Seven years before Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd dueled their way through a hilarious take on the music of Wagner in What’s Opera, Doc?, the duo tackled Italian composer Rossini in 1950’s Rabbit of Seville.
Rabbit of Seville is the brainchild of director Chuck Jones, writer Michael Maltese, and frequent Warner Bros. composer Carl Stalling. Stalling was, on occasion, criticized by some (including Jones) for his habit of quoting modern or popular melodies in his scores, and it is true that his scores featured repeated use of certain musical cues for similar situations from cartoon to cartoon–for instance, the recurrence of Rossini’s William Tell overture in chase scenes (particularly those in Western-themed cartoons), or the use of “We’re in the Money” (from Gold Diggers of 1933) in scenes featuring the sudden acquirement of wealth. Stalling’s penchant for musical puns aside, he was nonetheless an incredibly talented musician, and the Stalling scores are among the most memorable in the Warner Bros. animated canon (for a pitch-perfect example of Stalling’s unparalleled talent, see 1943’s A Corny Concerto, directed by Bob Clampett, which Stalling completed with his eventual successor, Milt Franklyn).
In Seville, Jones takes full advantage of Stalling’s musical abilities, as the composer manages to incorporate a slightly abridged version of the overture to Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville at an accelerated tempo that still manages to capture the essence of the original tune. Additionally, he works in a bit of the “Wedding March” from German composer Mendelssohn. Maltese composed new lyrics to accompany the sped-up tune, and aside from Bugs’ final line, the song lyrics are the only dialogue to accompany the cartoon–and really, no dialogue is needed when the lyrics include such brilliant lines as, “There, you’re nice and clean … although your face looks like it might have gone through a machine!”
There are little touches throughout this cartoon that heighten the humor: a sign in the opening scene advertises a “Summer Opera” performance of The Barber of Seville starring “Eduardo Selzeri” (producer Eddie Selzer), “Michele Maltese” (writer Maltese), and “Carlo Jonzi” (director Jones); the stage is set for a scene at a barber’s shop, yet in Rossini’s opera, there is no such scene (despite the character Figaro’s titular position); Bugs (naturally) gets the chance to don drag, as Elmer’s alluring “little senorit-er”; Elmer deals with multiple indignities in Bugs’ Sweeney Todd-esque barber chair o’ horrors, not the least of which is having a hair tonic treatment that results in a patch of red flowers sprouting on his otherwise bald noggin; to bring an end to the madness, Bugs proposes marriage, and Elmer zips offstage briefly and reemerges in a white wedding gown; Bugs’ final, mischievous nod to the audience. The result is a sort of insane mash-up of so-called high and low culture, audaciously combining cartoonish antics and high-brow musical accompaniment in a way that, by all logic, should not work … and yet totally and completely does.
Is Rabbit of Seville as effective a cartoony operetta as What’s Opera, Doc? In truth, not quite–though both cartoons have their strengths, the more satirical bent of the latter cartoon trumps the relentlessly slapsticky nature of Seville. Opera functions as both a parody of its musical source material and an incisive comedic homage to it, while Seville concentrates more on just generally garnering laughs. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with that, for Rabbit of Seville is truly hilarious, and undoubtedly its success enabled Jones, Maltese, and crew to embark on the much more ambitious (and much more expensive) Opera in later years. And its influence has not gone unnoticed; Rabbit of Seville is, like its operatic cartoon brother, on the list of the 50 best cartoons of all time, placing at number twelve, and it remains one of the most popular ‘toons to emerge from the Golden Age of animation. Perhaps most importantly, this cartoon is among a number of memorable Warner Bros. shorts that helped introduce new generations to classical music in a fun, engaging way that, if it didn’t exactly foster new fans of the genre, at least created a lingering awareness of the great compositions of those grand old masters.
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