On July 27th, it will have been 80 years since Bugs first appeared in movie theaters. The character’s longevity is remarkable. A 2018 YouGov poll found that Bugs Bunny was the most popular cartoon in the United States, nearly three generations after his first appearance.
The origins of Bugs Bunny are complicated. A similar prototypical version of the character first appeared in the 1938 cartoon “Porky’s Hare Hunt.” One of the directors of the cartoon, Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, had wanted to use the personality of the cartoon studio’s recent hit character, Daffy Duck, in rabbit form. Thus, rather than the streetwise rabbit audiences would soon experience, this rabbit was wacky and unhinged. The model sheet for the cartoon character called him “Bugs’s Bunny,” thus forming the origin for the character’s name.
The cartoon was popular enough for other directors to experiment with the new rabbit character, but it was Fred “Tex” Avery who created the version of the character that made him a superstar. Tex Avery is considered one of the most important figures in animation history, given his reputation as the “anti-Disney” director. One of his guiding philosophies in animation was to “do the things Disney wouldn’t dare to do.” While Disney cartoons of the period were dramatic, realistic, and kid-friendly, Avery’s cartoons were fast-paced, cartoony, and subversive. He is often credited with developing the “Looney Tunes” style of humor that influenced everything from Tom and Jerry to SpongeBob to South Park. It is difficult to imagine how animation would have developed without Tex Avery and Warner Bros. cartoons.
Tex Avery’s cartoon, “A Wild Hare,” was released on July 27, 1940, and became a hit with theater audiences. Watching it in light of later Bugs Bunny outings, “A Wild Hare” is somewhat slower and more realistic than later cartoons, showing that Warner Bros. was still developing its unique approach to animation. It is surprising how many of the conventions in the series were present from the first cartoon. Bugs Bunny states “What’s up, doc?,” kisses his opponent, and fakes his death. These conventions became expectations rather than jokes in later entries of the series, so it might be difficult to imagine the novelty of a hunter encountering a Brooklynite rabbit, but audiences in 1940 had never seen a cartoon character act in a manner like Bugs.
“A Wild Hare” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cartoon, but lost to “The Milky Way.” A Bugs Bunny cartoon, “Knighty-Knight Bugs,” later won the award in 1958. Two cartoons featuring the grey rabbit, “What’s Opera, Doc” and “Duck Amuck,” have been added to the National Film Registry for “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films,” arguably the highest honor an American film can receive. Those same two cartoons were ranked #1 and #2 in “50 of the Greatest Cartoons,” a book listing the most highly regarded animated shorts in history, as selected by 1,000 animation professionals.
Not bad for a long-eared rabbit.