Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity: Chuck Jones (Part Three)

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By Scott Ross

As the cost of animation began to outweigh the returns in the mid-to-late ’50s, more and more studios shut down their cartoon departments. And as the animators themselves aged and adapted to the harsher economic realities, their work suffered correspondingly. While Chuck Jones was always — and quite correctly — dismissive of what he called the “illustrated radio” school of “limited animation” for television, without a strong personality such as Michael Maltese to reign him in, his own work became more discursive, less action-oriented, more design-oriented, more labored in the drawing style — and, consequently, less funny. But that was in the future.

Wile E. in a prototypical moment.

“Robin Hood Daffy” (1957): Arguably Jones’ greatest teaming of Daffy and Porky Pig.

Key animation drawing from Robin Hood Daffy. The Disney animators often complained that too much soul was lost between art and complete product (which was why the old-timers were so thrilled when the Xerox system came in, allowing them to retain a sketchy quality to the finished movie.) When you look at something like this, you may think they had a point.

Friar Porky reacts to Daffy’s feats of derring-do.

“How jolly can ya get?”

“Shake hands with Friar Duck.” (Cue duck’s bill to flatten, upwards.)

Hare-way to the Stars (1958) In this underrated gem, Bugs matches wits with a Martian. Need I add that he’s over-armed for the contest?

Baton Bunny (1959) A brilliantly sustained pantomime, and one of the last great animated shorts of the studio era.

The title-card for High Note (1960): One of Jones’ most inventive shorts, as great in its way as the later The Dot and the Line.

Jones’ forays into feature animation were not successful. He and his wife Dorothy wrote this amiable but unexceptional 1962 UPA musical, directed by Jones’ old Warner Bros. associate Abe Levitow and featuring a pleasing score by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.

Images from The Dot and the Line (1965) Jones’ and his designer and co-director Maurice Noble’s superb adaptation of the Norton Juster’s jape, subtitled A romance in lower mathematics. Drolly narrated by Robert Morley, this was one Academy Award winner that actually deserved to be.

Juster’s perfect, if groan-inducing, final line.

The Chuck Jones Tom and Jerry of the early-to-mid 1960s.

After his Warner contract expired and the studio closed the animation unit, Jones was uneasily paired at MGM with Tom & Jerry. It wasn’t a pretty sight.He later said they weren’t his characters, that he “didn’t understand them” and had essentially made the pair “A cat and a mouse in road runner and coyote drag.”

Jones fared much better collaborating with his old Snafu cohort Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, on a television adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It was an instant classic in 1965. It’s become a perennial.

Jones’ Grinch looked less like Seuss’ than narrator and voice-over star Boris Karloff… (Although Geisel complained that the creature resembled Jones himself.)

… And there are times he more closely resembles Jones’ Tom of Tom & Jerry.

Promo and LP cover art taken from one of Jones’ production cels.

Chuck in the late 1960s or early ’70s.

Jones’ 1969 Walt Kelly adaptation, The Pogo Special Birthday Special did not please its originator; Kelly, a former animator himself, reportedly hated it, But the character designs are true to the subject, just as Kelly’s comic-strip mode of whimsical satire certainly seemed to suit Jones.

Jones attempted an ambitious live action/animation project in adapting Norton Juster’s novel for children, The Phantom Tollbooth (Completed in 1968; unreleased until 1970.) It was not a success, commercially or artistically.

Jones directed, and co-authored the screenplay. Butch Patrick was Milo, and the voices included Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Candy Candido, Hans Conried and June Foray. The songs — which Leonard Maltin correctly terms “icky” — were perpetrated by Dean Elliott. After the retirement of the great Carl Stalling from Warner, Jones only ever had one good musical collaborator: The Broadway composer Albert Hague, who wrote the Grinch songs.

Juster said recently he avoided the movie for years. When he finally saw it, he couldn’t finish watching it. I know just how he felt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horton Hears a Who: A perfectly delightful 1971 adaptation of the Dr. Seuss fable, with a charming Hans Conreid providing most of the voices.

A 1973 Chuck Jones adaptation of the great George Selden novel A Cricket in Times Square. Shortened to fit a 30-minute time-slot, it was less than ideal. Nor could Jones’ character designs rival those Gareth Williams created for the book. But Jones churned out two sequels.

Perhaps archy and mehitabel would have proven a closer match to Jones’ sensibilities?

“Drag Strip.” The many feminine faces of Bugs Bunny. Most are from Jones cartoons.

Jones and his long-time colleague Friz Freleng designed and directed the first season of the television Bugs Bunny Show. Here’s Jones’ hommage to an especially memorable Freleng duet.

A late Jones sericel based on Bully for Bugs, and celebrating one of the rabbit’s most well-remembered phrases.

Action atatomized, a la Muybridge.

Chaplin was an early Jones influence. Here he pays homage to “The Kid.”

Jones a la Dali (or vice-versa): “The Persistence of Carrots.”

Picasso in his Gray Period?

Duchamp a la Daffy: “Nude Duck Descending a Staircase.”

The ACME™ company finally comes through with something useful…

“Motivation” poster, Chuck Jones-style.

Turn-about being fair play…

Two Old Masters: Jones and Freleng. The MOMA exhibit, 1985. Wall art by Chuck Jones.

Cover art for Jones’ splendid, insightful 1990 memoir “Chuck Amuck.”

I sent Chuck Jones a fan letter, accompanied by my printed review of Chuck Amuck, and received a very nice note from his daughter, telling me that he was too busy to answer personally, was pleased with my note, and that she was enclosing a copy of Chuck Reducks, autographed — which she emphasized was not something her father did often. I cherish it beyond price.

Impossible Dream: Cover art for Jones’ second memoir.

A charming 1990s book for children, with a Ralph-like wolf and a very un-Pepe-like skunk.

C.J. by C.J.

Chuck and Bugs, mid-1990s. (Copyright © Everett Collection)

The Phil DeGuard-inspired cover of Ian Frazier’s collection of humorous essays proves once again how ubiquitous Jones’ creations have become in American culture; no explanation was necessary for anyone to get the joke.

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man. Chuck Jones, 1999.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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