Monday, April 23


Shakespeare Goes Looney

With the 50th SF International Film Festival opening this Thursday, and a few other projects occupying my mind as well, I was hoping I could find a film in the SFIFF program guide with a strong enough link to William Shakespeare that a discussion of it could serve as double-duty in today's William Shakespeare Blog-a-Thon hosted by Peter Nellhaus. But as Amir Muhammad's Berlinale entry Village People Radio Show, which is based partially on a Winter's Tale, or Geoffrey Wright's Australian update of the "Scottish play" that played at Toronto last fall are not on the SFIFF docket, I've been unsuccessful so far. I also scoured the newly-online schedules for SFIFF venues the Castro, the Pacific Film Archive, and SFMOMA, which reveal the films they'll be playing after May 10th, when the festival ends. But though tributes to Shohei Imamura, Bernard Herrmann, Jacques Rivette, Fred Astaire, Clint Eastwood, Walter Hill, Leni Riefenstahl, Czech cinema, and more all intrigue, none of the chosen films jumped out at me as particularly Bard-related (please let me know if I missed something).

So instead, I'll write a few words on the 1959 Halloween release a Witch's Tangled Hare. It's the third of three Looney Tunes to pit Bugs Bunny against Witch Hazel, a larger, greener version of a witch that harassed Donald Duck in the 1952 short Trick or Treat. Chuck Jones, always on the lookout for ideas for interesting Bugs villains, shamelessly pilfered the Disney cartoon's character, even going so far as using the wonderful June Foray's voice starting with the second of his Witch Hazel cartoons, the 1956 Broom-Stick Bunny. He'd wanted to use her for his 1954 Bewitched Bunny, but she was concerned about Disney retaliating against her for bringing what was essentially the same character to a rival studio, so he instead hired Bea Benaderet until Foray changed her mind in time for Broom-Stick Bunny.

Each of the first three Witch Hazel cartoons produced at the Warner studio (there was a fourth, A-Haunting We Will Go cobbled together by Robert McKimson in 1966, re-using animation from Broom-Stick Bunny) begins by riffing off a well-known witch story. Bewitched Bunny spoofs Hansel and Gretel, while Broom-Stick Bunny uses Snow White as a starting point. So it makes sense that a Witch's Tangled Hare might re-envision Hazel as one of the Macbeth sisters, especially since Shakespeare was mentioned in Trick or Treat. A Witch's Tangled Hare even begins with a caricatured version of the Bard himself prowling around Bob Singer-designed scenery seemingly inspired in part by Fred Ritter's sets for the Orson Welles Macbeth, still in 1959 the screen version of that play best known in the United States (Kurosawa's arguably loose adaptation Throne of Blood had competed in the first SFIFF in 1957, but was not widely known on these shores yet.) But though this Bard takes notes on Hazel's incantations of "fire burn, and cauldron bubble," the Macbeth theme is essentially dropped once Bugs arrives on the scene. The cartoon then makes reference to whatever Shakespeare play might seem handiest at the moment, re-enacting the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet with Bugs and Hazel in the key roles, and ending with perhaps the worst Hamlet pun ever devised.

Honestly, I don't think a Witch's Tangled Hare is one of the better Looney Tunes efforts, even for its era. A few gags work (a cackle-off between Bugs and Hazel, for example) but the majority seem strained, and the Shakespeare theme is never developed as far as Jones and co. were able to go with another dead white male, Richard Wagner, a couple years earlier in What's Opera, Doc? It's tempting to lay the blame at the fact that though the cartoon was produced by the Chuck Jones unit at Warner, with Michael Maltese credited as writer and Ken Harris, Ben Washam, Keith Darling and Richard Thompson as animators, Jones was himself not directly involved. He was busy taking on the animation for the Bell Science educational film Gateway to the Mind, and Abe Levitow, the animator he'd just promoted to co-director, earned his first solo directing credit with the film. Levitow would soon go on to UPA to direct the feature-length Gay Purr-ee, which I have not yet seen.

I loved Gay Purr-ee as a child. Judy Garland as Mewsette. Robert Goulet as Jean Tom. I even know the songs, which I sing in the shower when I'm feeling particularly animated. It'd be fun to take a look at it again, now that I'm soooo much older. Heh.

Fun post. I feel bad about not contributing to Peter's blogathon. Sometimes you have to look at yourself in the mirror and admit: "I have nothing to say."
Brian - I really like reading your periodic insights into the whole Looney Tunes/Bugs oeuvre. I have a DVD that's chock full o' Bugs and I get it out and screen a few everytime you write about them. Please keep 'em coming.
Thanks guys. I probably should do more animation-focused posts. I just have so many diverse interests that cartoons can sometimes fall to the wayside. I'm happy I was use this Blog-A-Thon as an excuse to write on Warner animation, even if not a particularly favorite cartoon.

I just learned about another film program at SFMOMA. This Thursday, following a 6:30 panel discussion on Picasso, the venue will show a program contextualizing Guernica in the Spanish Civil War: the Spanish Earth by Ivens, Land Without Bread by Bunuel, and Guernica by Resnais will screen.
Oh, forgot to mention: the SFMOMA screening begins at 8:30. Details here.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?