Merrie Melodies’ “Prest-O Change-O” (1939) & the evolution of wascally wabbit Bugs Bunny

By on June 4, 2019

In Night Flight’s “Take Off to Slapstick” from our early ’90s syndication era, we found a vintage Merrie Melodies cartoon short, Prest-O Change-O (1939), featuring a very early appearance by “Happy Rabbit” who later evolved into everybody’s favorite smart-ass, Bugs Bunny.

Read more about the evolution of the wascally wabbit below, and watch this fascinating “Take Off” on Night Flight Plus!

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Before we tell you about Prest-O Change-O, we first have to tell you about a couple of previously-released Looney Tunes cartoon shorts, beginning with Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937), directed by the great Tex Avery, who had joined producer Leon Schlesinger’s animation team in 1935.

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Mel Blanc voiced the annoying hyperactive duck named Daffy Duck and also voiced Porky Pig after Porky’s first voice actor, Joe Dougherty, was fired because he couldn’t control his stuttering!

Avery had specific ideas about the way cartoons should be created, and Schlesinger — responsible for creating black & white Looney Tunes and Technicolor-made Merrie Melodies distributed via Warner Brothers — pretty much let him do whatever he wanted.

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Avery set up his studios in a five-room bungalow located at Van Ness and Fernwood, near Sunset Blvd. on Warner Brothers’ studio back lot.

He and his team — which included animator, producer, director and puppeteer Bob Clampett, animator/director Chuck Jones and others — called their new offices “Termite Terrace” because the sparse, run-down offices suffered from a termite infestation.

By the way, filmmaker Joe Dante — along with screenwriter Charles Haas (who’d co-written the screenplay for Over the Edge ) — once developed a screenplay about the 1930s Warner Brothers animators called Termite Terrace.

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Warner Brothers had suggested that for the follow-up to Porky’s Duck Hunt they “dress the duck in a rabbit suit,” and so, faced with encroaching deadlines, Clampett reused some of the jokes he had left over for Porky’s Hare Hunt (1938), attributing them to a wacky white-furred unnamed bunny who started to become known, unofficially, as “Happy Rabbit.”

Directed by Ben “Bugs” Hardaway and an uncredited Cal Dalton, it was virtually a frame-by-frame copy of Porky’s Duck Hunt.

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Bob Clampett

Clampett  has said he was heavily inspired — as was Walt Disney before him — by Spanish Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí.

That might explain why the wacky Happy Rabbit is practically sociopathic, doing over-the-top crazy things like faking his own death.

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Porky’s Hare Hunt

Clampett decided to have Happy Rabbit perpetually chomping down on a carrot after seeing fast-talking Clark Gable snacking on one in Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning 1934 film It Happened One Night.

Even though Mel Blanc did the voice work, once the impish rabbit started speaking, it’s Clampett we hear smacking his lips and chewing the carrot.

Clampett is also credited for having Blanc say a line he “borrowed” from Groucho Marx: “‘Course you know that this means war!”

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Read more about Bugs Bunny and Prest-O Change-O below.

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In 1939, Chuck Jones directed Prest-O Change-O, a cartoon short about a couple of curious puppies who — after ditching a dog catcher— attempt to hide in an abandoned house, which they soon found out belongs to an unseen illusionist (“Sham-Fu”) and is actually occupied by the magician’s pet rabbit, who uses magic to tease and torment them.

Blanc gives the wascally wabbit a moronic, irritating laugh, which was later dropped, only to re-appear again in 1940, when “Bugs” Hardaway — now working for Walter Lantz — gave it to Woody Woodpecker.

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According to IMDB, Prest-O Change-O was animator Rudy Larriva’s first screen credit.

Larriva — from El Paso, Texas, which makes us think he could be a relative of the Plugz’s Tito Larriva — would end up having an incredible career.

In addition to animating cartoons for both Warner Brothers and UPA (including “Mr.Magoo”), he designed the opening credits for the first season of “The Twilight Zone” (1959-60) and directed a series of eleven Road Runner shorts for Burbank-based DePatie–Freleng Enterprises in 1965.

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Rudy Larriva

This screwball, slapstick-infused cartoon must have really surprised theater audiences when it was first screened on March 25, 1939.

Suddenly, everyone wanted to see the manic rabbit who was acting so crazy he made everyone forget their troubles (Americans in the 1930s had a lot of things troubling them).

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A Wild Hare

The wascally wabbit continued to evolve, and in 1939’s Hare-um Scare-um (directed by Hardaway and Dalton), he wasn’t white anymore, and he’d grown taller.

In Tex Avery’s Oscar-nominated masterpiece, A Wild Hare (1940), Happy Rabbit begun to finally morph into the unflappable big-eared hare we all know and love, infuriating and exasperating his nemesis, hapless hunter Elmer Fudd.

Premiering on July 27, 1940, theater audiences doubled over in great howls of laughter when he spoke for the very first time… “Eh…. what’s up, Doc?” (which quickly became his catch phrase).

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Avery had wanted to name him “Jack E. Rabbit,” which was vetoed, and then someone else suggested “Bugsy” (after West Coast crime-lord Bugsy Siegel) but Schlesinger didn’t like the idea of naming him after a gangster.

At the suggestion of Schlesinger’s public relations gal, Rose Horsely, he was finally named Bugs Bunny.

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Chuck Jones

Avery and Schlesinger eventually butted heads over the original ending to The Heckling Hare (1940), which led to Avery leaving Warner Brothers for MGM.

Responsibility for Bugs Bunny then fell to Chuck Jones (check out this 1998 interview) and he also soon began showing up in the U.S. Army’s “Private Snafu” shorts too, which we told you about here.

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Watch Night Flight’s “Take Off to Slapstick” — featuring classic cinematic scenes featuring Charlie Chaplin, W.C Fields, the Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis (in drag) and more — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.