By Scott Ross
21 September 2012 marked the centenary of Chuck Jones’ birth. I can honestly think of no single creative artist whose work has given me more pleasure throughout my life than Jones. At his phenomenal best his animated shorts are both silly and profound, thoughtful and wildly funny — and, as sheer living works of art, astonishingly beautiful. At his worst he could be too-clever-by-half, and his later work had a tendency to replace movement with verbal pomposity. But in his prime only Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Jones’ old Warner Bros. bete noir Bob Clampett, and a few of Disney’s animators (Bill Tytla, Jack Kinney, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnson) could touch his genius. And none of the Disney artists above directed their finest movies, as Jones did.
Three of the Boys of Termite Terrace: Tex Avery, Chuck, and Bob Clampett. Jones often cited Avery, along with Friz Freleng, as one of the two greatest short-subject directors. But when assigned to Clampett’s unit in the ‘30s, he chafed under the yoke of that often shockingly unfettered imagination; theirs was a relationship that only grew more contentious with the passage of the years.
Jones was made a full-fledged director in 1938. A year later he tackled Daffy Duck for the first time, in Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur. The unnamed caveman’s voice bears a canny resemblance to that of Jack Benny. (And yes, the club is floating. Amazing what they can do in these modern animated cartoons, isn’t it?)
Old Glory (1939) is beautifully animated but almost unbearably “patriotic” in a way that seems impossibly square today. Jones drew a nice Porky Pig, though.
Prest-O Change-O (1939) was Jones’ third short as a fully-fledged director of animation. One of the entries in a series featuring two pups — much less anthropomorphic than Disney’s Pluto — this cartoon also contained a pesky rabbit modeled on Ben “Bugs” Hardaway’s bunny from Porky’s Hare Hunt.
This representative shot from Curious Puppy (1939) should give you a good (or bad) idea of just how precious Jones’ early work as a director could be.
Jones’ first attempt at refining Bugs Hardaway’s bunny was the not-terribly successful Elmer’s Candid Camera of 1940. The posture is right, but the character design — and the coolly annoying voice — are all wrong.
Jones hit an early high-water mark with the brilliant and utterly charming 1940 pantomime short Good Night, Elmer. The young Chuck Jones once watched Charlie Chaplin filming; this 8-minute gem is the greatest Chaplin short Charlie never made.
Elmer’s Pet Rabbit (1941) The first short in which Bugs was billed as the star. A later bunny would doubtless have commented on that sign: “Dey don’t know me vewwy well, do dey?”
Elmer’s Pet Rabbit: The character design for Bugs is better here, but for some reason Jones eschewed the now-familiar vocal Mel Blanc first employed for the figure we now know as Bugs Bunny in Tex Avery’s A Wild Hare of the previous year in favor of one almost infinitely less effective.
Many of Jones’ early shorts as a Warners director are a bit drear, what with cute puppies and a sniffling mouse. His first indisputably great cartoon was the brilliantly stylized 1942 “Rover Boys” burlesque, The Dover Boys at Pimento University (that’s “P.U.,” to the cognoscenti.)
Here the Dovers — Tom, Dick and Larry — pause in their search for perennial “coward, bully, cad and thief” Dan Backslide (modeled on Schlesinger studio gag-man Tedd Pierce) when they hear a familiar damsel’s call of distress.
The Dover Boys with Dora Stanpipe, their perpetual inamorata. Hearing the laughs this superb short received, Jones realized he was on the right track at last: “Once you have heard a strange audience burst into laughter at a film you directed, you realize what the word joy is all about.”
Conrad the Sailor (1942) marked a new emphasis on design in Jones’ cartoons, when Eugene Fleury began doing his backgrounds and John McGrew the layouts. Their stylized backgrounds deliberately eschewed the Disneyesque realism of Jones’ early work — sometimes to his own detriment. The eponymous cat was voiced by Disney veteran (and Goofy voice-man) Pinto Colvig, in very definite Goof mode. (Especially when singing, “Over the sea/Let’s go, men…”)
My Favorite Duck, 1942. Jones’ first teaming of Daffy with Porky Pig. One of the hallmarks of his early ’40s style was the sudden, and often hilarious, halting of action, often with one or more of the characters caught in mid-air.
Hold the Lion, Please! (1942) Notable, aside from the rather inappropriate stylized Fleury/McGrew backgrounds, for such throwaway bits such as the hilarious way the other denizens of the jungle feign terror at the very dopey King of the Beasts, and Bugs gardening while sporting a cunning green bonnet.
Case of the Missing Hare (1942) is noteworthy as the first short in which Bugs says, a la Groucho Marx, “Of course you know, this means war!” This time, the stylized Fleury backgrounds worked perfectly with Jones’ form and fantastic content.
Produced for the U.S. Army, the Private Snafu shorts (the character was created by Frank Capra) began promisingly, with Jones directing, and Theodor Geisel writing the rhymed dialogue. The off-screen narrator was quick to reassure the audience — mostly G.I.s — that the acronym “SNAFU” stood for “Situation Normal, All — All Fouled Up.” The wink was more than implied. The shorts did get in a fair amount of adult humor, though, and even the occasional taboo word.
The Aristo-Cat (1943) introduced Jones’ urban mice characters Hubie and Bertie, here tormenting the titular figure. In this outing, Hubie and Bertie were voiced by Jones writers Mike Maltese and Tedd Pierce. In later editions, Stan Freberg and Dick Nelson did the chores; Nelson was later replaced by Mel Blanc. Once again, the Fleury/McGrew backgrounds worked with, rather than against, the comedy. Who can ever forget the sight of the pampered cat, hemmed in by the forced-perspective backgrounds, with his hilariously heart-rending cry (“Meadows!”) for the butler who’s just given notice?
Jones’ “Inki” cartoons, featuring a diminutive African hunter, are seldom seen today, although they’re infinitely less racist than some of the stuff the Disney and MGM artists — as well as Jones’ own Warners compatriots — were turning out.
The most memorable aspect of Inki and the Mynah Bird (1943) was the Mendelsohnnian fowl, always seen silently hopping to the strains of “Fingal’s Cave.” Jones later said that Walt Disney was puzzled by this cartoon and asked him to explain it. “It takes place in the Fourth Dimension,” was Chuck’s response. “And I don’t understand the Fourth Dimension!”
1943’s Wackiki Wabbit featured more stylized backgrounds; this time the layouts were by Bernyce Polifka, Gene Fleury’s wife. The shipwrecked derelicts who take after the rabbit are caricatures of Jones’ then-current writer (Tedd Pierce) and his future one (Mike Maltese), antagonists in what we laughingly call real life.
In Tom Turk and Daffy (1944) the canvasback anti-hero hides a fellow fowl from Porky’s gun… until he realizes that, by doing so, he’s passing up a fine Thanksgiving meal. Quoth the turk, from inside the snowman: “Qusiling.”
Among Jones’ best occasional stars were The Three Bears, whom some have cited as unconscious prototypes for Archie and Edith Bunker and “Meathead” Mike Stivik. In their initial 1944 outing, Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears, Mama — dolled up a la Veronica Lake — makes a play for a startled Bugs.
Odor-able Kitty. This 1945 short introduced (as “Henry”) the ever-oblivious Pepe LePew. In his initial appearance, interestingly (and rather like something out of one of Frank Tashlin’s erotically-tinged cartoons) it’s a male cat Henry believes to be a fellow skunk. He never made that mistake again.
Hare Tonic (1945) Bugs, as “Doctor Killpatient,” convinces the gullible Elmer he has “rabbititis.”
Hare-Conditioned. A minor masterpiece from 1945, featuring a department store manager Bugs says reminds him of “Da Great Gildersneeze.” The Harold Peary sound-alike voice was the work of an un-credited Dick Nelson.
Bugs looks fetching, but his color sense leaves a great deal to be desired.
Trap Happy Porky (1945) a very funny Jones short anatomizing the pig’s increasing frustration with his un-welcome guests. Not nearly as great as the similarly-themed Clampett masterpiece Kitty Kornered a year later (which introduced an embryonic Sylvester) but awfully good on its own terms.
Hair-Raising Hare (1946): The placard sign, mostly (but not always) for silent characters like the Coyote, was another Jones trademark, borrowed from Tex Avery but refined; where Avery used them to indicate spot-gags (“This is an electric eel”) Jones put them to use in heightening and further illuminating character.
A Feather in His Hare (1948) features a newly stream-lined Bugs doing battle with a notably dim-witted Native, the Elmer Fudd of the bow-hunting set.
Haredevil Hare: Jones’ growing mastery of poses for comic and psychological impact is manifest in these reaction shots, as Bugs reacts to landing on da moon.
A memorable one-off for Bugs, My Bunny Lies Over the Sea (1948) pits the wily wabbit against a fanatic Scotsman.
Bugs as “Leopold” (whisper who dares) in the Jones masterwork Long-Haired Hare (1949) With Mike Maltese now firmly-ensconced as Jones’ story writer, the great glory days begin.
Fast and Furry-ous (1949) began as a joke: Bored with chases, Jones and Maltese decided to spoof the genre with The Chase-to-End-All-Chases. They were all too successful, ushering in what proved to be a long-running series starring the later-named Wile E. Coyote (Carnivorous Vulgaris) and the Roadrunner (Accelleratii Incredibus.)
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross