Sunday, March 16, 2008

Masters of Animation: Chuck Jones

Charles Martin Jones was born on 12 September 1912. His father had a habit of failing in his business ventures; he'd created lots of letterhead that suddenly became useless, and as a result, Jones had a lot of extra paper to draw on as a child. He was also an avid reader, like the rest of his family, and Jones grew up literate and intelligent; he's even though to have had a photographic memory. The family lived near the Charles Chaplin Studios, and another influence popped into his life as a result: film comedies. He observed lots of silent comedies being made from a distance and learned a lot about comic timing. As a child he was an extra in Mack Sennett films. He was an experienced young man, so literate and intelligent that he got bored in high school and dropped out at the age of 15 to attend the Chouinard Art Institute.

After art school, Chuck found himself basically unemployable. He was starving and nearly on the verge of becoming a janitor when a friend of his told him he should try and get a job in animation. In 1931, Jones became a cel washer at Celebrity Pictures, the Ub Iwerks studio. It was here that he met a cel painter named Dorothy Webster, whom he would later marry. He also met the great Grim Natwick, the animator behind Betty Boop and later Snow White, who was, like Jones, a trained artist. He saw some talent in the young man and brought him into his unit as an in-betweener, teaching Chuck the importance of animating movement. This lesson, which was later cemented in him by Tex Avery, stayed with Jones forever. For whatever reason, his time at Celebrity Pictures was short-lived, as was a brief stint working for Walter Lantz.

In 1933, Chuck was hired at Leon Schlesinger Productions, which was in flux after Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising had left for MGM along with their character, Bosko, the star of Schlesinger's Looney Tunes series. He had put Friz Freleng in charge of the Merrie Melodies, but needed to quickly replace the lost personnel with new blood. Bob Clampett was part of this new influx; so were Robert McKimson, Bugs Hardaway, and Tex Avery. Chuck found himself working as an in-betweener under Tex Avery. Schlesinger was a dream boss; he didn't interfere as long as the work was turned in on time and made a profit. Tex Avery and his unit (which Clampett was also a part of) were left alone to do whatever they wanted. Avery, consequently, produced the most groundbreaking cartoons from this period, purposely moving away from the realism of Disney and Harman, which he found dull and pretentious, and experimenting with a sort of cartoon logic that pushed the boundaries. Luckily for the medium, Avery's instincts were also commercial, and his experimental cartoons were a hit with audiences because they were, quite simply, hilarious. Avery, like Grim Natwick had been, was also very interested in movement. He felt movement was even more important than voice and appearance in establishing a character's personality with an audience. He also honed his gag timing to perfection here, and Jones learned everything he could.

Chuck's art developed, and he was soon animating, and then was promoted to director to replace a departed Frank Tashlin; Robert McKimson was assigned to him as an animator. Jones's first cartoon was The Night Watchman (1938), not an especially auspicious debut, but a testing ground for the style Jones wanted to put in action. It's not a fully confident cartoon, but it shows promise. Unfortunately, Jones was heavily influenced by Disney realism, and though his cartoons were lush and well-animated, they were also dull attempts at aping the Silly Symphonies. Old Glory (1939), with Porky Pig, shows an Uncle Sam who is so realistic he looks rotoscoped. It could easily be mistaken for a Disney cartoon.

In 1939, Jones also developed his first series character: Sniffles. Making his debut in Naughty But Mice in 1939, he only starred in 12 cartoons, bowing out with Hush My Mouse in 1946. Looking back, it's easy to see why the Sniffles cartoons weren't very popular. They're pleasant, but not always funny. The humor doesn't always quite bite hard enough. Still, Sniffles has a small fanbase today, and some people feel Sniffles was much funnier than Tweety. Jones would also create Henry Hawk, the foil of Foghorn Leghorn, in The Squawkin' Hawk (1942) and Marvin the Martian in Haredevil Hare (1948).

Jones's cartoons were the most polished of the Schlesinger cartoons in the late 1930s, but they were also the least entertaining. As good as his artistry was, he just couldn't find his footing as a storyteller. Part of the reason for this is that, as a director, he was very controlling. Rather than just drawing a few key poses and letting McKimson and the others do the rest, he drew as much as he possibly could in an effort to keep everything the way he wanted. It was hard to work under those conditions, and the stories suffered. His cartoons from this period featuring Inki, for example, are too precious. It wasn't until 1942, when he made one of the greatest cartoons of all time, The Dover Boys at Pimento University, or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall, that everything clicked into place. Working with background painter Eugene Fluery and layout artist John McGrew, Jones created a cartoon that was dominated by design and poses instead of gags. Which is not to say that it isn't funny, because it certainly is. But as far as the development of Jones's art goes, he made a giant leap forward here. Taking the theory of personality through movement to a logical extreme, he used strong poses to reveal his characters in a way that almost seems to parody the cartoon form. Sadly, the cartoon was not appreciated as the groundbreaker it really was; Schlesinger hated it and openly ridiculed it, and the other directors looked down on it and other cartoons from this period that really were doing their part to change the medium, including Wackiki Wabbit and The Aristo-Cat.

In the 1940s, Hollywood turned to war films, especially the animation studios. Jones's most interesting work was not for Warner Bros., but for the series of Private Snafu films for the US Armed Forces; Jones directed 12 out of the 26. It was here that he met Ted Geisel, Dr. Seuss, with whom he would maintain a lifelong friendship; Geisel wrote a number of the Snafu cartoons and had also had a good experience with Schlesinger when Bob Clampett directed a cartoon adaptation of his book Horton Hatches the Egg. Jones also directed Hellbent for Election, a propaganda film for the FDR re-election campaign which did much to change the thinking about what could be done with cartoons in the industry himself (and led to the creation of UPA).

With the war wrapping to a close, Leon Schlesinger sold his studio to Warner Bros. directly; the studio and the four animation directors (Jones, Art Davis, Robert McKimson and Friz Freleng, nominally in charge) were reluctant to mess with a successful formula that they had going. But Jones's moonlighting experience on war films had sparked a need to experiment more often. He created a new character, one based in some way on himself: Pepe le Pew, the romantic skunk who tries too hard to cherchez le femme. The first cartoon with Pepe was The Odor-able Kitty (1945), which led Eddie Selzer to observe: "Nobody's going to laugh at that shit!" In fact, Pepe le Pew proved to be quite popular, and even though he only starred in 16 shorts, he still has a following. Chuck had based Pepe on himself as a younger man, always trying too hard to get the girl and looking ridiculous, coming up short. In his book Masters of Animation, John Grant ruminates on the popularity of Pepe le Pew:

"[...] the reason Pepe has proved so enduringly popular, far beyond what the comparatively small number of his cartoons would suggest, is that most of us, male or female, can identify with the little skunk. We have almost all, at some point or another, resorted to desperate artificial strategems, like Pepe's hilarious 'Freunch accong,' in order to appear as dashing, romantic hero(in)es, only to watch the object of our desires run for the hills. In laughing at Pepe and his antics, we are laughing at ourselves and our pretensions."
Chuck won the first of his three Oscars for the Pepe le Pew cartoon For Scent-imental Reasons in 1949.

Another turning point came for Chuck Jones when he was paired with story man Michael Maltese; Maltese was something of a tough guy who wrote cynical, witty cartoons that inspired Jones to not only loosen his reins as a director, allowing talented animators like Ken Harris and Ben Washburn to do their jobs, but also to lose the preciousness and be more creative in what he could do. From this point, Jones would be producing the finest cartoons ever created at Warner Bros.

In 1949, the world was introduced to Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner in Fast and Furry-ous. The cartoon, and the many with the pair which followed, were based on a simple premise: a coyote chases a particular roadrunner, trusting in high-tech gadgets to help him catch the bird but never getting close. Every Road Runner cartoon is basically the same cartoon, but they're all funny and they're all fresh, containing only two characters and no dialogue (the Jones-directed cartoons; later shorts with other directors were not as funny). The real hero of the cartoons is the coyote; the Road Runner has no real personality, and is basically a plot device, a target for the obsession of Wile E. Coyote. Over and over, Wile E. Coyote goes to absurd lengths to achieve a goal that is basically trivial. It's a personality flaw many can identify with; becoming ludicrously fixated on something exact. Jones also said that the coyote was born of his own inability to use tools.

Despite the popularity of the cartoons, which were seeing their highest quality output at a time when Disney cartoons had been done in by their own aggressive cuteness and UPA was making their brief splash with a new kind of cartoon, studio head Jack Warner decided to close the studio in 1953. He was notoriously cheap (someone famously suggested he had rubber pockets so he could steal soup), and thought for sure that 3-D was the fad of the future. During the brief period when the animation studio was closed, Chuck Jones worked for Disney. By the end of the year, however, he was back at work.

1953 was the year that Warners would release two of Chuck Jones's greatest. The first was Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century, the classic Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon spoof pitting Daffy against Marvin the Martian. The second was Duck Amuck, the logical extension of what had become in Jones's cartoons, as opposed to his earlier lushness, a sort simplicity and economy of style and design and movement. Jones's work had become postmodern by this point, and Duck Amuck, which sees Daffy trying to maintain himself as an animator redesigns him and his situation, is predicated on the notion that both Daffy and the audience are aware that they're watching a cartoon and Daffy is starring in one. It's the literal definition of postmodernism: art that knows it is art. The real genius of Duck Amuck is not in the simple yet astonishingly good animation, nor in the absurdity of the situation Daffy finds himself in; it's that even though the audience knows they're watching a cartoon, and Daffy knows he's only a character in a cartoon, the audience also has to accept that Daffy Duck is a real personality. And they do. It's much more of a balancing act than it at first appears. The fact that it even comes off would put Chuck Jones in the pantheon of animation artists alone. But he belongs there through merit already.

Chuck directed an impossible number of classics at Warners, many of which, like The Rabbit of Seville and What's Opera, Doc?, he had to cheat on his time sheets to spend extra time on to make them the best they could be. A few more I haven't mentioned by name yet: Conrad the Sailor (1942), Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears (1944), Hare Conditioned (1945), Fresh Airedale (1945), Hair-Raising Hare (1946), Little Orphan Airedale (1947), Rabbit Punch (1948), Scaredy Cat (1948), The Awful Orphan (1949), Mississippi Hare (1949), Rabbit Hood (1949), The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950), The Ducksters (1950), Rabbit Fire (1951), The Wearing of the Grin (1951), Drip-Along Daffy (1951), Beep, Beep (1952), Rabbit Seasoning (1952), Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953), Bewitched Bunny (1954), My Little Duckaroo (1954), Beanstalk Bunny (1955), Jumpin' Jupiter (1955), Broom-Stick Bunny (1956), Ali Baba Bunny (1957), Robin Hood Daffy (1958), Hare-Way to the Stars (1958), and Transylvania 6-5000 (1963). That is by no means all.

Special mention needs to go to One Froggy Evening (1955), one of his most celebrated cartoons. It tells a simple story with no dialogue about a construction worker who finds a box with a singing frog inside. The problem is, the frog will not perform for anybody but the poor, humble man who hopes to use him to get rich. Some people consider this the greatest cartoon ever made. What exactly it's about seems to vary from interpretation to interpretation. For some people, it's about faith and believing in something even when there is no evidence for it; for others, it's about the absurdity of chance and the frustration a person can be driven to when his plans don't come off. Whatever you think, it's a milestone in animation.

By 1962, cinema audiences were falling as televisions proliferated to a common household item. This time, Warner Bros. closed its animation division permanently. Chuck joked several times that this was because Jack Warner had finally figured out that his studio wasn't making Mickey Mouse cartoons, but the truth is cartoons, which had increased their presence on television (especially thanks to Paul Terry and Hanna-Barbera, formerly of MGM), were no longer profitable in theaters. At any rate, Chuck was fired before the studio was closed; he and his wife Dorothy had written the screenplay for Gay Purr-ee, the terrible feature film produced by a now-limping UPA (and directed by one of Jones's Warner collaborators, Abe Levitow). This violated Jones's exclusive contract with Warner Bros, and he was unceremoniously fired. They never knew what they had.

Chuck went into business for himself; with business partner Les Goldman, he formed Sib Tower 12 Productions, his own independent studio, and brought many of his Warner team with him, including Maurice Noble, Michael Maltese, Ben Washam, and Ken Harris. They contracted in 1963 with MGM, who had closed down its animation department in 1954. Most of the cartoons produced by Sib Tower 12 were Tom and Jerry cartoons, and they weren't very good. Jones was ill-suited for them and dissatisfied with the results; they don't touch the Hanna-Barbera originals for quality. He did make one great cartoon, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Higher Mathematics, which is a brilliant piece of work. It won Jones another Oscar. Sib Tower 12 was absorbed into MGM as their animation department in 1964.

Even for all of the greatness up to this point, 1966 saw what is probably Jones's most famous work: the TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas, based on Dr. Seuss's seminal children's book. Boris Karloff provided the voice of the Grinch and the narration; Thurl Ravenscroft sang "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." He directed a second Seuss special, Horton Hears a Who! (1970), which was narrated by Hans Conreid.

Chuck Jones also directed a feature for MGM, The Phantom Tollbooth, based on the novel by Norton Juster (who also wrote The Dot and the Line). Jones re-teamed with Abe Levitow for the film; he co-directed and co-produced. The film is bookended by live action sequences starring Butch Patrick as Milo, a boy who finds a gateway to a parallel universe inside a tollbooth. Accompanied by Tock the Watchdog, Milo has adventures at the Mountains of Ignorance, the Forest of Sight, the Valley of Sound, the Island of Conclusions, the cities of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis, and the Kingdom of Wisdom. They rescure the Princess of Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air, and come across some amazing characters. Perhaps the best aspect of the story is the way it suggests that wisdom is a combination of seemingly irreconcilable characteristics: logic and creativity, letters and numbers, discord and concord. It's a surreal masterpiece, and one which is still sadly underrated. The voice cast includes Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Hans Conreid, and June Foray. When the film was released in 1970, it did lukewarm business and the animation studio shut down. Norton Juster apparently had little input and was unhappy with the final film, which is a shame considering he had so much input on The Dot and the Line (and even composed the music).

Chuck Jones formed another company, Chuck Jones Productions, and produced an ABC children's series called The Curiosity Shop. In the seventies, he did some great television specials, including The Cricket in Times Square (from the George Selden novel; Jones also did two sequels) and three excellent Kipling adaptations, The White Seal, Mowgli's Brothers, and one of his best late period works, the Orson Welles-narrated Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. He then resumed working for Warner Bros., doing The Carnival of the Animals for TV with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and producing (and doing new animation) for the compilation film The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie. Chuck even produced new cartoons with the Road Runner for The Electric Company. Sadly, in 1978, Dorothy Jones died, just a month shy of her 71st birthday. In 1981, Chuck married his assistant, Marian Dern.

During the eighties and nineties, Jones painted cartoon and parody art sold through animation galleries. He had a cameo in Joe Dante's Gremlins in 1984; Jones's cartoons had been a huge influence on Dante, as well as other filmmakers including Terry Gilliam and Steven Spielberg (some have suggested that the characterization of Dr. Hammond in Jurassic Park is based on Jones himself, with Jones's characteristic beard, white hat, and cane). For Joe Dante, Chuck directed the animated sequence at the beginning of Gremlins 2: The New Batch featuring Bugs and Daffy. He stayed away from episodic TV animation, which he looked down on (he referred to Hanna-Barbera's famously cheap programs as "illustrated radio").

At the age of 85, Chuck signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros. to supervise the animation department, saying "at 85 you can only think ahead for the next 50 years or so." Chuck Jones did direct a few more times in his final years; his last cartoon with the Road Runner was Chariots of Fur in 1994. His final cartoon as a director was From Hare to Eternity in 1996. It was dedicated to Friz Freleng. Another cartoon, Daffy Duck for President, was released in 2004. It was based on a book Chuck Jones had written and illustrated.

Charles M. Jones remained an avid reader all his life. A dignified, well-spoken, gracious, and popular man, he remained diffident to his accomplishments, never demanding reconition, but always getting it. He directed over 300 cartoons, won three Oscars and an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, was given an honorary life membership from the Director's Guild of America, and received a number of honorary doctorates. He died on 22 February 2002 of congestive heart failure at the age of 89. His influence on animation cannot be overstated; it's touched everyone who's ever seen it. "Animation is not the illusion of life," he said. "It is life!"


Allen L. said...

One of the treats of film class at NYU back in the day was when we studied Surrealism in cinema. I can't recall if they opened or closed with Duck Amuck but it was considered a triumph of surrealism in animation.
It has remained a favorite to this day

mwb said...

Excellent post. It is really hard to overstate his influence and importance in animation.

So much animation is either running towards or running from the work of all the folks at Termite Terrace. But either way it is reacting to it.

Bubs said...

This is wonderful! Years ago my bride bought me Chuck's autobiography, "Chuck Amuck" It's a great read.

SamuraiFrog said...

Allen: That sounds like a very interesting class. Duck Amuck goes on my list of the best cartoons of all time; it's also just fun as hell.

MWB: It certainly is.

Bubs: There's a second book that's good too, "Chuck Reducks."

Luke said...

That's a great post. I found a website on developing
photographic memory and I've tried the tips that they offer. They worked pretty well for me. It's at

Dr. Zaius said...

I remember "The Phantom Tollbooth". It was disapointing.

SamuraiFrog said...

I thought it was decent; I've never read the book, but people who have tell me the movie doesn't come close.