24 Frames: What’s Opera Doc? (Chuck Jones, 1957)
Elmer, the Wabitt-Hunter.
As the critic Daniel Goldmark observes, ‘Simply placing opera into an animated medium is intrinsically humorous, because it violates cultural tradition – we laugh at the juxtaposition of high and low.’ Yet, What’s Opera, Doc? also has a political subtext, one that Walt Disney Productions had seen fit to avoid in 1941, when, with the United States now at war with Germany, it was decided to omit a Valhalla sequence, accompanied by ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’, from Fantasia. Stereotyped ad absurdum, subversive and iconoclastic, Jones’s What’s Opera, Doc? cartoon was intended to signify the triumph of mass taste over elitism, but, more than this, by focusing on Wagner, it also signified the triumph of decent hard-working people who enjoyed simple pleasures, over the arrogant and contemptuous denizens of the citadels of ‘higher purpose’; in short, the victory over Germany in World War II.
Thor: Myth to Marvel (Martin Arnold)
The score for What’s Opera,Doc? uses musical conventions from late nineteenth-century Romantic music and cites melodies from more than a half-dozen different Wagner operas. The screenplay’s rapidly changing plot points embrace a complicated collection of generalizations about opera, specifically those associated with Wagner (mythology, magic, love, and fantastic, otherworldly settings). Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk — the “total artwork,” fusing together and giving equal weight to the poetry, the music, and the staging — is here approached from a modern (or perhaps postmodern) angle. In fact, animation offers the perfect medium for realizing Wagner’s hopes for a Gesamtkunstwerk, since it sets no physical bounds to the animator’s creativity. This cartoon not only represents a total work of art but aspires to sum up the totality of Wagner’s artworks in a single serving. The creators preserved what they perceived as the most important ideas, both musical and dramatic, thereby allowing Jones to take, as he put it, “14 hours of The Ring of the Niebelungen and reduce it to six minutes.”
Despite the fact that he was producing a cartoon, Jones, along with the cartoon’s writer, Michael Maltese, approached Wagner carefully. Jones once explained, “Many cartoons using classical music have failed because they don’t take the music seriously enough. I always felt that Bugs and Elmer were trying to do the opera right.” Jones also told me, “We didn’t want people to laugh at the music, we wanted them to laugh at what was interpreted by Bugs and Elmer… It seemed to me that we were paying great respect to the music itself, but we’re saying that if you put a bunch of clowns in front of it, it will be a lot different.” His sentiment may have been noble, but we will see that What’s Opera, Doc? actually stands as a testament to what Jones believed he knew of Wagner and opera. Dramatically and musically, Jones established a specific set of criteria that he felt needed to be met in order to have a complete opera. He constructed the cartoon out of a hodgepodge of famous tunes with familiar plot devices, taking the most familiar parts from the whole of the composer’s dramatic oeuvre, and poured them into the shell of Wagner’s single most famous work: the Ring cycle.
Tunes for ‘Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon (Daniel Goldmark)