- Animatus Superioris
- Why the Humor is Timeless
- How the Humor Started
- Shoe Fetish
- Life Hit, So He Hit Back
If you don’t already know who is Chuck Jones, prepare to be awed. The biography on his website is entirely too modest: “Chuck Jones’ masterpieces starring the Warner Bros. cast of characters, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Pepe Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote, and the Road Runner (among others) have taken their rightful place among America’s most cherished cinematic treasures.” True, but not quite right. It also states that he is “the most celebrated director in the history of animation.” That’s more like it. And for our purposes, he’s also the creator of several of the most beloved cartoon monsters in history.
Chuck Jones was a genius. No, not because Steven Spielberg and Robin Williams said so, but because at the tender age of seven he already had enough awareness to recognize the fundamentals that drove his future career. It had to do with a cat. Not his cat, but a cat—a cat named Johnson that sauntered into and out of his life. “Character always comes first, before the physical representation… that first and most important lesson of animation: individuality. If Johnson had stood up, which was unlikely since he was a cat, and pounded on the rostrum with his shoe, he could not have made his point more clearly to my seven-year-old mind.” (C.A.,p.14)
Indeed, it was the character of his… ahem, characters… that have tickled both children and adults for generations. Youngsters may giggle at the slapstick antics of Wile E. Coyote’s vain attempts to catch the Roadrunner, while adults snigger at the incongruity of a skunk considering himself a modern Casanova. Neither coyote or skunk could ever abandon their pursuits—nor would we want them to—because it’s who they are.
WHY THE HUMOR IS TIMELESS
Chuck Jones was a director of animation at Warner Bros. Studios during the “Golden Age” of animation. He and his equally infantile cohorts occupied a shabby complex lovingly referred to as Termite Terrace. It was nothing if not a collection of oddities. “It isn’t every studio that has a cameraman who once traveled a backwoods vaudeville circuit with a seal named Eunice. Our studio did.” (C.A.,p.77) Here they turned out 30 cartoons a year (C.R.,p.98) for the purpose of warming up a crowd at the silver screen. Yes, there was a time when movies were not preceded by trailers and commercials.
Termite Terrace’s success was due to a convergence of two factors. First, they did not know which movie their cartoon would precede. Because they didn’t know who their audience was—children for a Disney film or adults for a heavy drama—they made cartoons that they, themselves, enjoyed. And fortunately for us all, they enjoyed laughing.
Which brings us to the second point; which is that their bosses did not. “Nobody’d laugh at that shit,” was what supervisor Eddie Selzer had to say about Pepe Le Pew—an observation he didn’t care to repeat while accepting the Oscar for the French-talking skunk in 1950 (C.A.,pp.92-93). And as Bugs Bunny would say in such a situation, “You realize, of course; this means war.”
“Eddie had a fascinating ability to foam at the eyes, which he did when he was happy about the faults of others. Eddie Selzer loathed laughter. One day we heard him, rigid with rage, bawling, ‘What the hell has all this laughter to do with the making of animated cartoons?’”
In Jones’ fantastic autobiography, Chuck Amuck—an absolute must-read—he explains the process behind how their supervisor inspired the greatest of cartoons. One day, presumably after first seeing one, Selzer forbade them to make any cartoon about a bullfight. They were in no way funny, he exclaimed most vehemently. Because their boss was wrong as a matter of course, the animators immediately sat down to identify all the ways in which a bullfight could be funny. “Result: Bully for Bugs—one of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons our unit ever produced.” (C.A.,p.93)
While Jones readily admits that he made his cartoons not for his audience, but himself (C.A.,p.219), this does not imply he was indifferent to their effect upon others. A passage from his memoirs indicates quite the opposite:
“I always try to avoid seeing my cartoons with an audience, and refused all invitations to attend theatrical showings. Eventually I was tricked by my first wife, Dorothy, into going to the Warner theater on Hollywood Boulevard. I didn’t know that a cartoon of mine was playing, and when the title appeared I immediately went under my seat and into a fetal position in abject terror. Then I heard the dearest words ever spoken in the English language. Behind me, a small eight-year-old girls’ voice piped up, joyous and delighted: ‘Mommy’, she said, ‘I knew we should’ve come here.’”
HOW THE HUMOR STARTED
“Every time father started a new business he did three things. One: he bought a new suit. Two: he bought acres of the finest Hammermill bond stationary, complete with the company’s letterhead. Three: he bought hundreds of boxes of pencils, also complete with the company name. (There were ashtrays so embellished, too, but this had nothing to do with my becoming an animator.) Ah, but what did have to do with my becoming an animator and my sibling becoming a graphic artist is this: every time father’s business failed, his children inherited a fresh legacy of the finest drawing materials imaginable…. once a month… we Joneses were rolling in tons of lovely white bond paper and the finest Ticonderoga pencils.” (C.A.,p.49)
Eventually the young Chuck Jones attended Chouinard Art Institute. Whether he expected to enter animation or some other form of artistic creativity became irrelevant when the Great Depression took hold of the nation. He was thrilled to get a job—any job—that paid. He began at the lowest level in the animation process, a cell washer, but worked his way up to becoming the greatest animation director of all time.
Indeed, in 1998 a collection of one thousand animation professionals the world over gathered to select, once and for all, the best cartoons in history in a book aptly named The 50 Greatest Cartoons. No. 1 was Chuck Jones’ 1957 “What’s Opera, Doc?” If that wasn’t testimony enough, Chuck Jones cartoons landed four of the top five:
#1 What’s Opera, Doc?
#2 Duck Amuck
#4 Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24th ½ Century
#5 One Froggy Evening
Jones was not one to let such accolades go to his head, even after winning four Oscars (and being nominated for ten!). “I have always had a sneaking feeling that producing comedy is somehow or rather trivial, and that my life would have been more meaningful and significant if I had built a bridge or discovered a toilet freshener or something equally rewarding. [But] once you’ve heard a strange audience burst into laughter at a film you directed, you realize what the word joy is all about.” (C.R.,pp.112-113)
Each of Jones’ characters are fully developed personalities all to themselves, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t insert some of himself in each of them. One delightful peculiarity of some of his most beloved characters—all of whom happen to be monsters—is their footwear.
“Gossamer is just a strange mass of orange hay… in tennis shoes,” Chuck Jones wrote in 1996. Particularly famous is Marvin the Martian and Marvin’s dog, K9, both of whom also sport large sneakers. Even when drawing his monsters in later years he tended to put them in tennis shoes, such as Hugo the Abominable Snowman who, in his appearance in The Abominable Snow Rabbit of 1961, did not wear shoes of any kind.
Jones pontificated much about the beloved footwear: “For some reason, the manufacturers of Marvin’s shoes, which we all wore as kids, believed that we were likely to run into things with our ankles, so a pad covered the ankle. My father knew better, and he always tacked a piece of protective metal around the front of any new shoes before he allowed us to wear them. This effectively delayed our kicking the toes out.
“My father gave each of his children a fresh pair of tennis shoes every spring, by which time our leather winter shoes were pretty shabby. Each year, when I pulled these new shoes on and tightened the laces, they felt like Mercury slippers (Ray Bradbury agrees)—I thought I could fly, and I probably could. I ran and I ran, and it felt wonderful. By the end of the summer, the shoes were looser, toes were showing through, and it was time for winter shoes again.” (C.R.p.236).
Indeed, an entire chapter of Chuck Amuck is called “How to Make a Tennis Shoe for a Percheron.” For Mr. Jones’ footwear fetish we must be thankful, for how could our favorite monsters get along without them?
LIFE HIT, SO HE HIT BACK
Alas, times changed. Movies no longer needed animations to warm up the audience, preferring instead trailers for upcoming movies. So in 1962 Jones left Warner Bros. with no residuals, no royalties, and no job. This did not deter the man, however. Now he was free to move on to larger projects. He gathered his old unit together and sought out another giant of imagination: Theodore Geisel—known to millions by his pen name of Dr. Seuss.
During World War II Jones had collaborated to make a cartoon with one Captain Theodor Seuss Geisel about a goof up soldier named Private Snafu. You will note at this time he was a bona fide Captain in the US military, as opposed to later when he was a make-believe doctor. Twenty-five years would pass before the two animators collaborated again, to bring the world such gems as Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Horton Hears a Who, and the superlative 1966 How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
For those interested in this most-celebrated Christmas cartoon, I heartily recommend reading Chuck’s brilliant Chuck Reducks, wherein he devotes a lengthy chapter to the entire process of creating the masterpiece. It offers all sorts of fascinating trivia, including the rather disheartening fact that Jones’ fully-fleshed out pitch was rejected no less than 26 times. (All writers understand this pain, myself included). Luckily he persevered. Today the cartoon ranks 100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and was ranked No. 1 on its 10 Best Family Holiday Specials list.
Ultimately, Chuck Jones has greatly enhanced the lives of millions. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar at the 68th Academy Awards, delivered by his greatest admirer, Robin Williams, a self-confessed Jones-aholic. Chuck Jones passed away in February, 2002. The characters to whom he gave life are still going strong, and gaining new fans every single day.
SOURCES AND CITATIONS
Chuck Jones Official Website. http://www.chuckjones.com (accessed on Feb. 15, 2017).
Beck, Jerry, ed., The 50 Greatest Cartoons, Sammis Publishing Corp. North Dighton, MA. 1994
Jones, Chuck. Chuck Amuck, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York City, NY. 1989
Jones, Chuck. Chuck Reducks, Warner Books, New York City, NY. 1996