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Monday, November 20, 2006

It's Looney Tunes Golden Collection IV Week: A Taste Of SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT (1953)

I love you, Netflix.

To those of you wondering "Where the heck is Bosko already?" Well...there are extenuating circunstances, you might say.

Bosko and the Jazz Frogs will have to "take five" while I devote this week to some long-unseen Warner's classics. Read on and you'll understand why.

When the latest four-disk set of the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION was released less than a week ago, I moved it up to the top of my Netflix queue so fast the Road Runner couldn't have caught up with it. Saturday morning, I found three lovely little disks in my mailbox--so you can guess how I spent my weekend.

Beats having to pay the prices they're charging at Amazon...

To those of you just emerging from a five-year coma who haven't heard of Netflix yet, it's an online DVD rental service in which customers pay a flat fee to have DVDs mailed to them. No late fees--one can keep them indefinitely. Depending on the payment plan, a person can rent one, two, three or even four DVDs at a time. Once returned,the customer will get the next one, two, or three disks on his or her personal list, or "queue." (Custumers upon signup are urged to maintain a backlog of at least five titles).

I'm on the three-disk-at-a-time plan at the moment--budget considerations make it imprudent for me to go any higher--but sets like this are making me seriously consider an upgrade.

To say the least, the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION IV is a toon geek's paradise. While some initial fan grousing made me a bit apprehensive (some complained about what they felt was an overabundance of Friz Freleng cartoons, and Speedy Gonzales cartoons in particular) there's a pretty fair balance between old favorites (Frank Tashlin's NOW THAT SUMMER IS GONE and THE CASE OF THE STUTTERING PIG) cartoons that haven't been seen in years (FORWARD MARCH HARE, KNIGHT-MARE HARE, GREY-HOUNDED HARE), rarities (the Chuck Jones-directed military films 90-DAY WONDERING and DRAFTY, ISN'T IT?) and the outright banned (MISSISSIPPI HARE, SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT) to keep a toon fanatic like me mesmerized. And provide me with a wealth of blog material, no less.

All the more amazing is this: access the main menu on disk one, and you will be greeted with a decidedly un-PC image of Bugs in blackface, from SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT. Not buried in the background, but right there for everyone to see. Jerry Beck, a consultant on this project, has apparently been successful in persuading Warner's to listen to us fans who want to see "orphan toons", even if preceded by the usual disclaimer. Which, thankfully, is a bit less intrusive on this set. Frankly, it's about time.

Therefore, for a site such as this, it seems only appropriate to begin with that very cartoon, the one placed boldly front and center: Friz Freleng's overlooked SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT.

This cartoon and I have a good deal of personal "history." Or, I should say, it and my South Carolina-raised mother do. Most cartoons she barely tolerated--this one she loved, if only for the scene at the Mason-Dixon line, as Bugs crosses instantly from Mad Max-like devastation to a land straight out of GONE WITH THE WIND: riverboats, magnolias, antebellum mansions and cotton fields. Watching it became an event of sorts, one of the few things were could share.

So Mom, if you're reading this, this is for you...

Released on May 2, 1953, this is a fairly typical Bugs Bunny/Yosemite Sam entry, filled with gags we've seen, or will see, in other Freleng cartoons. I'll note those as I come to them. It's also, in a sense, not a true "orphan toon": it has seen more airplay both on Saturday morning and local afternoon television within than is typical of the cartoons presented here. But I can guarantee one thing: unless you're my age or older, you haven't seen as much of it as you think.

As we see the main title, we hear the song "Are You From Dixie?" on the sound track (a fairly common theme Stalling used for cartoons set in the South). Freleng's usual suspects animate this cartoon: Virgil Ross, Art Davis, Manuel Perez, and Ken Champin. At least those are the ones credited, which as any Warner's devotee knows, does not necessarily reflect who actually worked on it.

The first shot we see is of a white picket fence which, as the camera pans to the right, is revealed to be smack in the middle of a farm landscape so devastated as to make the Dust Bowl seem like a minor heat wave. A discarded plow, apparently not used for ages, occupies one corner in the background. The only thing that looks even remotely alive in this endless semi-desert is Bugs, whom we see in medium shot bending over, picking and tossing aside some pretty sorry excuses for "carrots," which look as if they could benefit from a little Viagra.

He remarks, "Ugh! What carrots!" Picking up one particularly anemic one, he says, "Look at this tired specimen!" The "tired specimen" promptly flops down in his hand like a piece of wet linguine.

The camera switches to a "bird's-eye" of Bugs as he continues looking for a decent carrot (to no avail). There's a discarded newspaper lying just to the left of him: the headline is readable, but we'll get to that in a minute. Bugs complains, "I haven't seen a decent carrot for months around these parts!"

He happens to notice the discarded newspaper, and his eyes immediately light upon the headline: RECORD CARROT CROP IN ALABAMA. The headline is accompanied by an image of a mustachioed farmer holding a carrot nearly as tall as he is. (I looked long and hard for inside jokes here, such as the farmer bearing the name of one of the production crew, but no luck).

Bugs reads the headline aloud, then exclaims "Alabama!? Then I'm Alabamy bound!" (A reference, in case you didn't know, to a popular song dating back to the twenties). He triumphantly marches off into the distance, singing "Dixie."

Cut to the next shot, taking place an apparent loooong time later. Still in the midst of miles and miles of ruin (apparently we're supposed to believe all the cities have been anihlated--there isn't a sign of civilization anywhere, except for some tumbledown telephone poles) Bugs trudges along toward the camera, a step at a time, ears drooping and perspiration flying. In between bouts of panting and wheezing, Bugs still sings Dixie, albeit with considerably less enthusiasm: "Away...away...away...down South...in Dixie..."

He pauses as the camera switches to a medium shot, as he remarks, "I wonder why they put the South so far south?"

No sooner has he said this than he discovers he is, indeed, right at the fabled Mason-Dixon line, as the sign conveniently says. It's rendered quite literally here--the cracked desert of the North stops abruptly at the line, replaced by green grass and scenes that look like outtakes from GONE WITH THE WIND: a paddle-wheel steamboat chugs along the river in the background to the left of the screen, surrounded by views of magnolias and luxurious plantations. Is it any wonder my mother loves this?

Maybe she ought to have sent a thank-you letter to Hawley Pratt and Irv Weiner while she still had the chance.They created this background in unusually painstaking detail for an early-fifties Warner's cartoon This was an era, after all, when shortcuts started to creep into Warner's animation (and I wouldn't be a very good reviewer if I didn't point them out, would I?)

With a faux Southern accent and clasping his hands to his chest in a somewhat effeminate manner, Bugs exclaims, "Well, shut mah mouth and call me cornpone--if it ain't the i'il ol' South!!" (A little side note here: some of the facial expressions and poses look so highly distorted as to almost be that of Rod Scribner and/or Emery Hawkins--but then, they worked for McKimson, didn't they?)

Bugs, re-engergized, marches across the line, singing "Ah's comin', ah's comin' but my head is bendin'--"

He's rudely interrupted by a gunshot coming from off camera to the left of the screen. Bugs ducks, and as a result the bullet barely grazes his ears. Bugs completes the last word of his song in a basso voice: "Loooow!"

It doesn't take us long to discover where the ruckus is coming from. For the first time we see Yosemite Sam, standing atop a sand fortification in full--if slightly frayed--Confederate uniform. A cannon is just to the left of Sam, while a Confederate flag is to the right. Sam, as always armed to the teeth, brandishes a sword and a pistol.

Yelling "CHAAARGE!"--his tiny body suspended in mid-air--Sam rushes off the right of the screen toward the borderline, bullets flying. Poor Bugs is sent scrambling back over to the Yankee side of the line, where he dives behind a rock.

Sam follows, bellowing "Git back there, ya danged Yankee!" He's so caught up in his pursuit, however, he fails to realize he's just crossed over onto the Northern side--when he does, he skids to a stop.

"Great horny toads! I'm up north!" he says, making a hasty retreat toward his side of the line. Hopping up and down on alternate feet as if someone has just applied a match to them, he adds, "Gotta burn my boots--they tetched Yankee soil!"

I think we know now why a lot of Confederate troops were barefoot by the end of the war, don't we? And even at age twelve, I thought he was incredibly generous to refer to that stuff on the Yankee side as "soil."

Cut to a shot of a white flag emerging from Bugs' hiding place behind his rock. Sam commands, "Lay down yer arms and step forward, Yankee!" Bugs does, taking his place on his side of the boundary line, still waving his flag.

He starts calmly chewing on an uncharacteristically healthy-looking carrot (where'd he get it? He couldn't find a decent one up North, remember?) as Sam keeps his weapons trained on him. Still his normally cocky self (especially considering he's been repeatedly shot at) he says, "What's the hassle, Schmassle?"

Cut to a close-up of Sam, who says, "My orders from General Lee is to hold the Masey/Dixie line!" Bringing his weapons a bit closer, he says, "And no Yankee's a-crossin' it!!"

Cut to a close up of Bugs, who says, "General Lee? Why, The War Between The States ended almost ninety years ago!" (And Sam's still kicking? Must be that fresh Southern air. Or pure bullheadedness, knowing him.) One can't help but think of the Laurel and Hardy movie "Blockheads," in which Stan plays a WWI soldier still marching in the trenches years after the war ended. Of course, Stan could plead stupidity--come to think of it, Sam isn't all that bright either.

Incidentally, isn't it interesting how Friz uses the Southern term for the Civil War? (There are people in the South to this day who refuse to refer to it as a "civil war," on the premise that it was a war between two separate nations). Who'd have known the Kansas City-raised Friz would have Southern sympathies? Or maybe Warner's was just afraid of offending its Southern movegoers?

Where were we? Oh yes--Sam says "I know, clockwatcher! But until I hears from General Lee official, I'm a-blastin' any Yankee that sets foot on Southern soil!" (He's going to have a long wait, considering Lee died in 1870).

Pardon my interruption again. The IMDB (which a dear friend of mine has dubbed the "I.M. Dumb") mistranscribes the above line as "I ain't no clockwatcher!" The closed captioning is somewhat different, rendering it as "I'm no clockwatcher!" Trust me, I've watched this enough times to tell you they're both wrong. Now back to the cartoon...

Sam screams, "SO SCRAM, YANKEE!" and sends Bugs back to his refuge in a hail of bullets, having apparently been supplied with enough ammo to last nine decades.

Remember when I said if you've seen this cartoon in the last couple of decades, you haven't really seen it? Well, here's what you've been missing:

Sam marches back and forth, camera right to camera left. As he makes his final turn toward the camera he stops in surprise, remarking "It's one of our boys..."

"One of our boys" just happens to be Bugs, who passes in front of Sam dressed as a slave (in Jolson-like blackface, yet--this is what we see on the main menu) and strumming a banjo. He's dragging his feet and singing in a Stepin Fetchit-like drawl, "Oh, de sun shines bright on my ol' Kentucky home..." The restoration on the DVD makes Bugs' disguise look especially garish.

Sam, looking oddly pleased (considering his background) to see what he thinks is a black man, says, "Hey, boy!" (Ouch! Did he have to say that?) "How 'bout makin' with somethin' peppy on that thar skid box?"

Bugs slowly raises his head and drawls, "Yowsuh.." and immediately launches into a rousing rendition of "Yankee Doodle," in his normal voice. (A variation on that gag, incidentally, had already used in a Chuck Jones Charlie Dog cartoon, DOGGONE SOUTH--but then, Chuck seemed to get along with Friz better than with the other directors, so this "cross-pollenation" of gags between the two of them comes as no surprise).

Sam, incensed, runs up to Stepin Bugs, pointing his sword at him. "Yankee Doodle?! Yooou traitor..."

Before Sam has time to do anything, however, Bugs proceeds to confuse him by placing a whip in his hand and pleading,"Don't whip me massa! Don't whip dis tired ol' body! Nooo!" He emphasizes his mock-fright by running in circles, cowered with his hands covering his head. (Call me twisted, but I love this scene. Not to mention what follows...)

Instantly, Bugs exits to the right of the frame and re-emerges in an Abe Lincoln getup, complete with a long tubelike coat reaching to his feet, and matching stovepipe hat. (No pants, strangely enough.) In a deep, resonant voice, Bugs admonishes Sam: "What's this I hear about you whippin' slaves?"

Poor Sam, throughly flustered by now, can only stammer, "But-but-but-but-but..."

Bugs interrupts him, handing him a business card: "Never mind the 'buts.' Here's my card--look me up at my Gettysburg address!" (Yuk yuk! And you thought only Tex Avery did cornball puns).

To those "special features" weirdos like me: if you choose to listen to the "music only" track, you can hear a few quick bars of "Hail To The Chief" on the soundtrack in this segment.

Cut to a shot of Bugs walking away from the camera, in a waddling, almost Chaplin-like walk (in that outfit, how else could he walk?). We--and Sam--see his tail pokiing out from the back of his coat.

Yet another reused gag here--Freleng always thought that if a gag worked once, it should work multiple times. It's taken from an earlier cartoon with Daffy and Elmer Fudd. Daffy cons Elmer into thinking he had saved Daffy's life, and promises to be his slave. Daffy also resorts to the Abe Lincoln bit, adding instead of the "Gettysburg Address" line, "Well, see that ya don't...bub!" Both Kevin and I feel the bit is actually a good deal more logical--and funny--in SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT, since the context is more appropriate.

Realizing he's been had, Sam's pupils narrow in shock. He goes into one of his patented temper explosions ("OOOOOH!!") and jumps up into the air yelliing "CHAAARRGE!" He disappears stage left as the scene shifts to Bugs diving into a hollow tree. In the version most people saw, everything from Sam marching along the border up to Bugs diving into the tree is typically cut, making the viewer think Bugs jumped all the way from his side of the line into the tree. I know rabbits can jump, but wow...

I should really call the viewer's attention to a minor, but stunning background detail here. Behind Sam as he's having his temper tantrum is not only a scene of meticulously-rendered cotton fields, but a gnarled tree with some of the roots showing--a nice realistic touch in contrast to the cartoony characters.

He re-emerges in the next scene from the right, and reaches the tree containing the concealed Bugs, Sam yells, "Awright, ya fur-bearin' carpetbagger! I'm a-givin' ya one second to come out before I BLOW you out!!" A second later, he pulls a bomb from his coat: "Time's up!" (My, but he's a literal cuss, isn't he?) and tries to light the fuse. Bugs, of course, pokes his head out of the tree and promptly blows the fuse out.

Sam, naturally, figures he'll go a few feet further back and try again. But this time, an approximately ten-foot straw emerges from the tree, and the fuse is blown out yet again. (Sound familiar? We'll see this same gag in THE THREE LITTLE BOPS, four years later). Sam lets out another "OOOOH!" of frustration and goes even further--a little too far. Before he can get back to the tree, the bomb explodes in his hands. When the smoke clears, we see him, jumping up and down, his clothes in tatters, yelling "OOOH! I HATE THAT RABBIT!!"

While Sam is pondering his next move, we cut to a scene of a tent, from which Bugs emerges in a full Confederate general's uniform (well, not quite. There's still no pants). He's wearing a fake bushy moustache, and has a cigar hanging from his mouth. An oversized sword sits in a scabbard at his side, dragging the ground as he walks.

Sam bends over to pick up his hat--he's bald, it turns out--turns and spies the Bugs/General. "General Brickwall Jackson!" he exclaims. Saluting, he says, "Suh..."

With Sam completely fooled, the "general" barks out orders, chomping on his cigar: "Forward HARCH!" The camera cuts to a shot of Sam as he marches to the right of the screen. Bugs yells "Left...FACE!" and Sam complies, marching away from the camera.

When Bugs says, "Aboout...FACE!" Sam turns, marching toward the camera this time. The orders come out even faster: "Right MARCH!!", which causes Sam to march to the left of the screen. Immediately, Bugs barks "To the rear, MARCH! and "Double time, MARCH!" with Sam following instructions to the letter, this time going back towards the right.

Sam marches up a plank right up to the edge of a well (you can pretty well guess what's going to happen, can't you?) as Bugs, seated on a log half out of uniform, filing his nails, says "Company...HALT!"

Sam stops, relieved but sweating. The camera switches to an overhead shot of the interior of the well as a pebble falls in the water. Ooooh, it's a deep one...

Bugs barks one final order, which is (you guessed it!) "Faaall IN!" Which, of course, Sam does with a splash--he's trained to follow orders, after all. We cut to a shot of Bugs, still on the log filing his nails. Some of the water splashes into the frame. As with most postwar cartoons, by the way, these quick cuts are rather frequent, implying action rather than showing it, rarely if ever showing more than two characters per frame--one if possible.

Bugs. now sans uniform, marches away from the camera toward a "Tara"-like Southern mansion in the distance. He's singing "Yankee Doodle" again, substituting the word "carrot" for "feather" in one line: "stuck a carrot in his hat and called it mararoni..."

The scene cuts to a shot of Bugs heading toward the camera, with Sam emerging on the left of the frame, in hot pursuit. (With Sam, there's no other kind of pursuit). Bugs heads quickly toward the mansion and ducks inside, with Sam close behind. (I love how Bugs just takes for granted the place would be unoccupied).

Sam pounds on the door and is greeted by Bugs in full "southern belle" drag (it wouldn't be a Bugs Bunny picture unless he's in drag at least once). He's wearing a long blue dress and a blonde wig. Echoing Sam's earlier line, Bugs says in a falsetto voice, "Oh! It's one of our boys!"

The camera shifts to a view of Sam, from a vantage point just behind Bugs' shoulder; Sam removes his hat as he stands in the doorway. "Sorry, Scarlett ma'am, sorry to have to intrude," he says, "but there's a Yankee about..."

The scene shifts back to the exterior as Bugs/"Scarlett" feigns shock, clasping his hands. He gasps, "A Yankee? How terrible!" Stalling, as always, has the appropriate music for the conversation, playing "Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair" on the sound track.

Sam says, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to search your premises..." Rushing inside, we move to an interior shot, in which Sam is readying his pistol while Bugs stands in front of a closet door. Like so much of this cartoon, this scene should really be viewed in freeze-frame: the momentum has Sam in midair ready to fire, while Bugs' skirts are blowing up around him.

Sam frantically looks around for a moment, as Bugs says, "He's not in here! He's not in here!" Figuring he's got the goods on the "Yankee" at last, Sam says, "Ah HAH! So THAT'S where he's hidin'!"

Gently nudging "Scarlett" aside, Sam says gently, "Sorry, Scarlett ma'am, but I got to do my duty...Bugs, meanwhile, has his hands clasped close to him and has a worried expression. As he prepares to throw open the closet door, Sam screams, "OK, YANKEE, STICK 'EM..."

He opens the door to reveal a huge cannon, which goes off in Sam's face as he completes the sentence..."up!"

(Reused gag alert: we've seen this in BUCCANEER BUNNY. For that matter, we've already seen a variation on the "He's not in here!" bit in Freleng's BUGS AND THUGS).

The scene shifts again to another shot of Bugs in front of a closet, which looks like a "flipped over" version of the first scene. "He's not in here! He's not in here!" Bugs says again.

This time, Sam's a little less willing to go through the routine. Frazzled and still smoldering, Sam says, "I'll just take your word for it...ma'am..."

We return to an exterior shot as we see what looks like a Confederate cavalryman on horseback emerging from the upper right of the screen. Or is it?

Nope. It's Bugs, who magically changed into an entirely different costume and has somehow secured a horse in two seconds. A considerable distance away from the house, at that.

Bugs crawls up the stairs to the house, seemingly exhausted. He's wearing a Confederate tunic and a bandage on his head, for effect. He pants, "Colonel...the Yankees...the Yankees..they're in...Chattanooga..." and "faints." (Yet another scene used in DOGGONE SOUTH, with a somewhat different twist. Charlie Dog, playing the exhausted soldier, adds "Chitlins forevah!" before he passes out). Sam yells "Chattanoogy?" and takes the "soldier's" horse, riding off into the distance camera right, screaming "CHAAARGE!" all the way.

The Yankees are indeed in Chattanooga--the Yankees ball team, that is. They're playing an exhibition game against the Chattanooga club, or so the banner says.

The camera pans down from the banner to a shot of Sam in front of the Yankee dugout, his pistol aimed right at the terrified team members. We don't see their faces, just the whites of their panic-stricken eyes in the darkness. (Um, they don't have security at these ballparks?)

Sam warns them, "The first dang Yankee that steps out of that thar dugout get his head blasted off!" To coin a phrase, that's all. folks...

If there were any advantage to growing up in a hole-in-the-wall military town like Sierra Vista, Arizona, it would be that it gave me the opportunity to view some, shall we say, eclectic programming.

KZAZ (now KMSB) in nearby Nogales, just this side of the Mexican border, was in the seventies a dumpy little station that couldn't have had much more wattage than the average light bulb. But it somehow landed on our cable lineup. Desperate for any kind of programming to fill airtime, it would put on just about any scrap of film it had. Want to see THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES in Spanish? You'd find "Los Beverly Ricos" on KZAZ, at noon every Saturday. Believe me, it has to be experienced to be believed.

It aired its share of cartoons, from a backlog so old it must have been one of the original theatrical cartoon packages left over from the mid-fifties. I don't think they even bothered to see what was on them half the time. So sometimes, a few cartoons would slip through that would have sent parents' groups into apoplexy--if they were among the handful of people watching. Fortunately, not many did.

Consequently, I got my first indication I might not be seeing everything the classic cartoon studios had to offer when I got the once-in-a-lifetime oppoortunity to see SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT, uncut and un-PC. I'd seen it before, of course, or thought I did. But suddenly...

...an unbelievable scene of a blackface Bugs snapped me out of my toon-induced haze. I'd have given my arms, my legs and a sizeable chunk of my cerebral cortex to have been able to afford the earliest home video recorders at that point. Thanks to DVD technology, however, I'll never have to resort to such severe bodily mutilation. As soon as the opening titles flickered on the screen, I was instantly transported to that moment in an Arizona living room.

Some cartoons, like ROMEO IN RHYTHM, are musical delights that deserve a second look. Others have less going for them, but deserve to be seen for historical reasons, if nothing else. SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT would fall in the latter category. Aside from some occasionally cutting satire of Southern cliches (even the unfortunate "Bugs in blackface" scene could be viewed as that if one chooses to be charitable) there's little to make this cartoon stand out from any of twenty or thirty other Freleng cartoons from this period. It's still very solidly done, however, and is an ideal example of Freleng's style circa 1953. His backgrounds would become sparser and more stylized eventually--nowhere near as lush as the ones in this cartoon. (To their detriment, I think). Racial stereotypes of the kind presented here would also quickly vanish after this cartoon was made. In a way, it's one of the last of its kind, and for that reason deserves at least an honorary place here in the Home For Orphan Toons.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I love you, Netflix.

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