Oh, what heights…: Chuck Jones [1912-2002]

Bugs Bunny, Gossamer, Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Michigan J. Frog, Porky Pig, Marvin Martian, Pepe le Pew and Kitty.
© Warner Bros.
Images courtesy of ChuckJones.com.

Marvin Martian & Bugs Bunny
© Warner Bros.
Images courtesy of ChuckJones.com.

Legendary animator Chuck Jones died of congestive heart failure on February 22, leaving a body of work of over 600 cartoons. It is difficult to find words to describe the void that he has left in the world. This would not have been a problem for Jones himself — he was an unparalleled master of conveying tragedy and comedy without dialogue, as some of his most beloved cartoons can attest. The single lily dripping rainwater over the fallen body of Bugs Bunny, slain with “speaw and magic hel-met.” The expression of unbridled avarice on the face of the poor doomed schmoe who discovers the singing frog in the box. The infinite forlornness of the Coyote as his hopes (and body) are dashed in the pitiless desert again… and again…

Jones came by his flair for visual comedy honestly. Though born in Spokane, Washington, Jones cut his teeth in Hollywood, appearing as a child in a number of Mack Sennett comedies and watching such silent-comedy luminaries as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton demonstrate their craft. After graduating from art school, Jones was hired first by famed Disney animator Ub Iwerks, and then by Leon Schlesinger Studios, the company initially responsible for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, distributed and later owned outright by Warner Brothers. There he worked on or directed hundreds of films, including a number of “Private Snafu” cartoons for the U.S. Army, which took a Goofus-and-Gallant approach to instructing servicemen in proper conduct.

During the 20-plus years he spent making cartoons for Warners, alongside such other luminaries as Fred “Tex” Avery and Bob Clampett, Jones left an indelible mark on popular culture. While Avery worked his self-referential screwball comedies and Clampett put the spin of surrealism in his animation, Jones carved out a niche for himself by developing his characters as characters. Jones was a firm believer in the idea of making cartoon characters appear to live and breathe, and by bestowing individual traits and tics on his subjects — Bugs’ half-lowered eyelids while handily fleecing Elmer Fudd, the raised eyebrow of a nonplussed Daffy Duck — he elevated them from the ranks of generic funny-animals to actors in their own right. His gift for comic timing was nearly impeccable. Compare Jones’ Road Runner cartoons with those produced in the ’60s by David DePatie and Friz Freleng — it is hard to believe that there could be much difference in the handling of a pratfalling coyote, but the latter cartoons seem stiff and lifeless by comparison.

Jones’ work was also distinguished by the way in which he integrated his work with his love of classical music and opera, which resulted in three of the best-remembered cartoons ever — What’s Opera, Doc?, One Froggy Evening (the one with the singing frog), and The Rabbit of Seville, in which Bugs Bunny dresses as a barber and launches a merciless assault on a hapless Elmer Fudd in perfect sync with an orchestra performing The Marriage of Figaro. In those three cartoons there is a grand total of two lines of straight dialogue, yet Jones wrought them all into benchmarks of film comedy.

This is not to suggest that Jones’ cartoons with dialogue are somehow lesser efforts. Between his flair for timing, the sophistication of longtime scripter Michael Maltese, and the incomparable voice talents of Mel Blanc, Jones’ output included exchanges that are seared into our collective memory. Most of us, if pressed, can recite at least part of the classic Bugs/Daffy bit in “Duck Season! Rabbit Season!” I have been in a movie theatre where the entire audience, a significant portion of them decidedly not toonheads, traded lines with Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century with the fervor of a Rocky Horror crowd. And my friend Merrick picked up his future wife in a bar one night with a barrage of lines from the Pepe Le Pew repertoire.

After Warner Brothers shut down its animation division in 1962, Jones moved to MGM and directed or produced a number of Tom and Jerry features, as well as three more legitimate classics, the Oscar-winning The Dot and the Line, an adaptation of Norton Juster’s wonderful children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth, and what is arguably Jones’ most enduring film, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The holiday mainstay, voiced by Boris Karloff, features Jones’ trademark timing and facial characterizations. Again, a comparison — this with the recent Ron Howard live-action film starring Jim Carrey — reveals that Jones’ treatment is the definitive one.

Late in life, Jones occupied himself with personal appearances, a joint business venture in original art with his daughter Linda, a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, an eponymous foundation for the support of young artists and animators, and two autobiographies, Chuck Amuck and Chuck Reducks.

Toonheads tend to be a clannish and contentious lot, and many (mostly Tex Avery fans, curiously enough) argue that Jones’ accomplishments were merely spikes in a long, flat line of prolific mediocrity. That is, of course, a matter of opinion that will be debated endlessly, but I would submit that those spikes were pretty damn big ones. At his best, Chuck Jones set a standard for innovative animated comedy that few cartoonists, then or now, have even approached. And th-th-that’s all that counts, folks.