Friday, January 13, 2006

Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears (1944)

Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears (Warner Bros., 1944)
Dir: Charles M. (Chuck) Jones
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

Because, in the past few days, I have discussing both fairy tale parodies and the early teaming of Bugs Bunny with Chuck Jones, it is only slightly accidental that I should now move the discussion on to a film done about four years after Elmer's Candid Camera: Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears. Jones had handled Bugs in several more cartoons by this point, and had also established himself as a director, especially in breaking incredible new ground two years earlier with The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall. (The way I see it, Jones broke incredible new ground with amazing consistency all through the 40's and early 50's.) And Bugs himself had grown into the star rabbit that he remains to this day, with the majority of his traits well established by the time he met the Three Bears, probably the most dysfunctional family unit in animation until the Simpsons came along, and certainly the familial set most prone to violence on each other.

Paw Bear is a fireplug of a bruin who is driven crazy instantly any time his infant son speaks, moves, breathes... anything. He is quick to lash out at the slightest provocation, his slow burns at his diapered boy's idiotic presence swiftly morphing into fisted rage. He is also barely held in check when confronted with his wife's deceptively mousy composure. Even though many of his swipes often don't connect or are meant to be purely symbolic of his frustration, every now and then one of them lands squarely on the Junyer Bear's chin, nose or noggin with a resounding "WHAM!" He is what Ralph Kramden would be if he ever actually got to send anyone to da' moon, only about half the size of Ralph Kramden. This act of savagery that the father visits upon the son would be a horrifying spectacle indeed, if the baby bear in question weren't three times the father's size, as strong as a herd of oxen, and fully capable of savage, unthinking brutality himself. As is Maw Bear, attired in her house-frock, cap and slippers, forever looking as if she has just roused herself from hibernation, she is most likely worn down by the epic battling of her husband and only child, but prone to fits of devastation herself, and secretly itching to find a way out of the situation to which she has resigned herself.

Even though the Three Bears' first film teams them up with Mr. Bugs Bunny, this is hardly their best film. In fact, while the film is a basic well-done piece of ‘40s Warner, it is the least fulfilling of the Bears' series. This might be due to Jones having to take time to not only introduce the Three Bears to the audience in mock storybook tradition, but he also has to take time to portray the family's basic violence-laden dynamic; set up the fact that these are not the Three Bears of literary fame; and then also manufacture a way to work Bugs Bunny into the story, This busywork leaves little time for wacky hijinks once the principals are established. The film kind of peters out at the end, with no real punchline of an ending, just Bugs running off (in rather uncharacteristic fashion) from Maw Bear's amorous attentions. Perhaps the love of a mother bear is the one situation from out of which Bugs can't fast-talk himself.

Goldilocks arriving in person is thrown out at the get-go, only getting name-checked by a starving Paw Bear, who wants to do what those other bears in the real story did, only when Goldilocks shows up, "WHAM!" (This is actually his reaction to just about any situation in life, so not all of the violence is pointed in his family's direction. I also like the idea that if you are a bear and you make some porridge, then a lost blonde girl will show up immediately at your door.) Because the Bears don't have any porridge, it seems all is lost. But they do have "these old carrots," and thus, they make carrot soup. When Junyer is counted on to say his "line," he says wrongly, "Someone's been sleeping in my bed!" Paw WHAMS him in the face. (Stan Freberg, for whom this was his first cartoon recording, is brilliant as Junyer, as he was with most of the things that he undertook.) The Bears fake a carrot soup-cooling hike, hiding under the stairs of the house, and the smell of the soup snake-charms a "sleeping" Bugs Bunny from a rabbit hole just outside the Bears' window.

Bugs is in charge from moment one, always aware of the Bears' presence, who, by this point, are portraying rugs on the floor next to the table. When Bugs decides ketchup would go great with the soup but can't seem to find the ketchup, Junyer rushes up from the floor to retrieve the condiment, and then rushes back, where Paw WHAMS him in the head. Bugs feigns the need for a nap, and goes upstairs singing King for a Day in outrageously over-the-top fashion, playing his part to the hilt. The bears trap the rabbit in the bedroom, and after Junyer mistakenly rehearses his line as "Why, Grandma! What big eyes yuh got!" and Paw WHAMS him again, the family descends upon Bugs and proceeds to thrash the varmint something terrible! Or so it seems, for it is Bugs they are attacking, and he easily appears on the other side of the room from them. When Maw gives chase, Bugs mock-seduces her and ends his come-ons with a tremendous kiss.

This kiss leads to my favorite sequence of the film. The now lovelorn Maw now chases the rabbit throughout the house. (From this point on, Paw and Junyer become practically unnecessary to the plot.) Bugs opens one door and there is Maw dolled up in lingerie, giving Bugs the most seductive pose that she can muster with her comically ramshackle, sagging body. Bugs runs to the next door, and behind it is Maw tramped up like a hooker (of the old guard), smoking a cigarette in a holder with a peekaboo Veronica Lake wig and heels. A third and final door reveals Maw in a bathtub, and not acting completely shocked that Bugs has walked in on her, unlike the way Bugs would use the same gag in later films against his various nemeses. Only, none of this is funny to a rabbit who suddenly finds himself no longer in control of the situation. For once, it is actually grand to see Bugs' desperation.

I find the Chuck Jones version of the Three Bears hilarious. I was astounded the first time I saw What's Brewin', Bruin? (1948), my introduction to the series, in which the cave the family is hibernating in gets the best of them, but I swiftly found myself wanting to see more of the highly abusive trio, flying fists and all. There are five films in all, each directed by Chuck Jones, and all of them hilarious, with my personal favorite being the last in the series, the Father's Day-themed A Bear for Punishment in 1951. (Maw Bear does have a cameo in Jones' Daffy Duck epic, The Scarlet Pumpernickel, but it doesn't count towards the family total.)

A caveat to the weak-stomached: If you are upset any time Homer Simpson strangles his impish son Bart for one of his transgressions against either humanity or especially Homer, then the Three Bears series are not the cartoons for you. I have met the occasional person who has exclaimed disgust at the violence and the supposed child and spousal abuse in the cartoons, but they are taking the films completely out of context. That's fine, you are allowed your opinions. Now, go off and join the shock troops of the PTC (and you know where you can shove it).

But if you want unhinged comic mayhem, or even possibly have it in for the nuclear family unit, then the Three Bears' home is where you want to stay. Just check out the four films in the series following this one first.

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 11/1/2015.]

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