A Year in Shorts Day 269: "Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt"
Last weekend I threw myself a mini-Looney Tunes marathon, watching such classics as Rabbit Seasoning, Hair-Raising Hare, Baseball Bugs and more. And it once again struck me as odd that, for such an iconic character in animation, Bugs Bunny didn’t have much luck with the Academy Awards. Today’s short, 1941's Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt, is the second of his three nominations. But at the end of the day, Oscars don’t really matter. What matters is whether or not the shorts were funny. Is this one? Only one way to find out.
Directed by Friz Freleng (who seems to come up a lot around here as of late), Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt follows the standard formula you've come to expect from a Bugs Bunny short. Bugs is minding his own business in the forest (in this case, reading The Song of Hiawatha), when a dim-witted hunter comes along to make trouble for him. However, instead of matching wits with Elmer Fudd this time around, Bugs has to contend with Hiawatha himself. Granted, that doesn't make too much of a difference in how the cartoon plays out- Hiawatha is just a less funny but more racist Elmer Fudd- and the short is filled with all the usual cartoon hijinks. Verbal sparring, physics defying and some man-on-man action occur in all the places you'd expect them, although unfortunately the short neglects to include any of the explosions or cross dressing you'd hope for. But you can't always get what you want of course, and the results are still pretty damn funny, perfectly demonstrating why they were still making these types of shorts ten years later.
Still, Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt was a fairly early Bugs Bunny short (coming out only a year after A Wild Hare, Bugs' official debut), and there was still some room to figure out exactly what a Bugs Bunny cartoon should be. Aside from the obvious differences in Bugs' design, it was clear that the people at Warner Bros. still hadn't quite gotten a handle on his character yet either. Fans of his later cartoons might be surprised to find the Bugs in this short to be far less confident (and slightly less competent) than you'd expect him to be. Hiawatha's arrival sends Bug into a panic, a far cry from the casual way in which Bugs typically deals with his enemies. This seemed to be slightly more common for Bugs in the 40s; seeing Gossamer in Hair-Raising Hare definitely put Bugs into a tizzy, after all. And while Bugs certainly isn't an idiot in this short, there are plenty of moments where he acts surprisingly dumb, most notably the scene in which he hops into Hiawatha's pot thinking it's a bath. Again, this was probably somewhat more common in the 40s; Hair-Rasing Hare had bugs get fooled by a sexy mechanical lady rabbit. (In case it's not obvious, I watched Hair-Raising Hare recently and wished it had been nominated for an Oscar. But no, the only Looney Tunes short they nominated that year starred Foghorn Freaking Leghorn!)
While we're on the subject, allow for me a brief digression into the differences between Looney Tunes in the 40s and 50s. (Technically this short is part of the Merrie Melodies series, but that's beside the point.) Based on my very limited experience, it seems like the 40s shorts were a lot more chaotic, possessing an "anything goes" vibe in which the only thing that matters is what can get a laugh. That's not necessarily on full display here (again, it's a fairly early short, so perhaps they didn't have the full confidence), but that might help explain why Bugs is less "in character" here. Take a look at Baseball Bugs, for instance, in which the short ends with the Statue of Liberty coming to life to help decide a baseball game. In contrast, the shorts in the 50s seemed to be a bit more focused and story-based. There were still a lot of jokes, of course, but they weren't quite so random. Take a look at One Froggy Evening (another inexplicably snubbed short; was Speedy Gonzales really THAT much more popular?), in which all the jokes revolve around the central concept of the man going slightly crazy trying to get rich off a singing frog. There are no sudden explosions, no random sight gags thrown in just for the sake of being random or inanimate objects coming to life. And yet it's easily one of the funniest cartoons ever made.
To be clear, neither approach is better or worse than the other. There are benefits and drawbacks to both. The free-wheeling nonsense approach often leads to a lot of great gags, but the ones that miss don't really have much to fall back on. The 50s approach has its drawbacks too (as seen in literally every Tweety Bird short we've covered), but a little more structure allows for greater freedom to experiment. Whether it's shorts which use a more traditional framework to showcase high quality animation like Duck Dodgers or cartoons that push the form into new artistic directions like What's Opera, Doc?, the 50s Looney Tunes show that a little discipline can go a long way. And of course, sometimes you can combine the two approaches for something truly spectacular like Duck Amuck. I guess what I'm saying is that I really like putting way too much thought into old cartoons, and if anyone can think of a way I can monetize that part of my personality I'd greatly appreciate it.
What does any of this have to do with Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt? Not a whole lot, honestly, although I guess it goes to explain somewhat why the short isn't as popular these days. (The main reason, of course, is the fact that Warner Bros. doesn't show it as much due to the racism. That's certainly understandable, although compared to a lot of cartoons from that time period it could certainly be worse. Of course that's not saying much.) It's not a terrible short- in fact it's quite good- but compared to the best of the Looney Tunes, it's nothing special. If you're a Looney Tunes completionist, definitely check it out. If you're a fellow Oscar Baiter, then it's required viewing. But if you're just in the mood to laugh and feel like the Looney Tunes are the ones to get it done, there are certainly a lot better shorts you could check out. But of course, as we've seen time and time again, there are also a whole lot worse. Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt might not be the best short, but it's got good animation, good gags and plenty of Bugs Bunny hijinks for everyone to enjoy. So if you've seen all the classics and are looking for something new, you might as well give it a go.
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