The Heckling Hare Problem

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the story about how Tex Avery’s The Heckling Hare was censored before it was released. The version that has survived for the past 71 (!) years ends abruptly, as seen in the embedded version below.

We know the cut was made. Now here’s where the excrement really hits the fan: what exactly was cut, and why was it cut?

The wild speculation in animation circles is eternal, even when hard evidence turns up. The only seemingly credible story, relayed to historian and Avery biographer Joe Adamson by Avery himself, is that Bugs and Willoughby were supposed to take a second fall. Bugs says, “Hold on to your hats, folks, here we go again!” as the cartoon finishes. The problem, Avery said, was that the “Hold onto your hats” line was connected to a well-known dirty joke at the time, and that’s why the ending had to be cut.

Rumors persist that this censorship was the reason Avery left Schlesinger’s, no doubt originally instigated by a July 2, 1941 Hollywood Reporter article stating as much. It wasn’t. Avery wanted to do a series of live-action shorts, in which animals made wisecracks through animated mouths, and Schlesinger didn’t. Avery ended up at Paramount for a short period in the summer of 1941, involved with the woeful Speaking of the Animals series. Fortunately for mankind, Avery was at MGM making animated cartoons again by September 1941.

All of this was laid out for us by Michael Barrier in Hollywood Cartoons thirteen years ago. But what’s this got to do with The Heckling Hare? Well, there is a footnote, on page 609, where he gives information taken from a dialogue transcript written and copyrighted at the time the cartoon was made. I quote from that endnote:

A dialogue transcription [...] indicates that Bugs and the dog originally took two more long falls after the first one, with the cartoon finally coming to an end during the third fall. If Schlesinger did order the cut, he was not acting arbitrarily.

That satisfied my curiosity over how The Heckling Hare originally ended. I’ve read literally hundreds of documents like the one he described. They weren’t written by fanbois, but by clerks whose job was to type up a literal transcription of what was happening onscreen in a particular film that had been registered for copyright. Sometimes they were devoid of detail. Often, they just transcribed what was being said by the characters (as is the case with most of the Paramount cartoon synopses I’ve seen). On the other hand, MGM must have had a really ambitious friend, as their cartoons have the most detailed of all copyright synopses.

The goal now is to find an actual print of that version of The Heckling Hare.

But wait… It didn’t end there! No, doubt still persists. Barrier is wrong, and Avery’s recollection must be taken as law. Barrier must have misread that dialogue transcript. And how does he know what that document actually is?

Well, fortunately, Mike took the time to defend himself (when he didn’t need to) by scanning that document. I present it here: a dialog transcript for The Heckling Hare, copyrighted in 1941 and transcribed by a Ms. Katharine Lewis.

So there you go. Three falls. Mike Barrier, as he usually is, was right. No mention of holding onto any hats, either. And it also matches all of the dialogue spoken in the surviving Heckling Hare, too.

My interpretation of the conflicting stories: Avery was having selective memory loss. Avery, being more daring than the other directors at the time, was obviously trying to test the audience’s patience with the film’s original ending, all for a huge laugh. It obviously backfired severely if even the studio brass knew his ending of three falls was a dud, and Avery must have felt embarrassed by his failure. Hence his misstatement years later.

Now that it’s settled twice and for all, the postulation should end and we researchers can redirect our efforts to actually finding this and other potentially lost Warner footage. Perhaps everyone in cartoon-land can stay grounded in solid fact in the future?

Well, Tex had the answer for that one right, for sure.

10 Comments

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10 Responses to The Heckling Hare Problem

  1. Ricardo Cantoral

    Now the world can resume revolving around the sun. :P

    Seriously though, thanks for clearing up why Tex left. I also thought it was because Avery was furious over the censorship of Heckling Hare.

  2. Veikko Suvanto

    Thanks for shedding light on this mystery. However, are you sure that the (seemingly apocryphal) “Hold on to your hats” version originated with Avery himself? I could find no mention of the story in Joe Adamson’s book on Avery, and in the footnote in “Hollywood Cartoons”, Michael Barrier writes that “Avery himself mentioned no such incident”. Thus it seems likely that the origin of the story was simply the Hollywood Reporter article (though whether it included a mention of the controversial punchline, I don’t know), unless your source is some other interview that Adamson did with Avery that I’m unaware of, or information relayed by him.

    • Adamson himself has said (to me and others) that Avery told him about that ending, online and elsewhere. Barrier was specifically referring to the fact that Avery never said anything about leaving the studio over The Heckling Hare as the Hollywood rag article implied.

  3. So the intended ending was basically Avery’s experiment with an overly-long gag? Honestly, it sounds hilarious, especially since it would’ve -really- messed with audiences back then.

  4. Kevin Wollenweber

    I beg the private collector who might have an uncut copy of this cartoon to come forward. Yeah, I know it is ludicrous to think that such a rarety can be found, but I never entirely say “never”. The whole idea of three falls sounds hilarious…certainly more like the kind of wild humor that would be seen at MGM. Avery unleashed!!

  5. “However, are you sure that the (seemingly apocryphal) “Hold on to your hats” version originated with Avery himself?”

    On the DVD commentary for “The Heckling Hare”, Greg Ford mentions that Avery told him that himself, but again, as Thad pointed out, he was likely misremembering…. or having selective memory loss.

  6. Thanks for posting the transcript. I think the original gag works very well, but perhaps it bombed at a screening and so was cut.

    It obviously was meant to try the patience of movie-goers which it seems Tex liked to do as a gag on the audience itself. He got another chance to do this with his Screwy Squirrel series, which I also like.

  7. Jeffrey Gray

    The version of events Avery related to Adamson wasn’t mentioned in “Tex Avery: King of Cartoons”, but it WAS mentioned in Adamson’s “Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hare.” I think the implication in that book was that Leon fired Tex not over the dirty joke, but because he had a problem with Avery “killing Bugs.” Maybe someone else could check their copy of the book…

    • Veikko Suvanto

      I only had the Tex Avery book at hand when I made my comment above, but now I had a chance to check “Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hare”. The passage concerning “The Heckling Hare” is as follows:

      “Bugs and the hunting dog finally sprout brakes, for a thoroughly unlikely safe landing, topping Avery’s wild climax with a wild conclusion. But the fall was originally intended to be topped by yet another one, with the characters sighing in relief, then taking two steps and falling off one more cliff, hurtling through space for the second time and calling out, ‘Hold on to your hats, folks, here we go again!’ as the picture irised out in mid-tumble. That catch-phrase was the well-known punchline to a then-current joke of dubious reputation, and accounts vary as to whether it was the adult connotation of the line or the depressing effect of ending a cartoon on its two principals hurtling toward certain death, but something caused Jack Warner to object to Heckling Hare’s original ending. Leon Schlesinger had little patience for arguing such fine points when the head of the studio took offence: the last forty feet of the cartoon were excised before its theatrical release, and in the present version (still widely seen on television), the action abruptly fades out a few seconds after the rabbit and the dog have landed solidly on terra firma at the end of their first fall.”

  8. Marvin

    As I saw the copyright synopsis, I actually laughed at the fact they fell three times. Avery was a genius. The funny thing is, as I read the synopsis, I visualized how the ending would have really looked like in my head. With ending music and everything. If only there is a fully original print out there. Check your attics, guys!!

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