A Year in Shorts Day 296: "Knighty Knight Bugs"
Despite being one of the most popular cartoon characters in the history of cinema, Bugs Bunny made a relatively poor showing at the Academy Awards. Only three of his shorts were ever nominated for an Oscar, and only one of them won, Friz Freleng’s 1958 short Knighty Knight Bugs. That fact makes today’s short pretty noteworthy in the history of the Looney Tunes. And honestly, that fact might be the only noteworthy thing about it!
Unlike the previous Bugs Bunny shorts we've covered, Knighty Knight Bugs sees Bugs Bunny contending not with a dim-witted hunter, but instead has him go toe-to-toe with Yosemite Sam. By the 50s, Sam had more or less taken Elmer's place as Bugs' go-to adversary. This was, ostensibly, because animators like Friz Freleng felt that Fudd was so dumb and gentle that it made Bugs seem like too much a bully, and they needed someone more belligerent in order to keep the audience on Bugs' side. That's the official story, at any rate. If you ask me, the real reason Fudd was phased out was because the executives at Warner Bros. got cold feet regarding the complex psychosexual dynamic at play in all the Bugs/Elmer shorts and decided to replace it with a considerably simpler relationship. Either way I can't comment on whether or not the change was for the better or not; I haven't seen nearly as many Yosemite Sam shorts as I have Elmer ones. Although, I suppose, the fact that no one ever really talks about them is as good an indication as any as to their general quality. Judging purely on the basis of today's short, I'd say that Sam makes for a pretty poor replacement all things considered. He might be more deserving of Bugs' retribution, but he's a fairly one note character and nowhere near as fun to watch as Elmer. But I suppose to better understand why that is we'll have to talk about the short itself.
As you can imagine from the title, Knighty Knight Bugs places Bugs and Sam in a medieval setting. The Knights of the Round Table are distraught to learn that the Singing Sword has been stolen by the Black Knight (Sam), and the court jester (Bugs) is conscripted to retrieve it from the knight and his fire-breathing dragon or face execution. That seems pretty out of character for King Arthur, but I suppose he's having a tough time. Anyway, what follows is more or less what you'd expect from a short like this- Bugs steals the sword, Sam and the dragon try to get it back, cartoon violence follows. On a basic level, it all works well enough, and there are certainly worse ways to kill a couple minutes than watching it. It's briskly paced, there are some clever gags throughout and Sam's design is versatile enough that it's amusing to see him squashed and stretched into different shapes. But is "works well enough" really what we expect from a Bugs Bunny short? Throughout his career, Bugs Bunny set a high standard, a standard which Knighty Knight Bugs simply does not achieve. It's fine, sure, but it's not great, and it can't help but feel like a disappointment.
For starters, I think the level of violence in this short is a mistake. I know that sounds strange and prudish to say, but hear me out. It should be no secret by now that I love me some cartoon violence. Anyone who's ever read any of my Tom and Jerry reviews should know this. So don't think I'm against the idea of violence in cartoons in general. But the thing is, Bugs Bunny isn't Tom and Jerry. His shorts feature a lot of violence and explosions, sure (especially when Daffy's around), but that's not the point of them. (Despite their reputation today, I feel like violence actually made for a smaller part of Warner Bros. cartoons than they did MGM, for instance. It was always there, but the best shorts were a bit more clever than that.) The best Bugs Bunny shorts are about Bugs outsmarting his enemies, not outfighting them. Yes, sometimes Bugs' cleverness takes the form of him causing physical pain to his adversaries. But it also involves Bugs out talking them, utilizing clever disguises, or just plain escaping from their pursuits in funny and interesting ways. But the Bugs in Knighty Knight Bugs doesn't do any of that- he just breaks into Sam's house and comes up with new ways to hurt him as Sam tries to get back inside. Ironically, Bugs comes across as a bigger bully here than he ever did with Elmer.
I suppose, on a broader level, Bugs doesn't really feel like Bugs here- at least, not Bugs as I know and love him, and certainly not Bugs as he was in the 50s. Far from the calm, cool and collected trickster who wants nothing more than to be left alone, the Bugs of this short is easily frightened, incompetent and more willing to instigate conflicts. In what universe would Bugs be so easily threatened into doing something he didn't want to do? Shouldn't the plot of this short really revolve around Bugs coming up with ways to play tricks on the king? Honestly, the whole idea of Bugs Bunny coming into someone's home and messing with their stuff just seems antithetical to the character. And I know, it's silly to get too hung up on these things; there are plenty of great shorts where Bugs loses his cool or is easily tricked (usually as a result of his excessive horniness). But those shorts at least compensated with a variety of great and clever gags. Knighty Knight Bugs only has slapstick and puns, and that's really not enough. The presence of Yosemite Sam doesn't help matters. As I said before, he's a far more one note antagonist than Elmer, and I think that's what leaves Bugs with very little room to explore here. I don't know, it's entirely possible that other shorts worked around this better (I don't claim to be an expert), but here at the very least he's not an interesting foil. When a character is defined more by their violent temper than anything else, there's not much you can do to him other than come up with new and exciting ways to cause him physical harm. That can be amusing, but it's certainly not very interesting.
The short is fairly underwhelming on a technical level too. To give credit where it's due, I will say that the backgrounds by Tom O'Loughlin are truly excellent. There's just something about backgrounds in 50s cartoons man, you gotta love them. The Looney Tunes backgrounds in particular managed to strike that particular balance between beautiful and cartoony that allowed the shorts so much room to experiment. But aside from that, the animation isn't great, at least not by Warner Bros. standards. The character models all just look off to me somehow, especially Bugs. I suppose I wouldn't mind so much if he acted more in character, but the two issues kind of feed into each other and it's rather distracting. I also feel that the character animation is strangely stiff when it comes to scenes of dialogue or reactions. The cartoon violence is perfectly fine, but everything else is strangely underplayed.
Of course, as I write this, I concede that it's entirely possible that I'm being totally unfair here. After all, I haven't seen every Looney Tunes short, and I certainly can't presume to know better than the animators, can I? Am I really complaining that Bugs isn't acting like Bugs, or is my real problem that Bugs isn't acting like Bugs in a Chuck Jones short? I'm certainly willing to admit that might be the case. But at the same time, there's a reason that Jones' take on Bugs has proven to be the most iconic- it was the best. And the 1950s really were the Golden Age for Bugs Bunny, weren't they? I know I'm beating a dead horse every time I talk about this, but how did none of those shorts get nominated? Just a year before Knighty Knight Bugs was released, What's Opera, Doc? came out and got NOTHING! Try as I may, I'll never understand that. What made this short stand out as Oscar worthy? What about it was doing anything new, special or artistically interesting? You can say that I'm being a little too harsh on this short, but I think when you view it in a larger context, it's kind of hard not to. It's not that it's a bad short. It's just that it's nowhere near as good as a lot of other shorts being released at the time.
And yet, Knighty Knight Bugs has the Oscar, and no other Bugs Bunny short does. It doesn't make any sense, but that's the long and short of it. So I suppose we'd better try and make the best of it. Despite the fact that I spent multiple paragraphs tearing it apart (not to mention the fact that it beat my beloved Paul Bunyan), I really don't hate this short. I can't even say I dislike it. So don't worry Knighty Knight Bugs, I'm not mad. I'm just disappointed.
Keep up with the Oscar Baiting here on Letterboxd!
"Knighty Knight Bugs" is available to watch on HBO Max.
The Great Oscar Baiter is a not-for-profit work of criticism. All images herein are property of their respective owners and are protected under Fair Use.