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Sunday, January 9, 2022

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #37: What's Opera Doc?, 1957

"Kill da wabbit!!"

What's Opera, Doc? 1957

Director: Chuck Jones
Writer: Story by Michael Maltese
Animators: Ken HarrisRichard ThompsonAbe Levitow
Producer: Edward Selzer for Warner Bros.
Starring: Mel Blanc, Arthur Q. Bryan (voice actors)

Why I chose it
I admit that my ambitious schedule for the posts in this series has slipped (the holidays and all). I even understood, when I picked the film for 1957, that I needed to give myself a break from a two-hour feature film. Luckily, the perfect option appeared: a 6 minute and 36 second animated short that, as an opera fan, I'd heard about most of my adult life. I've never been a fan of animated films, and have not seen very many, which likely makes me an outlier among my classic film-loving tribe. 

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny find themselves facing off in a Wagnerian-style opera where Fudd as Siegfried is initially duped by Bugs disguised as the beautiful Valkyrie Brünnhilde, and he must win "her." Fortunately, he possesses a trusty magic helmet that gives him power over the elements and a chance to "kill da wabbit."

Opening titles

Production Background
Disney Studios found success with animation in the silent film era, which extended into the sound era with iconic characters as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Not to be outdone, Warner Bros., which had effectively launched the commercial sound film revolution, purchased and distributed cartoons developed by the independent Leo Schlesinger Studios, the first to introduce Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd through its Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series. The short cartoon films were produced both in black and white and in color, and the 'wascally wabbit', created by Tex Avery and voiced by Mel Blanc, starred in ~160 of them. These were primarily shown as a bonus prior to a feature film.

Chuck Jones, the director of What's Opera, Doc?, and a long-time affiliate of Warners' animation team, loved to combine his cartoon characters with classical music, and writer Michael Maltese had already introduced a Wagnerian scenario to an earlier cartoon Herr Meets Hare from 1944. The all-Wagner musical arrangements were deftly arranged by Milt Franklyn, and the considerable vocal skills of both Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny) and Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd) were up to the task of singing the "recitatives" and "arias" with perfect nuance. The only time that Bryan yielded to Blanc was when Elmer had to shout SMOG!, and Blanc's version won out.

What's Opera, Doc? was the first animated film selected for the National Film Registry.

M. Maltese sketch for What's Opera Doc?

Some other notable film-related events in 1957 (from

  • The Caribbean romance film Island in the Sun (1957) was noted as groundbreaking in the late 50s for its two inter-racial romances. There was hugging and kissing in the romance between local West Indian dime store clerk (Dorothy Dandridge) and the governor's white aide (John Justin). In another parallel romance, however, there was only the holding of hands between Joan Fontaine as a socialite and Harry Belafonte as a politically-ambitious black union official.
  • The high-grossing teenage-oriented horror film and cult classic from the exploitation studio American-International, I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), starred Michael Landon in a dual role. This rock and roll horror film (the first?) made popular the term "I Was A Teenage..."
  • The famed Universal monster Frankenstein appeared for the first time in color, in UK Hammer Studio's version The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) directed by Terence Fisher, with Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein, and Christopher Lee as the Monster. This monster film, bloodier than its predecessors, marked the advent of a long cycle of the studio's stylistic gothic horror films for the next few decades, with Lee also playing the famed Dracula vampire.
  • Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's allegorical and influential classic art film The Seventh Seal  (aka Det Sjunde Inseglet), the filmmaker's most influential work, told of a symbolic chess game during the time of the Black Plague between black-robed Death (the Grim Reaper) and a 14th-century knight (Max von Sydow). 
My Random Observations
  • At the very beginning of this short, my ears immediately perked up, because the music playing along with the opening credits was that of an orchestra warming up prior to the start of a piece - how perfectly appropriate here. And the little snips of melody that emerge are exaggerated just enough to remind you that you're watching a cartoon opera. When I did a quick search on YouTube, several videos of live orchestral accompaniments to cartoon screenings were returned. I suppose not surprisingly, because live orchestral film accompaniment is popular as entertainment these days.
  • It struck me as a bit odd that while Wagner wrote 17 hours of music for The Ring Cycle, which contains the Siegfried/Brünnhilde story, much of the music comes from his other works, specifically Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman. Yet, it still worked, due to the genius of Milt Franklyn.
  • Many operas have a ballet in the middle, and this one is no exception. (Remember the scene in Amadeus where the Emperor is confronted with the fallout when his own rule to eliminate ballet from opera results in dancers jumping around with no music? It's hilarious). The excellent ballet moves by Elmer and Bugs come to us courtesy of some actual dancers with the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo, who were on set at Warner Bros set for another production and helped Chuck Jones with the sketches for those scenes.
  • While I appreciated the artistry and the love of classical music that clearly shone through (who knew you only need 6+ minutes for an entire opera?), this short alone isn't enough to get me interested in watching more animated films from the classic era. But at least now when someone sings "Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!" to the Ride of the Valkyries tune, I'll be able to smile just a bit more knowingly.

Bugs surprises Elmer hot on the trail.

Bugs as Brunnhilde riding down the mountain, soon to
win Elmer's heart.

"Siegfried" serenades "Brünnhilde" as he approaches her perch.

Elmer's mighty shadow reflects the power of his magic helmet.

Where to Watch
The film is on various DVD collections, and can be currently streamed at

Further Reading
I love this 2007 article in Slant Magazine digging into all the wonders of this little gem of a film. Also, for a bit more on the production, watch this appropriately "short" documentary about the making of What's Opera, Doc? :


  1. I adored your article on this classic.

    When posed with the question, what is your favourite movie from the year you were born, I hover over Old Yeller or 12 Angry Men, but I always settle on What's Opera, Doc?

    1. Really, wow! I'm glad I did your favorite-movie-from-1957 justice (Of course, Old Yeller and 12 Angry Men are not bad, either!). As always, I appreciate you dropping by with your thoughts.