Feb 6, 2013

Bugs and Daffy: the Gay Warner Brothers

When I was a kid in the 1960s, I didn't realize that the Warner Brothers cartoons that I was watching on Captain Ernie's Cartoon Showboat were actually produced for theatrical release 30 years before.  But I did notice some substantial differences between them and the Hanna Barbara cartoons that I saw on Saturday mornings, not to mention the Warner Brothers comic books.

There were no same-sex partners like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo, no stable backstories or situations at all. Bugs Bunny might become the antagonist of Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd, or Daffy Duck.  Porky Pig may be paired with Bugs, Daffy, or Sylvester (who could talk or not).

The ambiguity in personalities and relationships led away from homodomestic partnerships to more overt gay subtexts.  Pepe LePew tries to romance a male cat in "For Scent-imental Reasons (1949).  Porky Pig and Daffy Duck share a hotel room in "Pig’s Feat" (1943) When they prepare to leave, they are presented with a bill which includes a service charge for removing “love spots."

Much has been made of Warner Brothers’ characters’ forays into drag.  Sam Abel, for instance, believed that the drag routines of Bugs Bunny and others were "ways of addressing problems of masculine domination" and question gender roles.  But Bugs often kisses a male antagonist full on the lips while they are both men, conventionally dressed.  And he is not alone in the practice:In “The Hair Brained Hypnotist,” Elmer is hypnotized into thinking he is a rabbit, and he kisses Bugs three times.  In “Tortoise Beats Hair,” an early Bugs is kissed by five tortoises simultaneously. We must answer two questions about this practice: what is its purpose in the plot, and why is it funny.

At first glimpse, it seems that the kiss is a form of humiliation: Bugs may kiss Elmer after dropping his pants or turning his gun inside out.  But on other occasions, it seems to be an annoyance. No live-action underdogs engage in this practice.

And in other instances one can't find any rational explanation.  When Bugs wins an Academy Award, he kisses his Oscar statue and says he'll take it to bed with him.  The Oscar says “Do you mean it?” and sashays, pansy-style, while Bugs stares, stunned either by the spectacle of a talking statue or by the same-sex proposition.

Many of the throwaway jokes involve gay sexual innuendo.  A dog pretends that a female-cat hand puppet is a real cat, and while a male cat is making out with the puppet, he reaches down and squeezes the dog’s bulbous nose, in the place where the crotch would be.  “Something new has been added!” he exclaims, a la Jerry Colonna.

In “The Big Snooze,” Elmer decides to tear up his contract and quit the cartoon business. Bug enters Elmer’s dream, strips him naked, ties him to a railroad track, and then puts him in drag.  A group of zoot-suited wolves chase him off a cliff.  He awakens and decides to not quit after all, whereupon Bugs exclaims, a la Beulah, “I love dat man!”

In “Duck Soup to Nuts,” Daffy peers into Porky’s gun and sees a pinup girl.  When Porky looks, he sees Daffy.

Later Daffy puts Porky in drag and turns into a lecherous wolf to chase him.  Then he begs Porky not to shoot him because he has a wife and kids, whom he kisses. But they turn out to be his buddies.

Thee jokes and innuendos suggest an awareness of same-sex potential and even an openness that one doesn't see in the live-action vehicles of the 1940s, and is rare in cartoons today.