Seventy-five years ago today, on July 27, 1940, Bugs Bunny, the suave, smart-alecky rabbit who became the most popular of Warner Brothers' cartoon characters, made his first official film appearance, in "A Wild Hare."
Prototypes of Bugs (sometimes referred to as Happy Rabbit) had already appeared in four films, as early as 1938's "Porky's Hare Hunt." Directed by Ben "Bugs" Hardaway (yes, that where Bugs' name came from), the smart-alecky rabbit was much more diminutive, with a laugh that predated Woody Woodpecker (a character Hardaway would go on to create with Walter Lantz). The character was also undeniably wacky, not unlike Daffy Duck.
Director Tex Avery and animator Virgil Ross re-tooled the character for "A Wild Hare." Instead of wacky, Bugs would be casual in his smart-alecky behavior. He revealed no fear of hunters; sarcasm worthy of Groucho Marx; and little touches, such as the carrot-chomping (inspired by Clark Gable nibbling on a carrot in "It Happened One Night"), that would come to define his cocky, self-assured personality.
He also found his voice. When Mel Blanc saw the revised drawings of Bugs, who was described as "a tough little stinker," Blanc heard Brooklyn.
At a screening of "A Wild Hare," audience reaction to Bugs' line, "What's up, doc?" was so strong, it instantly became his catch-phrase.
"A Wild Hare" is now considered the first "official" Bugs Bunny cartoon. To watch "A Wild Hare" click on the video player below.
Over the next three-and-a-half decades Bugs starred in nearly 170 theatrical shorts by such directors as Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Frank Tashlin, Robert McKimson, and Chuck Jones. One short, "Knighty-Knight Bugs" (1964), won an Academy Award. Bugs also became a mainstay of Saturday morning programming.
Later in his career he made a cameo (as did nearly every other Hollywood cartoon character) in the 1988 comedy "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"; returned to theatrical shorts in 1990 with "Box-Office Bunny"; and starred in the live action/animated features "Space Jam" and "Looney Tunes: Back in Action."
The pinnacle of his career (or at least that of his greatest director, Chuck Jones) was the 1957 "What's Opera, Doc," which parodies Wagnerian opera in a grandly-stylized rendition of the classic Elmer-hunts-Bugs plotline. It also gave Bugs yet another chance to prance around in drag as the Valkyrie Brunnhilde. Named in a 1994 poll of animators the greatest cartoon ever made, "What's Opera, Doc" was the first animated short to be inducted onto the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
To watch "What's Opera, Doc" click on the video player below.