That Old Feeling: Remembering Chuck Jones

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How lucky we children of the 50s were in our comedy mentors! In so many unproved or disapproved media, they taught us what was funny, and why. Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen were breaking the rules of television almost before it had rules. Jean Shepherd and Bob and Ray brought an iconoclastic intimacy to local radio. Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, dozens more cut through the smoke of night clubs with their lacerating wit. Stan Freberg's comedy records went to the top of the charts. Harvey Kurtzman dreamed up those precious first 25 issues of Mad. These were our comedy professors; they taught us a sense of humor, which is to say a sense of proportion, a skewed, skeptical view of the world we would soon inhabit as adults.

And in the least appreciated movie format, the animated cartoon, dwelt Chuck Jones, a director of Warner Bros. shorts starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Pepe Le Pew and a dozen other barnyard Barrymores. Nobody except Manny Farber bothered to write about these films. No one except kids paid attention to them. But kids have memories; kids grow up; kids take over. So first Jones' critters were the star attractions of many a 50s child's Saturday matinees. When rerun on TV, the cartoons kept another generation of kids wisely giggling. Some of these brats became movie brats, Hollywood directors, who paid tribute to their Old Master. Jones makes a guest appearance in Joe Dante's "Gremlins" (1984), in which the local citadel of learning is Charles M. Jones High School.

But, as we realized long before their creator's death last Friday, at 89, of congestive heart failure, these films were more than amusing, more than an excuse to escape reality. They WERE reality, transformed into art: brutally true, honorably honest, like Samuel Beckett with the fun up front. Chuck Jones was a genius of comic movement and dialogue, and a genuine animator — he breathed soul into his creatures. Maybe children were his raptest audience, but his films were not merely kids' stuff. As he often said, "We weren't making them for kids, or for adults. We were making them for ourselves." And, a grateful viewer has to say, for the best part of OURselves.

It's sad that Chuck is dead, but he had a great run. He lived a rich, full life that immeasurably enriched the lives of others — those who were privileged to know him, as I was, and the hundreds of millions more who saw his cartoons. The best filmmakers aren't often splendid fellows; the nicest people are rarely great artists. Chuck had it all, and gave it all to anyone who came up to say hi.


Charles Martin Jones was born in Spokane, Wash., in 1912, but soon moved to Los Angeles. As a kid he lived across from the movie studio where Charlie Chaplin was shooting his three-reel classics; Charles M. watched Charlie C., studied and learned. By the time Chuck got out of art school, Walt Disney had yoked cartoon movement to corny music with Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies. Imitation being the sincerest form of Hollywood, Warner Bros. commissioned a series called Merrie Melodies, and in 1935 Jones joined the cheerful gang of animator-anarchists at Termite Terrace, as the Warnerites called their dilapidated digs. He directed his first cartoon, "The Night Watchman," in 1938

Jones was a relatively late bloomer among Warners cartoon auteurs. By the early 40s Tex Avery (who created the first version of Daffy in "Porky's Duck Hunt," 1937, and the prototype Bugs in "A Wild Hare," 1940) was busting through the film frame with his manic travelogues and parodies. Friz Freleng brought skillful vaudeville shtick to his tales of showbiz razzmatazz (e.g., "Yankee Doodle Daffy"). Frank Tashlin, before he "graduated" to live-action cartoons like "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?", did some bravura work as a Warners cartoon director (e.g., "Plane Daffy"). Bob Clampett was the most sophisticated and lunatic of all; his work ("Draftee Daffy" — and yes, I luuuuuuuv that duck) was a Dadaist funhouse of distorted faces and ricochet rhythms.

Amid this canny insanity, Jones' early cartoons were more romantic-realistic in style, more sentimental in tone, with "cute" little characters like Sniffles the mouse and Inki the African child. His films were the only Warners product likely to veer into the solemnly patriotic ("The Old Glory"), the illustratively nostalgic ("The Dover Boys at Pimento University" or the "Rivals of Roquefort Hall"). Chuck was the Disney-est of the WB Wild Bunch.

It took a wartime assignment to bring out his comic fatalist. With Theodor (Dr. Seuss) Geisel, he hatched the PRIVATE SNAFU shorts — irreverent, 3min. sketches of an Army recruit whose laziness, indiscretion and general bad attitude forever threatens to hand the victory to Hitler and Tojo — and directed about half of them. He also helmed "Hell-Bent for Election," a 13min. political promo for the United Auto Workers that depicts F.D.R. as a snazzy Superchief train and compares the President's Republican critics to Hitler! By war's end, Jones was infusing the pointed sauciness of these cartoons into his civilian work. Besides, Avery, Tashlin and Clampett had bolted Warners; now Chuck was free to run amuck, in 7 min. mini-masterpieces of character shading and comic subtlety.


In his glory years (say, 1946-57), Jones directed about 100 cartoons, many of whose titles give the sacred shiver of a Mozart kuchel number to the cartoon cognoscenti. "Rabbit Fire," "Rabbit Seasoning," "Baby Buggy Bunny," "My Bunny Lies Over the Sea," "Hare Conditioned," "Hare-Way to the Stars," "To Hare Is Human," "Water, Water Every Hare" (all starring Bugs). "For Scent-imental Reasons," "A Scent of the Matterhorn," "Little Beau Pepe," "Past Perfumance," "Louvre Comne Back to Me" (Pepe LePew). "Fast and Furry-ous," "Zoom and Bored," "To Beep or Not to Beep" (the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote). "Don't Give Up the Sheep," "Double or Mutton," "Steal Wool" (Sam the Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf). And a few movie-title japes like "Hopalong Casualty" and Chuck's all-star costumer "The Scarlet Pumpernickel."

He and scriptwriter Michael Maltese created the bon-vivant skunk Pepe Le Pew, the meep-meep Road Runner and his perennially flummoxed pursuer Wile E. Coyote. (Acme, the company that manufactures every roadrunner-catching contraption that backfires on the coyote, was a name spotted by Jones on a building roof in the middle of nowhere as he flew over it.) Jones and Maltese devised brilliant one-offs: "One Froggy Evening," a lovely parable of entertainment exploitation — the cartoon's singing star, Michigan J. Frog, became the character logo for the WB Network 40 years later — and the sublime "Feed the Kitty," about a bulldog's desperate attempts to protect a black kitten prone to domestic disaster. Put that on your short list of cartoons to cherish.

The great achievement of Jones and Maltese (and composer Carl Stalling, versatile vocalist Mel Blanc and art director Maurice Noble) was their development of the Warners stock company. Porky Pig was now the harassed middle-management type, Elmer Fudd the chronic, choleric dupe, Sylvester J. Pussycat a feline of sputtering theatrical bombast. Bugs, originally a wild wabbit, wather than a wascally one, became the cartoon Cagney — urban, crafty, pugnacious — and then the unflappable underhare who wins every battle without ever mussing his aplomb; one raised eyebrow was enough to semaphore his superiority to the carnage around him. In "What's Opera, Doc?", Bugs and Elmer put the Ring Cycle through a rinse cycle ("Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!"). Elmer wears a scowl; Bugs wears a dress.

And Daffy — ah, Daffy! Here was modern man (well, modern mallard) in all his epic scheming and human frustration. He would debate with Bugs on the time of year ("Rabbit season!" "Duck season!") before a shooting accident would require reconstructive plastic surgery, as his quacking bill was suddenly on the back on his head. In the immortal "Duck Amuck," Daffy valiantly attempted to keep the action on track while the hand of a conniving artist readjusted reality. Pleading or wheedling or just staring ahead with a mutely eloquent resignation, Daffy embraced multitudes — multitudes of losers, us on our worst day. Multitudes of Chuck, too: Jones later said that Bugs was the person he wished he could be, and that Daffy was the person he probably was.


Kids knew this stuff was funny. Connoisseurs now know it was great. But who else was in the know? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave its animated-short Oscars to relatively workaday work from Disney and MGM's Hanna-Barbera unit (Tom and Jerry); only one Jones short, "For Scent-imental Reasons," won an Oscar, and that statuette has oafish producer Eddie Selzer's name on it.

To Jack Warner, head of the studio, the pearls that Chuck and his colleagues strew 40 times a year were just filler. Jones swore that the Warners believed their unit was the Mickey Mouse house — "and when he found out we weren't, he closed us down." This was in 1963; after a quarter century directing terrific, profitable, studio-defining films, Jones was earning all of $37,500 a year. And then he wasn't.

After the Warners shop closed, Chuck tried his hand at Tom and Jerry cartoons over at MGM, succeeding the Hanna-Barbera unit, but the calculated sadism of that franchise didn't suit him. Reunited with Geisel, he directed two Dr. Seuss half-hours, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" and "Horton Hears a Who," delightful fables that still illuminate prime time and jump off the video-store shelves. But he must have missed the splendid routine of creating a movie a month.

Things got worse for cartoons. Hanna-Barbera commandeered TV, mass-producing animated shows on the cheap: all script, no behavioral grace. And in the late 60s, someone at Warners had the bright idea to make room for more paperwork by destroying all the cels used in 34 years of cartoons. That multimillion-dollar blunder destroyed some of the most valuable frames of film ever created; it was the Hollywood equivalent of the burning of the Alexandria library, or the shutdown of the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive. But the atrocity had an upside: it gave Chuck an annuity late in life. From 1970 he drew cels based on his old cartoons and allowed them to be sold to the new breed of cartoon collectors.


Jones had toiled for three decades in pride and anonymity. Then, in the 70s, he finally became as famous and revered as he had always deserved to be. A tall, genial charmer, who sported the goatee and floppy bow tie of an old-time, small-town art teacher, he was feted at film festivals, lionized in documentaries, quoted in magazine articles. He wrote two superb memoirs ("Chuck Amuck" and "Chuck Reducks"), and Hugh Kenner wrote a book about him. Four years ago he was named to an exalted position in the revived Warner Bros. animation department — a few decades too late, but a fitting new challenge to the forever-young Jones. "At 85," he said at the time, "you can only think ahead for the next 50 years or so."

He was also a fierce curator of the old and the good. Jones disdained "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" for its grossness and Disney's "renaissance" cartoon features (the ones from "The Little Mermaid" through "The Lion King") for their lack of character finesse. He elicited promises from his friends that they would never ever see the Jim Carrey version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." And in 1998, when TIME named the witty but crudely-drawn Bart Simpson one of the 20th century's 100 Most Important People (when logic cried out for Daffy), Jones sent me a witty but pained letter of protest, "signed" by hundreds of cartoon directors and animators, many of them long dead. As a fervent admirer of Chuck's, and the writer of the Simpson tribute, I felt honored and chastised.


Chuck Jones has long held a spell over writers at TIME. I can't imagine what else binds Stefan Kanfer (former Books editor, to whom Chuck dedicated one of his own books), Jay Cocks (former Cinema and Music critic, now screenwriter of Martin Scorsese's forthcoming "Gangs of New York"), Lance Morrow (our premier essayist) and me, but we all flatter ourselves to think we are friends of Chuck. When I was hired at TIME, Arts Editor Martha Duffy learned of my fealty to the Jones canon and muttered, "Oh no, not another one!"

I have been a fan of Chuck's since 1950, an exploiter of his good nature since 1975. That's when Film Comment, the magazine I edited, published a huge issue on The Hollywood Cartoon, masterminded by ani-maven Greg Ford (who later co-directed the first Warner Bros. cartoon in 30 years); Chuck drew the cover for that issue and contributed original drawings inside. In 1979, the New York Film Festival, on whose selection committee I served, showed "The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie," the first feature-length compilation of Warners cartoons. Chuck and his radiant wife Marian attended a dinner in his honor at Le Poulallier restaurant, and Chuck sketched a likeness of me on the tablecloth. We still have it framed, food stains and all, at home.

In 1985, Mary Corliss curated an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art that paid lavish tribute to Warner Bros. animation. For the occasion Chuck and Marion flew in from their atelier in Corona del Mar, California. Around the cels, sketches, storyboards and photographs, Chuck drew new Bugses and Daffys and Sylvesters and even an Elmer ("Be vewy vewy quiet — I'm hunting early stowyboards!"). For the curator to encourage Chuck to scrawl his impromptu inspirations on its walls was a tacit acknowledgment from the world of high culture that this cartoon man was a significant creator of modern art.

Two years later Chuck celebrated his 75th birthday at a Manhattan restaurant, surrounded by 20 or so distinguished humorists and Mary and me. There were speeches and toasts and a warm radiance, courtesy of our guest of honor and his Maid and Muse Marian. The waiters brought out a big birthday cake and a little one. Marian explained: When Chuck was five, his parents threw a birthday party and invited his friends. The cake was cut, and when his friends devoured most of it, young Master Jones plaintively asked, "Where's MY birthday cake?" This little one, Marion explained 70 years later, was Chuck's own birthday cake. He didn't have to share it with anyone.

In 1991 a canny Canadian named Dusty Cohl devised something called the Floating Film Festival — a cruise through the Caribbean on which critics, including Roger Ebert, Kathleen Carroll, Mary and me — would present new movies or bring special guests. Mary's guests were Chuck and Marian, and for a week we hoarded their celebrity. It was like having 14 meals with Mr. and Mrs. Mark Twain.


In his last public appearance, in January, Chuck was the most articulate talking head in Ken Burns' PBS portrait of Twain. The writer was Jones' all-time hero and an evident model for his life and career — ornery, independent, compassionate, unswayed by flattery but generous to flatterers and critics alike — though Chuck's humor was all his own. "Comedy keeps the heart sweet," Twain wrote. It surely kept Chuck's heart sweet, his mind sharp, his cartoons universally entertaining.

Bugs Bunny used to emerge from some continent-long tunnel he'd dug and pose the question, to no one in particular, "Is this the way to Pismo Beach?" After nearly nine decades of digging the rich soil of American humor, Chuck has finally reached his Pismo Beach. I wish him well in his new digs, and hope that Marian and the rest of us can survive without him.

But he will never be far from us, as long as the grand old cartoons keep playing, as long as new generations take their cue for acute comedy from those half-century-old works of living art. If influence is measured in the intelligent pleasure given to a huge audience over more than a half century, then Jones was the Einstein of modern comedy. After all, just one little letter separates the cosmic from the comic. And Chuck Jones' cartoons proved that those two words, those two worlds, could be one.