Thanks to the unprovoked courtesy of Thad K, I recently had the experience of watching the entire WB output of Chuck Jones-directed shorts, a daunting task I almost shied away from. I didn't watch them all as closely as I'd have like to, but I did see them all, sometimes stopping to review several.
I don't have anything substantial to add to what others (including Jones himself) have already articulated. Eric Goldberg and John Kricfalusi have enhanced my appreciation of Jones' art with insights offered publicly and in a good number of conversations. I've seen every cartoon at least once before, and many of them countless times, although seeing them in chronological order put things in a perspective I didn't have before. Some of my favorite early ones (like TO DUCK OR NOT TO DUCK and DOVER BOYS) are all the more inventive because they are among his first forays into actual comedy after a long steep curve of early and insufferably insipid Disney imitations. I had previously thought they were "breathers" in between funnier ones. As it turns out, funnier ones don't really exist (not in abundance anyway) prior to these.
The less said about those first years the better. Jones himself dismissed them but it is hard not to lose patience with him during those films. A novice director in a studio or network today would practically kill for the freedom Chuck had back then and he squanders years of it on plodding, deliberate cutesy-pooh muck, much of it revolving around "Sniffles Mouse" a character so bland he makes Mickey Mouse seem like Jim Carey. When the ice finally breaks and Jones is willing to be funny, he rapidly accelerates into a world of hostility, psychological cruelty and of course senseless violence. What a relief!
Joe Adamson) as a "regular guy" with one of the richest and most infectious senses of humor on the planet. There's scarcely a dud on his record, and I mean his work with any director at any studio. "Sophisticate" Tedd Pierce on the other hand, tends to bring out the worst in Jones, I hated many of their collaborations even as a kid. Despite some good drawings cartoons like KNIGHT-MARE HARE and BUGS' BONNETS lure Jones into his penchant for verbosity and indulgent self-awareness. Pierce's humor is very word-dependent and even his puns have a strained cerebral quality that miss the mark. "Merlin of Monroe" is an example of such a pun so obtuse that it fails to even register a groan. Interestingly, these are the cartoons that often go off the charts for surface visual saturation too. Maybe there's a conscious effort to divert our attention from the flaccid and anti-climactic quality of the Pierce stories. Incidentally, BUGS' BONNETS, (about which John K wrote a great deal of interesting observations a few months back), is also the first cartoon where director formerly known as "Charles M. Jones" credits himself finally as "Chuck Jones." It's an impressively designed cartoon, but unfortunately it stinks as entertainment.
(UPDATE: Thad K points out to me that KNIGHTMARE is the first "Chuck" credit, not BUGS' BONNETS. They were back to back releases, which may account for my screw-up. All the more interesting tho, since KNIGHTMARE is Jones' first and most obvious homage to Mark Twain, the classic literary figure Jones grew increasingly fond of. The conscious need to be seen as literary and sophisticated often spoiled Jones' work, IMO. It is interesting that this began to happen more and more precisely at the point he 'informalized' his signature. It's probably stretching a point, but maybe he thought "Chuck" sounded more like "Mark". )
My ranking of favorites hasn't changed much for this experience but as with everything else, time enhances my appreciation of the sheer skill involved in these films. For the record, BULLY FOR BUGS is my favorite Bugs Bunny by Jones, although too many to count would tie for second place. ONE FROGGY EVENING is still one of the best shorts of all time IMO and offbeat entries like TO DUCK OR NOT TO DUCK and A PEST IN THE HOUSE never wear out their welcome. I am terrible at remembering names and titles, but an amazingly high number of ROAD RUNNER cartoons still strike me as brilliant. Among the 'one-off' shorts, (which I liken to Paul Galico's whimsical short stories), ROCKET-BYE BABY is my favorite after FROGGY, and the rest of these (with the exception of the tediously precious NELLY'S FOLLY) are remarkably good. The two about boy daydreamer Ralph Phillips are classics.
The character I find least appealing is Pepe LePew, the amorous skunk. (Not surprisingly Tedd Pierce figures as storyman in a number of these, and Jones himself writes several as well). Conceptually a fine character and brilliant in design and voice acting, Pepe never rises above the fact that it he is a one-note joke who invariably wears out his welcome about halfway through even his best entries. Unlike the Coyote, who can explicitly demonstrate his escalating desire to kill Road Runner, Pepe comes in completely smitten and cannot do anything more than tirelessly pursue. Consummation has to be abstract to avoid obscenity; lacking Avery's sense of sexual vulgarity, Jones keeps things in these films on a too-even keel. Anyone who wants to single out Robert McKimson for monotonous sameness in a series has never sat through the chronological torpor of Jones' memorable but limited Casanova.
Though many later Jones cartoons (usually his worst ones) are overly filled with talk, no other cartoon director explored pure pantomime more frequently and with as much variety, not to mention success. FROGGY, the Marc Anthony and Kitty films, along with the entire ROAD RUNNER series are among the most notable of these. Several of the "one-shot" cartoons are either pantomime or virtually so. In these you can see most sharply Jones' gift for physical expression in his character poses and faces. He practically never runs out of ideas for these either.
Apart from being a funny man, Jones is also a smart and tasteful one and he makes these qualities loom larger and larger in his films once he hits his stride. When it works (as it often does until the last batch of shorts), it is a personal vision that is hard to resist. Unlike his arch rival Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones wants to prove to us that he is smart, tasteful and always in control of everything. Clampett of course is ultimately "in control" too, but his genius is for giving the genuine impression that all Hell is breaking loose onscreen. Much like that other Jones, namely bandleader Spike, Clampett makes us feel (frequently throughout an entire film) that every person in his troupe has gone out of their minds. This never happens in Jones' world because he won't allow it. Clampett's embrace is wider: he can grasp the highbrow world of surrealism in one hand and the lowbrow crudeness of burlesque with the other--he has no boundaries. Boundaries are Chuck Jones' stock in trade, his main theme is pitting the rational against the irrational. Even when he adopts the point of view of an irrational character, (as with the Coyote), he only does so to mock himself.
If Chuck Jones is the ultimate control freak though, he's a brilliant one. He brings his intelligence and taste, (particularly his graphic taste) into sharper and sharper focus throughout his output. I am always surprised that when people are tripping over each other to heap praise on UPA for their pioneering stylization, that Chuck is often ignored. His cartoons are among the the most boldly stylized ever and most of them do this without subordinating elements like humor and full animation. One of the earliest UPA type films (HELL BENT FOR ELECTION) was one of Chuck's.
Graphically, though, (as is often the case) the strength of style becomes something of a downfall. By the 1960's the look becomes more and more of a self-parody until it goes baroque and beyond. In the end, even in the character linework, fillagrees have fillagrees and facets have multi-facets until it gets a little hard to look at.
"Merlin of Monroe" demonstrates that graphic vigor can't save a dull script.
(from "KNIGHTMARE HARE")
(from "KNIGHTMARE HARE")
Yet unmistakably overall, the ratio of hits to misses is uncanny and awe-inspiring. For longevity and timelessness, (not to mention universal appeal), Chuck Jones' work remains monumental.
The "CITIZEN KANE" of short cartoons, "ONE FROGGY EVENING"