By Scott Ross
It’s difficult to think of another director of animation who had a greater period than Chuck Jones between 1948 and 1957, when he produced one short masterwork after another, even as the medium in which he worked was, essentially, dying.
Although it has forever ruined the Rossini overture for me (and, presumably, for countless others) The Rabbit of Seville (1949) is one of a small handful of truly peerless animated masterpieces. The timing and sheer compression of the gags, the respectful but free-form use of the music, and the spectacular animation make this one of the undisputed champs in the field. If I was forced to choose one Bugs cartoon, or one Jones, for that proverbial desert island, it would probably be this one.
Herewith, portions of the deathless libretto by opera bouffe master Michael Maltese…
Welcome to my shop,
Let me cut your mop
Let me shave your crop…
Don’t look so perplexed,
Why must you be vexed?
Can’t you see you’re next?
Yes, you’re next
You’re so next…
What would you want with a wabbit?
Can’t you see that I’m much sweetahr?
I’m your little sen-yer-it-er
You are my type of guy!
Let me straighten your tie
And I shall dance for you…
Bugs ends the war of attrition. Flowers, candy, a ring. Who could resist?
Bugs and Elmer, married to the strains of Rossini in the breathless finale.
In Frigid Hare (1949) Jones and Maltese walk the tightrope between sentiment and anti-sentiment, and emerge triumphant. Note the ice-cube tears; that’s how you take the mickey (Mickey?) out of these things.
For Scent-imental Reasons (1949) None of the Warner Bros. directors won an Academy Award for his best work. Not once. They had the misfortune to release their finest shorts during “the MGM years,” when that studio routinely took home the statuette, regardless of the worth of the nominated film. For Scent-imental Reasons is a perfectly enjoyable cartoon, but it’s hardly among Jones’ finest.
Rabbit Hood (1949) The Sheriff of Nottingham kneels to be crowned by a Laughton-like Bugs. Is he ever asking for it.
“Arise, Sir Loin of Beef.
“Arise, Earl of Cloves.
“Arise, Duke of Brittingham.
“Arise, Baron of Munchausen.
“Arise, Essence of Myrrh…
“Milk of Magnesia…
“Quarter of Ten…”
Bunny Hugged (1950) Bugs vs. “The Crusher.” One way to get out of a clinch: Produce the sound of ripping trunks.
The surpassingly brilliant 1950 Daffy Duck masterpiece, The Scarlet Pumpernickel. Daffy: “Ha ha! You ain’t got a chance! I’m the hero of this picture, and you know what happens to the villain.” Sylvester: “So what’s to know?”
Rabbit Fire (1950): The primary installment in the famed Bugs-Daffy-Elmer “Hunting Trilogy.” The first Looney Tunes outing in which Daffy is less the madcap of yore and more a foil for Bugs. This is also the one in which Daffy first says, “You’re… dith-picable!”
Rabbit Fire contains one of Mel Blanc’s most astonishing voice-overs: First, as Daffy imitating Bugs, then vice-versa. (Why do have get the distinct feeling Daffy is about to get his beak re-arranged?)
One of the many great gags in Rabbit Fire. Bugs suggests Elmer take up elephant hunting. Cue the pachyderm with the Joe Besser voice: “You do and I’ll give ya such a pinch!”
Rabbit Fire: Uh-oh.
Chow-Hound (1951) features one of the most grotesque, disturbing finales of any animated cartoon — an ironic comeuppance of truly Shakespearean proportions. I saw this once, in 1980, and it’s haunted me ever since. Naturally, that talented putz Eric Goldberg thinks it’s one of the funniest gags he’s ever seen.
Beep Beep (1951): The Road Runner doesn’t actually say, “Beep-beep.” It’s more like, “Meep-meep.” (In France, the character is known, phonetically, as “Mi-mi.”) Jones and Maltese got the idea from the Warners layout artist Paul Julian, who could be heard coming down the hall hoisting some enormous layout and that familiar warning cry.
Above and blow: Latin genus a la Jones and Maltese.
The counterpart to Accelerati Incredibilus.
A fateful move.
More placards. More drag. Quintessential Jones. Note the discreet bloomers.
In The Wearing of the Grin (1951) Porky Pig, in a beautifully surreal nightmare sequence, is driven nearly mad by a pair of vaguely sinister leprechauns. Porky, once the studio’s biggest animated star, saw his popularity eclipsed by that of Bugs Bunny in the 1940s. Only Jones seemed to understand how to use him effectively in the 1950s.
In Dripalong Daffy (1951) Porky, as the duck’s “butte-buddy”(!) emerges the laconic winner. It set a pattern for subsequent Daffy-Porky teamings by Jones and Maltese.
A classic Jones pose: Porky reacts to strong drink.
Wile E. speaks! Operation: Rabbit (1952)
The card says it all.
The many faces of The AMCE Company. All defective.
Feed the Kitty (1952) The stalwart Marc Anthony, thinking his kitten has been baked, gives an Oscar-worthy performance of hilariously emoted canine grief. One of Jones’ masterpieces.
Bugs and Gossamer, redux. Water, Water Every Hare, a 1952 variation on Hair-Raising Hare.
“My stars, if an innn-teresting monster can’t have an innn-teresting hairdo, then I don’t know what things are coming to. In my business you meet so many innn-teresting people — bobby pins, please — but the most innn-terersting ones are the monsters…
“Oh, dear, that will never stay. We’ll just have to have a permanemanent.”
Rabbit Seasoning (1952) The centerpiece of the “Hunting Trilogy.” Bugs, in drag, gets… um… a rise… out of Elmer. Tex Avery was notorious for his erection caricatures, but that is a rare one for Jones.
Daffy: Let’s run through that again.
Bugs: Okay. (Deadpan) “Would you like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?”
Daffy: (Similarly) “Shoot him now; shoot him now.”
Bugs: (As before) “You keep outta this, he doesn’t have to shoot you now.”
Daffy: A-hah! That’s it! Hold it right there! (Aside) Pronoun trouble.
Mel Blanc. In a late interview, Jones opined, “No one did hesitates like Mel.”
Daffy: Oh, no, you don’t. Not this time. Uh-uh.
Don’t Give Up the Sheep (1953) introduced Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog, two workaday figures who start each cartoon punching a time-clock and exchanging laconic greetings (“H’lo, Ralph” “H’lo, Sam”) And if Ralph resembles Wile E. Coyote, well, how many different ways can you draw these things?
The utter astonishment that is Duck Amuck, Jones’ 1953 masterpiece – both a wildly funny Daffy short and a canny, if surreal, meditation on the animator’s art.
Best hidden joke: How do Daffy’s big flippers fit into those tiny boots?
“That’s strange. All of a sudden I don’t quite feel like myself. Oh, I feel all right, and yet I… I, uh…”
The finale of Duck Amuck: The classic reveal. (“Ain’t I a stinkah?”)
Much Ado About Nutting (1953) A low-key, silent charmer depicting a squirrel’s attempts to crack a coconut. Aside from an occasional pose like the one above, the rodent bears almost no anthropomorphic traces.
Duck Dodgers in the 24th and ½ Century (1953) A raucous comedy and a knowing satire on war and human (and Martian?) ambition.
Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953) The final entry in the “Hunting Trilogy.”
Daffy: Well, I guess I’m the goat.
[Bugs holds up a sign; Elmer shoots Daffy. Again.]
Bully for Bugs (1953) The overlords of Termite Terrace were a notably dispiriting bunch. First was the lisping Leon Schlesinger, who never got that Daffy Duck and Sylvester were parodies of his own speech impediment. Then, Eddie Selzer, whose clueless decrees — “No pictures about bullfights! Bullfights aren’t funny!” — led to gems like this. At least Leon more or less left the boys alone. (And no, in point of fact, bullfights aren’t funny. Except when written by Mike Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones.)
Wile E. (and Charles M.) in action.
Punch Trunk: A charming and very funny one-off from 1953 concerning a tiny elephant in the city, who disturbs everyone in town. Naturally, only this tippler seems un-fazed. After consulting his watch he mutters accusingly, “You’re late.” As he sulks off he complains, “He always used to be pink!”
Claws for Alarm (1954): The best, and funniest, of a series of Jones cartoons pitting a silent Sylvester against homicidal forces of which Porky is oblivious.
The climax of Claws for Alarm. A desperate Sylvester does the only thing a loyal cat can under the circumstances: Smashing his master over the bean with a baseball bat and high-tailing it out of (ghost) town.
Bewitched Bunny (1954) introduced the immortal Witch Hazel, voiced by the great June Foray. Her trade-mark: A zip off-screen followed by an immediate return, an aside to the audience, and a zip off again, as her bobby-pins clatter to the floor.
Bewitched Bunny: Bugs uncovers a notably unsavory, piggish Hansel and Gretl.
Beanstalk Bunny (1955): Bugs and Daffy, under glass. A brilliant sequence illustrating the effective use of silence as Daffy begs with, pleads, cajoles, and screams at an unflappable Bugs without our hearing a whisper of it.
One Froggy Evening. This 1955 masterpiece has been called everything from “a morality play in miniature” (Richard Corliss) to “the Citizen Kane of animated film” (Steven Spielberg.) Only Jones could have directed it, and only Mike Maltese could have written it. Along with the authentic period numbers is the great ersatz Gay ’90s composition by messrs Jones, Maltese and Milt Franklyn, “The Michigan Rag.” This is the sort of cartoon that was utterly unique to Warners, and which should have won Academy Awards but never did.
Jones and the brilliant Philip DeGuard, his peerless layout man in the 1950s
Broom-Stick Bunny (1956): At the mercy of Witch Hazel, Bugs resorts to the oldest trick in the animal playbook.
Rocket-Bye Baby (1956) Another one-off, playing on every expectant father’s anxieties. Baby “Yob” at work.
Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z-z (1956): The elegant “Batman Suit.”
The Road Runner cartoons, Jones said, operated under a series of rules, although Mike Matlese claimed he never heard any. The first was that the bird would never knowingly hurt the Coyote; he’d do that to himself. Another was, “Never look down.” A third might have been, “When flying gracefully through the air, open your eyes.”
Placard signs, especially (although not exclusively) for silent characters is a hallmark of Jones’ output from the 1940s onward.
Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z-z: A plaintive request from the Coyote, in mid-plummet, which Jones and Maltese mercifully grant.
Ali Baba Bunny (1957): Him Genie, da light-brown hare.
Ali Baba Bunny: Jones was a master at the tiny detail that illuminates character… and causes the viewer to fall apart: A lifted eyebrow, a sidelong glance at the audience or, as here, Daffy’s reaction to a treasure.
Ali Baba Bunny: Daffy hits the jackpot.”I’m rich! I’m wealthy! I’m comfortably well-off.”
Wile E. about to launch himself… with predictable results.
“Brunhilde” Bugs makes his (her?) entrance in the wonderful, the ineffable, the iridescent What’s Opera, Doc? (1957) Philippe DeGuard created the stylized Wagnerian backgrounds.
No Wagnerian take-off would be complete without a fat diva. But since Bugs is svelte, the honor falls, hilariously, to his horse.
What’s Opera, Doc?: A delicate pas de duex (or as Bugs might say, “Pass da ducks.”)
“Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”
Descriptive text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross