Jessica Rabbit: Drawn to Be Bad

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and certainly one of its most ironic and memorable characters is the striking Jessica Rabbit.

CEO Michael Eisner considered the film too risque, especially the scenes with Jessica, which is just one of the reasons why it was released under the Touchstone Pictures label rather than the Disney banner although today, much like Touchstone's Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), it is pretty much considered a Disney film.

"I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way," affirmed Jessica Rabbit in her alluringly hoarse whisper of a voice. While Disney female characters from Tinker Bell to Ariel to Slue Foot Sue to some others have always embodied a sort of healthy but innocent sexiness, Jessica Rabbit was the first Disney toon to be blatantly sexual in nature.

The stunningly beautiful and passionate Jessica was the human toon wife of cartoon comedy rabbit star Roger Rabbit. While redheaded Jessica does indeed appear as a sultry and glamorous night club singer at the Ink and Paint Club, underneath all the cel paint, she was a fiercely loyal homebody of a wife who loved Roger because he made her laugh.

In the original 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? written by Gary Wolf, Jessica is a much more devious and jaded character and not above using her sexual endowments to get what she wants. She had "a body straight out of one of the magazines adolescent boys pore over in locked bathrooms" wrote author Wolf.

Later in the book, detective Eddie Valiant pays $200 for a rare Tijuana Bible "titled Lewd, Crude, and In the Mood and it portrayed in graphic detail the antics of a randy, female nurse. The nurse was played by a younger, slimmer, blonder, but definitely recognizable Jessica Rabbit."

When confronted with a copy of the book, Jessica claims she was only barely 18 at the time and Sid Sleaze drugged her and took the pictures.

Author Wolf remembered, "Jessica Rabbit came about because in my home town in Illinois, the boys outnumbered the girls 30 to one — so good luck getting a date if you're president of the chess club. I spent a lot of time fantasizing about my ideal woman, and Jessica is that fantasy."

"She's every boy's dream," he said. "I based her on Red Hot Riding Hood, from the Tex Avery cartoon Wild and Woolfy (1945). Jessica Rabbit is my idea of the perfect woman."

The harsher character description from the book influenced director Darrell Van Citters and designer Mike Giaimo when they tackled the first attempt at an animated version of the character for the Disney Company back in the early 1980s.

In their sample animation, they made her more of a traditional film noir femme fatale who looked like a young Lauren Bacall, very slender with high cheekbones and flowing hair.

During the writing of the Zemeckis version, screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman wrote a version of the script where Jessica Rabbit was the villain who framed Roger for a crime.

Jessica's merchandise shop, inspired by the character, was open from 1990-1992 in Walt Disney World's Pleasure Island.

It is the final more endowed and innocent version in the Robert Zemeckis film that owes a debt to the work of animation director Tex Avery and artist Preston Blair and their creation of a sexy female human toon character now known as "Red Hot Riding Hood" for a series of MGM cartoons.

"We started with a Jessica that was much more illustrative, but one day one of the writers came to me and said I should make it more cartoony. So I did," recalled supervising animation director Richard Williams.

"I used a combination of Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth and Sophia Loren," Williams said. "It's so funny that she's become this pin-up. Of course, she's absurd. Her waist is so tiny that she'd fall over if she was real."

The famous peek-a-boo hair style of Veronica Lake, the distinctive, seductive red hair of Rita Hayworth and the voluptuous physique of Sophia Loren combined with their screen personas of being the most desirable women in the world were the physical foundation for Williams' interpretation of Jessica.

Jessica's waist was made incredibly tiny not just for cartoon exaggeration, but to convince audiences that the character was not simply rotoscoped (traced from live action) but drawn.

"When we were filming (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), nobody really knew what the final Jessica Rabbit looked like," explained actor Bob Hoskins who played detective Eddie Valiant. "Zemeckis said, 'Think of the sexiest woman you can imagine, Bob. Think of sex!' I thought up this really sexy bird, thinking, 'Ooooh, wonderful.'

"They did the work on Jessica up in Camden Town, and I used to live round there, so they'd call and say, 'Come and see what we're doing.' When I saw it, she was just so sexy that I felt so boring," Hoskins said. "The bird I'd created was like some person's old granny compared to this."

"She had to be a testament to what a man could do with a pencil and a fertile imagination," remarked supervising animator Russell Hall. "In a sense, she shares the two realities of the cartoon world and the real world. She would have to appeal to the rabbit and Bob Hoskins."

"Russell–who did Jessica–he's a terrific draftsman and very solid, so it was decided Russell should just focus on Jessica and not do anything else," recalled animator Andreas Deja who also worked on the film.

While the Disney Company did not have a "walk around" Jessica Rabbit character at their theme parks or to participate in various special events like they did for Roger Rabbit, it did market the character through the traditional venues of merchandise, including some unique options in Orlando, Florida.

When Disney MGM Studios opened in May 1989, theme park guests who disembarked from the Backlot Tram Tour found themselves in a merchandise venue called "The Loony Bin" themed to Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Guests had two opportunities to pose with Jessica. There was a glittery life-sized plywood cutout of the character for amateur photographers. In addition, the photo shop allowed guests to don Eddie Valiant's overcoat and hat and be superimposed into an actual cartoon drawing with Jessica.

The shop sold a lot of merchandise related to the film, but real fans of Jessica went to the Downtown Disney shopping area and the new addition of Pleasure Island.

From roughly 1990-1992, there was a small merchandise shop called "Jessica's" that was filled with Jessica Rabbit nightgowns, jewelry, shower curtains, beach and bath towels, pins, a limited edition watch, ceramics, perfume bottles, magnets, and much more. The interior of the shop was filled with images of Jessica and there was a large stage door with Jessica's name and star on it.

On the outside of the building, was a giant, nearly 30-foot high, two-sided neon sign of Jessica in her sequined dress and her left leg would swing back and forth slightly.

The concept art for the sign was done by artist Mark Marderosian, who was responsible for the design of a great deal of the Jessica merchandise sold in the store. When the shop closed, the sign was relocated to a building near the entrance to Pleasure Island closet to the AMC Theaters where it remained until 2006.

Jessica merchandise was a challenge because contractually, Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Entertainment company were entitled to a share of any of the merchandising using the character or Roger Rabbit. So, a new licensing operation had to be set up with all items copyrighted Touchstone/Amblin Entertainment and the accounting done separately from other character merchandise.

At the time, the Disney Company was uncomfortably unfamiliar with how to deal with such a flamboyantly sexual character. Jessica was a troubling anomaly who wasn't able to be shoehorned into the familiar Disney brand. Storybooks and coloring books presented Jessica in a modified dress that was less revealing.

When the laserdisc version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released in 1994, there was a lot of media controversy about a scene where supposedly Jessica Rabbit briefly flashes her private area between her legs to the camera.

The scene is where Jessica and Eddie are both thrown from Benny the Cab while leaving Toontown. Jessica spins out of the car which causes her red dress to start hiking up her body and her legs spread apart briefly. For a few frames of Jessica's second spin her underwear supposedly disappears, revealing Jessica's nether regions.

During these three frames Jessica's pubic region is darker than the surrounding flesh-colored areas of her legs and certainly not a dark red like the color of her underwear. Animator and Disney historian Mark Kausler studied those frames carefully and it is his expert opinion that it is just a paint error where in the rush to complete production, the small area for underwear wasn't painted in for those few frames and the dark background briefly showed through the unpainted transparent part of the cel.

For later releases on DVD, color correction was done for those three frames. By 2002, the scene was reanimated so that a piece of Jessica's skirt strategically now covers the questionable area.

Within minutes of the revelation on several media outlets including CNN, many retailers found their entire inventory of the Laserdisc sold out. A Disney executive responded to the trade newspaper Variety in 1994 that "people need to get a life than to notice stuff like that. We were never aware of it. At the same time, people also need to develop a sense of humor with these things."

Technology had begun to change how films were released. Things that were unnoticeable at the usual 24-frames per second became very visible when viewed frame by frame. With laser offering 425 lines of resolution compared to 240 for VHS tapes, the images became clearly distinct.

Supposedly, a plan to include a topless Jessica for a frame or two as a gag tradition in the original film was cancelled even before the movie was released.

"The animators wanted to do an homage to Fleischer's Betty Boop," recalled Gary Wolf in a 1995 interview. "He [Max Fleischer] had her topless in every movie, for six frames, invisible to the human eye.

"So they did the same with [Jessica] in Roger Rabbit. When we decided to release the film on video, the producer went on Johnny Carson and spilled the beans. So we were forced to take it out."

There was always the suggestion of nudity in several Betty Boop cartoons. In Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle (1932), she does a hula (rotoscoped from a live performer doing a hula earlier in the cartoon) wearing just a lei covering her naked breasts in animation reused in two other of her cartoons: Popeye the Sailor (1933) and Betty Boop's Rise to Fame (1934).

According to some animators who worked on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Betty Boop when bending over to adjust her garter while with Eddie Valiant at the Ink and Paint Club has her breasts slip out of her strapless dress for a single frame.

However, this was removed before its release to laserdisc and DVD where a single frame could be frozen unlike in a movie theater where the images race by too quickly for a human eye to notice one individual frame.

Frustrating to the Disney Company was its inability to completely control Jessica's sexual image being used in the general public.

The cover of the November 1988 issue of Playboy featured an airbrushed photo of September Playmate Laura Richmond portraying Jessica Rabbit. The cover appeared at a time when Disney was having difficulty handling the success of its sexy star and was toning down her cleavage and slit skirt for her appearances in children's storybooks and related items.

The Playboy cover was apparently a spontaneous inspiration occurring within a 24 hour period. Photographer Stephen Wayds and art director Tom Staebler photographed model Richmond with Jessica-style hair, gown and pose and then subjected the work to a dye transfer process which resulted in an animated look. Some airbrushing was necessary to pull in the waist to the more cartoon proportions of the animated Jessica.

Playboy figured that Disney would have a sense of humor about the whole thing, but officially, Tom Deegan, who was then director of Corporate Communications for Disney, went on record by saying, "We don't have any reaction [to the Playboy cover]. We don't think anything about it at all. Anyway, that's not really Jessica on the cover. It's Playboy's interpretation of her."

Disney was less cavalier when the French edition of the July 1989 issue of Penthouse magazine was released. Reportedly at that time, Disney had not yet secured the international copyright for the character. An oversight quickly corrected when the company saw the issue featuring a cel-like drawing of a topless Jessica with long purple gloves, purple garter belt and purple bikini panties.

The interior 10-page spread mixed artwork from the Disney animated feature with new color artwork of a topless Jessica posing seductively. The article was an interview with "Zita Hayworth" (a fictional actress who supposedly played the part of Jessica).

No mention was made that the real voice of Jessica was supplied by the breathy delivery of actress Kathleen Turner with Steven Spielberg's ex-wife Amy Irving doing the singing voice.

"Bob Zemeckis and I worked together on Romancing the Stone (1983) and he was developing Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He wanted Jessica to be the epitome of femme fatale and many people now when they think of a femme fatale, think of my voice," stated actress Turner whose sultry sexiness was displayed in films like Body Heat (1981).

"It was perfect for me at the time because I was pregnant. I could just waddle into the studio and off I'd go. We had a lot of fun in terms of Jessica's breathing. I said, 'She's got such big boobs, so why don't we add in lots of sighs, and then you guys can make them bounce?'"

In the April 16, 1993 issue of Entertainment Weekly magazine, actress Kathleen Turner talked about reading classics like Goldilocks to the students at her 5-year-old daughter's private school in Manhattan. "Kids want to know about Jessica Rabbit," Turner stated. "They say, 'Was that really you?'"

"I was sad that I didn't get to sing Jessica's song [Why Don't You Do Right?)]," Turner said. "I told Bob [Zemeckis] right at the beginning that I wanted to do it and he kind of hemmed and hawed and said, 'Well, that's already been promised.' I said, 'What do you mean it's been promised?' He said, 'Oh, well, Steven [Spielberg] promised that to Amy [Irving, his wife at the time].' I just said, 'Oh….well.'"

Jessica's "body performance model" was actress Betsy Brantley. Brantley was in her early 30s when she went through the movement for the character like walking down the stage in the Ink and Paint Club. The painted image of Jessica was superimposed over Brantley's movement.

Brantley played the role of the mother of the boy who is listening to his grandfather tell him a story in The Princess Bride (1987) around the same time period.

Costume Designer Joanna Johnston in Entertainment Weekly magazine from February 15, 2013 who designed costumes for both live and animated characters in the film (1988) stated: "It was too expensive to animate Jessica Rabbit in sequins for the whole movie. The compromise was that she wear sequins on stage and satin the rest of the time. At my young age, I was really upset that she wasn't going to be in sequins all the way through."

Victoria's Secret supermodel Heidi Klum helped GQ magazine (Gentleman's Quarterly) celebrate its 45th birthday in the September 2002 issue by posing in a photo layout where she was done up to mimic great sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch. According to an interview at the time, her favorite photo was the one where she portrayed Jessica Rabbit.

The Disney Jessica later appeared briefly in three theatrical cartoon shorts: Tummy Trouble (1989), Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990) and Trail Mix Up (1993). A fourth cartoon short, Hare in My Soup, was planned but never made. For decades there have been several attempts to make a prequel to the original feature film.

In the straight-to-video feature Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996), a cardboard cut-out of her body from the neck down was visible for a few seconds while Genie was picking wedding dresses for Princess Jasmine. Genie, appropriately, did the wolf-whistle used in the Tex Avery cartoons for Red Hot Riding Hood.

Jessica Rabbit has truly become the stuff that dreams are made of and many women in the world enjoy trying to imitate her look of sexiness and intelligence even going to the extremes of having plastic surgery to do so.

"I've seen surveys which rank Jessica Rabbit as one of the hottest movie actresses of all time," stated author Wolf. "Quite an accomplishment for a Toon. I've seen Heidi Klum, Katy Perry, Megan Fox, and Rachel Ray all dressed as Jessica. So Jessica is still with us in spirit and in form. Hopefully, she'll be with us for a whole lot longer."

Or as Jessica would say, "You don't know how hard it is being a woman looking the way I do."