Seven years before Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd dueled their way through a hilarious take on the music of Wagner in What’s Opera, Doc?, the duo tackled Italian composer Rossini in 1950’s Rabbit of Seville.
Rabbit of Seville is the brainchild of director Chuck Jones, writer Michael Maltese, and frequent Warner Bros. composer Carl Stalling. Stalling was, on occasion, criticized by some (including Jones) for his habit of quoting modern or popular melodies in his scores, and it is true that his scores featured repeated use of certain musical cues for similar situations from cartoon to cartoon–for instance, the recurrence of Rossini’s William Tell overture in chase scenes (particularly those in Western-themed cartoons), or the use of “We’re in the Money” (from Gold Diggers of 1933) in scenes featuring the sudden acquirement of wealth. Stalling’s penchant for musical puns aside, he was nonetheless an incredibly talented musician, and the Stalling scores are among the most memorable in the Warner Bros. animated canon (for a pitch-perfect example of Stalling’s unparalleled talent, see 1943’s A Corny Concerto, directed by Bob Clampett, which Stalling completed with his eventual successor, Milt Franklyn).
In Seville, Jones takes full advantage of Stalling’s musical abilities, as the composer manages to incorporate a slightly abridged version of the overture to Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville at an accelerated tempo that still manages to capture the essence of the original tune. Additionally, he works in a bit of the “Wedding March” from German composer Mendelssohn. Maltese composed new lyrics to accompany the sped-up tune, and aside from Bugs’ final line, the song lyrics are the only dialogue to accompany the cartoon–and really, no dialogue is needed when the lyrics include such brilliant lines as, “There, you’re nice and clean … although your face looks like it might have gone through a machine!”
There are little touches throughout this cartoon that heighten the humor: a sign in the opening scene advertises a “Summer Opera” performance of The Barber of Seville starring “Eduardo Selzeri” (producer Eddie Selzer), “Michele Maltese” (writer Maltese), and “Carlo Jonzi” (director Jones); the stage is set for a scene at a barber’s shop, yet in Rossini’s opera, there is no such scene (despite the character Figaro’s titular position); Bugs (naturally) gets the chance to don drag, as Elmer’s alluring “little senorit-er”; Elmer deals with multiple indignities in Bugs’ Sweeney Todd-esque barber chair o’ horrors, not the least of which is having a hair tonic treatment that results in a patch of red flowers sprouting on his otherwise bald noggin; to bring an end to the madness, Bugs proposes marriage, and Elmer zips offstage briefly and reemerges in a white wedding gown; Bugs’ final, mischievous nod to the audience. The result is a sort of insane mash-up of so-called high and low culture, audaciously combining cartoonish antics and high-brow musical accompaniment in a way that, by all logic, should not work … and yet totally and completely does.
Is Rabbit of Seville as effective a cartoony operetta as What’s Opera, Doc? In truth, not quite–though both cartoons have their strengths, the more satirical bent of the latter cartoon trumps the relentlessly slapsticky nature of Seville. Opera functions as both a parody of its musical source material and an incisive comedic homage to it, while Seville concentrates more on just generally garnering laughs. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with that, for Rabbit of Seville is truly hilarious, and undoubtedly its success enabled Jones, Maltese, and crew to embark on the much more ambitious (and much more expensive) Opera in later years. And its influence has not gone unnoticed; Rabbit of Seville is, like its operatic cartoon brother, on the list of the 50 best cartoons of all time, placing at number twelve, and it remains one of the most popular ‘toons to emerge from the Golden Age of animation. Perhaps most importantly, this cartoon is among a number of memorable Warner Bros. shorts that helped introduce new generations to classical music in a fun, engaging way that, if it didn’t exactly foster new fans of the genre, at least created a lingering awareness of the great compositions of those grand old masters.
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10 thoughts on “Celebrating 100 Years of Chuck Jones: Rabbit of Seville (1950)”
Brandie, you said: “Perhaps most importantly, this cartoon is among a number of memorable Warner Bros. shorts that helped introduce new generations to classical music in a fun, engaging way that, if it didn’t exactly foster new fans of the genre, at least created a lingering awareness of the great compositions of those grand old masters.” Well, it looks like we must agree to disagree, because THE RABBIT OF SEVILLE was one of my earliest – albeit zaniest – exposure to classical music! In fact, much as I adore WHAT’S OPERA, DOC now, when I first saw it, little me was sad at first because Bugs “died!” You can imagine my relief when Bugs sat up and said, “Well, whaddaya expect in an opera? A happy ending?” Indeed, Bugs Bunny cartoons in general were also among my earliest exposure to drag comedy! 🙂 In any case, Brandie, your post is a delight, and your enjoyment shines through!
Dorian, perhaps the wording of that final sentence in the post is confusing, but what I was attempting to say is exactly the point that you reiterate above–that these cartoons expose children to classical music. My further point was, exposing children to classical music through these cartoons might not make them automatic fans of classical music in general, but it will at least give them a familiarity with it, which I think is just as valuable. For instance, I remember the first time I actually saw the opera William Tell, and I immediately recognized the overture because I remembered it playing in the background as Bugs Bunny rode a horse in cartoons like Bugs Bunny Rides Again. It’s a somewhat strange connection, to be sure, but I know I’m not the only one who thinks that whenever that song plays …
Oh, believe me, Brandie, I’m right there with you! We do talk the same language, two languages, in fact: the language of music and the language of pop culture! Heck, I bet many of us may have recognized “The William Tell Overture” from “The Lone Ranger” even before everything else 🙂
To this day, when I hear some of this music I still see Bugs Bunny making that enormous salad on Elmer Fudd’s head. Thanks for profiling this one. I don’t think I’ve seen this since I was a kid!
Saturday morning during my youth were spent watching Bugs. The opera episodes (and Marc Anthony and Pussyfoot) were my favorites. I am really enjoying your reviews of these classic cartoons. I hope you keep doing them.
I love watching this. How the story is tied to the music is inspired.
“Yes! you’re next! Yoooooooooou’re so next!”
Twenty years ago on this day, I took my younger sister and my niece to see the touring “Bugs Bunny on Broadway” at the Hollywood Bowl (where else?) which featured, as you may recall, showings of the several classical music themed WB cartoons on a large projection screen above a live orchestra playing the score.
In this case, the LA Philharmonic, and brother, you ain’t heard nothing until you’ve heard the LA Phil tear through “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down”.
I figured that my niece, then all of eight years old, needed to get started on her classical education, and to this day am proud to say that it started at the Hollywood Bowl that night.
At first I worried that she might be bored and fidgety, but I needn’t have. She was standing on her seat and cheering with the rest of us throughout, and developed a shared bond with me and the WB animations that continues to this day.
Of all of the ‘toons done that night, “Rabbit of Seville” was the standout, and really brought down the house. Yes, the Wagnerian “What’s Opera Doc” was also popular, but there is in Rossini’s music an inherent humor, as if Rossini was actually writing for animated comedy. His work is full of musical gags and puns, and I’ve often pointed out that Rossini was the headbanger of classical composers: The William Tell Overture, for instance, seems to be the result of him wondering with a laugh, hm, wonder how hard and fast I can make an orchestra play?
Back to the Bowl: Chuck Jones was there that night, and showed up on stage at the end of the show to a standing ovation acknowledging the laughter and joy he brought to us all, and oh yeah, his eightieth birthday.
I made my way down to the stage and shook his hand, and collected an autograph. I’m not really much of an autograph collector; in fact I only have one, that which I received from Chuck Jones that night twenty years ago.
My only regret is that Carl Stalling was not there to see it. Or [eyes drift heavenward], perhaps he was after all, smiling beneficently throughout.
Incidentally, I see that “Feed the Kitty” has already been covered, and recently saw for the first time a previously undiscovered gem: “Feline Frame-Up,” which hooks Marc Anthony and Pussyfoot up with the very vindictive Claude Cat in a three way struggle to blame one another for various mishaps– well you know the drill by now. Worth a look.
A last add on Carl Stalling and his favorite musical cues.
Whenever any character, anywhere, gets on any train, going anywhere, expect to hear the orchestra fire up “California Here I Come,” and you can also depend upon hearing “A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You” whenever characters settle down to eat (could be Sylvester going through garbage cans).
And then of course there’s the Raymond Scott catalog, which Carl convinced WB to purchase a license for early on. Smartest thing he ever did. Scott’s “Powerhouse” is probably the most recognizable, typically used whenever a machine or assembly line is systematically chewing up a character, and you’d recognize the remainder if I played Scott’s work for you– a friend I did this for said, “oh, it’s that cartoon music.”
And last add, honest, a rarity: “Rabbit of Seville” features the one and only time that Bugs Bunny ever displayed a full five-digit hand (it’s in the manicure scene where he plays Elmer’s fingernails like a keyboard along with Rossini’s melody).
It’s an unwritten law in the animation biz that all characters have four digits (three fingers and a thumb) and this is, to the best of my knowledge, the only time this law has ever been flouted.
I could be wrong. Any other instances, tell.