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.
It's equally difficult for any two people who love cartoons to get into a stupid, dead-end argument without eventually picturing Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and a shotgun-toting Elmer Fudd standing in a forest while the rabbit and the bird take turns shouting each other down: "Wabbit season!" "Duck season!" "Wabbit season!" "Duck season!"
I wish I had a nickel for every time I've quoted Daffy's oh-so-smug analysis of Bugs' method of argument, which invariably convinces the duck to order Elmer to shoot him by mistake rather than Bugs. Fed up with constantly getting his beak blasted off, he demands that Bugs go back over their verbal exchange, line by deadpan line:
#Daffy: Let's run through that again.
Bugs: (Bored, to Elmer) Would you like to shoot me now, or wait till you get home?
Daffy: Shoot him now. Shoot him now.
Bugs: You keep out of this. He doesn't have to shoot you now.
Daffy: Aha! (To audience) Pronoun trouble! It isn't "He doesn't have to shoot you now....It's, "He doesn't have to shoot me now!" And I say he does have to shoot me now! So shoot me now!
(Elmer shoots him.)
What identifies the scene as pure Jones isn't the dialogue, but the editing rhythms, the body language, and expressions on the characters' faces as they speak. How can anyone possibly pick a favorite scene or moment or character? For me, it would mean choosing between Bugs giving Elmer a haircut in the Rossini parody "The Rabbit of Seville," only to end up making a tossed salad on his head; the "supporting actor" playing Daffy's boss in "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century," who entreats the space-traveling waterfowl by huffing, in hilarious B-movie style, "Can you do it....Dodgers?"; the grief-wracked look on the softhearted bulldog Marc Antony's face in "Feed the Kitty" when he mistakenly concludes that his little feline pal has been baked into a sugar cookie; or Bugs riding down off the Wagnerian mountaintop in "What's Opera, Doc?" dressed in chain-mail drag. (Maybe I'd go with the last one. I love the seductively proud expression on Bugs' titanically fat white horse--an expression that seems to say, "I know in my heart that I am the most beautiful horse in the world.")
Jones' finest quality as an artist is his empathy: to some degree, he loves his creations, even the idiotic, greedy, small-minded, or sadistic ones. He respects their pettiness, their phobias, their obsessions, and their dreams.
That's why Pepe LePew doesn't realize how scary he is to his romantic prey: like Warren Beatty in Shampoo, he just wants to spread a little love around. And that's why Daffy's jealousy of Bugs' confidence and poise crosses the line from jealousy into hero worship: like Mozart's perpetually infuriated rival, Salieri, this duck knows genius when he sees it--and as angry and depressed as the sight makes him, he can't help not reveling in it. Like a gifted actor or live-action director, Jones understands that completely self-aware characters who play only to the audience get dull mighty fast.
There's nothing mean-spirited in his work, even when his creations are beating, blasting, and bombing one another into oblivion. There's a basic joy in their actions, a serenity that's simultaneously childlike and wise, that makes them seem as real as Humphrey Bogart or Bette Davis (whom Daffy, in his bitchier fits of star-powered indignation, often resembles). A lot of his most indelible characters are animals, yet Jones, more than nearly any animator I can think of, earns the title "humanist." And his work is human comedy at its best.
The Dallas Museum of Art screens two Chuck Jones compilations as part of its ongoing Summer Animation Festival. Part 1: Chuck Amuck, which concentrates on Jones' best known characters and cartoons, screens Saturday, July 15, 2 p.m. Part 2: That's Not All Folks!, which spotlights his more obscure cartoons, screens Sunday, July 16, 2 p.m. Both shows are $4. Horchow Auditorum, DMA, 1717 N. Harwood, 922-1200.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.