Earlier this year, during Bradford International Film Festival 2012, we kicked off the first part of our Chuck Jones Centenary Tribute with a series of screenings and family workshops celebrating his life and work.
Part two of our tribute will take place during Bradford Animation Festival 2012, with screenings of some of his best-known films and a very special on-stage interview with his granddaughter Valerie Kausen.
Valerie will be in conversation with Professor Paul Wells, a long-time friend of BAF who took some time earlier this year to write a moving tribute to Chuck Jones, and today seemed like the perfect opportunity to share it with you.
Left Turns at Albuquerque: Chuck Jones and Cartoon Culture
I was fortunate enough to meet Chuck Jones, the most literate and influential of Warner Bros.’ famous roster of animation directors, on two occasions. Each time he was convivial and engaging, and articulate proof, if it was needed, that making cartoons is not merely the stuff of entertainment but a significant art and an underrated craft.
Jones was extremely well read and promoted a deeper understanding of the American cartoon, often resenting the idea that only European independent short form animation was acknowledged as ‘art’ (suggesting in response that Tex Avery was one of the world’s greatest abstract film-makers).
Jones was always highly opinionated, fiercely defending Walt Disney and his achievements, most notably Disney’s creation of an industry with international reach, and judging Saturday morning cartoons as, at best, the worst kind of ‘illustrated radio’.
Jones had been working with Rolf Harris as part of Harris’ preparation for Rolf’s Cartoon Club, offering advice and support for Harris’ ‘live’ drawing of Warner Bros.’ characters on the show, and in the selection of cartoons that illustrated specific approaches to animation.
At the heart of this mentoring was the idea that caricature and editorial choice were fundamental to all art, and most explicitly so in short-form animation. As Jones often remarked, there was no great point in doing something so time consuming or expensive as animation if it could not offer something which could not be done in live action.
Jones’ impressive wit and intelligence about how animation could create alternative worlds and outlooks characterized his whole approach, and informs his two quasi-autobiographies, Chuck Amuck and Chuck Reducks.
In these books, he stresses the importance of characters, creating the ‘inner logic’ of the cartoon world by imposing disciplines or limits, and the ways design, staging and space enable great possibilities.
His career spans the maturation and mainstream embrace of cartoons as an intrinsically American form of creative expression, and it is Jones who has contributed most to this acceptance—What’s Opera, Doc?, Duck Amuck, Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century and One Froggy Evening take up four of the top five places in Jerry Beck’s The 50 Greatest Cartoons, as voted by 1,000 animation professionals.
Jones was born in Spokane, Washington in 1912, but soon after moved to Hollywood where he was a daily witness to the work of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, as well as becoming an extra in the Mack Sennett silent comedies, where learning about physical comedy first hand would prove extremely influential on his later career.
Jones left high school to take courses at Los Angeles’ Chouinard Art Institute, and first worked in animation as a cel washer and inker at Ub Iwerks’ studio—Iwerks was Disney’s animator on his first shorts in the 1920s—and later, with Charles Mintz’ Screen Gems and Walter Lantz at Universal.
In 1933, he finally joined Leon Schlesinger at ‘Termite Terrace’, the down-at-heel studio bungalow that produced cartoons for Warner Bros., where he stayed for 29 years. He joined key figures Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin and Tex Avery, whom he was both influenced by and sometimes competed with.
The lisping Schlesinger had little interest in cartoons, and was often gently mocked and undermined as the animators sought to extend the house style and impose more authorship. This was chiefly in the spirit of creating work which moved beyond the pastoral idylls, barnyard humour, sentimentality, and the emergent classical aesthetic of the Disney studio, to re-invent the cartoon.
Jones and this incredible pool of talent sought to make cartoons that were knowing, urbane, surreal, and adult; works that would result in such mutual amusement that Schlesinger was forced to enquire:
what’s all this laughter to do with animated cartoons?
At each day’s rushes he would command, ‘run the garbage’, and never realized his lisp was the inspiration for Daffy Duck’s voice. Such detail is but one example, though, of Jones’ commitment to the development and refinement of character as the core agency in the cartoon.
Jones’ directorial debut was The Night Watchman (1938), but his first major character, a mouse called ‘Sniffles’, followed a year later in Naughty But Mice (1939). This was still in essence Disneyesque, and not yet part of Warner’s shift to more progressive work from 1941 onwards.
As Jones was to always insist, experimentation was always part of his working practice, but not something he overtly named as such. So The Dover Boys employed a more minimalist styling and ‘smear’ animation in which characters leap from pose to pose. It also ran at an unusual nine-and-a-half minutes, and developed an extended narrative.
As well as extending the aesthetic of his work, Jones increasingly thought about the relationship between animation, politics, and education, and these became underpinning aspects of his outlook even when making mainstream cartoons. He participated in Hell Bent for Election (1944) in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1946 he reinforced his credentials as someone actively thinking about the art of animation by publishing a Hollywood Quarterly article about animation and music, stressing its narrative, symbolic, and counterpointing qualities.
The 1950s were halcyon years in Jones’ output. He won Oscars for For Scenti-mental Reasons, featuring amorous skunk Pepé le Pew, and So Much for So Little for Best Documentary Short Subject, evidence of animation’s capacity to work as a documentary.
In 1953 Jones made Duck Amuck, a self-reflexive deconstruction of both the animated cartoon and film form in general. Like his previous work, Duck Amuck constantly engages with the capacity for animation to reinvent cinematic and graphic imagination. Jones’ gift was to employ Warner Bros. characters to use this great imaginative vocabulary for comic effects.
In 1955 Jones directed One Froggy Evening, featuring Michigan J. Frog as an all-singing, all-dancing frog who refuses to perform when his new owner tries to exploit his talents on the showbiz circuit. The oscillation between the frog as a lumpen, indifferent creature, and his sudden elasticity as a practiced Vaudevillian—funny in itself—also comments on Jones’ approach to engaging with animals. Like Disney animators, Jones was well versed in drawing keenly observed, anatomically persuasive creatures, but his main desire was to create comic caricature with empathetic motives and intentions. Much of Jones’ comedy is actually about audience recognition of the wit in Jones’ visual and verbal literacy.
This is perhaps best demonstrated in What’s Opera, Doc?, a seven-minute distillation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle which doesn’t include overt ‘gags’ but relies on the absurd juxtaposition of Bugs Bunny in drag, Elmer Fudd as ‘mighty warrior’, Maurice Noble’s colour palette and epic design, and sung exchanges like ‘You’re so wuvvwy’ ‘Yes, I know it, I can’t help it’, to work against the dramatic and artistic conventions of opera.
Though the music remains authentic, and the choreography signifies high culture, the characters are full of irony and playfulness, gently critiquing Romanticism and Extremism along the way. Jones’ desire to revise and re-work particular works in this way was tested when making a series of Tom and Jerry cartoons for MGM between 1963 and 1971.
Uneasy with the broad slapstick violence of the classic-era cartoons, Jones essentially renders the characters in a more gentle and lyrical style. In Jones’ Tom and Jerry cartoons, the characters become merely playful adversaries rather than the full-blown forces of nature they were during the 1940s and early 1950s. Such lyricism was underpinned with nostalgia for an earlier time; a similar melancholic strain had also surfaced in Jones’ Boyhood Daze (1957), Martian Through Georgia (1962) and The Bear That Wasn’t (1967).
Arguably, though Jones made exemplary work in the latter part of his career, he always resented the closure of the theatrical cartoon division at Warner Bros. and the end of what seemed to be the ‘Golden Era’ of animation.
The compilation film The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979) features some of the best sequences from what some regard as Jones’ finest work—the Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner shorts, with their ACME devices and wildly inventive chases. It is in some senses a painful reminder of better times, even in the era of his well-made adaptations of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (1971), Dr Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who (1971) and Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975) and Mowgli’s Brothers(1976).
Running his own companies, Jones remained prolific until his death in 2002. He made cartoons with his favourite Warner Bros. characters in the mid-1990s—by then a much-revered and awarded figure, fully recognised for his achievements.
At the end of Jones’ second Oscar-winning short, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (1963), the lovelorn line—in pursuit of a dot already romantically involved with a squiggle—finally shows himself to be ‘dazzling, clever, mysterious, versatile, erudite, eloquent, profound, enigmatic, complex and compelling’ in a series of stunning animated images. It is a description that befits master animator and artist, Chuck Jones himself.