WHAT’S OPERA, DOC? (1957) – Chuck Jones’ melodramatic masterpiece

There’s every reason that What’s Opera, Doc? shouldn’t work at all, yet it works perfectly.

As anyone who knows their Looney Tunes knows, this cartoon takes the long-familiar motif of milquetoast Elmer Fudd hunting wily Bugs Bunny and places it in a melodramatic opera setting. Or as stated by the cartoon’s director, Chuck Jones, “We took the entire Ring of the Nibelungen music and crushed it down to six minutes.”

We usually expect a Looney Tune to be filled wall-to-wall with gut-busting laughs. What’s Opera, Doc? transcends expectations, for sure providing a sufficient amount of laughter (love that opening shot, where the foreboding shadow of a mighty warrior turns out to emanate from diminutive Elmer) but replacing a lot of the laughs with just plain awe.

First off, notice the deliberate staginess of the cartoon. Waterfalls stand still, and trees don’t sway from any breeze. It’s obvious that Jones wanted this to look like a staged opera; the only thing missing is a proscenium frame.

Once the setting is established, Jones takes familiar Bugs-and-Elmer motifs and stylizes them to the hilt. Normally, Bugs would be setting off one trickster scheme after another. Here, a single trick is drawn out to provide a big, glorious guffaw: Bugs dressed as the beautiful Valkyrie Brunhilde, riding in on a gargantuan horse.

From there, the audience’s footing is uprooted in the same manner that Alfred Hitchcock defied movie logic at the halfway point of Psycho (1960). We find ourselves laughing and feeling for cuckolded Elmer at the same time. And when Elmer summons his almighty revenge on Bugs, it holds a lot more power than that silly rifle he could never manage.

All of this builds to a climax that is so beautifully melodramatic, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. (Don’t worry — Bugs sways the final vote.)

This amazing cartoon was accomplished with trickery that would have made Bugs himself proud. Each Looney Tunes cartoon was usually manufactured within five weeks; this cartoon took seven weeks. To allay any front-office suspicions, Chuck Jones created a subsequent Road Runner cartoon that he finished off in only three weeks, and he had his entire crew doctor their time cards to balance out the two-week discrepancy.

An often-underrated member of Jones’ unit was his art director, Maurice Noble, who brought extra depth to Jones cartoons such as Duck Dodgers in the 24th-1/2 Century. Here, Jones let Noble have carte blanche on creating colors and shadows that added to the cartoon’s atmosphere. (Noble said in one interview, “They thought I was bats when I wanted to put all those purples on Elmer.”)

IMHO, What’s Opera, Doc? is the peak of what might be considered the Golden Age of Looney Tunes. There were still many wonderful cartoons to come (before the original group of Warners cartoon directors, known as the guys from “Termite Terrace,” were officially disbanded in 1963). But none of those subsequent cartoons were to be nearly as awe-inspiring, or as rich with possibilities.