Sunday, October 18, 2015

Witch Hazel

Animation Nation

By Steve Herte

Bewitched Bunny (WB, 1954) – Director: Charles M. Jones. Writer: Michael Maltese (story). Voices: Mel Blanc & Bea Benaderet. Color, 7 minutes.

Broom-Stick Bunny (WB, 1956) – Director: Charles M. Jones. Writer: Tedd Pierce (story). Voices: Mel Blanc & June Foray. Color, 7 minutes.

A Witch’s Tangled Hare (WB, 1959) – Director: Abe Levitow. Writer: Michael Maltese (story). Voices: Mel Blanc & June Foray. Color, 6 minutes.

Halloween. In my early years, it was one night I looked forward to, planned what costume I would wear for and hoped for cool, but not rainy, weather. Getting together with friends and visiting house after house for who-knows-what goodies was great fun. And ... back when it was safe to go out after dark without a parental escort. The worst that would happen is you came home chalky or streaked with lipstick.

Ghosts, goblins, vampires and witches, and things that go bump in the night were always stars in my favorite stories in books and on film. The scarier the movie, the more I liked it. Now, with the advanced stage of computer graphics, horror can be (and is) taken to the give-you-a-heart-attack level, which makes me a little wary of spooky films today.

But Warner Brothers cartoons took those same creatures of the night and made them funny and memorable characters. Remember Gossamer, the red-haired monster in Hair Raising Hare (1946)? How about the Mr. Hyde creature that terrorized Bugs in Hyde and Hare (1955)? One of my all-time favorites was Witch Hazel, who appeared in three cartoons: Bewitched Bunny (1954), Broom-Stick Bunny (1956) and A Witch’s Tangled Hare (1959). Bea Benaderet provided Hazel’s voice in the first and June Foray brought the character to her place in my heart in the other two cartoons.

In the late ‘40s into the early ‘50s, the animators for Warner were looking for a new enemy for their most popular character, Bugs Bunny. Until that moment, Elmer Fudd had been the most popular of Bugs’ foes, but they realized there were just so many takes on stories revolving around the two. Friz Freleng’s unit came up with Yosemite Sam (said to have been modeled on Friz himself), who became very popular with audiences. Robert McKimson’s unit developed one of the studio’s most popular characters in the Tasmanian Devil.

Chuck Jones’ unit, for its part, experimented with several characters, each of which faced Bugs in a few cartoons, but none of which became a long-term answer. The most popular of those characters were Marvin the Martian and Witch Hazel. Witch Hazel appeared in three cartoons with Bugs, beginning in 1954 with Bewitched Bunny. The ‘toon proved so popular with audiences that she was brought back in 1956 by Jones. The final Witch Hazel cartoon from Jones’ unit was made in 1959 with veteran animator Abe Levitow taking up the director’s chores. It’s unclear whether Jones was ill during the shooting or simply wasn’t interested, or perhaps it was intended on Jones’ part to give Levitow directorial experience.

The character’s name, Witch Hazel, is a takeoff on the name of a North American shrub and the astringent made from it. Other studios have also had a character with the same name. In 1952, Witch Hazel appeared in Disney’s Donald Duck cartoon, Trick or Treat, where she helped Huey, Dewey and Louis get candy from Uncle Donald. Ironically, Foray provided her voice. Her appearance is very different from the Warner Bros. cartoons: short with a warty chin, large red nose, green eyes, traditional witch’s outfit, long blonde (sometimes grey) hair, and as tall, black hat. She is also far more benevolent that the Warner version. After the cartoon appeared, she was relegated to Disney comic books.

The character also appeared for Famous Studios (Paramount) and MGM, though not as a starring or co-starring character. Independent Rembrandt Studios had a character called “Hazel Witch.”

But no one used her like Jones did. He admitted in an interview that he got the idea for the character from Disney’s cartoon, but he thought he could improve on it by making her a villain and teaming her with Bugs. Despite the common name, Jones' conception of Witch Hazel differs greatly from the witch appearing in the Disney cartoon. Jones’ witch is much more stylized, with a rotund, green-skinned body wrapped in plain, blue dress and supported by twig-like legs. She also has wild black hair, out of which hairpins fly, spinning in midair whenever she zooms off on her broom or cackles in glee over her next evil scheme. Her crumpled hat looks as though it had been through one too many campaigns. Her nose and chin jut out from her face, as she sports only a single tooth. And she's far more villainous than Disney's witch, who was benign.

In Bewitched Bunny, the first of the series, Hazel is the witch in the classic tale Hansel and Gretel. She has lured a boy and a girl into her house to eat them, looking up recipes like "Waif Waffles" or "Moppet Muffins." Bugs Bunny is reading the classic fairy tale, and happens by just as she’s luring the two greedy children into her cottage singing, “Let’s go eat the goodies.” Bugs gives the audience a Superman-like, “This looks like a job for…” and dons a disguise as a truant officer. He finds the two porcine urchins already in a covered pot wolfing down ice cream. Learning their names Bugs puts two and two together and advises them to run for their lives. But before they do they stop in front of Hazel saying in a thick German accent, “Ach, your mother rides a vacuum cleaner.” (I told you they were urchins, right?)

Unfazed by this sudden change of events, Hazel realizes Bugs is a rabbit. She quickly switches her menu to rabbit stew and the chase begins. Hazel makes sure the audience knows she’s a lady of quality by riding her broom sidesaddle. Tiring of the chase, she fills a carrot with poisoned brew and dangles it in front of Bugs, who can’t resist and chows down. He passes out after a hilarious gagging scene and into the pot he goes.

While Hazel goes to her root cellar, a character resembling Prince Charming makes a dramatic entrance and kisses Bugs’ hand, bringing him out of the spell. Bugs wakes up and says: “You’re looking for Snow White, this is the story of Hansel and Gretel.” The Prince leaves, confused over how Bugs pronounced the name “Hansel.” The chase is on again. Our Hero attempts an escape down a hallway, but Hazel has him trapped. He passes an emergency box on the wall and notices a vase of her magic powder on a shelf bearing the sign “In Case of Emergency.” He breaks the glass, and throws the vase at Hazel, instantly transforming her into beautiful female rabbit with a soft and sexy feminine voice, albeit with Hazel‘s laugh. She’s more enticing than a carrot to Bugs. As they walk off he remarks to the audience, "Ah sure, I know. But aren't they all witches inside?"

Yikes! You can’t say that today. The cartoon caused controversy in Canada over the last line, the complainers averring that the lines made Bugs into a misogynist. It was also edited out of commercial showings in the United States and replaced with the line: "Sure uh, I know. But after all, who wants to be alone on Halloween?" However, the original version has been aired in Canada as recently as this year on the Canadian cable channel Teletoon Retro.

As drawn by Jones and company, Witch Hazel is quite jovial in her villainy, with a strong sense of humor. During the cartoon, she frequently says things that cause her to break into hysterical, cackling laughter. She can also laugh at herself when she blunders. During one sequence when she mounts her broom, it goes backwards and she crashes into a wall. She looks at the audience and says with a smile, "Oh, we women drivers... I had the silly thing in reverse!" Jones wanted Foray to voice Witch Hazel, as he loved her voice of the Disney Witch Hazel, but she was contracted to Disney at the time, which led him to cast Warner contract player Benaderet.

Broom-Stick Bunny opens on Halloween night. Witch Hazel is preparing a batch of witch’s brew while singing her own words to the old standard, “A Cup of Coffee, A Sandwich and You.” In her case, they come out as, “A cup of arsenic, a spider, some glue.” She pauses at her magic mirror, asking it who's the ugliest one of all. The genie in the mirror (something of a takeoff on Rex Ingram, who famously portrayed the genie in 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad) replies that she, Witch Hazel, is the ugliest one of all.  Hazel turns to the audience and explains that she “deathly afraid” of growing prettier as she gets older, a statement she concludes with a laugh. 

She returns to mixing the potion in her bubbling cauldron, but finds herself missing one ingredient, when the doorbell rings. It’s Bugs Bunny dressed as a witch for Halloween, his face hidden by an ugly green mask. She howls, “DARLING!” and drags Bugs to the table for some tea, hoping to “worm all of your ugly secrets” out of him. “Funny,” she notes, “I don’t remember seeing her at any of the union meetings.” Realizing how ugly the creature is, in a pique of vanity she consults her magic mirror, which confirms, “that creep is uglier far than thou!” Whoops! Can’t allow that. After she leaves, Bugs turns to the audience. “She isn't pretty now, but she was someone's baby once,” he says.

Witch Hazel makes a tea brewed with an assortment of beauty enhancers to make this new witch a pretty one, and grows impatient when she won’t drink it. When Bugs takes off the mask, revealing that he’s really a rabbit, Hazel flashes out of the room to her recipe book, where it reads, “a rabbit’s clavicle.” It’s the last ingredient she needs for her brew.

Innate fear is rising in Bugs as he starts to leave, when Hazel zips back in with a cleaver behind her back. And the chase is on. Hazel chooses the wrong broom from the broom closet and chuckles at her mistake in trying to ride her “sweeping broom.” (“Crazy me, that was my sweeping broom!”) “Dat old babe means to do me serious hurt!” Bugs gasps, as a carrot on a fishing line appears behind him. Hazel reels him in and ties him up head to toe.

Back at her cauldron, Hazel prepares to kill Bugs and use him in her brew. But as she’s about to bring the cleaver down on his head, Bugs gives her his patented big tear-filled eyes routine in an attempt to win her sympathy. Bugs’ routine catches Hazel off guard and she breaks down in a torrent of tears, claiming he reminds her of Paul, her pet tarantula. Bugs, still hog-tied, tries to calm her down. He brings her the cup of “tea” clenched in his teeth, walking on tip-toe. She guzzles it down and becomes beautiful, instantly changing into a slender and curvaceous redheaded beauty wrapped in a tight teal-colored dress that exposes her finely shaped legs and the top of her cleavage as music director Milt Franklyn strikes up “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” in the background. (Her new look was based on Foray, even copying her hairstyle.) Shocked, she runs to her mirror and asks in a new softer, sexier tone of voice whether she’s still “the ugliest of them all.” The genie immediately becomes enamored of her, making Bob Hope type lecherous guttural noises and trying to grab her. Hazel then flees on her broomstick, with the genie on a flying carpet closely in pursuit.  

Bugs, still at Hazel’s house, looks at the two flying in the sky, silhouetted by the moon and makes a call to the local air raid headquarters, telling them, “You’re not going to believe me, but I just saw a genie with light brown hair chasing a flying sorceress.”

Critics and historians alike have cited Broom-Stick Bunny as the funniest of Jones’ Witch Hazel cartoons, praising the film's witty dialogue, written by Tedd Pierce. The cartoon contains hysterical lines, such as such as Hazel's asking the costumed Bugs, "Tell me, who undoes your hair?" He replies, "Do you like it?" and her response is a gleeful "Like it? Why, it's absolutely hideous!” Later, when she leaves the room to prepare the beauty tea, she tells him, "Make yourself homely!"

Philip DeGuard’s backgrounds and Ernie Nordli’s (who came over to Jones’s unit from Disney) layouts remind me of those pioneered by UPA Studios in the early ‘50s. The minimalist, expressionistic backgrounds help the audience not only focus on the characters but add a bit of other worldly-ness to the proceedings.

The feather-in-the-cap for Jones for this cartoon was in wooing Foray away from Disney and signing her to Warner Brothers. When first informed of the carton, Foray expressed reservations about Jones “stealing” a character from Disney, but, as Jones well knew, the fact that “witch hazel” was long ago established as the name of an astringent rub prevented Disney from establishing any ownership. And when Foray first saw the depiction of Witch Hazel and read the script, she knew this character was as far removed from Disney’s character as an apple from as orange.

In a 1989 interview with writer/historian Michael Mallory for Animation Magazine (, Foray speaks of her experience:

My agent called me and said, ‘You’ve never worked at Warner Bros. before.’ And I was just getting my feet wet (in animation), I really didn’t know too much about Bugs Bunny, or all that had gone on before. So in 1954, Chuck called my agent and said, ‘I’d like to hire June Foray,’ and I did Witch Hazel over there, you know, with the hairpins flying, and who had a pet tarantula named Paul. He named her ‘Witch Hazel’ too, and Disney of course was unable to sue because Witch Hazel had been copyrighted by some alcohol company. They couldn’t do anything about it. Chuck Jones fell in love with Witch Hazel.”

A Witch’s Tangled Hare is the last made by Jones’ unit. As the cartoon opens, we see a character that looks like William Shakespeare on the scene with pen and scroll at the ready, pausing at the castle Macbeth (clearly labeled on the mailbox in front of the castle). We then see Hazel quoting, “Double, double, toil and trouble...” and the Shakespeare character scribbles frantically. Hazel lifts a platter dome to reveal a sleeping Bugs Bunny. She awakens him and he flatters her by calling her Zsa Zsa. He sees the boiling kettle and, thinking it’s a bath, gets in.

Immediately, Bugs reprises similar scenes from Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt (Freling, 1941) and Wackiki Wabbit (Jones, 1943) where he’s in the same situation and comments on how good it smells (in this case until he looks at cook book and realizes he’s the main ingredient). Hazel chases him once again with a cleaver (her kitchen tool of choice), then goes to mount her broom, but her bloomers show. She covers up and comments to the audience about her modesty being one of her girlish qualities.

When Hazel catches up to Bugs, she cackles and Bugs imitates her laugh. She laughs again and he goes through a ridiculous, exaggerated laugh with crazy bodily contortions and retorts, “Top that, Lollobrigida!” This cartoon has everything. Bugs even hands Hazel an anvil from one of the turrets to foil her broom riding. The highlight, though, is a parody of Romeo and Juliet. Hazel stands on a balcony and shouts, “Romeo,  Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” (with the Shakespeare character scribbling furiously) “I art down here.” “Why don’t thou come up here?” “I art shy. Why don’t YOU come down here? I’ll catch you.” (You just know Bugs doesn’t mean that.) Hazel lands on the ground with a thunderous crash. (Continuity mistake: When Witch Hazel is chasing Bugs Bunny up the castle tower, Bugs throws a stone through the window before Hazel appears from behind the curtains. When we see Bugs dressed up as Romeo, the glass panes disappear. When we see Hazel dressed up as Juliet, they are back.)

The final chase leads Bugs to the Shakespeare character. He is sitting and moaning that he'll never be a writer. When Bugs praises him as being William Shakespeare, he denies it. “I’m Sam Crubish!” Hazel recognizes him from her past. “Yes, I waited outside apartment 2-B for you.” “But I didn’t say 2-B,” Hazel protests. As Sam and Hazel walk off together, Bugs picks up the perfect last line, “2-B or not 2-B, that is the question!”

As mentioned above, Jones turned over the director’s reins to Levitow, who does an excellent job with the story by Michael Maltese. Mel Blanc voices Bugs, while Foray once again provides the voice of Witch Hazel. The carton is very funny, with several references to plays by William Shakespeare: HamletMacbethRomeo and Juliet, and As You Like It.

Other Appearances

In Chuck Jones’ 1963 Merrie Melodies short Transylvania 6-5000, Witch Hazel makes a very brief cameo appearance as Bugs transforms the cartoon’s vampire villain, Count Bloodcount, into Witch Hazel by chanting a magic spell.

When Warner Bros. shut down its animation studio in 1963, production of Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes shorts was contracted out to Freling’s DePatie-Freling Enterprises, who produced animated shorts from 1964 to 1967, when Warner Bros. again resumed production, finally closing for good in 1969. Director Robert McKimson made her one of the stars of his 1966 cartoon A-Haunting We Will Go, with Daffy Duck and Speedy Gonzales, which borrows several elements from previous Warner cartoons.

It’s Halloween, and this time around Daffy Duck's nephew (essentially a pint-sized version of Daffy) goes trick-and-treating as a witch, in the same outfit that Bugs Bunny wore in Broom-Stick Bunny. He visits Witch Hazel's house, and after seeing her hideous face (her skin is more a yellowish than green), he runs home screaming. At home, Daffy's nephew tries to tell his uncle that he saw a witch, but Daffy is unimpressed, explaining that Daffy "there is no such thing as a witch, and that she's just a poor old lady trying to get along." He tells him that he will prove it by meeting Witch Hazel himself.

We cut to Witch Hazel's home, where she’s complaining that "all she does is work in front of a hot stove making potions." She concludes she needs a vacation, but, before going, she must find someone to take her place. At this point, Speedy Gonzales knocks on her door asking for a cup of cheese. Hazel complains, but soon gets an idea, grabbing a special piece of cheese and feeding it to Speedy. This causes Speedy to turn into an identical copy of Witch Hazel. The real Witch Hazel asks Speedy if he can act like her. Speedy (who takes this all quite calmly) says okay and runs around the house yelling his usual "Ándale, ándale, arriba, arriba, arriba, epa, epa." Witch Hazel notes that he still acts like himself, but it will have to do. She takes off to Hawaii, leaving Speedy in charge of the shop.

Soon Daffy comes over and Speedy welcomes him in, offering him a cup of tea. As Speedy goes off to make the tea, Daffy begins to get a little frightened. He tries to reassure himself by stating "She can be somebody's mother, or father, or something." Witch Speedy gives Daffy the tea, which turns him into the flower creature from Duck Amuck.

Hazel, returning from Hawaii, sees what Speedy has done and turns him back into a mouse. Spotting Daffy, she gets in the mood for a duck dinner and returns Daffy to his old self. Daffy immediately runs away, but Hazel catches him on a broom. Daffy jumps off her broom and parachutes down, but Hazel turns the parachute turns into an anvil. Witch Hazel laughs so hard at what she’s done she fails to see where she’s going and runs into a rock.

Down on the ground, another witch scares Daffy, but this turns out to be his nephew in his witch disguise. His nephew asks him if he saw the witch, but Daffy just tells him, "She's just some creepy old lady trying to scare people, and that witchcraft is just a myth, an old superstition." On the way home, Daffy turns back into the flower creature, unbeknownst to his nephew.

Witch Hazel has also appeared in cameos in various Warner Bros. productions, such as the 1966 movie, Space Jam, and the video games Bugs Bunny: Lost in Time (in which she appears as a boss and also appears on the cover of the game) and Looney Tunes Collector: Alert! (2000). She has also appeared in one episode each of Animaniacs (in a Rita and Runt episode), The Sylvester and Tweety MysteriesPinky and the BrainTiny Toon Adventures, and Duck Dodgers (which not only alludes to Broom-Stick Bunny, but also brings back Foray to do her voice).

In 2011, she evolved into Witch Lezah (Hazel spelled backwards) in The Looney Tunes Show, and was voiced by Roz Ryan, but she was never quite the same wacky character she was before. Sometimes change is not good.

Witch Hazel is one of my favorite Chuck Jones creations. She’s incredibly vain, completely at home with the audience (she breaks through the fourth wall in every cartoon), and consistently funny. I love how her scene exits in Broom-Stick Bunny always end in a flurry of hairpins, a masterful Jones addition. She’s a great foil for Bugs Bunny. Even though she may want to cook and eat him or just needs an essential part of his body for another potion, he’s still able to distract her by playing on her femininity. She’s all witch, but at the same time, she’s all woman, and vulnerable to flattery and sentiment. She can be fierce, or she can be tender. And, similar to Steve Allen, she enjoys her own jokes enormously. “That’s sharp enough to split a hair…Split a hare!” (gales of cackling laughter). But whatever mood she’s in, she’s a great, funny character.

I still like Halloween. I still love costumes, but I don’t go gallivanting in the dark wearing one – too dangerous. I’ll stick with my cartoons, especially those by Chuck Jones.

Where To Find The Witch Hazel Cartoons

Bewitched BunnyLooney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 5 (audio commentary by Eric Goldberg). Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1.

Broom-Stick BunnyLooney Tunes Golden Collection set, Vol. 2 (audio commentary by June Foray). Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1.

A Witch’s Tangled HareLooney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1.

A-Haunting We Will GoLooney Tunes Golden Collection set, Vol. 4. Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 1.

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