“Oh, I dream about being Bugs Bunny, but when I wake up, I’m Daffy Duck.” –Chuck Jones
In Chuck Jones’ hands, the Daffy Duck of the 1930s and 40s–loopy, zany, whooping loudly, flipping out–went through a bit of a personality overhaul in the 50s. The zaniness was still there, to be sure, but this Daffy was much more calculating and jealous, more prone to fits of rage than crazed lunacy. The change wasn’t completely out of the ether, as there had been indications of this aspect of the character in previous incarnations–for example, in the 1940 black-and-white live-action/animated short You Ought to Be in Pictures, Daffy schemes to get resident star of the time Porky Pig off the studio lot so he can take his place as the headliner for Warner Bros. [Incidentally, this cartoon features a brief on-camera appearance by Chuck Jones, as well as fellow Warner director Bob Clampett and Jones' longtime writing partner Michael Maltese. Definitely a curiosity, definitely worth viewing!] But most animation directors at the studio tended to focus on Daffy’s … well, daffier qualities over his more ambitious traits.
Starting in the late 1940s, Jones took that somewhat repressed ambitious side of Daffy and brought it to the forefront, engaging the character in an outright rivalry with Warner’s tried-and-true superstar, Bugs Bunny. To Jones, though, it wasn’t just about turning Daffy into an adversarial character; as he recounts in Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist (1999), he always viewed Daffy more as a “self-preservationist” than a truly selfish character. Jones’ philosophy regarding Daffy was that the character’s avarice and self-absorbed nature are universal traits that everyone who watches his cartoons will recognize–and one that he saw even within himself: “Daffy gallantly and publicly represents all the character traits that the rest of us try to keep subdued. A social amenity to Daffy Duck is simply an unfair block to his desires. To desire, in Daffy’s rationale, is to need–as it was to me at six; to need is to acquire, and acquisition is the essence of living. To achieve his ends, he cheerfully and always rationally chews up moral codes by the yard.” And yet Daffy’s self-important self-service is never off-putting, in part because we, the viewers, are so easily able to relate to him, at least on some level.
It’s a delicate balance to maintain, but Jones and crew adeptly portray their Daffy as both frustrating and endearing, “dethpicable” and lovable all at the same time. Jones’ version of the character really lets loose in three popular and ultimately influential cartoons (all written by Maltese) that are familiarly known as the “Hunting Trilogy”–Rabbit Fire (1951), Rabbit Seasoning (1952), and Duck! Rabbit, Duck! (1953). These shorts feature Bugs and Daffy squaring off with Elmer Fudd, who is determined to shoot one or both of them–if he can only figure out which “hunting season” it really is. Daffy continually tries to throw Bugs into harm’s way–whether to protect himself (because it’s really duck season) or to cause trouble for his rival in the midst of rabbit season. Bugs, for his part, manages to skirt out of that trouble at every turn, usually at Daffy’s expense, while Elmer essentially stands around waiting for his cue to fire. The result of all of this madness is a trio of witty, entertaining cartoons that set up a winning dynamic of co-mingled friendship and rivalry between Bugs and Daffy that remains a vital ingredient of their animated relationship to this day.
[FYI: Videos of the cartoons discussed below are hyperlinked in the title of each section, so you can re-watch each one and enjoy them for yourself!]
The first cartoon of the trio begins as previous Bugs-and-Elmer cartoons have begun: Elmer creeps through the forest with his rifle, pausing to shush the audience with his familiar catchphrase, “Shh! Be vewwy, vewwy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits. Hahahahaha.” There is a brief flash to a shot of Bugs’ feet leaving tracks on the forest floor, which Elmer quickly discovers, and we soon discover that “Bugs” is actually Daffy, wearing a pair of bunny slippers (so to speak) to draw the hunter to Bugs’ hole. Daffy’s reasoning behind his deviousness? “Survival of the fittest,” he snickers, adding with a couple of his trademark hoots, “And besides, it’s fun!” But Daffy’s shenanigans are turned around on him when Bugs catches on to his scheme and neatly turns it around on his feathered nemesis.
Rabbit Fire (like its two successors) is somewhat unique for Warner Bros. in that it relies heavily on the wordplay and dialogue (the infamous “rabbit season”/”duck season” exchanges) between the characters instead of the wild action associated with most of the studio’s shorts. As the first cartoon to feature both Bugs and Daffy in starring roles, it might be expected that one or both characters would be short-changed in some way to make room for the other; instead, they are given equal stature–though to me, at least, Daffy is the true focus of these shorts (if anyone comes off as a third wheel here, it’s Elmer, whose only function is to provide the catalyst for Daffy’s punishment). The formula for the characters’ future encounters is pretty much set: Bugs is the wiseacre winner, and Daffy is the defiant loser.
Indeed, Daffy really can’t win. Even when he tries to flip the script, disguising himself as Bugs, his rival outwits him by dressing as Daffy, and the “real” Daffy takes another bullet to the face. His moral outrage in the wake of that incident is marked by a side-splitting stream of ranting dialogue as Daffy verbally lambasts Bugs:
“Yes, you’re dethpicable! And … and … and picable! And … and … you’re–you’re very definitely dethpicable! How–how a person can get so … so dethpicable in one lifetime is … is beyond me! It isn’t as though I–I haven’t met a lot of people! Goodness knows, it isn’t that! It isn’t that–that! Goodness knows! It isn’t … it’s … dethpicable …”
The scene is marked by a brilliant delivery by voice actor Mel Blanc that fully demonstrates the depth of Daffy’s frustration. This is a duck that is ready to snap (which he does, eventually, by the time the third installment in the series rolls around).
It’s important to note that Bugs and Daffy aren’t entirely antagonistic toward one another in this short; when the opportunity arises to have some fun with Elmer, the two team up as a comely female hunter (because, seriously–does Bugs ever pass up the chance to dress in drag?) and her “naughty bow wow.” But even then, as the plan fails and their disguises fall apart, they immediately slip back into rivalry … until the absolutely perfect denouement, when they team up once more to partake in “Elmer Season.”
[Before I move on, I have to mention one of my favorite moments of this cartoon: when Bugs retrieves a book of recipes from his hole, called "1000 Ways to Cook a Duck," and starts reciting them in an effort to entice Elmer. Not to be outmatched, Daffy reaches into Bugs' home ... and inexplicably pulls out a book called "1000 Ways to Cook a Rabbit." As a kid, I always wondered why Bugs owned a cookbook devoted to cooking rabbits--it really made me wonder about him for just a minute ...!]
The second cartoon of the trilogy is my personal favorite (as it appeals to the grammar nerd in me). It opens with a multitude of signs pointing the way to Bugs’ rabbit hole. Daffy appears, once again forging rabbit tracks in the ground to entice Elmer further. His motive this time is similar to the previous cartoon: “Awfully unsporting of me, I know, but what the hay–I gotta have SOME fun! … And besides, it’s REALLY duck season!” Once again, however, Daffy’s grand scheme falls apart as Bugs escapes danger and Daffy endures a series of indignities. The cross-dressing trope reappears–this time without Daffy’s involvement in the charade–and, as in Rabbit Fire, this one has a great ending.
The focus of the cartoon is once more on wordplay, and features a delicious exchange in which Daffy finds himself in a bit of “pronoun trouble”:
Bugs: “It’s true, Doc. I’m a rabbit, alright. Would you like to shoot me now or wait ’til you get home?”
Daffy: “Shoot him now! Shoot him now!”
Bugs: “You keep out of this! He doesn’t have to shoot you now!”
Daffy: “He does so have to shoot me now! [to Elmer] I demand that you shoot me now!”
When Elmer–after a brief, quizzical glance at the audience–acquiesces to Daffy’s demand and shoots him in the head, an infuriated yet strangely calm Daffy returns to Bugs and demands that they repeat the scene, which they do rather matter-of-factly:
Daffy: “Let’s run through that again.”
Bugs: “Okay. Would you like to shoot me now or wait ’til you get home.”
Daffy: “Shoot him now, shoot him now.”
Bugs: “You keep outta this, he doesn’t have to shoot you now.”
Daffy: “Ha! That’s it! Hold it right there! [turns to audience] Pronoun trouble. [turns back to Bugs] It’s not, ‘He doesn’t have to shoot you now.’ It’s, ‘He doesn’t have to shoot me now.’ Well, I say he does have to shoot me now! [turns to Elmer] So shoot me now!”
Rabbit Seasoning demonstrates the tenaciousness of Daffy’s 50s persona–even when he knows that he’s in too deep (exclaiming, “Not again!” when he realizes he’s about to be shot once more)–he cannot let it go and move on. He is forever trying to win, and forever losing to someone cleverer than he, and the frustrating cycle just goes on and on with little relief. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the situation with the (non)performing frog in Jones’ masterpiece One Froggy Evening (1955), in that Daffy’s constant striving reflects an inescapable sense of futility from which he cannot extricate himself–and in the end, it’s yet another way in which the character is made more relatable to the audience, because who hasn’t been there? In many ways, it’s the very nature of human existence, encapsulated in a six-and-a-half minute cartoon.
Incidentally, Rabbit Seasoning is the only one of the “Hunting Trilogy” to have been voted onto the list of the 50 Greatest Cartoons–it ranks at number thirty (it’s worth noting, however, that its predecessor was given an honorable mention on the list).
The conclusion of the trilogy changes the scene to the midst of winter, but otherwise follows the same formula as the first two: it’s the middle of duck season, Daffy is “a duck bent on self-preservation-um,” and thus he tries in vain to convince Elmer that it’s actually rabbit season, with old pal Bugs as the target. But this time, when Bugs turns the table on him, both Daffy and Elmer eventually lose their ever-loving minds.
The reliance on wordplay is again intact: for instance, in a winking nod to the “pronoun trouble” in the previous entry of the trilogy, Daffy demonstrates his lack of spelling prowess when asking Bugs to spell “fricasseeing rabbit.” Instead, Bugs spells out “fricasseeing DUCK,” which results in Daffy getting shot once again. But the best gag in the cartoon involves a series of signs designating different hunting “seasons.” Every time Daffy inadvertently likens himself to an animal, Bugs holds up a sign saying it’s that animal’s “season,” and Elmer takes aim on the hapless duck:
Daffy: “You’re a dirty dog.”
Bugs: “And you are a dirty skunk.”
Daffy: “I’m a dirty skunk? I’m a dirty skunk?”
Bugs immediately holds up a sign reading, “Dirty Skunk Season,” and Elmer fires.
The ending of Duck! Rabbit, Duck! employs some seriously dark humor, as the other two characters crack under the pressure of dealing with the unconquerable Bugs. First, Daffy loses his marbles–understandable considering he’s been shot in the head multiple times and lived to tell about it (kids, don’t try this at home)–and demands that Elmer shoot him again and again and again: “Shoot me again! I enjoy it! I love the smell of burnt feathers and gunpowder and cordite!” Soon after Daffy’s breakdown, a frustrated Elmer also succumbs to the madness after three years’ worth of go-rounds with the zany pair. When a disguised Bugs informs Elmer that it’s actually BASEBALL season, something snaps in the hunter, and he sets off chasing a baseball over the snowy hills, shooting it gleefully as he runs. And even after Elmer runs off and Daffy comes back to reality, Bugs still manages to get in one last shot (literally) at Daffy. The rabbit’s victory is nothing short of complete.
Together, the three cartoons that make up Chuck Jones’ “Hunting Trilogy” are undeniable classics of the animation genre. Not only are these shorts absolutely hilarious, but they are intelligently composed, with an attention to dialogue and detail that was far from the norm at a time when action shots and slapstick gags reigned supreme. And while these cartoons feature their fair share of physical humor, it’s the verbal interactions between the characters that really drive the action and make these such memorable entries not only in the career of Jones, but in the history of animation itself.
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