Saturday, April 27, 2013

Non-nominated Highlight: What's Opera, Doc? (1957)

So we are now hitting the end of the Golden Age of Studio Animation in our reviews, and we will be progressing through it thanks to our retrospective progression. Needless to say the rest of the films will have been produced by one of the major film studios, such as Disney, MGM, Warner Bros., UPA etc. This is a good time to bring up one of the problems that I (and possibly other animation historians) have with this category. The contenders are decided in part by what the studios submit for contention. Unfortunately I don't have access to a list of what films qualified, but I do remember reading in Chuck Jones's autobiography that many of the great Warner Bros. films did not get submitted for some reason. As a result, while most of the greatest films by Disney and many of the greatest films by MGM* were nominated in this category, few of the greatest films by Warner Bros. were nominated.

*For some reason, almost all of the greatest Tom and Jerry cartoons were nominated, but none of the greatest Tex Avery films were nominated. It could be that the Academy did not enjoy Avery's strange sense of humor, or it could be MGM executives did not like it and did not submit those, which essentially gets to the same issue.

Case in point: almost 20 years ago, Jerry Beck polled about 1,000 animation professionals to create a list of the 50 best animated short films. Nine of the films were from Disney, and of those five were nominated for the Best Animated Short Oscar (and two of them were from before the creation of the category and were therefore ineligible.) There were seven films from MGM on the list, and of those two were nominated for the Oscar. (Incidentally, the five that were not nominated were all directed by Tex Avery.) 17 of the top 50 were from Termite Terrace in Warner Bros. And how many of those were nominated for the Best Animated Short Oscar? A grand total of ZERO! And yet Warner Bros. films received 27 nominations throughout the years (including one that was later withdrawn). So it's not like the Academy had a vendetta against Warner Bros. They were more than happy to nominate Warner Bros. films, but for some reason it just wasn't the best of the best of their films. Whether it's the fault of the Academy or Warner Bros. executives is beyond me, but that has been something that was bugging me for some time.*

*The book also included 57 other films that were nominated but did not get enough votes. Five of those were from MGM and of those only one was nominated. 13 of those were from Disney and of those five were nominated. 17 of those were from Warner Bros., and of those only three were nominated. It's like the Academy and the animation professionals were on completely different wavelengths for Warner Bros. films.

Needless to say I can get Non-Nominated Highlights for literally dozen of  Warner Bros. classics, but I think I'll focus on one in particular (and maybe a second in a couple of weeks.) This is the film that is ranked #1 on the top 50 list, and is still widely regarded as the best in animated short films. It was the first animated short film to be selected onto the National Film Registry. It was quite possibly Warner Bros.'s most ambitious film, and it was not nominated for the Best Animated Short Oscar. I am talking about none other than Chuck Jones's What's Opera, Doc?

Classical music have played a major part in animated short films since near the beginning of the medium. Performers getting interrupted while trying to perform a piece have been a frequent source of jokes (as we shall see in some of our later reviews), but Warner Bros. had been doing more intergration between the classical music and the story in films like Rhapsody in Rivets, Pigs in a Polka, A Corny Concerto, and Rabbit of Seville. What's Opera, Doc? takes this a step further, being a film that not only uses the medium of opera to tell the story but also a film that parodies the medium and more.

The film begins sounds of the orchestra practicing playing over the credits. The show begins with lightning flashes. A large shadow appears insinuating that this figure is controlling the weather. This figure turns out to be Elmer Fudd, who tells viewers that he's hunting wabbits in recitative. He finds rabbit tracks and follows it until reaching a rabbit hole, after which he begins stabbing at the hole while singing "Kill da wabbit" to the tune of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Bugs Bunny appears in a different hole and expresses shock at what he hears. He confronts Elmer and together they sing a duet where Elmer says he will kill the wabbit with his spear and magic helmet. He proceed to give a demonstration of the weather-changing power of his magic helmet. Bugs flees as Elmer realized that he was face to face with the wabbit. He chases after Bugs but sees Brunhilde (Bugs in disguise) riding an obese horse. Together they have a ballet and song duet (Return My Love) an end up in embrace, after which Bugs's disguise is revealed. Elmer becomes enraged and swears to kill the rabbit. Can Bugs escape from Elmer's wrath?

As I said, What's Opera Doc was a film that parodies opera, specifically those of Richard Wagner, by becoming a piece of operatic work itself. It mixes together selections from numerous Wagner works, including the operas in "The Ring of the Nibelung," "The Flying Dutchman," and "Tannhauser." Along the way Jones pokes fun at the Elmer and Bugs chase motif. It mixes together well known elements such as Bugs's "What's Up Doc" saying along with some well written, well designed music and dance scenes. This combination leads to a work that is both familiar yet original, funny yet profound. It's entertaining throughout, and the ending is a classic. The soundtrack itself is excellent and worthy of dissection by music historians. The "Return to the Love" duet set to a part of the overture of "Tannhauser" is another highlight. The animation also transcends typical Warner Bros. films. It is full of stylistic designs and artistic angles that heighten the emotion present in the film. For example as Bugs is running away after his disguise falls apart, he is is shown in extreme long shots where he is but a speck against larger backdrops (but with a particularly effective use of shadow in one shot) while Elmer is shown in mostly medium shots where his body is in orange or in silhouette to illustrate his rage. The rest of the film continues this transcendent artistic standard. It's no wonder that What's Opera Doc required more work, more money, and more time than the typical Warner Bros. production. And yet when the 1957 nominations were revealed What's Opera Doc was nowhere to be seen, with five inferior films taking up the spots. It's one of the biggest shames in the history of the Best Animated Short Oscar.

Meanwhile, here's the short.


  1. It is rather a shame to look back in history and see how the films we would consider classics today simply got overlooked in the shuffle, often due to politics or how these things were handled then. What's Opera Doc? surely is one of those poster children for the "misfit films" the academy simply passed by.

  2. When Chuck Jones spoke publicly he was often very critical of producer Eddie Seltzer, perhaps Seltzer did not submit Jones' films for consideration in retaliation for Jones' attitude. I noticed that after 1953 no Jones film was nominated (except in 1961 for Beep Prepared where Chuck Jones is listed as Producer), even though IMO Jones was by far the best directer post 1950 . Could a feud have erupted in 1954 causing Seltzer to favor Freleng and McKimson over Jones?