a Something item by J Nash (Thursday November 5th, 2009)
He made failure funny and — when gloriously up his own bum — he made art. You couldn’t ask for an apter ambassador of animation.
Chuck Jones, like his most famous hero Wile E Coyote, never gave up trying. In 1994, when he was aged approximately 308 and as crisply spry as ever, Warner Bros lured him out of his latest unconvincing retirement (about the 17th) to find their next generation of animators, having suddenly noticed there wasn’t going to be one. Chuck’s answer was deliberately to recreate the Termite Terrace training that moulded him and his contemporaries back in the 30s, ie to gather up a promising group of slightly bewildered young cartoonists, efficiently isolate them from the studio and loose them on half-a-dozen new theatrical shorts (which he also directed). It was a passing of the baton, or at least the suspiciously fizzing red stick, and a fitting capstone to a lifetime of cartoons and study of the animation process.
Today, five years after his eventual and somehow surprising death, Chuck — like Tex, Friz and (er) Bob, you can’t imagine anyone except a tax envelope addressing him by his original name — remains the most well-known and widely admired of the Golden Age directors. And in a time when it’s still possible for a major, mainstream UK DVD advertising campaign to credit Tom and Jerry to “the legendary… celebrated animator” Fred Quimby, we could do worse than Chuck as an unofficial ambassador of animation. (Okay, there’s John K, but he’d probably kick you to death with his shoe for disputing any of his arguments.)
Chuck’s enduring influence is partly because of his easy eloquence and deft wit. Not only could he make cartoons, he could talk about them with such entertaining acuity that you wouldn’t immediately realise you’d learned something important. He had a knack for the ringing phrase. There’s never been a more evocatively contemptuous description of cheap, talky animation than “illustrated radio” (it’s a cartoon if you can watch with the sound off); there’s a bracing thrill in the weskit for every animator to know they’re “actors with a pencil”; and there can’t be a producer anywhere who hasn’t guffawed at the Jones roster of comically unloving stories about cutthroat studio boss Leon Schlesinger and front office henchbloke Eddie Selzer; guffawed with rich familiarity in a booming office, perhaps while strangling a puppy and drafting a memo suggesting the cartoon department be disbanded in favour of Joe Pasquale in a mocap rig.
Partly we’re (ho) drawn to Jones because he’s somehow more human than his contemporaries. Naturals like Avery, Clampett and McKimson seemed able to toss off gymnastic animation blithely in between japes and coffee; a few flicks of the wrist and there was another fabulous scene, another spectacle in pencil. Chuck, famously, agonised to get the line on the page, nurturing a lifelong obsession with study, intellectual analysis and the spectre of failure, reflected in his most famous characters and cartoons. (Schlesinger and Selzer loudly informed him his work was inferior to the colleagues’ he admired, which also helped.) Partly, of course, Chuck’s lasting stamp is because of his longevity and charisma; where, say, Avery and Clampett, modest or neglected, require modern champions in Adamson and Kricfalusi, Jones was blessed with a showman’s knack and a teacher’s fire. Cutting a sparkling Mark Twain figure after his childhood hero, sparkling Mark Twain, he was booked solidly for interviews, speeches and lectures during those erratic career pauses (usually when he’d managed to get fired by Warners again, once, stylishly, by moonlighting an entire movie for rivals UPA). He revised his autobiography, Chuck Amuck, at 84 because he’d added so much to his CV since writing it at 77, satisfyingly titling the new edition Chuck Reducks. There’s no more amiable sponsor of Chuck than the gent himself.
Mostly though, it’s, y’know, the cartoons.
The Jones career began in a way familiar to the period. After scuffing around at the edges of the industry (washing cels, being fired by his future wife — the usual sort of thing), he joined Schlesinger’s fledgling Productions in the mid-30s, serving his animation apprenticeship under Tex Avery and Bob Clampett in the mythic Termite Terrace hovel/unit/lean-to which was the source of endless tales of shenanigany tomfooling and ruckusing horseflappery, all of which are unbelievable, impossible and true. With such pioneers of anarchic splendour as his guiding lights and a setting of inspiring deviltry, it baffled everyone when Chuck graduated to director in 1938 and his first solo shorts emerged as Disney rip-offs, lavishly leaden, unfunny, winsomely pretty or all four. His fellow directors displayed their pupil a frosty back.
As he recounted in Chuck Amuck, Jones’s moment of enlightening saviour came with 1942’s The Dover Boys. The short’s now known chiefly as the anecdotal foundation for UPA’s stabbingly angular house style, but is important in Chuck’s development for two reasons: it’s funny; and it’s extremely personal. It shouldn’t work at all — the whole thing’s a precision-milled in-joke against the Tom Stoutheart at Manly College-type stories Chuck hated as a boy, contains roughly 2.52 actual gags and obtains its laughs mostly from the villain’s thickly rolling delivery — but the combination of dazzlingly stylised layouts and animation (by John McGrew and Bob Cannon, and distinctly unlike anything up to that point), winning stupidity and sheer imaginative energy pull it off. The executives hated it, but Chuck took away from the cartoon an invaluable glow of confidence. He was a real actual proper director and it was okay to be funny in a way you thought worked, rather than feeling obliged to ape someone else’s inappropriate fist. No more Disney swipes.
Jones through the 40s gathered and honed his unit — writer Mike Maltese, layout artist (and later co-director) Maurice Noble, background painter Phil de Guard, core animators Ken Harris, Ben Washam, Lloyd Vaughan and Phil Monroe, later joined by the likes of animators Dick Thompson and Abe Levitow and layout artists Ernie Nordli and Robert Gribbroek — and began developing his theories of cartooning, an unusual rigour of analysis that earned him frequent ribbings. Distilled, these ideas were that failure is funny (but never angsty), that minimalism projects and that the character’s in the acting. (Chuck would kissingly have recognised Tony Hancock’s acting maxim, “They’ve got to see the eyes.”) Lifting an idea from his favourite silent movie comics, Jones personalised his characters’ aims — the next dinner, a place to live — to keep audiences involved. He wound down his versions of the house cast, sometimes to the exasperation of Avery-Clampett fans of Bugs and especially Daffy as mischievous, slightly terrifying forces of nature. Chuck’s Bunny is dapper and accommodating; his Duck is mercenary and sly. (He joked that he wished he were Bugs but knew he was Daffy.) In an inspired bit of casting, Jones teamed the undynamic Porky with a pantomime, neurotic Sylvester in Abbott and Costello perils-and-ghosts riffs. Pepe le Pew sprang jauntily into life. The Coyote plunged temporarily discommoded from his first pebbly cliff. Characters failed but inspiringly redoubled their efforts. People laughed.
By the 1950s, Chuck had thrashed his analyses thoroughly into shape and he and his crew were at the top of their game. Their grasp of character was so strong that they could make an action-packed trilogy (the “hunting season” trio Rabbit Fire, Rabbit Seasoning and Duck Rabbit Duck) about Bugs, Daffy and Elmer Fudd standing around disagreeing; and a picture about a singing frog, One Froggy Evening, in which nobody spoke. Their development of minimalism — reducing the trademark Warners melee to punctuating moments all in the timing — was so keenly polished that, as Joe Adamson gawped of Bully For Bugs, “A matador expresses mood, atmosphere, character and conflict simply by flaring a nostril.” The astounding acting of a Jones character’s eyes — their tautly disciplined, convincingly natural vocabulary — can be seen best in the Coyote. His every hopeful dash and dashed hope is there on his face, from glance askew to pupils vanishing in perspective. Dialogue would only ruin things.
Occasionally, more or less accidentally, Chuck’s agonising would veer into profundity. What’s Opera Doc is rightly lionised, but Rabbit of Seville and Long-Haired Hare are the funnier opera pictures. (And don’t have cop-out endings that ruin Elmer’s career-best performance.) Duck Amuck is correctly taken up as an essential existential inspection of something or other, but The Scarlet Pumpernickel is a funnier thwarted-hero short. And Robin Hood Daffy is the funniest cartoon of all as proven by science and sums, so shut up. Fatty.
But Jones never let this touch of the Artist spoil his cartoons. He was grounded by gags (and a brush of the PT Barnum — solemnly formalising his oft-quoted Nine Road Runner Rules after the fact and comprehensively breaking at least eight during the series). When Warners shut up shop theatrically, Chuck went indie, refining the US “TV special” and directing the largely maligned post-Hanna-Barbera Tom and Jerry cartoons (which are pretty decent and would be fondly remembered if called Jim vs Terry or something). A few decades of television work, new shorts, movie sequences, writing, lecturing, painting and Joe Dante cameos and Chuck was founding the legacy unit where we met him, ready to bother the world with a pesky new generation of personally trained animators — no, cartoonists.
When Jones and his crew were on form, which they seldom weren’t, they could seize laughs from a corpse on a moor. When their elegant, impish leader was gloriously up his own bum, they made art. Chuck Jones (Toonblokeii Splendibus), we salute you. Then turn unattentively and hurtle whistling into a gorge.