By Quim Casas
We continue our overview of the golden age of US animation. Had Tex Avery, to whom we devoted an article some days ago, never existed, Charles Martin “Chuck” Jones would probably be its king. In fact, they rival for the number one of cartoons position. If Avery directed or supervised one hundred and thirty two short-films between 1936 and 1955, two dream decades, Chuck Jones produced more than three hundred, between short-films, TV specials and films for the army, from 1938 to 1980, four wonderful decades. The creation of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, or the reinvention of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, as well as some surprising metalinguistic exercises with film, opera and literature are some of his hits.
Let’s begin with two unquestioned masterpieces to approach Jones’ style, in appearance more transparent than Avery’s, with the camera at character level, as Howard Hawks would say. Duck Amuck, from 1953 and included in the Merrie Melodies series, confronts the cartoon with its own creator. What’s Opera, Doc?, also for Merrie Melodies, made in 1957, reconstructs the Wagnerian universe of the Nibelungen and the Valkyries with Bugs Bunny. They’re two perfect examples of Jones’ permanent search for new visual and gesture concepts and also of the narrative distillation of an animation style that drew from slapstick and screwball comedy, although Jones gave preference to a certain pause and sometimes completely avoided the notion of plot to develop a chain of situations turned into a gag-per-scene.
The only protagonist of Duck Amuck is Daffy Duck. He first appears in musketeer attire and trying to show off his fencing skills, but soon discovers that behind him there’s only a yellow background and demands a better set! Then, he gets a farm, so he changes his outfit for a farmer’s. But then, gosh, they draw an igloo close to the farm and so he starts skiing. The decor changes soon again, becoming a jungle, and so he dresses up as a Hawaiian and starts singing with a ukulele until, in the third verse of the song, the background turns white. The cartoonist’s aggression is constant, since an eraser makes Daffy disappear from the frame for, immediately after, a brush to make him appear again as a mariachi. He looks at the camera and asks for sound, but when he plays guitar what is heard are machine gun bursts, like Jimi Hendrix imitating one in his song Machine Gun. Sound rebels against him as well. Alone, on the white page that becomes the screen, with no disguise, Daffy feels powerless, as the sounds he produces when opening his mouth are a cock’s or a cockatoo’s. But he refuses to be annihilated by his creator, so he requires a new set and demands colours for the black and white city he finds himself in, but the colourist colours him instead: humiliation, meta-language and transformation of the animated story codes.
Dressed now as a sailor, Daffy proceeds with his impossible fight to get the proper set, no other than the sea he’s sinking in. He has to fight the camera’s zoom and the ink until the words ‘The End’ appear. He doesn’t want this to finish, not yet. A new rebellion: he puts the final sign aside and starts tap dancing. In another genius idea, a couple of consecutive frames are cut in two halves, in a way that doubles Daffy, and so he has to confront himself. The cartoonist, turned into his Nemesis, places his creature in a plane but then draws a mountain for the plane to crash into; he gives him a parachute, but erases it as he’s falling down to replace it for an anvil. And in the final twist, after the drawing of a door closing on Daffy’s face, the camera moves away to reveal that the cartoonist is really Bugs Bunny.
A couple of years before, in Rabbit Fire, Jones had already united, for the first time, rabbit and duck with a verbal battle punctuated by a metronome that seems a surreal Marx Brothers dialogue: the famous discussion of whether it’s duck or rabbit season while Elmer J. Fudd watches them. The way in which Daffy’s head spins, tilts or contracts downwards each time that Elmer shoots at him, challenging any kind of (human and cosmic) gravity law, certifies the new physical register Jones imposed on Warner Bros cartoons. But Duck Amuck, with Bugs as a final twist and Daffy as the creature annihilated by the artistic system he’s part of, is one of the moments of greater splendour in Jones’ own golden age (the fifties) within the golden age of US animation.
What’s Opera, Doc? satirises the density of Wagnerian opera from its title already, a play on words with the no less-known What’s Up, Doc?, the Warner Bros’ most famous verbal hymn together with That’s All Folks!, which served as a farewell phrase for each Looney Tunes episode. Peter Bogdanovich, a director in permanent debt with classic films, used the title What’s Up, Doc? for his comedy mixture of cartoon, slapstick and screwball, which means that in the seventies, Jones was still a clear reference, and by quoting him like that, Bogdanovich placed him on the same level as Chaplin, Hawks, Cukor or Preston Sturges.
Clumsily moving around stylised sets of improbable perspectives, as if expressionist shapes were trying to emerge from the scenery of a Germanic opera, with colours over black and white, two-tones and shadows over ochre, What’s Opera, Doc? has as its main protagonists Elmer, hunter and lover, and Bugs, prey and seducer. The verse Kill the Rabbit sung with the melody of The Ride of the Valkyries is almost a pre-punk gesture. In the end, breaking the fourth wall again, Bugs talks to the spectators and asks them whether they expected an opera to have a happy ending, to then die again in Elmer’s arms.
Glorious moments of Jones’ works, who had then united the best team he ever had: Michael Maltese (scriptwriter), Ken Harris, Ben Vasham, Lloyd Vaughan, Phil Monroe and Richard Thompson (animators), Robert Gribbroek and Maurice Noble (design), Philip de Guard (backgrounds), Carl Stalling (musical direction) and Mel Blanc (voices). Animation is eminently teamwork.
Between 1936 and 1937, when he was twenty-four and had forged his stroke with a certain Disney idea of the world and the genre, Jones worked as animator in seven cartoons directed by Avery, giving way to a (premature) encounter between two titans that in some cases would develop the same characters granting them very different, but complementary, identity signs: one can’t be understood without the other.
In 1949 he created two of his most famous characters (and also my favourite), Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, in the tradition of confronted animals, Tom and Jerry style, or the antagonist pairs of silent comedies. Jones did his “time” too with the famous cat and mouse, between 1963 and 1967. His Tom raised his eyebrow more than ever, in that frightening sense of preoccupation within a comic context that Jones gave him, and the cartoons became synthetic battles instead of stories, slowed down gags that didn’t need a plot. You can tell Jones’ style by the raising of the eyebrow in close-up, like when Joseph L. Mankiewicz said that in episode film How the West Was Won you could tell which one had been shot by John Ford, the civil war one, because of the camera movements.
The cartoons of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, a mixture of inventiveness (the one shown by Coyote at all times to try and catch his prey) and humiliation (the total failure each of his actions entails), were recognizable for two reasons: the sound made by the Road Runner, the “beep-beep” with which he announced his arrival and departure gag after gag, and the ACME products with which Wile E. Coyote tried to capture him, from catapults to elastic bands to propelled skates, disintegrating pistols, invisible paint or different types of explosives that always ended up in the poor Coyote’s body or house. The excitement with which he opened every parcel with the ACME stamp on it is not too different from the one we can feel nowadays upon receiving a long-awaited Amazon one.
(Anyone interested can find the whole ACME products catalogue here)
As if it were a parallel saga of crossed super heroes, Jones didn’t mind blending some of his own characters. Operation: Rabbit, directed in 1952, exchanges Road Runner for Bugs Bunny, but the dialectics are quite similar: after the Coyote shows the rabbit his business card, in which it can be read “Wile E. Coyote. Genius”, Jones proceeds to show us that he’s far from one and to make each sensational gag shine: Coyote tries to trap Bugs with mechanical bunny girls, oil pipelines from which to shoot projectiles and even carrots full of nitroglycerine.
With War and Pieces, co-directed in 1964 with Maurice Noble, Jones said goodbye to his most emblematic creations, with Wile E. Coyote as victim of an almost abstract violence: the expression on his face when a dynamite cartridge explodes in his hand, falls from the top of a mountain or he stands up after having literally cracked the ground with his fall. With unequal rhythm and a less detailed stroke, as if the ink had evaporated to bid the characters farewell, this film has a moment of strange poetry: Coyote throws a rope to climb a mountain, goes up and discovers that the other end is tied to a cloud, so his ascent has been a weightless fantasy.
Jones also lent his services to the World War II military effort by developing the concepts created by Frank Capra for Private Snafu, a series of black and white short films created to entertain US troops. He directed several: in Spies he shows alienation with the image of a chained brain, while some Nazi submarines form a swastika in the open sea, and in The Infantry Blues he visualises the tired march of soldier Snafu through rocks, snow, swamps and deserts to a blues rhythm, until a joking fairy godfather grants him the wish of travelling by tank, torpedo boat and bomber, which only prove worse, so he happily goes back to his infantry march.
In his autobiography published in 1989, Chuck Amuck. The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist, Jones divides his works between the characters he created (Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner, Marvin the Martian -the alien with the black face and the Roman centurion helmet-, the skunk Pepé le Pew) and those characters he made significant contributions to (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky). Both are intermingled and all of them acquire an identical Jonesian dimension. On the foreword to the second edition of Chuck Amuck, Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, writes: “To me, Chuck Jones’ cartoons are dreams come true, wishes that come to life. One of the most exciting things in the adventures of Bugs, Daffy, Wile E. and the rest of the gang is that they capture the careless joy and immaturity of recurrent childhood fantasies.” Daffy Duck makes those fantasies true by turning into space adventurer Buck Rogers (Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a half century, according to Jones) and Robin Hood, in the same way that Bugs ends up being a sort of double of Ali Baba, the abominable snow-rabbit and, he too, Rabbit Hood. One of the best ways in which Jones was ever praised is mentioned in Jordi Costa’s book Películas clave del cine de animación: when he was awarded the Academy Honorary Oscar in 1996, Robin Williams defined Chuck Jones during the ceremony as the Orson Welles of animation.