THE BOOTLEG FILES: “CRUSADER RABBIT”

BOOTLEG FILES 173: “Crusader Rabbit” (groundbreaking American cartoon TV series).

LAST SEEN: Some episodes are on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Briefly on VHS in the 1980s.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: It’s a long story (keep reading and you will find out).

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Probably not.

When I was a child, my heroes were rabbits. Not real rabbits, mind you, but a pair of loopy animated versions that captivated my TV-viewing experience. One of them was Bugs Bunny, and I’m sure you know who he is!

But the other rabbit has fallen deep into the crevices of obscurity, and unless you are my age (42, as of this writing) or older, you probably never heard of him or saw his cartoons. His name is Crusader Rabbit.

Crusader Rabbit is actually an important part of the cultural landscape, because he was the first cartoon character created exclusively for American television. Sadly, you can’t see the Crusader Rabbit cartoons today unless you snag some bootlegged copies off the Internet or in duped videos left over from the reign of VHS.

Crusader Rabbit is the brainchild of Alex Anderson, a cartoonist who was the nephew of Paul Terry, founder of the Terrytoons animation studio (Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle were the mainstays there). In the late 1940s, Anderson wanted to explore the new medium of television and asked Terry if the studio could pursue made-for-TV cartoons. Terry was under contract with 20th Century Fox, which prevented him from working in television (the movie studio saw TV as a serious threat to its economic viability). With Terry’s blessing, Anderson set out to explore TV on his own.

Anderson picked an unusual partner in this journey: a college classmate named Jay Ward, who was working as a real estate salesman. Ward had no experience in either animation or show business, but he realized the potential of getting involved in TV while it was still a relatively new environment. Anderson and Ward created Television Arts Productions and began putting together proposals to pitch at the networks.

Anderson and Ward were able to get a foot in NBC’s door and provided a trio of ideas for possible cartoon series. One involved a detective named Hamhock Jones, whose main enemy was a pair of Siamese twins. One involved a bumbling Canadian mountie named Dudley Do-Right. And the third centered on a little bunny with an oversized sense of courage. NBC opted to take the third proposal and “Crusader Rabbit” received the green light as a series – sort of.

Why “sort of”? NBC was worried about Anderson and Ward as neophytes and assigned Jerry Fairbanks to become their “supervising producer.” The network also decided not to broadcast “Crusader Rabbit” as a national program, but instead allowed Fairbanks to sell the program directly to NBC affiliates, who had the option to air the program according to their specific scheduling needs. This made “Crusader Rabbit” one of the first syndicated TV shows.

As a program, “Crusader Rabbit” had a major strike against it: the black-and-white animation was among the crudest ever put on camera. Working on a tiny budget, Anderson and Ward were forced to take an acute minimalist approach: in many scenes, the action was strictly a still drawing. Movement in the earlier episodes was achieved with the blatant use of cut-outs wobbling in front of a hastily sketched backdrop. The few genuine cases of movement were strictly centered around the lips and eyes of Crusader Rabbit and his sidekick, a dim but good-natured tiger named Rags.

Oh, about Crusader Rabbit’s name – he was viewed as a crusading knight of the Don Quixote school. In fact, the opening credits showed a knight on a somewhat scrawny steed galloping to the camera, but when the knight removes his helmet it turns out to be a rabbit. Crusader Rabbit had nothing to do with the Crusades or anything relating to the bloody excursions in the Holy Land.

But where “Crusader Rabbit” worked brilliantly was in its writing. Rather than create standalone cartoons, Anderson and Ward developed the series along the lines of the old-time movie serials that left its heroes in cliffhanger endings at the end of each episode. This encouraged viewers to return to the next episode to see how the heroes escaped their predicaments.

The series also used an on-going narration to speed along the action (and to hide the gaps that the limited animation could not fill). The characters would occasionally look directly into the camera and converse with the narrator on what was happening. Nutty puns were also par for this course.

The original 15-episode installment, “Crusader vs. The State of Texas,” found Crusader and Rags heading to the Lone Star State, where the locals were in a campaign to drive out the rabbit population. Crusader was concerned about the welfare of his relatives (the narrator tell us that all of Crusader’s cousins are all named Jack), and the Chief Hare Remover (get it?) is not happy to see Crusader turn up.

It shouldn’t have worked at all, but strangely it did. Anderson and Ward’s “Crusader Rabbit” was a genuinely amusing production that appealed to kids with its sweet storylines and to adults with its unexpected topical and cultural references (at one point Crusader Rabbit is brushing up on his heroic skills by reading such books as “Caesar’s Campaigns” and “Truman’s Campaigns”). Between 1949 and 1951, Anderson and Ward turned out 195 episodes spanning ten different serial adventures.

In 1951, however, disaster struck. Jerry Fairbanks, who set up his own production company to distribute the series, went bankrupt. NBC, as one of his creditors, foreclosed on his company and sold the rights to “Crusader Rabbit” to someone named Shull Bonsull. Anderson and Ward then sued Bonsull, claiming that they owned the rights to the property and not NBC. Bonsull settled the matter by purchasing Television Arts Productions from Anderson and Ward. During this period, no “Crusader Rabbit” cartoons were being produced.

In 1957, Bonsull created Capital Enterprises and relaunched “Crusader Rabbit.” Anderson and Ward were not part of the program (Anderson left entertainment to work in advertising and Ward returned to selling real estate). Bonsull contracted Vern Louden to recreate the voice of Rags and Roy Whaley to serve as the narrator, but the original voice performer for Crusader Rabbit, Lucille Bliss, was replaced by Ge Ge Pearson (no reason was publicly given).

Bonsull also made a progressive decision: the new “Crusader Rabbit” episodes would be made in color. This was unusual, since color television was not commonplace in 1957. Yet it was a prescient move that helped give the series a long life.

In retrospect, the Bonsull episodes were inferior to the Anderson-Ward episodes. While Bonsull’s animation was more fluid and there were plenty of puns to spare (a cowboy hero is named Manny Oakley, for example, and a creepy mansion atop a cliff was was called Withering Heights), it was never as amusing as the original offerings. The timing was more sluggish and the situations were often silly rather than funny (at one weirdly anachronistic point, the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar has Crusader and Rags sealed in a wooden box and placed on an electronic conveyor belt in a sawmill).

Which is not to say “Crusader Rabbit” stank. The Bonsull cartoons were a pleasant diversion for the kiddies, even if the adults never quite shared the fun. Bonsull created 260 episodes that were presented either in serial format or as edited-together one-hour adventures that remained in syndication as late as the 1980s.

Anderson and Ward, of course, went on to the proverbial bigger and better: Anderson’s character creations of Rocky and Bullwinkle were developed by Ward (who returned to animation production) into a hugely successful TV series, which included the resurrection of their NBC-rejected Dudley Do-Right character. Anderson was not actively involved in these productions, and only took a consulting role; Ward took the public credit for these characters. Much to Anderson’s surprise, he later discovered Ward copyrighted the characters in his name only. An out-of-court settlement with Ward’s estate (Ward died in 1989) finally gave Anderson the credit (and profits) he deserved.

So what happened to “Crusader Rabbit”? In the early 1970s, a company called Metromedia acquired the rights to the series for exclusive presentation on its network of local channels that specialized in reruns and syndicated programming. Only the Bonsull episodes were made available for viewing; the Anderson-Ward episodes were withdrawn because it was perceived there would be no audience for black-and-white cartoons. I discovered the series during this period thanks to Metromedia’s WNEW-TV in New York, and it was among my favorite childhood viewing experiences.

In the 1980s, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought the Metromedia television stations and assets. Ironically, News Corporation is the parent company of 20th Century Fox, the company that kept Paul Terry from getting into TV.

“Crusader Rabbit” inspired more legal woes in 1985 when Rhino Entertainment tried to put out a collection of episodes on home video. For whatever reason, Rhino didn’t realize 20th Century Fox now owned the home video rights. Fortunately, the companies reached a quick agreement and Rhino was able to issue its version. Other companies that specialized in public domain videos released put out their own “Crusader Rabbit” offerings, even though none of the cartoons were in the public domain. For years, they could be found in cheap video bargain bins.

To date, 20th Century Fox has not made plans to reissue “Crusader Rabbit” on DVD. Some bootleggers have DVDs available (including the Anderson-Ward episodes, which didn’t even make it to VHS). And the first eight of the 15 episodes in the original “Crusader vs. The State of Texas” serial can be found on YouTube.

However, “Crusader Rabbit” has been absent from TV syndication for nearly 25 years. Today’s children never heard of the character and would probably not be attracted to the limited animation in the series. Aging Baby Boomers might recall the character, but relatively few adults buy cartoon DVDs for themselves.

Thus, “Crusader Rabbit” is stuck in limbo – the cartoons can be released, but there’s no call for it. Outside of the bootleg channels, it seems this groundbreaking cartoon series will remain unseen.

Crusader Rabbit may be gone, but to this little crusader he’s not forgotten. Here’s to you, my long-eared hero of days gone by!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on March 23, 2007 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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