So many innn-teresting people: Chuck Jones (Part Two)

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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…

How do?
Welcome to my shop,
Let me cut your mop
Let me shave your crop…

Daintily… Daintily

Hey you!
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?”

Self-portrait, 195-?

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.

Rabbit Seasoning:
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.”
Example:
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.

“You’re… deth-picable!”

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

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?”

1bd86-10-petrabbit2

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