Bugs Bunny at the Symphony or Lessons from Looney Tunes

29 Jan

Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, and all the Warner Brothers characters played a large role in my childhood television consumption. I watched them with my brother, or later snuggled under a blanket by myself.  Elmer Fudd, Tweetie Bird, and Porky Pig dripped into our vernacular–“I’m hunting wabbits,” “I thought I taw a puddy tat. I did. I did see a puddy tat.”  “That’s all folks.”

Not until years later did I learn that the most of  “Saturday morning cartoons” we watched were, in fact, theatrical shorts originally produced to pair with feature films and to be shown in movie theaters. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were produced from 1930 to 1969, the earliest ones capitalizing on film’s exciting, new sound technology. While the animation is limited (at least by today’s standards), the sound design of these shorts is quite impressive. Just three short years after Al Jolson uttered the first synchronized speech and sang on screen, Bugs and friends were singing and dancing in perfect harmony and synchronization.

BB at Symph


A recent trip with Culture Sprout to Chicago’s Symphony Hall for “Warner Brother’s Presents Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” taught me so much more. A thoroughly entertaining concert by the Warner Brother’s Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Daugherty, “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” consists of  dozens of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts, some screened alone, others screened with live accompaniment. In between , Mr. Daugherty talked about the history and music of the films.

Here’s what I found most fascinating:

Bob Clampett's Looney Tunes Porky Pig intro in...

Bob Clampett’s Looney Tunes Porky Pig intro in 1938–1939 Produced by Leon Schlesinger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • As the names imply, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies had music at their core. With Warner Bros. vast music library to draw on, the films included swing, jazz, and the popular music of their day as well. Daugherty noted that many viewers experienced classical music and opera for the first time while watching these films. Certainly I did.  From Rossini to Liszt, from Brahms to Strauss to Tchaikovsky, Bugs and friends covered them all.
  • It was a sound editor for these animated shorts who perfected the “click track,” a kind of audio-metronome that allows the orchestra to synchronize its performance to the film in the sound studio.
  • I think my favorite tidbit–and movie–was about “What’s Opera Doc?” (1957), which parodies Wagner’s Ring Cycle (all of them) and two other Wagnerian operas, all in 6 minutes or so. In it Elmer Fudd chases Bugs around, Fudd trying to “Kill the Wabbit.” Bugs distracts him as an alluring Brunhilda. It’s the standard Elmer Fudd-Bugs Bunny conflict, with the expected interruptions and resolution. Culture Sprout laughed at the shenanigans; I laughed at the collapsing of I don’t know how many hours of heavy, tragic opera into 6 hilarious minutes.

For as many times as we see Bugs Bunny in drag, we also see him in a chorus line, conducting an orchestra, and reenacting our favorite musicals and hit songs. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies largely followed a format similar to the American musical movie genre; they simply pared it down to the essentials of conflict and song, sped it up, and made us laugh.

It’s been a long time since I saw Tweetie Bird trick the Puddy Tat or Road Runner torture Wile E. Coyote. As a film scholar and mother, I  see them differently now. I suppose you could look at the role reversal in these duos as teaching children about using your wits to outsmart a bully. Or, just about sight gags. It was instructive to hear the audience laugh each time Puddy Tat’s gum bubble was burst by Tweetie Bird. Even though we knew it was coming, we laughed.

Of course, watching as a mother, in a city currently notorious for its annual murder count, I couldn’t help but think about the violence in these shorts. Violence creates the joke and in the end Wile E. Coyote and Puddy Tat live to entertain us another day. Culture Sprout did not recognize what she saw as violent–I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I am positive that these musical marvels have not taught her that violence is a reasonable way to deal with conflict.

Culture Sprout did sit on the edge of her seat for two hours and was visibly disappointed at intermission, until she realized that the show wasn’t over yet.  In one two-hour period, she met my favorite childhood cartoon characters and experienced more classical music and opera than I could have wittingly introduced her to.  And she loved it. Mr. Daugherty, with his evident and infectious love of music and movies, introduced her to concepts of silent cinema (okay, she already knew about that), cadence, click tracks, the fourth wall, and the joy of listening.  He made sure she recognizes the names Chuck Jones and Kurt Stalling. And his two principal violinists showed her that women can lead a symphony orchestra.

There’s a lot of fodder for cultural discussion in these films–like Bugs Bunny’s cross-dressing, Porky Pig’s romantic failures, the above-mentioned reversals of natural prey/predator laws, parody as an art form, racism, just to mention a few. That scholarship abounds, I assure you, and it is quite interesting. But, for a glorious two hours, we got to think about the music, the form, and the function–rather than the sub or meta texts.

If you have the chance to experience “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony,” run, don’t walk, to the box office. You’ll have no regrets.

As for me, I am still waiting for Wile E. Coyote to finally get that smug little bird.

Thats all folks


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