Chuck amuck

The DMA celebrates Chuck Jones, animation's beloved toonsmith

Since Chuck Jones is the subject of a tribute at the Dallas Museum of Art this weekend, I have an excuse to wax eloquent about how much joy his work has given me over the years.

The legendary Warner Bros. animator's distinctively rough draftsmanship and quirky sense of humor gave many beloved characters, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, and Pepe LePew, the personalities we know and love today. Jones worked at Warner Bros.' animation studio full-time from his initial employment as a draftsman in 1938 to his heyday as a director, which dominated Warner animation's so-called golden age of 19451963. The fun factory was shut down after that due to theatrical exhibitors' declining interest in short films.

In the 32 years that followed, Jones kept plenty busy. In the late '60s, he worked on a jazzy, snazzy, mod update of "Tom & Jerry," and directed the holiday perennial "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas." In the '70s and '80s, he periodically returned to Warner to work on compilation films, TV specials and, recently, brand-new theatrical shorts spoofing Warner Bros. properties that star Bugs, Daffy, and company--shorts with titles like "The Duxorcist" and "Carrotblanca."

Jones isn't a visionary on the order of Walt Disney or the Fleischer Bros., and he's not a brilliantly kinetic madman like Tex Avery, whose pre-LSD hallucinatory slapstick routines inspired everyone from Robin Williams to Roger Rabbit. The look and style of his work is sophisticated, more likely to underplay gags than overplay them. The humor often comes from the discrepancy between a physical threat to a character and that same character's hilariously deadpan reaction.

One of my favorite examples occurs in "Rabbit Fire," the first of several cartoons that feature Bugs and Daffy each trying to convince shotgun-toting Elmer Fudd that it's alternately Rabbit Season or Duck Season. At one point, Daffy gets blasted with a shotgun, which somehow manages to lift his beak off his face and deposit it atop his head like the crown of an archbishop's hat. Daffy's reaction is pure Jones: he blinks a couple of times...sloowwwwly reaches up...grabs the beak...twists it around and down, centering it where it's supposed to be...and looks at Bugs and Elmer with an expression that looks not terrified, but vaguely put-out.

If Jones can be compared to anyone, it's live-action comedy director Preston Sturges. Like Jones, Sturges--whose body of work includes such gems as Sullivan's Travels, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Palm Beach Story, and Unfaithfully Yours--was often typed as an oxymoron: a madcap sophisticate. This might have been because Sturges' plots were more elaborate, his characters more eccentric, and his dialogue more mellifluous than those of almost any of his filmmaking rivals.

But what made Sturges special--what set him apart from comic filmmakers then and now--is that he loved his characters even when he mocked them. He loved them so much that even the most seemingly minor among them was given something distinctive to say or do, so that they lingered in your mind and seemed to have lives beyond the borders of the scenes they appeared in.

The same goes for Jones. Before he took the reins of Warner Bros. cartoons, the studio's stable of two-dimensional characters seemed, well, cartoony--not for lack of imagination, but because it really hadn't occurred to anyone to approach the art form in a slightly more complicated way. What Jones did was take a wisecracking, carrot-chomping bunny and a crazy duck and enrich them so that they seemed like members of a real-life stock company. He gave them the personalities of movie stars--personalities that carried over to whatever "part" they happened to be playing in a given short.

In 1957's astonishingly ambitious "What's Opera Doc," a spoof of Wagner's Teutonic operas with Elmer Fudd as a Norse god and the rabbit as his prey, Bugs played both himself and Brunhilde. But when he sang writer Michael Maltese's parodied lyrics, he came on like an actor who was in over his head but was way too confident to know it. He remembered to breathe between line breaks, to curl his toes when he danced, and to give certain words a stereotypically "theatrical" delivery. When informed that Elmer intends to kill a rabbit with a "speah and magic hewmet," the rabbit sings, "How will you do it, might I inquire to ahsk?"

Jones is one of my favorite moviemakers. Even the most lackluster of his seven-minute shorts give me more pleasure than most feature films I can think of. I'm such a fan that my appreciation of Jones sometimes seeps into other areas of pop culture. Sometimes I'll hear or see something--a sputtering argument, an unexpectedly lyrical image, a mundane yet absurd predicament--and begin free-associating, trying to figure out why I'm feeling a sense of deja vu. It's often because this same sound or sight also occurred in a Chuck Jones cartoon.

Like the lyrics, "Hello my baby/Hello my honey/Hello, my ragtime gal": I can't hear an elderly relative sing or even hum the tune without picturing Michigan J. Frog in "One Froggy Evening" jumping out of a top hat and high-stepping his way across a tabletop while a stunned construction worker looks on, dreaming of ways to exploit this gifted amphibian. Mel Brooks feels the same affection for Jones: that's why he stole this particular gag for the finale of Spaceballs, in which an alien bursts from a man's stomach and does a song and dance on a lunch counter. So do executives at the Warner Bros. Network, who have chosen the frog as their corporate mascot.

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