Today is the 101st birthday of the late Chuck Jones. Though he doesn’t have his name attached to a worldwide series of theme parks, Jones is one of the most famous and prolific figures in American animation, director of over 300 cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, Marvin the Martian, Pepe Le Pew, and Tom & Jerry, amongst many others.
An evaluation of the man’s entire career is better suited for a book, or even a chapter of a larger book, and I strongly encourage you check out any of the linked works if you want to learn more about Jones’s creative and collaborative process. But today is Saturday, and I just want to watch some cartoons, and I’m assuming you do too. As he possesses a giant filmography of which I’ve still only seen a fraction, this is a partial list, my attempt at listing the essentials.
The Undisputed Classics:
Three Jones cartoons are preserved in The National Film Registry at the Library of Congress: Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening, and What’s Opera Doc? It is no coincidence that they are all exemplars of his greatest strengths – timing, subtlety, expressive poses, and heaps of psychological humiliation.
Where his contemporaries like Tex Avery and Bob Clampett pushed the physicalities of their characters to extremes, Jones reigned his in, communicating his best jokes in small but nonetheless expressive movement. When radical shifts occur, it’s in the disparity of poses, not the outrageous stretch in between, where the joke hits best. All of this is on full display in One Froggy Evening. Along with the comedy, the endless torrent of humiliation and frustration the construction worker experiences are communicated not with dialog, but with furrowed brows and shifting eyes.
Jones spent seven weeks instead of the usual five putting together What’s Opera, Doc?, composed of 106 shots, well over the standard 60. Through a wide, subjective color palette and a commitment to the timing and emotional spectrum of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” What’s Opera, Doc? is simultaneously a tongue-and-cheek riff on Fantasia and one of the most earnest of the Looney Tunes ever produced.
In Chuck Jones’s hands, Daffy Duck could sustain an entire cartoon. While Bugs, Elmer, Porky, and the rest require a foil to bring out their personalities, Daffy’s foil is the world itself. Nowhere else is this more evident than in Duck Amuck. Constantly victimized by the unseen painter that relentlessly manipulates his universe, Jones reiterates a point that he often made himself in interviews – the cool, confident Bugs Bunny is who we want to be, but the pathetic, frustrated, Daffy is who we usually are. And again, Jones communicates so much of this through Daffy’s face, not just through the bizarre landscape and costume changes.
The Hunting Trilogy:
Though Duck Amuck, What’s Opera, Doc?, and One Froggy Evening proved that Jones and his crew could pull of cartoons with one character, opera soundtracks, and no dialog, these were all successful because they were deviations from an established formula. The three cartoons that make up the so-called “Hunting Trilogy” – Rabbit Seasoning, Rabbit Fire, and Duck Rabbit Duck! – are effectively the same premise. Elmer Fudd is hunting, Daffy and Bugs are in the woods, whether or not is Duck or Rabbit season is in dispute, Daffy is repeatedly shot in the face. But the cartoons rarely get boring. Though Bugs, Elmer, and Daffy had each been around for close to a decade by the time these cartoons were produced, the three-way character dynamic infused in them by Jones and writer Michael Maltese creates an almost self-perpetuating gag machine.
Jones frequently described his characterization of Bugs Bunny as a “counter-revolutionary,” who wanted nothing but to be left alone and only went into action when his antagonists finally went too far. Outside of Elmer and Daffy, Jones gave Bugs a wide range of antagonists such as Giovanni Jones in Long-Haired Hare, Toro the bull in A Bully for Bugs, Marvin the Martian in Haredevil Hare, and Witch Hazel in Broom-Stick Bunny. Outside of the Hunting Trilogy, one of the Best Bugs vs. Elmer cartoons is The Rabbit of Seville, another musically-driven outing in the vein of Long Haired-Hare and What’s Opera, Doc?, though considerably more gag-driven, with a joke to match nearly every musical cue.
Outside of Duck Amuck and the Hunting Trilogy, Jones found many other ways to humiliate Daffy Duck, most successfully in a series of genre parodies: The Scarlet Pumpernickel (a personal favorite, in no small part for its abundance of dandyish costumes), Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century, Drip-Along Daffy, and Robin Hood Daffy. Porky joins Daffy in the latter three as a straight man (though mislabeled by Daffy as “comedy relief” in Drip-Along Daffy) providing a calm counterpoint to the increasingly angry and egotistical Daffy.
But Speaking of Frustrated Failures…
Jones’s skill with evoking a sense of empathy for even his most foolish (or at least perpetually unlucky) characters was the foundation for what might be his crowning work – the first 26 Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons. Redundant as they are, they remain some of his funniest, and his most effective. In the words of animation historian Michael Barrier:
“(Jones) understood that violence must have consequences in the real world; otherwise, a gag with violence in it will seem incomplete and unsatisfying. But the consequences can be different, and in the world of Jones’s cartoons, they are: the grisliest fate is not to be maimed or killed, but to be embarrassed…The Coyote is at the center of each gag; the long falls and tremendous explosions are simply means of making him funny. What matters is not that a boulder is falling on the Coyote, but how he feels, as revealed in his face and body, when he sees it coming.”
As there are 26 essentially interchangeable cartoons in this series, it’s hard to recommend one of the other. Fast and Furry-ous is the first, and after that I’d recommend just looking at this list and watching all of them, or picking based on which title pun you think is the best (Whoa, Be Gone! or Scrambled Aches are two of mine).
But wait, there’s more:
Before he honed his style, Jones started off his career with Warner Brothers making Disney-esque cutesy cartoons starring Sniffles the Mouse (they’re pretty obnoxious, I won’t provide the links). Jones, however, was able to transfer that cuteness, and mix it in with some of most expressive work, in Feed the Kitty. As in much of his best work, Jones’s two protagonists don’t speak, but communicate everything we need to know about them in their faces and in their body language. The cartoon made an impact on the people at Pixar, as they pay a nearly shot-for-shot homage in Monsters, Inc.
In a bold effort to ditch his Disney-esque work in 1942, Jones made “The Dover Boys at Pimento University” or “The Rivals of Roquefort Hall.” Based around shape-based characters and minimal motion, Dover Boys is one of the earliest examples of the Jones style.
Jones continued to experiment with sound, shape, and motion, later on his career with cartoons such as Now Hear This and The Dot and the Line.
Some Things I Didn’t Cover:
- After Jones left Warner Bros. in the early 1960s, he went on to direct 34 Tom and Jerry shorts for MGM.
- He helmed the animation for the holiday classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas as well another Dr. Seuss adaptation with Horton Hears a Who!
- He collaborated with Seuss and many other animators with the Private Snafu WW2 propaganda shorts. He also worked with UPA in making Hell-bent for Election, a FDR campaign cartoon.
- He directed the animation for the film adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth.
- He made hundreds of cartoons, I can not cover all of them. But someday I will see them all.
Chuck Jones received an Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1996. Here’s a clip of his acceptance speech, gratingly introduced by a baggy-suited Robin Williams:
That’s it. Go watch some cartoons.
In my last year of college I took a course called “Teaching Writing.” One of the articles I read contended that the reason a teacher should not spare intense critical comments on students’ papers was to build a voice in the students’ head. If they read criticism enough times, they’ll become critics themselves, and they’ll see the red ink before they ever commit their mistakes to paper. I believe it, not just because I’ve had enough of my writing eviscerated to the point where I’ve become my own biggest critic, but because I’ve had a critic’s voice lingering in the back of my head since I was 12. That voice belonged to Roger Ebert, specifically the voice he established in the hundreds of reviews, essays, and articles collected in Roger Ebert’s Home Video Companion, 1996 Edition.
There are a lot of different ways for me to explain why I love the movies, but I can essentially boil it down it to a quick succession of events that happened in my sixth grade year: I went to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring in December, fell in love with it, and tuned into the Academy awards the following March. Fellowship didn’t win any major awards, which instead went to a bunch of movies I hadn’t heard of. This pissed me off. Not so much because Fellowship didn’t win, but because there were movies I hadn’t heard of, movies that everyone else in the room knew about, movies that, even when cut into 30-second clips, looked exciting and interesting in ways I didn’t know movies could be. And there were those long montages, the retrospective tributes that have long been held as evidence that the Oscars are nothing but a self-congratulatory echo chamber, that nevertheless opened my young eyes to a whole history of references that I didn’t get.
My preoccupation with catching every cultural reference was simultaneously coming to head with The Simpsons, a show that made references its stock-in-trade, not just in passing jokes, but in entire sequences and episodes. I had The Simpsons: The Complete Guide to our Favorite Family, an indispensable book summarizing each episode of the series during its golden years, seasons 1-8. Each summary somewhere contained a “Movie Moment” box that explained those jokes the adults were laughing at were references to The Godfather and Alien and A Clockwork Orange and a whole list of movies I had never seen, and just possibly heard of.
And in those days, youngsters, the internet was slow and made a terrible noise when you had to connect to it and, like today, it wasn’t a safe place for 12-year-olds. So I used what resources I had. If something on The Simpsons or The Oscars or on TCM sparked my interest, I went to the warped and weathered copy of Roger Ebert’s Home Video Companion in the coffee table and looked it up. Then maybe I’d read the review right after or right before, or look into one of the titles that caught my eye when I was flipping through the pages. I’d see the star-ratings he’d give the movies, and find that movies I’d liked as a kid were actually regarded as terrible, and that some of those VHS tapes on the shelf I’d ignored for so long were considered classics. I read his defense of Hoop Dreams and Natural Born Killers, and learned that what made something good or bad wasn’t just its content, but its form and message and its intentions. I learned how to do a scene-by-scene analysis of Pulp Fiction years before my parents deemed me old enough to see it, even years before I snuck the tape off my grandpa’s shelf and watched it when no one was home. I read his “100 Scenes in 100 Years” in the back of the book and my list of must-see movies expanded, and it kept expanding as I learned of directors and actors and the many trends and movements they were a part of. And I built a vocabulary: Character development. Archetypes. Genre. Formula. Shots. Narrative. And that vocabulary became an arsenal. Now if someone challenged my tastes, I had the language and the historical knowledge to take them to court on their claims. I can’t say if I always won – I was in my early teens, and what was once a charming precociousness was quickly turning into off-putting condescension towards nearly everyone – but I was learning how to be a critic.
And not just a critic of the movies. It translated into books, comics, TV, music, politics, school, adults, my peers, myself. Some might say I went a little overboard. If you know me you know that I tend to assess reality in the terms of film criticism – political events are too heavy-handed, conversations were too reliant on exposition, this friend is a complex supporting character while this coworker remains frustratingly one-dimensional, etc. But apart from his ability to analyze and criticize and really blast the shit out of something he hated, there was a very human and often very passionate optimism that ran through everything he wrote. Read any of his many great blog posts, or his stories of Gene Siskel, Pauline Kael, Russ Meyer, Malcom McLaren, and there’s no doubt that he cared deeply about people and the world at large. To get so down on North, but to still champion Hoop Dreams or Dark City demonstrates more than just a love of the movies, but a serious, intense conviction that what we say and what we produce is important and has meaning, and that if at its best a roll of film can make just a few people’s days, or lives, better, then it is no doubt worth giving a damn about. At least that’s what I’ve picked up. And on my best days, I like to think that’s what motivates me, too.
I could go on. I could get sappy. If I wasn’t careful, I could turn this into my autobiography. I could lament for a few more paragraphs that I never got to meet him, or even write him a letter, just to thank him. But I’ll keep it to this, for now. I know I’m not alone. There are countless other people just like me I’m sure, who got into film through Ebert and At The Movies and his reviews and his books. And like how I hear him in my head every time I watch a movie, I’m sure so many hear the same. So while you might be dead, Mr. Ebert, your voice hasn’t gotten any quieter.
Home Video Companion? You’re goddamned right.
So maybe you’re wondering why the hell I haven’t posted anything since August. Odds are you aren’t, but for the record, it’s because:
1) I have a job, you bum.
2) I write comics, and my current project BFD keeps getting longer and more stressful the more I write it. (Who woulda thought?)
3) I find that while expressing my ideas in the essay/blog post form works pretty well, I really think in terms of comics, and turning my ideas into comics like the one below is a better use of my time (though arguably a better use of time for artists).
As first seen on The New Sincerity.