Joel and Ethan Coen’s anthology Western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, much like a lot of their previous body of work is indebted to literature and they take it a step further by making the open title sequence tied to literary conceit; that this film will open, begin and close each segment of the film like a chapter of the book. The overall result is a distillation of the Coens’ entire career that both surprise, disarm an audience (or in this case Netflix user) in ways only they know how, and offer as much metatextual humor while not actively seeking to convert the unwilling. The stories in Buster Scruggs (‘Near Algodones’, ‘Meal Ticket’, ‘All Gold Canyon’, ‘The Gal That Got Rattled’, and ‘The Mortal Remains’) all feel of a piece of Old West fiction and could easily be imagined in book form. But the eponymous ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’story, the first segment of the film, feels closer to Old West (and Western film) pasquinade, indebted not to Zane Grey, Owen Wister, or even Larry McMurtry, but to Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, and The Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodiesanimated shorts. Buster Scruggs is a live-action Wild West cartoon by design.
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is the most violent and comedic segment of the whole film that renders it a cartoon in ways not seen before by the Coens. There have been strokes of heightened madcap quality evocative of American animation in their work before: the comic hijinks chases of Raising Arizona, as were the visuals of futurist Art Deco colliding with earnest American ingenuity in The Hudsucker Proxy, and a singing cowboy with acrobatic skills on a horse and with a gun was teased in the star persona of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in Hail, Caesar!. But nothing can quite prepare the audience for this segment of ultra-violence and broad humor that’s in a veil of earnestness covering arsenic. The ‘Buster Scruggs’segment begins with ‘the lone rider’ Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) riding through Monument Valley on horseback- with guitar in hand- singing The Sons of Pioneers (in addition to being tied to Hobie Doyle inspiration Roy Rogers, the group also provided the music as Greek chorus for John Ford’s masterpiece Wagon Master) classic song “Cool, Cool Water”. The echoes of Scruggs’ voice around the red rocks and boulders give him a back-up chorus in his one-man show, his only real relationship being with his horse, Dan. Buster Scruggs then proceeds to break the fourth-wall and what happens next is quite stunning.
Short of having a carrot in his mouth to chomp on, Buster Scruggs speaks directly to his new audience, the viewer, and immediately reveals he is a wanted man. He does not question his crimes but he is perturbed about his nickname as ‘The Misanthrope’ (labeled in his Wanted poster) when, according to him, “I don’t hate my fellow man, even when he’s tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that’s just a human material and him that finds it in cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.” There is not a more direct moment of the Coens alluding to a common read of them since in The Big Lebowski, when ‘The Dude’ is introduced to a member of The Nihilists gives a response of, “Must be exhausting!” Buster in his jolly demeanor and all-white clothing is the perfect mask as the segment’s unreliable narrator to subvert the audience he is speaking to, which is a cocktail of two very different Coen sensibilities, as he goes on his journey of no real destination beyond wanting to find a place for an honest game of poker. It’s a short serialization on a life defined by moving from town to town, causing trouble because the world does not see things the same way as Buster Scruggs does. That essence, above all else, makes him as a fully realized live-action version of Bugs Bunny in quite some time.
So why have this story as part of this movie and why have it be first? In a way it makes perfect sense that the first Western story that the Coens start with has this DNA of cartoon juvenilia where love of the West as history, iconography, and legend begins for many.
For a child, particularly from the Coens’ generation, Western mythos first came to them packaged as cartoons and wholesome, upbeat, sing-a-long cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. And even if you were not seeking cowboys, American culture was imprinted with its iconography. For many Americans and people around the world, the first visualization of southwestern buttes, mesas, and vistas of Monument Valley on-screen were not from a John Ford Western but as a backdrop for Wile E. Coyote’s doomed pursuit of The Road Runner. The Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes from Warner Bros. animation through the decades of the 20th century still remain fabric of Americana that very few brands and pieces of visual media have ever attained. Part of that is because these iconic animated shorts produced some of the most emblematic and iconic characters in animation that were more than just being for kids. Warner Bros. shorts were often ironic and sarcastic as much as they were silly, not to mention extremely referential that have them arguably as a forerunner to postmodernism, at least in mass visual media in America. Often the shorts and characters- be it Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, or Porky Pig- riffed on popular culture and starred in shorts fully inspired by what was popular at the time. Much of that included Hollywood and also what Warner Bros. was making as- after all- these shorts were playing before Warner Bros. features. It would stand within reason that the popular genre of the Western would be something to use as a backdrop and comic situation for the likes of Bugs Bunny and company. The Looney Tunes additionally expanded their stories to outer space, urban cities, and strange imaginary worlds but the work done centered on the western frontier was incredibly significant to their history, giving birth to major characters.
The first Looney Tunes short that uses the classic Old West tropes as a setting and situation was the Merrie Melodiesshort from 1936, called “Westward Whoa”by Jack King. The short is nothing special, it features a quite doughy, near unrecognizable Porky Pig and later defunct characters, Beans the Cat, puppy duo Ham and Ex, and Little Kitty. These characters enter the short on a covered wagon singing songs to only find themselves in major duress in coming across natives who chase them, forcing them into hiding.
The evolution of these shorts were not so much in the social commentary but in the animators finding their niches and carving out what could work in these scenarios of the Old West. The formula would be placing their most popular characters- Bugs Bunny- into the settings and situations tied in the West and that meant also developing a classic foil to Bugs in the way Elmer Fudd, the hunter, was prior (Elmer’s precursor Egghead did, in fact, have a Western short in Tex Avery’s “Egghead Rides Again” that aside from who directed it, is an unmemorable short). Enter the cowboy, Yosemite Sam.
How Yosemite Sam came to how he is seen at his height of exposure and now came from Isadore ‘Friz’ Freleng whose 1945 short “Hare-Trigger”is the official introduction of the character, existing in a few earlier shorts unrefined from his widely known image. Freleng perfected Sam and in many ways was the artist at Warner Bros. most synonymous with the Old West. Freleng is credited with fully creating the Yosemite Sam known today, a trigger happy cowboy who even if he was outside the law in some shorts, was authoritative and sought dominance wherever he went. The shorts of Yosemite Sam made him perhaps the most evenly matched to Bugs Bunny (recognized only by Sam as, ‘varmint!’) as far as antagonists went, most prominent in 1948’s “Bugs Bunny Rides Again”where after gun fights and horseback chases, the fate of which character gets forced to leave town is decided by a game of cards (gin rummy in this case, not poker). The best Yosemite Sam shorts are often when he is clearly bending the rules for his own gain (such as cheating in the count in a ‘Gentlemen’s duel’ in“Wild and Woolly Hare”(1959), something that happens in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’) that forces our protagonists, often Bugs Bunny, into re-adapting to Sam’s game. There is not so much a morality play and fight to reclaim the rule of law. The crucial theme of these shorts is that the West is where individuals clash and play by their own rules of score settling and one-upmanship.
Along with a lot of Western tropes explored in these shorts with Yosemite Sam, there were twists made, creating elasticity to what Sam could do and represent. He became a significant enough character that he started to be put in situations outside of the West and made an authority figure, be it a knight (“Knighty Knight Bugs”), a prison guard (“Big House Bunny”), a red-coat Hessian (“Bunker Hill Bunny”), or a confederate soldier (“Southern Fried Rabbit”). Some of these changes were uncomfortable, such as the controversial short “Horse Hare” (1960) places Yosemite Sam as an honorary member of an Indian tribe who fights against Bugs Bunny’s outnumbered United States Cavalry Officer. Bugs managed to persevere and defeat Sam and the natives. It’s a shocking short that includes a scene worthy of A Clockwock Orange’s Alex DeLarge, that has since been removed from numerous television re-runs in subsequent years, Bugs expresses gleeful joy in his violent killings of the natives while singing the song “Ten Little Indians”and referring to a few as ‘half-breed’. While the Looney Tunes postmodern twists often did subvert certain aspects of Western folklore, these still contained disappointing elements of racism, often so tied to then present-day conceptions of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ that would then quickly fall out of favor.
The 1960s began and the sea of change in American popular culture came as well and also saw the changes in who were the stars of the new shorts. What remained notable was the primary location of these shorts: the Southwestern United States. Chuck Jones made the formula of chased and chaser in the Looney Tunes be boiled down to a science of pure existential metaphor in Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner shorts. And characters like Sylvester The Cat and Daffy Duck got dropped into these new settings with a new nemesis and new hero of these shorts: the resourceful Mexican mouse Speedy Gonzales. The Speedy shorts are of course not without their own baggage of ethnic stereotypes that are characterized often in “border wars” where Speedy is made exceptional amid his lazier conclave and community of Mexican mice and rats. But there was trouble afoot for these shorts. With the rise of television, the Looney Tunes were living on borrowed time. Warner Bros. and the film studio system in general were also feeling the competition of television of their general bottom-line and the animated shorts were slowing down.
The Warner Bros. animation was shut down after Warner Bros.-Seven Arts was bought out by Kinney National Company. Warner Bros. animation would not be reopened for several years and its fall was considered a major indictment to what was happening to the studio system, director Peter Bogdanovich characterizing the fall of ‘Old Hollywood’ as, “Once Warner Bros. stopped making cartoons, I knew it was over.” The quality of these final shorts also underscored how out of time these were. The last short until 1980 was Robert McKimson’s 1969 remake of 1938’s “Injun Trouble”, a wild west short, with just as much of the unseemly racism of Bob Clampett’s original, the remake existing to just swap in the modern Cool Cat character for Porky Pig.
Looney Tunes died before New Hollywood and the “Anti-Western” and “Revisionist Westerns” completely reworked and subverted a lot of how the American West would really take off. It is unthinkable to imagine how the Warner Bros. animators even could have dealt with the often humorless, dark-hearted, and downer Western works of Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, and Clint Eastwood. It feels logical that these shorts had to conclude and were on their way out as this was happening around them. The Looney Tunes were a product of their era and product of a Hollywood with a different view of the Old West than what came after it. But while the other segments are more aligned with the Revisionist Westerns, as are the other Westerns the Coens have done (True Grit(2009)), the Coens are engaging with the cartoon logic and violence in animation that captured the Old West, references that became their own references.
There is something perverse in the way the Coens have in marrying the ultra-violence with upbeat in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’. The memorably CGI blood splatter and blown off body appendages do lend themselves to cartoons and specifically Looney Tunes, which did have violence that were they in live-action form may have well in fact looked pretty close to what the Coens have produced in this segment. It is uncanny, and a different kind of violence that the Coens have been famous for achieving. There is also the characterization of Buster Scruggs as a protagonist who fancies himself as the most level-headed man in the West. He is indeed a live-action Bugs Bunny, a type of protagonist that conditions audiences to rooting for him despite committing their own offenses, which he sees as lawful if at worse a reactionary tactic of survival, and being of many contradictions. The Coens let Buster win over the saloon crowd with a rousing song of the man he shot, “Surly Joe”, rather than being arrested or mobbed for his deeds. But Buster meets his match. He loses a cheated draw against another singing cowboy, younger, all dressed in black, named The Kid (Willie Watson). Despite his status as outlaw from society, the Coens embrace their own creation: Buster is rewarded for his life with a trip to heaven. In what is perhaps the most cartoonish image in the whole segment, Buster ascends into heaven from his dead corpse, flying into the sky with angel wings as he sings, “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” while playing a harp.
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’segment may not cohere in the subsequent The Ballad of Buster Scruggs segments tonally and directly, but it feels most in tandem and in conversation with prior Western visual sources and works. Those works just happen to be animation, theLooney Tunes, the first riffers of the Western genre through animated cartoons that also created its own visual language. Working within the backdrop of the American West, the Looney Tuneshad its own mixed legacy in approaching legends, folklore, and archetypes. Buster Scruggs feels like a lived-in rascal who has charmed and shot his way out of many situations with a wink and a nod to any potential audience he had before and what Joel and Ethan Coen do is drop us into his, ‘That’s all Folks!’ moment. The segment is a conclusion and send-up to start things off. Only the Coens would and could do that.