Elmer's Candid Camera (Warner Bros., 1940)
Dir: Charles M. (Chuck) Jones
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9
I have a hard time watching the "formative" Bugs Bunny cartoons and calling them true Bugs Bunny cartoons. Bugs Bunny has a certain voice, a certain look, a certain attitude... he is certainly off in all of these departments in this film, the third attempt to bring this slowly developing character to the silver screen. (It wouldn't be until Fred "Tex" Avery's A Wild Hare later in the same year that Bugs and Elmer Fudd would be pretty much gel into the icons that they are today.) Elmer's Candid Camera is Chuck Jones first true stab at the character; I say true because Jones did use a formative Bugs-style rabbit in Prest-o Chang-o, the second of the Curious Puppies series, just after Porky's Hare Hunt came out, which is the first of the formative Bugs films.
Whatever the order of Bugs' evolution, and whether or not these films actually portray the true Mr. Bunny, this film actually gets pretty close to where Avery would eventually take both the rabbit and Elmer Fudd. The still rather Egghead-like Mr. Fudd (though, happily, Arthur Q. Bryan's voice is now attached to the character) takes to the great outdoors with camera and "twipod" in hand after he reads a manual on how to photograph wildlife. For the first time, we get to hear Elmer say the familiar exclamation, "Wabbit twacks!,” only in the guise of an entirely different kind of hunter.
These "twacks" lead him directly to the proto-Bugs (the proper grey, but with black-tipped ears, a black button nose and cloud-like puffy tail, he is not quite set in form yet) sleeping on a patch of grass. Elmer sets up his "camewa," aims it at the rabbit's puffy behind, but then shushes a nearby tweeting bird as he concentrates. Proto-Bugs shushes him back, leaving Elmer confused, and then gets even more confused when proto-Bugs walks behind his back and asks him "What'ya doin'? Takin' pictures?" (Mel Blanc's voice seems not-quite halfway between the true Bugs voice and Mortimer Snerd, though closer on the side of Snerd, not the sharp, Brooklynese voiced bunny we would come to love.) Elmer tells him he is taking a picture of "That wabbit!" and then realizes that the wabbit is talking to him, doing a double take and slamming his eyes and face right up to the proto-Bugs' face. The rabbit pushes him off, telling the audience, "I don't even know the guy!"
Elmer sets about trying to film a squirrel and then a bird, but each time the rabbit interferes, leading to Elmer getting more and more frustrated with the situation. There is a very interesting shot of proto-Bugs leaning on his elbow against Elmer's butt, which looks for all the world like Bugs has his upper arm sinking straight into Elmer's nether regions! (Thankfully, Elmer's pants are on.) Elmer finally throws a butterfly net over proto-Bugs, who affects a fake panic attack in very dramatic fashion, and then slams the net over Elmer. The photographer goes insane, tearing apart all of his possessions, stomping about enraged and finally almost drowning himself in a nearby pond. The rabbit, changing into a swimsuit, dives in and saves Elmer, who recovers his senses as the rabbit talks him down on the shore. When the "gasping for bweath" Elmer says that he is OK, the rabbit pushes him back into the pond, laughing maniacally.
That the laugh that emanates from the rabbit's mouth is remarkably close to that of Woody Woodpecker should come as no surprise: Mel Blanc created the voices of both characters, though Woody would not be introduced until later in the year. So, for the moment, this laugh belonged to the early version of Bugs Bunny. And, for similar reasons, so does this movie. While many of the elements of the later Bugs-Elmer clashes are starting to take shape, none of it is quite there yet. I can't quite consider it a Bugs Bunny movie, because I don't see the Bugs that I know and love. It is rather like watching a different actor try on the role first. A far inferior actor.
Still, from a purely historical aspect, this is an important film. And it does have clever moments. But the classic Bugs and Elmer were just around the corner...
[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 11/1/2015.]