’s standing under gets obliterated by Elmer’s ‘Flying Dutchman’-scored lightning bolts.

“Despite facing a stronger foe, Bugs employs his usual means of ‘stragedy’ (as he’d call it). The midsection of What’s Opera, Doc? finds him once again engaging his vaudevillian penchant for dressing as a woman to lure the lovesick and horny Elmer Fudd off his single-minded quest of huntin’ wabbits. Here, Bugs is Brunhilde, appearing on a giant white horse against some of the weirdest backgrounds Maurice Noble ever drew. Elmer is beyond smitten—Jones’ famous facial expression drawings speak volumes of emotion—and he and Brunhilde dance and sing in courtship. Their song, by Maltese and Wagner, is a showcase for Arthur Q. Bryan (as Elmer) and Mel Blanc (as Bugs). It’s here that one realizes just how good these guys are at working together, their voices playing off each other and melding in a harmony that is delivered sincerely for maximum emotional effect. For a moment, the duo sells this love story built on self-preserving subterfuge.

“Of course, Bugs’ ruse is eventually discovered, which leads a raging Elmer to finally get what he’s been desiring all these years—he kills the wabbit! An opera demands a tragic ending, and Elmer’s first (and only) successful hunt of Bugs sends him into spasms of remorse and guilt. What’s Opera, Doc? milks Bugs’ demise for all the melodrama an opera death is worth, sprawling him under a broken flower that rains ‘tears’ upon his lifeless body. Elmer’s final, hauntingly delivered lyrics prove that this performance is Arthur Q. Bryan’s masterpiece. Jones lets Bryan have his sadness while, unbeknownst to Elmer, Bugs reassures the viewer that he’s really OK. ‘What did you expect from an opera?’ he asks. ‘A happy ending?’ Of course not.”

~ Odie Henderson

Principal cast: Mel Blanc
Story by: Michael Maltese
Film editing by: Treg Brown
Music arranger: Milt Franklyn
Based on compositions by Richard Wagner
Song “Return My Love” – lyrics by Michael Maltese, music by Richard Wagner, performed by Arthur Q. Bryan (uncredited)
Produced by: Edward Selzer (uncredited)
Sound effects editor: Treg Brown (uncredited)

USA
Duration: 7 minutes
Languages: English
Filmed in color
Sound mix: Mono
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1

Produced and released in USA by Warner Bros. Cartoons
Premiered in USA on July 6, 1957

Awards and honors:
- National Film Registry selection, 1992
- Selected as one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies,” 15 January 2006