Friday, September 21, 2012

Chuck Jones' 100th Birthday

When it comes to the animators of the animated short subjects from the Golden Age of Hollywood, there are perhaps only three who are household names today, three whose names are known to the average person and not simply to classic movie buffs or animation fans. Two of them are the team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. But while Messrs. Hanna and Barbera animated many of the classic shorts at MGM (especially the "Tom and Jerry shorts"), their primary claim to fame may be the studio they founded after their tenure at MGM to animate cartoons for television. When it comes to animators who greatest claim to fame are shorts made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, then, there may be only one who is a household name. That is Chuck Jones, who was born 100 years ago today, on 21 September 1912.

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."

Indeed, not only did Chuck Jones have a style all his own, quite distinct from the other animators at Warner Brother Cartoons, but his style would evolve over the years. In fact, initially Chuck Jones emulated the hyper-realistic, cute style of the Disney cartoons.This can particularly be seen in his early "Sniffles" cartoons, a cute mouse who looked as if he could have walked out of one of Disney's "Silly Symphonies." The "Sniffles" cartoons and Chuck Jones' other early works display the excellent craftsmanship that would be a hallmark of his work for the entirety of his career. Even then Chuck Jones' characters were fully realised, displaying their personalities not only through their dialogue, but through their movements as well. And even at the time Chuck Jones was a master of backgrounds. Throughout his career, the backgrounds in Mr. Jones' animated shorts would have a character all their own, each background crafted specifically to the short in which it appeared. The backgrounds in Chuck Jones' shorts ranged from lush to downright sparse, but they were always highly stylised.

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.

That creating memorable characters was one of Chuck Jones' strong suits can be seen in that some of his best known character actually did not appear in that many cartoons during the Golden Age. One of his most famous and most popular  creations, Marvin the Martian, only appeared in five cartoons during the Golden Age of  Animation. In fact, he would not even be given the name "Marvin" until the Seventies (in "Hasty Hare" from 1952 he was called "the Commander of Flying Saucer X-2). The fact that Chuck Jones could create a fully realised character through movement and appearance made Marvin the Martian more memorable than many cartoon characters who appeared in several animated shorts over the years.

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.

While Chuck Jones did not create some of Warner Brothers biggest stars (Bugs Bunny was created by Ben Hardway, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett, while Daffy Duck was created by Tex Avery and Bob Clampett), then, he would have such a lasting impact on them that he might as well have co-created them as we known them today. It was Chuck Jones who was responsible for making Bugs Bunny a much more sympathetic character. Bugs was an extremely clever and extremely aggressive character who outsmarted nearly every character who opposed him. As a result the staff at Warner Brothers Cartoons became concerned that audiences might actually start sympathising with his opponents (most notably Elmer Fudd). It was for this reason that new, more aggressive characters, such as Yosemite Sam (created by Friz Freleng), were introduced. Chuck Jones' solution to making Bugs Bunny a more sympathetic character was to put him into situations where he was threatened, bullied, cheated by, or otherwise wronged by his opponents prior to taking action against them.

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.

As mentioned above, in addition to being character driven, Chuck Jones' animated shorts have also been characterised by strong backgrounds and stylisation. In fact, the backgrounds in Chuck Jones' cartoons are often as much of a personality in the films as the characters themselves. This can even be seen in much of his earlier work. In "The Aristo-Cat" from 1943 the wallpaper of the palatial mansion in which the short is set constantly changes to reflect the mental state of the title character. In "Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century" Chuck Jones gave us highly stylised backgrounds that evoke the Googie architecture of the time (the retro-futuristic look of many fast food restaurants and gas stations in the Fifties). Another example of Chuck Jones' stylised backgrounds, made to fit the cartoon at the time, are the many Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner shorts. The shorts unfold against a seemingly unending dessert filled with winding roads and high cliffs.

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).

Following the closure of Warner Brothers' animation unit in the early Sixties, Chuck Jones would found Sib Tower 12 Productions with business partner Les Goldman. It was during this period that Chuck Jones did some of his best known work that was not for Warner Brothers. Through Sib Tower 12, he animated a new series of Tom and Jerry cartoons for MGM. Chuck Jones' "Tom and Jerry" cartoons were notable for having a surreal quality, as well as the fact that he redesigned Jerry to be cuter and made Tom into a feline equivalent of Wile E. Coyote. Mr. Jones went onto produce the classic holiday special How the Grinch Stole Christmas and several other specials based on the works of his friend Dr. Seuss. He also produced and directed The Phantom Tollbooth (1970), a feature film that mixed animation and live action.

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.

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