What Joy is All About: Chuck Jones (Part One)

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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 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.

Eight-year old Charles Martin Jones, Ocean Park CA.
Wile E. Coyote was no doubt taking notes.

Three of the Boys of Termite Terrace: Tex Avery, Chuck, and Bob Clampett, partially obscuring Jones’ face (deliberately?) Jones often cited Avery, along with Friz Freleng, as one of the two greatest short-subject directors. 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.

5 - Presto Changeo

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. Since Mel Blanc nailed it so perfectly in Avery’s A Wild Hare, I can’t think why Jones felt the need to tamper with perfection.

Jones hit an early high-water mark with the brilliant and utterly charming 1940 pantomime short Good Night, Elmer. As a boy, Chuck Jones once watched Charlie Chaplin filming; this 8-minute gem is the greatest Chaplin short Charlie never made.

Elmer's Pet Rabbit - Jones.jpg

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?”

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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.

Jones’ logo for Bugs’ first credit as a fully-fledged cartoon star. (Is anyone or anything ever partially-fledged?)

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 (“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.”

Dan Backslide is rather fond of Dora as well. (Or at least, of her father’s money.)

My favorite moment: Dan Backslide spots a convenient runabout: “I’ll steal it!” He confides to the audience. “NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW!!!”

“Dainty” Dora Standpipe makes short work of the wicked Dan Backslide in the breathless climax of The Dover Boys. Quothe Backslide, “Help, Tom! Help, Dick! Help, Larry!”

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 backdrops deliberately eschewed the Disneyesque realism of Jones’ early work — sometimes to its 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 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 almost aggressively 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 (Bea Benaderet here) 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. (“Tell me more about my eyes.”)

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 Tonic: Another patented stop-the-action-in-mid-stream Jones moment.

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 (and which featured an embryonic Sylvester) but, on its own terms, awfully good.

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.

Hair-Raising Hare: Bugs encounters the living hairball later designated as “Gossamer” for the first time.

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 (1948) introduced Marvin, of the immortal Iludium-Pugh 36 Explosive Space Modulator.

Haredevil Hare: Jones’ growing mastery of poses for comic and psychological impact is manifest in these reaction shots, as Bugs realizes he’s landed on “da moon.”

A memorable one-off for Bugs, My Bunny Lies Over the Sea (1948) pits the wily wabbit against a fanatic Scotsman.

With Mike Maltese now firmly-ensconced as Jones’ story writer, the great glory days begin.

Bugs as “Leopold” (whisper who dares) in the Jones/Maltese masterwork Long-Haired Hare (1949).

Long-Haired Hare: Bugs as teeny-bopper (complete with saddle-shoes) requests an autograph from Giovanni Jones: “Oh, Mr. Jones! Frankie and Perry just aren’t in it! You’re my swooner dreamboat lover-boy!”

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.)

The Jones-Maltese aesthetic in operation: The bogus Latinate genera bespeak both intelligence, and a sublime, Sam Clemens-like sense of the ridiculous.

Coyote model sheet for “Fast and Furry-ous.”

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

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By Scott Ross

With this single movie, the entire landscape of animation was altered, for a time. Now, of course, the only arena that still embraces hand-drawn animation is television, for a few series but mostly for commercial advertising. Even — nay, especially — there, Roger Rabbit had almost immediate influence: Within months of the movie’s release, one noticed that the familiar sugared cereal icons looked softer, less defined by strong, black outline, particularly in the admixture of live actors and cartooned spokes-creatures. That, as much as anything — sadly but predictably — is the film’s true legacy, not its many and manifold narrative delights. As Mel Brooks once observed, advertising is a lot stronger than life.

The movie was loosely based on — “suggested by” might be closer to the mark — Gary K. Wolf’s satirical mystery novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?* in which the milieus were 1970s Los Angeles and the comic strip, not the animated cartoon industry of the late 1940s. Roger and his cohorts spoke in word balloons, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t end at all well for the titular hare. From this ingenious premise, the screenwriters, Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman, concocted an oxymoronic, Technicolor neo-noir set in the post-war era, adding the plangent, real-life demise of the once-beloved L.A. Red Car Line as a sort of Chinatown sub-plot.

Key animation was entrusted to Richard Williams, whose magnificently designed and animated 1970 Oscar® winner A Christmas Carol remains the single finest movie edition of that creaky perennial. Williams had hated the nailed-down-camera approach Disney traditionally took on its live action/cartoon olios like Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and saw Roger Rabbit as an opportunity to free the cel from stasis. As a result, the camerawork on the picture (it was lensed by Dean Cundey) is as free in live action as it would have been had the movie’s conceit — that cartoon figures work in real-time, on sets, not as the painstaking result of hard-working animators — been reality; Williams’ liberation of the camera gives the movie much of its inspired anarchy.

Setting the story in the ’40s also allowed the filmmakers to make use of the animated stars of the era, especially, although not exclusively, Disney’s. Thus, Mickey Mouse is cheek-by-jowl with his Termite Terrace rival Bugs Bunny (and rather suffers by comparison); MGM’s Droopy makes a somewhat sinister cameo appearance in an elevator; Betty Boop appears, in black and white, commenting on how the changes in movie fashion affect even those stars animated from without rather than within; Yosemite Sam shows up, pants aflame; and those two famously irascible ducks, Daffy and Donald, perform a murderous piano duet.

While Steven Spielberg set up the movie at Touchstone/Disney, the animated humor owes much more to the antic Warner Bros. style of the period, and to Tex Avery at MGM, than to Uncle Walt’s more placid period output. (Watch the opening cartoon-within-a-film with your pause button handy some time, to see just how brilliantly Williams aped Avery’s exaggerated takes.)

The movie’s director, Robert Zemeckis, checked his previous tendency to mean-spiritedness here, and he kept the humans — aside from the marvelous Christopher Lloyd, whose Elmira Gultch-like Judge Doom turns out (avert eyes here if you haven’t seen the movie) to be a cartoon anyway — fully grounded. Bob Hoskins’ stoical/belligerent presence holds all possible inclination to sentiment at bay, and the very real sadness this otherwise cheery film evokes comes from a keen sense of shared cultural loss.

Charles Fleischer, who bears a felicitous (if unrelated) last name for this project, provides the vocal characterization for Roger in a wholly original style. You may find him obnoxious, in the manner of Avery’s Screwy Squirrel, and Chuck Jones for one loathed Roger. But Jones et al had the advantage of refining their characters over time, in multiple shorts, a luxury no feature film can match. A perfect complement to Fleischer’s mania is Kathleen Turner’s languidly sensual Jessica Rabbit, Roger’s hilariously phlegmatic humanoid wife. (Her caressive singing, however, comes courtesy of the then-Mrs. Spielberg, Amy Irving.)

Some stellar voice-over talent is also on hand: Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo (as Donald Duck), June Foray, Russi Taylor, Pat Buttram, Nancy Cartwright, and, as Droopy, Richard Williams himself.

The richness of the animated characters’ look, enhanced via computer, recalled classic Disney techniques even as it went beyond them; their softness and lack of broad outline were revelatory, and it’s what those teevee ad firms picked up on so quickly. And everyone else, it seems, liked the sound of the nomenclature the filmmakers developed for the ghettoized animated characters, referred to as “Toons”; the slang has since become boringly ubiquitous.

Williams, who’d won his job on the basis of his work on a then-unfinished feature on which he’d been working for 20 years, hoped to pour the income from Roger into its completion. He later saw the same Disney executives who’d feted him for his miracle-work here essentially steal his idea, for their own Aladdin. By the time that one had become a box-office behemoth, what little interest there may have been in Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler was summarily murdered. When it finally opened, as Arabian Knights, it didn’t make a ripple. And shortly thereafter, Williams himself died.

Such are your rewards for enriching The Mouse.

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*Note the question mark, which the movie’s title eschews.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross