‘What’s Opera, Doc is one many Europeans adore,’ said animated film director Chuck Jones. ‘They call that my “masterpiece,” which it may or may not be; I didn’t think about it at the time.’
It’s not a surprise that Jones didn’t dwell excessively on What’s Opera, Doc (its title includes a question mark at the end, but for ease of reading I have dropped it off within this essay). In 1957, the year it was released, Jones was credited as the director of eight separate animated shorts for Warner Bros – of which What’s Opera, Doc was only one. Between 1938 and 1964 he directed 208 short films, ranged between six and seven minutes. Alongside fellow directors Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Friz Freling, Jones was responsible for the legendary Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons. These broadly comedic features starred a range of corporate characters including Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and many others. More than that, the films pushed American animation further forward than arguably any others in history. They may have started life as Warner Bros’ response to Walt Disney’s popular Silly Symphonies, but by the end of the century it was the Warner Bros legacy that was influencing Disney – try to imagine Disney features like The Emperor’s New Groove or Hercules existing without the Looney Tunes before them.
It’s easy to consider the Warner Bros shorts as one enormous mass of anarchic animated comedies, memories of one flowing into another until they’re just one amorphous cultural artefact. The best ones do float to the surface of that mass, however, and of the 1,004 shorts produced under the two banners two things are, to me, quite certain.
One: the best director they ever had was Chuck Jones.
Two: the best short Chuck Jones ever directed was What’s Opera, Doc.
‘I came out of art school in 1931,’ said Jones, ‘right in the worst of the Depression, two years before Franklin Roosevelt came in. The whole United States was flat. To expect to get a job when three out of every ten people were unemployed was ridiculous, particularly for a kid without any experience in anything.’
To his surprise the young Chuck Jones was immediately offered a job working for the animator and producer Ub Iwerks, who had recently split off from Walt Disney to form his own company. After several months working as a cel washer for Iwerks (he would literally wash the ink from already-filmed animation cels, so that they could be re-used) Jones moved on to the Charles Mintz Studio, then to producer Walt Lantz and finally to Pacific Art and Title where he remained for the next 38 years. The company was contracted to produce animated short films for Warner Bros, and it was here that Jones became a critical creative figure in making the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons.
Jones was the last of the four major directors to join the Pacific Art and Title team, and he was immediately embraced into a highly creative and free-flowing environment. ‘The studio never knew what the hell was going on anyway,’ he later said. ‘Jack Warner didn’t even know what we were doing or where our studio was. What you see in those days, I think the thing that saved us was something that can’t save anybody else now, is called block booking. That means the cartoons were sold before they were completed. So even if they weren’t very good, they were still going to be sent out.’
The lack of direct studio allowed the directors to experiment with comedy styles, different characters and animation techniques. While the constant production schedule dictated a certain amount of formulaic material – how different are most Road Runner cartoons from one another, for example – creativity was kind. As his career progressed Jones became responsible for a number of experimental and highly progressive shorts that are now widely considered some of the best animated films of all time. The Rabbit of Seville (1950) adapted Rossini opera as a frantic cross-dressing battle between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Duck Amuck (1953) broke the fourth wall and put a self-aware Daffy Duck at the mercy of a faceless animator who humiliated and cajoled him for the whole six minutes (the final moments reveal the animator to be Bugs Bunny). One Froggy Evening (1955) presented possibly the most relentlessly depressing and bleak comedy ever seen in a mainstream animated short.
In 1957 Jones directed What’s Opera, Doc. In many respects the film was a follow-up to The Rabbit of Seville, but instead of adapting Rossini Jones adapted Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, with Fudd dressed as a stereotypical Viking in a horned helmet and Bugs in drag as a beautiful Valkyrie.
‘What’s Opera, Doc is probably the most difficult film I ever did,’ said Jones, ‘because everything was done right to the music. It was all pre-scored. We took the entire Ring of the Nibelung, which runs I believe sixteen hours or something like that, and condensed it into a six-minute picture, a chestnut stew. There were 104 cuts in six minutes, which is some kind of record.’
So intricate was the editing and animation on the short, in comparison to other Looney Tunes, that Jones and his crew required seven weeks to produce the film rather than the standard five. When Warner Bros management refused to grant them the extra two weeks of production time, they secretly stole it. The preceding cartoon, a Road Runner short titled Zoom and Bored (1957), was rushed through in three weeks. Jones and his team all faked their time cards to make it look like they were still working on Zoom and Bored when they had actually already moved onto designing What’s Opera, Doc.
Even the short’s musical score was more elaborate than usual. Regular composer Carl Stalling assembled an eighty-piece orchestra for the piece, a full third larger than his standard sixty-piece troupe. ‘If you’re going to do Wagner,’ said Jones, ‘by God you’d better have a big orchestra!’
Jones’ usual production crew all worked on the short. The scenario was written by Michael Maltese, in collaboration with Jones. Art director Maurice Noble designed the film’s striking backgrounds. Mel Blanc performed the voice of Bugs Bunny, with Arthur Q. Bryan playing Elmer Fudd. That it uses essentially the same crew as the majority of Jones’ Warner Bros shorts helps to make What’s Opera, Doc the definitive Looney Tunes short: if one was to point at the franchise and select the single-most impressive example, What’s Opera, Doc pretty much fits the bill.
From the very first shot the film sets itself up as a staged opera. We can hear the orchestra tuning while the title cards play out. One of the most distinctive parts of this film is that it is framed throughout as theatre: Bugs and Elmer are playing roles. Many of the shots are framed: between two arches, or cliffs, and occasionally a full-blown proscenium arch.
This was not Jones’ only attempt to fuse Looney Tunes with classical music. In addition to the previously-mentioned The Rabbit of Seville he had also directed the well-received Long-haired Hare (1949) and would later direct Baton Bunny (1959). Where What’s Opera, Doc stands out is in the way it is presented: not a parody of theatre, but an actual animated work of theatre.
The film opens with a silhouetted viking warrior beneath a terrible lightning storm. His shadow is enormous, looming large over the surface of a cliff-face as he summons the storm. We zoom in, and it turns out to really be Elmer Fudd, dressed in viking garb as the demigod Siegfried. He may look like a warrior of myth, but as always he is only hunting rabbits.
The opening scene is a pretty obvious parody of the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment from Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940). Such allusions were not uncommon among the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Whereas the Disney animated features were broadly considered the gold standard for animation at the time, the Warner Bros artists considered themselves jobbing animators – producing quickly made short films on a production line, one film every five weeks. Moments such as this are simply the perceived ‘lower classes’ of animators having a mocking poke at the guys upstairs.
When Elmer discovers a rabbit hole and meets Bugs Bunny, he is immediately ridiculed by Bugs. When he demonstrates his ‘mighty powers’, and uses a lightning bolt to shatter a nearby tree, Bugs runs for it: the chase, as it is with every Bugs/Elmer short, is on.
It is obvious even at this early stage just how stylised the visuals of this film are. Maurice Noble has illustrated the backgrounds almost like flat backdrops, further accentuating the theatrical vibe. The pillars and decorations are deliberately exaggerated, and as the film goes on Jones and Noble choose increasingly unrealistic and bold colour compositions. The increasingly strange colour choices reportedly prompted fellow director Friz Freling to ask Noble ‘what kind of shit is this?’ when passing through the studio.
Maurice Noble was not originally assigned to work on What’s Opera, Doc. The original designer, Ernie Nordli, quit the production to work on the Walt Disney film Sleeping Beauty (1959). Noble swept all of Nordli’s work-in-progress aside, and was given a week to develop sketches for What’s Opera, Doc and define its look.
Elmer’s chase stalls when he suddenly encounters the glamorous blonde valkyrie Brunnhilde – obviously Bugs in women’s clothes – riding an enormous horse. Siegfried and Brunnhilde exchange romantic overtures, and engage in a ballet. ‘In What’s Opera, Doc,’ said Jones, ‘we had a dance. It happened that at that time Warner Bros had done some work with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and I wanted the dances to be authentic, so [Bob] Cannon and the other guys who animated the dances studied the action.’
The dance segment was lifted from Friz Freling’s 1945 short Herr Meets Hare, which had also been written by Michael Maltese. The original scene saw Bugs dressed as Brunnhilde dancing a ballet with Hermann Goering. By the time of What’s Opera, Doc’s production, Herr Meets Hare had been unofficially banned by Warner Bros, along with other World War II propaganda shorts of its kind.
Now is as good a point as any to briefly pause and note that, as often seem to be the case, Bugs Bunny is romancing his antagonist in drag. Bugs’ penchant for cross-dressing is well acknowledged, and indeed entire books have been written about his perceived homosexuality, or bisexuality, or transvestitism. Within the oeuvre of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies films, 168 featured Bugs Bunny – and of those 32 feature him kissing another character. Only four of those characters were women; the remaining 28 were all men. In 37 of his films he disguises himself as a flirtatious woman in a dress and wig.
It is fascinating how effortlessly Bugs Bunny can be dressed in women’s clothing, or can kiss other male characters, without being treated as a figure of fun or represented as in some way ridiculous or degraded. Intentionally or otherwise – I suspect the latter – directors like Jones managed to transform Bugs Bunny into a sort of unofficial mascot for gender fluidity.
Now is also a good point to pause and marvel at Brunnhilde’s horse. It’s massive, and overwhelmingly obese, yet moves with an incongruous grace. The visual contradiction makes it one of the funniest elements of the whole cartoon. Chuck Jones claims he got the idea for the horse from watching overweight people ice-skate, although I’m unsure whether he was telling the truth or simply making a slightly mean-spirited joke.
When Brunnhilde’s head-dress unexpectedly slips off, Elmer flies into a rage. He chases Bugs, throwing all manner of violent magical attacks at him: lightning, typhoons, earthquakes – even smog.
While recording the dialogue track, Arthur Q. Bryan was unable to scream the line “Smog!!” to Chuck Jones’ satisfaction. In the end that single line was performed by Mel Blanc mimicking Bryan’s voice. It jumps right out at the viewer whether they know the actor has changed or not; to my mind it remains the short’s one misstep.
It is during Elmer’s climactic rage that the colour schemes of What’s Opera, Doc get particularly garish and over-the-top. Maurice Noble said: ‘They thought I was bats when I put that bright red on Elmer with those purple skies. I had the ink and paint department come in and say, “You really mean you want that magenta red on that?”’
When Elmer finally chases down Bugs, he finds the rabbit’s limp, dead body struck down by one of his lightning bolts. He regrets his earlier wrath, and tearfully sweeps the body into his arms. As he takes it away, the apparently dead Bugs lifts his head: ‘Well, what did you expect in an opera?’ he asks. ‘A happy ending?’
Shorts in which Elmer successfully beat Bugs were rare, but not unknown. Prior to What’s Opera, Doc it had happened twice in Rabbit Rampage and Hare Brush, although to my knowledge this is the only short in which Elmer successfully kills Bugs. It also gives the audience one final reminder: this isn’t a cartoon parody of an opera, it is cartoon characters actually performing an opera.
Today What’s Opera, Doc is acknowledged as one of the finest animated shorts ever made. It was selected by the USA’s Library of Congress to be preserved in its National Film Registry; the first animated short to do so. In 1994 a survey of 1,000 professional animators cited it as the single-greatest cartoon of all time.
Jones and his team did not realise what they had created at the time; they were too busy moving on to their next animated short. Hollywood and critics didn’t particularly notice at the time either – notably it did not get an Academy Award nomination. The ensuing decades gave it a prolonged exposure, particularly via television broadcasts, and over time it slowly rose to the top in the audience’s esteem. Today, of course, we recognise it clearly for what it is: Chuck Jones’ masterpiece.
 Michael Barrier and Bill Spicer, “An interview with Chuck Jones”, Funnyworld 13, 1971.
 Quoted in “Chuck Jones interview: animation pioneer”, Academy of Achievement, 25 June 1993.
 Joe Adamson, “Chuck Jones interviewed”, AFI Report, Summer 1974.
 Quoted in “What’s Opera, Doc?” audio commentary, Looney Tunes Collection: All Stars Volume 3, Warner Bros Home Video.
 Amid Amidi, Cartoon Modern, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2006.
 Joe Adamson, “Witty birds and well-drawn cats: an interview with Chuck Jones”, from Gerald Peary and Danny Peary, eds., The American Animated Cartoon, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1980.
 Kevin S. Sandler, “Gendered evasion: Bugs Bunny in drag”, in Kevin S. Sandler, ed. Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros animation, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1998.
 Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A history of American animated cartoons (Revised edition). Plume, New York, 1987.