"Frigid Hare" is a Bugs Bunny short released on 4 October 1949. It is not one of the so-called "Banned 11", which were pulled from circulation in 1968, but it is one that was pulled from the air only to resurface in an edited form. Why I chose to look at a cartoon that takes place in the South Pole on a blustery fall morning after a snowstorm the previous night is beyond me. I should have instead reviewed "Bushy Hare", which takes place in sunny Australia.
The short begins with an establishing shot of snow and lots of it. We're obviously in an Arctic or Antarctic area. Then a familiar trail of snow being pushed up is traced on tundra. It stops and a bottle of suntan lotion pops up as are an umbrella, chair, and other items handy for a day on the beach. Bugs pops out clad in his swimming suit and begins running.
He sings about how happy he is to be at Miami Beach and jumps into the water only to jump right back out all blue. Bugs pulls out a map and determines that he took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and ended up in the South Pole. As he's standing there, a small penguin rushes by and knocks him over. As he angrily straightens himself up, an Eskimo whizzes by and knocks him over again. Cursing the man, he returns with spear in hand and mumbles something incomprehensible. Bugs figures out that he is looking for the penguin and sends him off in the wrong direction by saying, "He went that way, Nanook."
The penguin returns looking doleful and Bugs takes this as a plea for attention.
This annoys Bugs as hanging out with the penguin would eat up his vacation time and Warner Brothers doesn't give him a lot. But he eventually agrees to lend a hand. So Bugs takes the little guy to the top of a hill and says, "Ooh! Look at that four-legged aeroplane!" With this bit of misdirection, Bugs kicks the penguin down the hill.
Thinking he was free at last to head out, Bugs then catches a glimpse of the penguin sliding down the hill and into the waiting bag of the Eskimo hunter. This angers our hero.
Bugs comes up with a little subterfuge to rescue the little guy. And, as in many of Bugs' adventures, this involves a bit of cross-dressing.
The Eskimo is struck by love and surrenders the bag holding the penguin to Bugs who surreptitiously opens it up and frees the little guy. The Eskimo offers a large fish as a gift and, when after a kiss reveals the true identity of the lovely maiden, Bugs uses it to smack the guy and escape.
From here, it's a pretty standard Bugs Bunny chase. One funny bit was when they are sliding down a slope lined by crevices. They have to widen their legs in order to avoid them and Bugs' get tied up in a knot.
The pair eventually find themselves at the very tip of a long outcropping of ice. It strains under their weight until it eventually cracks and falls.
Seeing what was happening, the penguin grabs a bucket from nowhere, and fills it up with water. He throws it over the cliff and the water freezes as it makes its way towards Bugs and the Eskimo who are clinging to the large piece of ice. The water magically catches up with them and stops their freefall just above the ground. Bugs hops down and, when the Eskimo does the same, he falls through onto a spout of water from a whale and is carried off into the distance.
Bugs returns to the penguin and prepares to leave. He's still got a few days of vacation left. He's informed that the days in the South Pole are 6 months long and he figures this means he's got a few years of vacation as long as he stays there. And so he joins the penguin beneath the aurora australis.
In 2001, the Cartoon Network planned a "June Bugs" marathon in which every Bugs Bunny short would be shown. However, Warner Brothers asked that 11 shorts be withheld and "Frigid Hare" was one of them. Initially I thought this was due to the portrayal of the Eskimo character as being primitive and backwards. However, "Frigid Hare" resurfaced in 2002 with edits as Wikipedia
explains:On the syndicated Merrie Melodies show, Bugs calling the Inuit hunter an "Eskimo pie-head" was muted out. The cartoon resurfaced on a February 2002 airing of The Looney Tunes Show on Cartoon Network (in an installment showing Chuck Jones cartoons due to his then-recent death), with only one edit: After Bugs finds out from the penguin that the days and nights are six months long in the Antarctic, Bugs’ line about how he won’t have to return to work until July 1953 is edited. When the cartoon aired again on a 2002 June Bugs where all the Bugs Bunny cartoons are shown in alphabetical order, both the 1953 line and the “Eskimo pie-head” line that was cut from the syndicated Merrie Melodies show were edited out of the CN version.
It seems very odd to me that the line about not having to return to work for a few years would be edited out. Exactly what was offensive or harmful about this? That the line "What an Eskimo pie-head" was cut makes more sense. But that the cartoon was aired with a couple relatively minor edits seems to indicate that the portrayal of the Eskimo wasn't deemed offensive in and of itself. As we will see in the coming weeks, portrayals of non-whites who are also not black seem to get a pass or are deemed less offensive. Is this because of something about the cartoons themselves or because there are not large groups of Inuit, Aleuts, or Yupik peoples who watch the Cartoon Network?
The Eskimo in "Frigid Hare" really isn't much different from any other character that would chase after Bugs Bunny. He has the same scowls and bad temperament. It's just that he's an Eskimo. Unlike the treatment accorded black characters shown in previous Looney Toons, there doesn't appear to be much stereotyping here. The Eskimo isn't shown in a racist manner as blacks were using a black-face look. He doesn't have some stereotypically racist preoccupation like gambling that certain shorts used for black characters.
One thing to consider is just how much folks watching "Frigid Hare" know about the lives of Inuits and the other peoples commonly known as Eskimos today, much less in 1949. Probably not a whole helluva lot. I would bet that there are still lots of people in this country that, when they think of Eskimos, think of igloos, hunting with spears, and the like. Yet this is not an accurate picture of these peoples.
At one point Bugs tells the Eskimo, "He went that way, Nanook." No doubt this line would go over the heads of many modern viewers. "Nanook" is a reference to Nanook of the North
, which is considered to be the first feature-length documentary in the history of cinema. Directed by Robert Flaherty and released in 1922, it portrayed the life of an Inuit man and his family. Nanook's real name was Allakariallak and Flaherty is often criticized for the many reenactments and "falsities" in the film. Even in 1921, when the film was shot, the Inuits had abandoned the spear in favor of the gun. Indeed, the point of the film was to capture a vision of the Inuit that existed prior to contact with the white man. By 1949 the Eskimo peoples had had decades of contact with white culture and had certainly adopted some of their technology and their ways & customs as well.
It seems very likely to me that the vast majority of people watching "Frigid Hare" in 1949 got their notions of what the Eskimo peoples were like and how they lived from Nanook of the North
. It was a tremendously popular film and, in those days of the nascent mass media, it seems to be alone in having Eskimos as central figures. Perhaps there were books or periodicals that gave realistic accounts of Eskimo life at the time, but I don't know of them and haven't run into any as I research this cartoon.
So, is "Frigid Hare" racist? That's a tough one. Certainly racist portrayals of Eskimos aren't acceptable just because they don’t form a significant portion of our country's population nor get much media exposure. I think that there are some differences between the character at hand and black characters in other cartoons that are not merely of degree, but of kind, as I explained above. To me, there is a difference between saying that blacks have an inherent affinity for gambling and Eskimos hunt with spears. And just how do you portray Eskimos in a racist light anyway? In my own mind, I'm not sure that "Frigid Hare" does anything to imply that white culture is superior to that of Eskimos. Perhaps it does and I'm missing it. Perhaps other viewers see it unequivocally. And certainly an Eskimo or someone of Eskimo decent might have a completely different take on it.
Today in 2006, women, blacks, and Hispanics dominate the discourse on how minorities are portrayed in our mass media. Still, I'm sure that there is a book or a thesis paper somewhere that details the portrayal of Eskimos. And so, unlike my look at "Uncle Tom's Bungalow"
, I really didn't learn anything much new here. I've seen Nanook of the North
more than once and discussed it in a documentary film course in college. (A brief, but interesting, examination of the film can be found in Erik Barnouw's Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film
However, it did strike me (finally!) just how much the old Looney Toons/Merrie Melodies have in common with current cartoons such as The Simpsons and South Park, particularly the way they reference popular culture and are self-referential. Starting with the latter, Looney Toons characters poke fun at Warner Brothers just as The Simpsons do to Fox. This bit of self-reflexivity is normally thought of as a recent jaunt into post-modern self-conscious irony, but here it is being practiced 60 years ago. And just as The Simpsons constantly poke fun at movies, television shows, etc., so do the Looney Toons refer to works of popular culture from its time. The more I look at these controversial cartoons, the more I see this and learn about the cultural icons of decades ago. I've learned who Stephen Fetchit was and more about Uncle Tom's Cabin
, for example. It's also been interesting to learn that the groundwork for some of today's cartoons was laid decades ago by Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies."Herr Meets Hare""What's Cookin' Doc?""Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears""All This and Rabbit Stew""Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time""Uncle Tom's Bungalow"