A Magic Helmet of Bleeding Chunks; or, What Bugs and Elmer Owe to Hans Knappertsbusch

Resetting the Boom on Herrs Wagner, Jones, Maltese, Bugs, and Elmer.

The famous animated short What’s Opera, Doc?—the gold standard of Warner Brothers’ animation and my admitted favorite of all time—is conventionally billed as a compact distillation of the entirety of Richard Wagner’s mammoth four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Those familiar with Wagner, however, recognize that it would barely pass as a Reader’s Digest reduction. The only extracts taken from the Ring proper are the “Ride of the Valkyries”from the Ring opera Die Walküre—indelibly transmuted by Elmer Fudd into the battle cry “Kill da wabbit!”—and Siegfried’s horn call from the opera Siegfried—Bugs’s innocuous statement “Oh, mighty hunter of great fighting stock!” These two examples aside, the bulk of the musical material in What’s Opera, Doc? comes from the overtures to Wagner’s earlier stage works Die fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) and Tannhäuser. (Astute listeners will also catch a brief snippet from the overture to Wagner’s Rienzi in a chase sequence.)

The more I got to know Wagner, the more I have wondered why director Chuck Jones, writer Mike Maltese, and music director Milt Franklyn lit upon these specific “bleeding chunks” of the operas as “magic helmet” fodder. Of course, the Holländer and Tannhäuser overtures were (and remain) popular concert and radio fare. They were also familiar objects of appropriation for feature film and animated short musical accompaniment. Director Friz Freleng, one Jones’s colleges at Warners, famously used the Pilgrims’ Chorus from the Tannhäuser overture in an earlier World War Two short, Herr Meets Hare, which pitted Bugs against the corpulent Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering in the Black Forest. After a failed gambit to disguise himself as Hitler, Bugs returns from offscreen dressed in drag as Brünnhilde astride a horse, prompting a corresponding quick change for Goering into Brünnhilde’s paramour Siegfried, complete with pelt and helmet. The version in What’s Opera, Doc? is far more dramatic and lacks the propagandistic bite of Herr Meets Hare. Instead of Wagner’s voluptuous Venusberg music from Tannhäuser in Jones’s iteration, Bugs and Goering traipse about to the saccharine waltz from act 2 of Johann Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus.

In a Zoom panel on What’s Opera, Doc? sponsored by San Francisco Opera earlier this year, Chuck Jones’s grandson Craig Kausen discussed how Jones was an avid operagoer, and I would be curious to know what Wagner he (as well as Maltese) would have seen on the West Coast in the decades leading up to work on the short. A more promising and overlooked clue to the choice of excerpts in What’s Opera, Doc? exists in a famous photograph of Jones and Maltese standing in front of an animation storyboard around the time of production. Each holds an LP case in their hands. Jones has a Wagner release from London Records, while Maltese displays a disc conducted by Felix Weingartner. (In his autobiography, Jones captions the image “Director and writer about to lower the boom on Herr Wagner.”) While I have often seen this photo, I hitherto gave the case covers little attention. Given that the albums were an apparent source of inspiration, exploring their contents in detail illuminates many potent connections between recording history and the short.

Maltese’s disc was part of a collectors’ series released by Columbia Records that reissued earlier recordings by Weingartner, who died in 1942. The Wagner compilation in question carries the Columbia serial number ML 4680 (see the eBay image below for comparison). Performed by the Orchestre de la Société des concerts du Conservatoire Paris and London Philharmonic Orchestra, the selections on the record include the Rhine Journey and Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, the preludes to the third acts of both Tannhäuser and Tristan und Isolde, and the Siegfried Idyll. With the Götterdämmerung selections on this disc, one can discern a listening source Siegfried’s horn call in What’s Opera, Doc?

Turning to Jones’s disc, however, the connections increase. This 1953 release from London Records (serial number LL800, see Amazon image below) features the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Hans Knappertsbusch in three Wagner selections: the Holländer overture, the “Ride of the Valkyries,” and the Tannhäuser overture and Venusberg music. These are the same major excerpts used in What’s Opera, Doc? and in the order in which they appear. While the Warner studio orchestra performed the final score, we can assume that Jones at some point had the Knappertsbusch sound in his mind’s ear. Indeed, when listening to subsequent digital releases of the Knappertsbusch recordings, it is tempting to hear many similarities with the What’s Opera, Doc? soundtrack, particularly the prominence of bass registers in the Holländer overture and the trombone phrasing in the Pilgrims’ Chorus. (One can only conjecture what Knappertsbusch would have made of something like What’s Opera, Doc? I am sure it would have included one of his patented vulgarities.)

These are admittedly analytical straws, but the broader connection between the world of animation with the classical recording industry, which in 1957 was at the start of the stereophonic sound boom, presents a fascinating example of musical exchanges across media. I always state with pride that all the Warner shorts remain the best music appreciation class for which one could ever hope. When combined with the visuals of animation, the quotational gestures in the scores at the time of their premiere arguably imparted a pop-culture sensibility to their classical source music. At the same time, recordings were making much of the classical repertoire available to those consumers without ready access to either an opera house or concert hall. What’s Opera, Doc? shows an instance when the two conjoined to produce one of the most iconic homages of the twentieth century.

Farrago for April 19–April 25

Highlights from the week ahead.

farrago, n. — A confused group; a medley, mixture, hotchpotch.


APRIL 19

1774: Gluck and Roullet’s Iphigénie en Aulide debuts at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in on this date in 1774. The first opera the composer wrote for Paris, its first performance was secured by his former student, France’s future queen Marie Antoinette. Iphigénie marked another step forward in Gluck’s operatic “reforms,” and after revisions the following year, the work remained a repertory staple well into the nineteenth century. Wagner had a particular fondness for it, or rather tinkering with it, and made his own arrangement of the entire work in 1847. Max Reinhardt used Wagner’s arrangement of the overture as the opening incidental music for his first production of Hofmannsthal’s Elektra in 1903.

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“To a new world of gods and monsters!”

1935: Universal Studio’s Bride of Frankenstein debuts in premiere screenings in Chicago and San Francisco. It was also Good Friday that year, appropriate given the film’s delightful subversion of Christian iconography. Picking up where its predecessor left off, Bride followed the most iconic movie monster of all time on the improbable quest for a friend and, ultimately, a mate, inspired by a shorter episode in Shelley’s original novel. There was new territory and new faces all around in this sequel: Karloff’s Monster spoke (against his wishes, but for the character’s benefit), Elsa Lanchester mischievously hissed in a star turn as Mary Godwin (not yet Shelley) and as the Monster’s Bride (a tie for most iconic makeup in movie history), and Ernest Thesiger’s acidic queerness made the skin of witches crawl as Dr. Pretorius. Also romping about is a glorious supporting cast with Colin Clive returning as a chastened Henry Frankenstein, Valerie Hobson as the angelic Elizabeth, the solemn O. P. Heggie as the Hermit, and Una O’Connor running rings around everyone as Minnie the maid. The puppet master was director James Whale, who gave cinema its first (and I think greatest) baroque black comedy, macabre and majestic in the same breath. Beautifully shot and designed, it cannot be bested. A formative film of my queer youth.

For all of James Whale’s irony, he managed in Bride, as in the original Frankenstein, to give the film a truly beating heart. The scene between the Monster and the Hermit is the crux of it all. Read into it what you want, there is no condescension in this sequence, only reverence.

As much as the creation scene in the original film is cinema history, Whale and company went all out for grand operatic effects in the mirroring sequence in the sequel. Kenneth Strickfaden’s original machinery was augmented and deployed in a more dynamic fashion and John Mescall’s cinematography took a more expressionistic edge. Most important of all is Franz Waxman’s score, and his cue “The Creation” is one of the best in the entire film, not least of all for the simple device of a steady timpani beat for most of its duration. While the operative organ in the original Frankenstein laboratory was the brain, the operative organ in Bride is, unsurprisingly, the heart.

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1946: The ever-versatile and always iconic Tim Curry is born in Grappenhall, England.


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1952: The Warner Bros. animated short Water, Water Every Hare debuts. Bugs’s second outing with the Monster later known as Gossamer (here named Rudolph), the short perfects a number of gags from the earlier short Hair-Raising Hare including the castle hallway chase and the queer standard that is the “IN-teresting” hairdresser routine.

APRIL 20

1893: Spanish artist Joan Miró is born in Barcelona.

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1914: Disney Legend Betty Lou Gerson is born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A radio and television fixture, she remains the only Cruella de Vil.

APRIL 21

“Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.”

1838: Father of the National Parks John Muir is born in Dunbar, Scotland.

John Muir, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front LCCN93505505.jpg


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1918: Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 1 in D major debuts in Petrograd under the composer’s direction.

APRIL 22

1912: Contralto Kathleen Ferrier is born in Higher Walton, Lancashire. As the “lone she-wolf,” as she called herself, the contralto catapulted herself from the telephone exchanges of Blackburn to the greatest stages of the world before she succumbed to cancer at the age of 41. Many voices have been called “haunting,” but Ferrier’s is the only one to have a genuine claim to that adjective. Once heard, she cannot be forgotten. If I had to choose a singer for the twentieth century, it’s Klever Kaff.


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1946: The Pope of Trash John Waters is born in Baltimore, Maryland.

APRIL 23

1961: Frances Ethel Gumm proved—no, rather CONFIRMED she was the world’s greatest entertainer.


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1971: The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers is released.

APRIL 24

1931: Universal Studio’s Spanish-language version of Dracula opens in New York City, following releases in Cuba, Spain, and Mexico. Filming full-length versions of major films in foreign languages on night shifts was a regular studio practice before the improvement of dubbing technologies, though sadly few of these versions survive. Happily, this Dracula, starring Carlos Villarías and Lupita Tovar, is an exception since it is a marked improvement on the more familiar Lugosi version, with far more dynamic use of the camera and storytelling.

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1942: Barbra Streisand is born in New York City.

APRIL 25

1917: The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, is born in Newport News, Virginia.


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1918: Singing-actress Göttin Astrid Varnay is born in Stockholm.


Until next week!