Friday, 21 September 2012
Chuck Jones' 100th Birthday
Curiously, while Chuck Jones remains the best known animator to work for Warner Brothers, he actually only created a few of their best known characters. Chuck Jones created Wile E. Coyote, The Road Runner, Pepe le Pew, Marvin the Martian, and Michigan J. Frog. He co-created Elmer Fudd with Tex Avery. The biggest names among the classic Warner Brothers characters (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester, and Tweety) were all created by others. While Chuck Jones may not have created the biggest names to emerge out of Termite Terrace, arguably it was Chuck Jones who directed the very best animated shorts featuring Warner Brothers Cartoons' biggest stars. The "Hunting Trilogy" of Rabbit Fire, Rabbit Seasoning, and Duck! Rabbit, Duck! (starring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck), "What's Opera, Doc (starring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd), and "Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (starring Daffy Duck)" were all directed by Chuck Jones.
Not only did Chuck Jones create only a few of the classic Warner Brothers cartoon characters, but what comes to the mind of the average person when they think of a "Chuck Jones cartoon" really isn't Chuck Jones' style at all. When many think of Chuck Jones, they think of manic, high speed cartoons that defy the laws of physics. In truth this was the style of legendary animator Tex Avery, who more or less invented what we now know as the Warner Brothers style of animation. While Chuck Jones, like nearly every Warner Brothers animator (except possibly Bob Clampett) was influenced by Tex Avery, his style was in truth quite different from that of Tex Avery, although even viewers not overly acquainted with the animated shorts of the Golden Age would recognise them as "Warner Brothers Cartoons."
While Chuck Jones' early cartoons were lavish affairs, many modern viewers might find them somewhat lacking in humour. This was certainly true of Chuck Jones' colleagues at Leon Schlesinger Productions (the independent studio that created Warner Brothers' cartoons and would later become Warner Brothers Cartoons Inc.). Fortunately, Chuck Jones would gradually abandon his early, Disneyesque style in favour of the Warner Brothers style. In the end Chuck Jones developed a style that was recognisably "Warner Brothers," but was more controlled and more sedate that the crazy, high energy work of Tex Avery or the outrageous surrealism of Bob Clampett, but incorporated features of both. To this mixture Chuck Jones added what had always been his strongest points: characterisation, strong backgrounds, and stylisation.
Another example of Chuck Jones' mastery of character animation is Michigan J. Frog. While Michigan J. Frog is not a household name the way that Marvin is, nearly everyone recognises him as a Warner Brothers character. Despite this, Michigan J. Frog would appear in only one cartoon during the Golden Age--"One Froggy Evening." Like Marvin the Martian, he would not even have a name until the late Seventies. And while Michigan J. Frog had only appeared in one classic Warner Brothers cartoon, he was recognisable enough that he became the mascot of the television network The WB in 1995.
It would also be Chuck Jones who would transform Daffy Duck into the character we know today. As originally conceived Daffy Duck was a totally insane and unrestrained character primarily used for comic relief. The two things he had in common with his modern incarnation were a certain level of aggressiveness and combativeness that was high even for most cartoon characters. It was Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese who transformed Daffy Duck from the already somewhat tamer, wacky character into a self absorbed, vain, greedy, cowardly, cartoon diva who was determined to be Warner Brothers' top animated star. This new incarnation of Daffy Duck would make his debut in the classic "Rabbit Fire," which was not only the first cartoon in Chuck Jones' "Hunting Trilogy," but the first cartoon in which Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck co-starred together. The new personalty Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese gave Daffy has remained ever since.
While Chuck Jones' cartoons are marked by strong character animation and stylised backgrounds, they are also marked by meta-referential qualities. Characters breaking the fourth wall was a feature of Warner Brothers cartoons since the Thirties and appears in shorts directed by most of the Warner Brothers animators. For the most part, however, this was largely limited to the characters making asides to the audience. It would be Chuck Jones would take breaking the fourth wall to a whole new level. In fact, in many (perhaps most) of cartoons it is very clear that the characters realise they are in a cartoon or, at the very least, consider themselves actors in a cartoon. "The Scarlet Pumpernickel" begins with Daffy Duck reading a prospective script to Warner Brothers executive J.L. (a thinly disguised Jack Warner). In "What's Opera, Doc" both Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd are all too aware that they are actors in a parody of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. While meta-reference plays a role in many, perhaps most, of Chuck Jones' cartoons, it is at the very centre of 1953's "Duck Amuck." The short is essentially a struggle between Daffy Duck, who wants to perform in something of a normal cartoon vignette, and an animator who constantly and sadistically changes his voice, appearance, and shape, as well as the backgrounds. Not only is Daffy aware that he is in a cartoon, but "Duck Amuck" makes it all too clear that it is a cartoon.
While Chuck Jones is synonymous with Warner Brothers Cartoons in most people's minds, he did do work outside of the studio. He started out in the business washing cels for Ub Iwerks. He also worked for Walter Lantz for a time. During World War II he and Theodore Giesel (better known as Dr. Seuss) created Private Snafu for a series of educational cartoons for the U. S. Army. For a brief time during which Warner Brothers' animation department was closed, Chuck Jones did uncredited work on Disney's feature film Sleeping Beauty (1959).
In 1970 Chuck Jones founded Chuck Jones Productions. He went onto produce the Saturday morning educational series The Curiosity Shop, as well as such animated TV specials as Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and The White Seal. He would also create new animation for Warner Brothers for The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie and various Warner Brothers Cartoon TV specials.
While Chuck Jones only created a few of Warner Brothers' best known characters and while he did not create the manic style associated with the cartoons, he was the animator who contributed a lion's share of what we think of the Warner Brothers Cartoon style today. It was Chuck Jones who made the Warner Brothers cartoons even more character driven than they had been before, even changing the personalities of some its most important characters. It was Chuck Jones who made Warner Brothers cartoons even more stylised than they had been before, often utilising backgrounds to reflect the mental states of the characters. It was also Chuck Jones who made the Warner Brothers cartoons increasingly self referential, taking what had been merely breaking the Fourth Wall in asides and taking it to a whole new level of meta-reference. If Chuck Jones is the only Warner Brothers animator who is a household name today, it is perhaps that except for possibly Tex Avery and Friz Freleng, it was he who did more to shape Warner Brothers Cartoons as we know them today than anyone else.