Thursday, June 5, 2008

What makes Chuck Jones?

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.
A bad case of "the Sniffles"

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!

"Capt. Schmideo" (a.k.a. Michael Maltese) from "ROCKET-BYE BABY"

Michael Maltese remains his best muse as a story man. Maltese as a person comes across in his work (and his interviews with 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.
Background from "ROCKET-BYE BABY'

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.

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"


Larry Levine said...

Will, Excellent post!!!

You know my love for Chuck Jones so I won't repeat myself praising his genius--unless you insist ;)

Weirdo said...

Mr. Finn, you hit the nail right on the head. My God, your analysis of both Jones AND Clampett completely sums up their differences, yet you did without seeming to favor one over the other. This has to be one of your best posts ever, even if I disagree with you about "Knight-Mare Hare" (I actually like that cartoon. You do make good points about Pepe le pew, even though I still enjoy his cartoons. This was a very thoughtful and insightful post about an animation genius.

chrisallison said...

Yeah Will, this was one hell of a post! The last post of gag drawings was great too. You've really been on a run of high calibre posts between your sketches, Mullins, and now these. Can't wait to see what you've got for us next!

Will Finn said...

Thanks for your kind comments and thank to Thad for making the post possible.

I almost hesitated to do this post because I know I don't have much new to add and the subject has been more thoroughly discussed elsewhere. I left a lot more of my own observations out because they just cover too much familiar ground.

That said, the films spring eternal even if essays about them don't.

As for Tedd Pierce, I didn't set out to make a villain of him, but often when I disliked a short I went back to check and sure enough, either Pierce (or worse still, Chuck himself) was the storyman.

If I have a fresh observation at all it is that Mike Maltese's stories somehow influenced Jones to pace his cartoons better--flawlessly in fact. Even though Maltese's gags seem equally weighted, they escalate impeccably and finish perfectly.

Almost as a rule, the pacing in Pierce's and Jones' stories go flat in the middle, maybe because they both seem to favor anti-climactic and passive come-uppance instead of Maltese who loves more violent punishment. Whatever it is, it feels like you could re-shuffle the entire middle section of a Pierce or Jones story and get the same effect. Hell some of them might improve...

Mr. Semaj said...

A lot of people dislike Jones' cartoons from the 1960's onward, but really, I think the 60's was where he hit his creative stride.

Jones was one of the few animators from that period who was resisting the limited art that the rest were conforming to. Other animators and studios had resorted to frequently recycling animation and stories (Disney's Xeroxography, DePatie-Freleng's story choices), or using budget-crunched/faux UPA artwork (Paramount Studios, Lantz, Jay Ward, Billy Hendricks' WB films). Many other animators met a literal dead-end at Hanna-Barbera.

Chuck Jones avoided all of that, and even when he did flirt with UPA at some point, which cost him his job at WB, his art was not to scrape for crumbs during an industrial famine, but instead to keep the animated viewscope alive in what was then a fading industry.

Even if his particular story choices aren't for me, I'm not at all bothered by Chuck Jones' implied ego in many of his later cartoons. It paid off when he got to educate a new generation of animators, having braved a long period when the "cartoons-are-for-kids" stigma had mushroomed throughout the industry, and he ultimately created a unique and everlasting perspective for the animated medium.

J Lee said...

Maltese was a better writer for Chuck than Pierce, which also was true of his time with Freleng. But I wouldn't go as far in denigrating Ted's work with Chuck, especially in the Bugs series. "Hare Conditioned", "Hare Tonic", "Broom-stick Bunny" and even the late "The Abominable Snow Rabbit" are all pretty good cartoons (the last even despite Jones' growing cloyingness).

Pierce's few one-offs with Friz in the early 40s when he was normally doing stories for Jones, like "Hare Force" and "Yankee Doodle Daffy" show a lot more energy than his similar stories of that period with Chuck, which may mean that both Jones wasn't ready until then to really go all out with his cartoons, and that Tedd wasn't the man to push him over the top, and it took the increasing influence of Maltese in the Jones unit to make the final leap.

sdestefano said...

Beautifully written, Will---often, I think I'd like to write an essay of this sort, but I just get stalled trying to organize my thoughts. You not only made your case fairly and thoughtfully, but also with...good....words (see? I can't even express myself well responding to a blog post!)
For me, Jones is WAY down on my list of favorite directors, although I do recognize his genius. The words "pretentious", "self serving", "frustrating" and "dull" often come to my mind when viewing one of his cartoons---(WHAT'S OPERA DOC, in my estimation, is probably THE most overrated cartoon of all time, although I do feel it doesn't get nearly enough attention for its art direction).
However, for the record, I am, among those who know me, a Sniffles fan.

Will Finn said...

Thanks for all the comments.

Stephen--i love the drawing on some of the last few SNIFFLES cartoons. Thanks for the kind words about the writing, but I owe it to many hours of contemplation, a bit of journalling and one hell of a slow day at the office...

That said, this post is about 8x shorter than it could have been, but the subject is pretty well exhausted by shinier luminaries than me in documentary films, books and essays. Many finer points and additonal observations I left out, mainly because they were self-evident in the films or simply too subjective to my own point of view.

Tedd Pierce is a case in point. I remain convinced of my theory that Maltese is the champion of better pacing, but it is clear Pierce was a funny man and not the constant drag that some may think I conclude him to be. From what we know of WB story sessions, they often involved everybody, and i wouldn't be surprised if Pierce was the man behind such lines as "Odds fish! The very air abounds with Kings!" and the"Hansel? ...Hansel?" gags, which i love. Among many others.

Also, I particularly admire John Dunn's story work, but with the exception of I WAS A TEENAGE THUMB, wasn't keen on his collaborations with Jones. IMO he was a more suitable match for Kimball or Freleng.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

I just stumbled over here after seeing the link on Cartoon Brew. Excellent article, Mr. Finn.

Jones is one of my favorite directors, just slightly behind Bob Clampett in my opinion. I agree with all the points you've made in your article.

Steve Carras said...

To add another post over a year later..
I peferred Freleng and even mor e so McKimson when it hits the big 55 in the 50s, but Jones ahd a good streak in the 40s, thru around 1951's "CHow Hound"..and I am probaly the ONLY one to make it thry 1954's "Lumber Jackrabbit":, shield, "lame 3D gags" and all.