Bugs Bunny has often fought fiercely for his home. When protecting his domicile expands to the level of the fate of the nation, the wily wabbit fights even fiercer.
Bunker Hill Bunny (Warner, Bugs Bunny, 9/23/50 – I (Friz) Freleng, dir.) is a classic for the holiday. Though posing Bugs as a minuteman in the opening titles, the title of the cartoon is something of a deliberate mislead, for, while a montage of famous revolutionary war battles are depicted in the film’s opening sequence, we are clearly directed that the story we are about to see unfold does not take place at Bunker Hill, but at the heretofore unknown battleground of Bagle Heights. Two forts fire upon one another with shot and shell. Inside each, however, is a lone occupant. In the fort identified by a flag reading “We” is Bugs Bunny. In the opposing fort, flying a flag reading “They” is Sam Von Shmam, the Hessian. Sam as usual has the whole mathematics of the battle figured out, and claims he’s got Bugs outnumbered one to one. Bugs states he’s on his native soil, “and no Hessian oppression is gonna put me off’n it.” Sam commands himself into a charge, and provides his own marching drum beats as he approaches Bugs’ fort.
Of course, he walks straight up to the mouth of a cannon waiting inside the fort door. Blasted into a charred gray, Sam beats on his busted drum a double-time retreat tempo. He reactivates his cannons briefly once back behind his own walls to soften up the enemy, then again appears out the door, armed with a bayonet. “Charge!”, he commands. Bugs appears is his own fort doorway, similarly armed with bayonet, and orders an equally loud “Charge!” They advance at full speed in each other’s direction. But instead of engaging in battle, the two combatants pass each other entirely, each running headlong into the other’s fort. The “We” flag is lowered in Bugs’ fort, and replaced by a “They” flag. However, Bugs is replacing Sam’s old “They” flag with a “We” flag. When Bugs waves Sam a “Yoo-hoo” to wise him up as to what’s been done, Sam orders a “Charge” in the other direction. Bugs does likewise, and the two pass each other again, repeating the same flag ceremonies back at their original forts. Never one to give up trying, Sam tries it one more time. Bugs does not advance, but waits patiently outside the fort walls. As Yosemite approaches, Bugs swings the fort door open. Its entrance is now filled by the mouth of a cannon so big, Sam is able to run directly into its barrel. Finding himself surrounded by walls of steel cylinder, Sam changes military tactics.
“Retreat!!!” But the cannon goes off before Sam can exit the barrel, sailing him through the air to land back behind his own fort walls.
Sam rearms with a cartoon black bomb, and hurls it at Bugs’s fort. Bugs quick-changes into a baseball uniform, and slugs the bomb a mighty clout. Although a Hessian, Sam has great familiarity with the national game, pulling from his coat pocket a baseball mitt and rearing back into his fort, yelling. “I got it. I got It.” The bomb falls within the fort, a huge blast rising from its walls – and the “They” flag is replaced with a new one reading, “He got it.” Sam vows to blast the fur bearing critter to Smithereenies, and fires a cannonball at Bugs. On the wall of his fort, Bugs positions another cannon, and catches the cannonball directly inside the barrel. Repeating the stream of chatter of a baseball catcher to a pitcher previously used by Freleng in both Boulevardier From the Bronx and Baseball Bugs, Bugs cheers on Sam to show him what he’s got on the old cannonball, and fires the cannonball right back into Sam’s weapon. These cannon are quite remarkable for their day, in that, while both have already been fired, neither has to be refilled with gunpowder in order to be readied again – instead, all you have to do is pull a firing pin, and the gun goes off! So Sam shoots the same cannonball at Bugs again, and Bugs makes another remarkable catch and hits the mark again on the return shot, tight back into Sam’s barrel. But now the added twist. As Sam pulls his firing pin again, a new object is launched by Bugs into his cannon barrel – a giant cork. Yosemite runs around front to pull he cork out – and takes the whole brunt of the built-up cannon shot inside, leaving him frazzled as usual.
The film ends with possibly the earliest use of two gag sequences which would become “set pieces” for Freleng to fall back upon for laughs in later years. Sam tunnels under the fort wall, coming up in pitch blackness, and strikes a match – only to find he’s in the ammunition shed, which explodes. (This gag would reappear as the undoing of the Sylvester Indian tribe in Tweety Pie’s Tom Tom Tomcat.) Finally, Sam sneaks a barrel of gunpowder connected to a long fuse over to Bugs’s fort wall – not realizing the barrel has a hole in it, which is dumping a generous supply of powder into the back of Sam’s pants.
Sam’s trousers also are not leakproof, so that, as Sam returns to his fort, he leaves a trail of powder on the ground behind him. Back within his own walls, Sam lights the fuse. The fuse burns all the way to Bugs’s wall – where Bugs sits nonchalantly on the powder keg, and snuffs out the fuse one inch shy of entering the powder barrel. He then tosses a match on the trail of powder Sam has left behind, which burns all the way back to Sam. Sam runs, but continues to leave a powder trail wherever he goes, and is even followed by it up a tree, where the explosion leaves Sam as the only foliage left hanging from the branches. (The “powder you cant outrun” gag would see reworking both by Robert McKimson in Early To Bet (1951), and by Freleng again in Elmer Fudd’s Ant Pasted (1953).) Sam concludes to the audience. “I’m a Hessian without no aggression. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The final shot has Sam, with bandaged head, beating his drum, while Bugs, in his minuteman hat, plays fife, for a “Spirit of ‘76″ iris out.
Hysterical History (Paramount/Famous, Kartune, 1/23/53 – I. Sparber, dir.), a “follow the bouncing ball” sing along, nearly bypasses the American Revolution altogether, featuring only a brief gag on Ben Franklin and his kite. Ben waits as lightning flashes in the sky once – twice – but nothing happens to his kite and key. “Bah! My experiment is a failure”, he complains, as he breaks the string, and uses the key to attempt to open his front door. Now lightning chooses to be attracted, and Ben, with his hand still on the key, is transformed into a giant incandescent light bulb.
Ben and Me (Disney/RKO (featurette), 11/10/53 – Hamilton Luske, dir.), presents Disney’s retelling of the tale of Ben Franklin. A sterling voice cast includes Charlie Ruggles as Franklin, Sterling Holloway as Amos Mouse, Hans Conreid as Thomas Jefferson, and Bill Thompson as other incidental voices. The plot, however, while colorful and atmospheric, giving the Disney artists a chance to illustrate as they do best, always struck me as a little too far off base. The concept of a “mouse behind the man”, providing unknown assistance to his accomplishments, was a solid one, and a similar idea would be played to advantage several years later in the “unsung hero” angle of Terrytoons’ Hector Heathcote series, to be discussed later in these articles. Yet, storyman Bill Peet seems to take the idea in the wrong direction, placing all the creativity in the mind of Amos Mouse, and belittling the memory of Franklin by portraying him as more or less a befuddled fool. I always felt the portrayal disrespectful, and thought that if the script had been better tailored to have Amos contribute to rather than claim sole credit for Franklin’s inventions and accomplishments, the film would have been much more palatable. Nevertheless, the film’s effortlessly-smooth animation gained it an Oscar nomination, but not a statue.
Amos Mouse, eldest of a massive family of poverty-stricken church mice, decides to set out into the world in search of work, leaving “one less mouse to feed”. After failing to find apprenticeships available, he holes up for the night in the last business in town – Ben Franklin’s print shop. There, Franklin shivers by the light of a single candle, trying to finish an edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac. Creditors pound at the door, claiming they’ll foreclose if he doesn’t pay his debts in 24 hours. To top things off, Franklin is so startled when Amos introduces himself that he breaks his last pair of glasses. Amos quickly goes about setting things right. To make Franklin’s workplace livable, he suggests moving the fire from a distant wall to the middle of the room, by encasing it in something metal – birth of the Franklin stove. Amos takes two broken pairs of Franklin’s glasses and slips two lens-halves into each eye frame – bifocals. And as for Franklin’s paper, Amos suggests scouting up real news stories (by way of himself as a reporter), and changing the paper’s name to something snappy like the Philadelphia Gazette. Of course, everything works perfectly, and Franklin is soon out of debt. Perhaps the highlight of the film is an elaborate sequence of the paper going to press, with Amos hopping every which way to provide the typeset for the pressing plates, and rolling ink over them, all the while dodging the press mechanism that frequently threatens to crush him. Amos becomes Franklin’s hidden advisor, hiding inside Franklin’s hat. Franklin’s “tinkering”, however, gets carried too far, as he tricks Amos into a kite ride for a firsthand observation of Franklin’s secret experiment to channel electricity. While Amos thinks he is merely the first airborne reporter, lightning strikes, and in another elaborate sequence, the kite and Amos are blasted out of the skies. Franklin lifts the battered Amos from the wreckage, and asks, “Was it electricity?” Amos replies, “WAS IT ELECTRICITY?????”, with current shooting out in bright sparks from his mouth. Amos quits on the spot, walking off amidst several puddles, each resulting in additional electric shocks which light Amos up as he departs.
Time passes. The revolution looms, as Franklin’s mission to petition the king for redress proves a fruitless failure. Amos has returned to his family in the church, but awakens one night to hear Franklin calling for him, and is begged by Franklin to return in this hour of need. Amos holds onto his pride, but finally relents with the inquiry, “On my terms?” “Yes, yes anything”, replies Franklin. Amos insists on a written contract, and draws up a document to present to Franklin for signature in the morning. As Amos presents Franklin with the contract, Thomas Jefferson enters Franklin’s shop, seeking advice. He is working on the Declaration of Independence, but is absolutely stuck for the Preamble. Amos whispers to Franklin, “What about my contract?”, and Franklin briefly turns his attentions away from Jefferson to read aloud the first few passages of the miniature contract. Jefferson overhears the words, and shouts, “That’s it!” He begins dictating the Preamble, using Amos’s phrasing. As he continues, Franklin follows along in amazement by reading Amos’s contract, which matches Jefferson’s language word for word. The film ends with Jefferson concluding the Declaration before the Continental Congress, with Franklin (and Amos in his pocket) in attendance. The entire film is book-ended by tour guides instructing modern-day children before a park statue of Benjamin Franklin. While a human tour guide credits Franklin’s accomplishments, a tour group of mice in the statue’s hat salutes a small hidden figure of Amos Mouse as deserving the real credit as a great American.
Yankee Doodle Bugs (Warner, Bugs Bunny, 4/28/54 – I. (Friz) Freleng, dir.), reunites Bugs with his infrequently-seen nephew Clyde (previously introduced in “His Hare-Raising Tale” (1951)). Clyde is driving himself crazy trying to remember dates and events for a history exam, and Bugs offers to help. “Do you know American history?” asks Clyde. “Why we rabbits have made American history”, boasts Bugs. His account of historical doings begins with the purchase of Manhattan for a song – literally, then shifts to colonial times. Ben Franklin again flies his kite, asking Bugs to tend it while he turns out the first edition of Ye Saturday Evening Post. Lightning strikes, and Bugs flashes brightly on and off like a neon sign. Carrying him, Ben excitedly shouts, “I’ve discovered electricity! I’ve discovered electricity!” “Heh. HE discovered electricity,” grumbles Bugs. The king of England makes a surprise visit to the Boston tea warehouses, spreading a box of carpet tacks over the tea shipment, declaring, “They’re tea tacks now!” The irate populace organizes an army – by WWII conscription methods, drawing draft numbers from a goldfish bowl, with GeorgeWashington the first draftee. He tells Martha Washington she’ll have to run the candy stores alone while he’s off to fight the war (a reference to a then-popular brand of candy stores – Martha Washington). Designs are kicked around for a flag (with an original one from Freleng depicting a tic-tac-toe game). Bugs stops in at Betsy Ross’s (a cameo for Granny), passing a sign at the entrance reading “Watch your step. George Washington slipped here” – a backhanded pun reference to the studio’s Jack Benny feature, “George Washingto Slept Here”. Bugs thinks Betsy’s presently plain “blue field” in the flag’s corner needs something to liven it up.
Pacing back and forth in thought across her yard, Bugs steps on a rake, which smacks him in the head with its handle. A circle of stars spirals around Bugs’s head, and he reacts, “Het Betsy, does this give you an idea?” Of course, it provides the needed zing for the flag’s corner. Bunker Hill is portrayed in terms that make Pickett’s Charge seem promising by comparison. The British march up the hill, face to face with a cannon – get blasted, and march back again without firing a shot. Valley Forge is presented in all its starkness, with the soldiers turning blue because their inferior electric blankets are tattered and full of shorts. A Good Rumor ice cream man picks this as the most unlikely of routes for his truck, and the soldiers fire on the vehicle, filling it with holes like Swiss cheese and making its music box play decidedly out of tune. The enemy fleet is eventually bottled up in the harbor – each frigate encased in a giant bottle like a ship model. Washington crosses the Delaware, with Bugs at the stern steering an outboard motor. Time for lessons is over, as the school bell is heard, bringing the scene back to the present. Telling Clyde to “hop along, Cassidy”, Bugs sends him off for his exam. A few hours later, Clyde appears at Bugs’ door, with a glare that communicates anything but happiness. “How did you make out in your history lesson?”, Bugs asks. After a silence, Clyde pulls out and places on his head a dunce cap. “Does this answer your question?”, he snarls for the iris out.
Red, White, and Boo (Paramount/Famous, Casper, 10/21/55 – I. Sparber, dir.), provides Casper with a chance to blast through the past, courtesy of a university professor’s experimental time machine. Of course, the Professor gets frightened away, blasting off like a rocket ship into space, leaving Casper to man (or is it ghost) the controls himself. The device has a pointer wheel which spins like a wheel of fortune, landing on various years or eras. Pull a switch, and the past appears on a screen. Using his ghostly powers, Casper is able to fly right into the screen and witness history firsthand. After ventures to the stone age, and an encounter with Robert Fulton, fail to win Casper a friend, he tries out the year 1775. Paul Revere is just exiting his silversmith shop, urging his horse to take speed to warn of the redcoats – but the stubborn beast will not move. All it takes is a jump-start from the fright of the appearance of Casper – and horse and rider break land speed records in reaching the villages and farms. General Washington and his longboat are stuck between ice floes on the Delaware – but the sight of Casper causes the rowers to bust through the frozen obstacles as if piloting an ice-breaker, with Washington maintaining his gallant pose in the bow. Finally, a militia of redcoats is broken up by Casper’s simple inquiry, “What’s all the shooting for?” The revolutionaries hail him as a hero, and the final shot has Casper assuming the role of drummer in the “Sprit of ‘76″ fife and drum corps.
International Woodpecker (Lantz/Universal, Woody Woodpecker, 7/1/57 – Paul J. Smith, dir.) – Woody tells Knothead and Splinter the role that woodpeckers have played in history since the beginning of time. Several spot gags occur during the revolutionary days. Woody’s ancestor meets George Washington while pecking on a cherry tree on Washington’s estate. The young Washington tosses a hatchet at him, cutting the tree down while at the same time giving Woody a butch haircut. ‘Fessing up to his father, George says, “I cannot tell a lie. He made me do it!” In later years, Woody accompanies George in “yachting” trips across the Delaware. Getting bored, Woody pecks a hole in one of the floorboards of the rowboat, causing a stream of water to jet into the boat. A final shot of the sequence shows the boat submerged entirely, with only the patriots’ hats visible above the water. Finally, Woody’s ancestor plays his part in the signing of the Declaration of Independence, while working as a scriviner at a writing desk. A human hand reaches into the shot and plucks one of Woody’s tail feathers, which John Hancock uses as the quill for signing of the Declaration.
Next week’s continuation of our historical journey may cause you to wait a minute – or maybe, a minute and a half!