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Happy 75th, Bugs Bunny: How animation’s first great brain-trust created a legend

The lobby card for Bugs’s “true” debut. (Leon Schlesingers Productions/ WB)
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WITH PIXAR’s “Inside Out” spotlighting anew the brilliance of the studio’s famed “brain trust,” it’s worth dwelling today on arguably animation’s first great brain trust — at least the first great one since so many characters lived in lone genius Winsor McCay’s head.

On this day in 1940, the “official” version of Bugs Bunny made his screen debut in the Oscar-nominated short “A Wild Hare.” It is eight-plus minutes of inspiration and magic that begin with Elmer Fudd’s immortally lisped imploring for quiet because, of course, he’s hunting for “wabbits.” On cue, we see Bugs’s white glove in a long, building pantomime between paw and gun, and then, at last, a couple of minutes in, we finally get a full, furry visual and that iconic first quote: “What’s up, Doc?” (You can view it in full here.)

On Official Bugs’s 75th birthday, it’s something to appreciate what a rare confluence of talent worked under the Termite Terrace roof, breathing early life into Elmer and Daffy and Porky Pig and the wily wabbit in these Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies for producer Leon Schlesinger and Warner Bros. Where the fabled “Nine Old Men” would soon lead Disney to steady animated greatness, Schlesinger’s team was already gathering steam quickly by the early ’40s.

The Dallas-sprung Fred “Tex” Avery was hired by Schlesinger in his 20s, after he’d mastered cartoon production at the Walter Lantz studio, home of Woody Woodpecker and, especially notable in this case, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Avery directed “A Wild Hare,” in which after a few years of experimentation, the Terrace had significantly evolved Bugs’s look. (Avery hated the name “Bugs,” by the way — not formidable enough for their cottontailed, Brooklyn-wise sarcastic-trickster hare — but Schlesinger was sold on it, after his director Ben “Bugs” Hardaway had tried his hand at a wascally wabbit in the late ’30s.)

“What’s up, doc?” was a phrase from Avery’s Texas high-school days, and the director also pushed the idea that anything could befall an animated character (including a falling anvil), since cartoon life bestowed immortal physical rejuvenation.

Chuck Jones, another famed piece of that Termite Terrace brain trust, would later say of Tex: “I was as ignorant of his genius as I suppose Michelangelo’s apprentices were oblivious to the fact that they, too, were working with a genius.”

Avery would exit Warner Bros. by ’41, but as surely as Marvin the Martian, he had planted his creative flag at the studio — and Jones was among the brain-trusters who took up the standard. Jones excelled at building comedic depths into a character.

“I have come to know Bugs so well,” Jones once said, “that I no longer have to think about what he’s doing in any situation. I let the part of me that is Bugs come to the surface, knowing, with regret, that I can never match his marvelous confidence.”

(In addition to his Oscars recognition, Jones — who created Pepe Le Pew, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote — would garner an Emmy nom for the 1980 show “Bugs Bunny’s Bustin’ Out All Over.”)

In-house prankster Bob Clampett was crucial to the rabbit’s early development, too, as a long-serving Schlesinger animator who brought an especially wacky sensibility to Bugs. So was Isadore “Friz” Freleng, the fiery, 5-foot-4 animator who was most like Yosemite Sam; he was senior director at Warners, where the multiple Oscar winner directed more than 250 cartoons. And there was Bob McKimson — creator of Foghorn Leghorn and the Tasmanian Devil — who helped hone Bugs’s look beginning in the mid-’40s.

And so, with a nod, too, to “A Wild Hare’s” Rich Hogan (story), Virgil Ross (animation) and Carl Stalling (musical direction), with Mel Blanc’s legendary voice as Bugs and Arthur Q. Bryan as Elmer, we say:

Happy 75th to the “true” Bugs!