Art

How Chuck Jones Defined America Through Cartoons

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In the early 1950s, animation director Chuck Jones was idly sketching a bull when a Warner Bros. producer walked by and said, “I don’t want any bullfights — bullfights aren’t funny.” Jones, like Warner’s most popular animated star, was always ready to oppose those who presumed to give orders, and later told an interviewer, “Now, I had no intention of making a bullfight picture, but after he said that, I went ahead.” “Bully for Bugs” (1953) opens with Bugs Bunny popping out of a burrow in a Spanish bullring — “I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque!” — followed by six minutes of pas-de-deux mayhem, including a Rube Goldbergian sequence featuring axle grease, sandpaper, a match, a long fuse, a flying bull, and a keg of TNT.

See also: A gallery of Chuck Jones’ best-known images from the MOMI exhibit

The Museum of the Moving Image’s retrospective of Jones’s protean output features expressive character sketches, layered acetate animation cels, storyboards, annotated scripts, layout drawings, background paintings by Jones’s collaborators, and other artifacts from Hollywood’s golden age of animation. Additionally, MOMI has scheduled various slates of cartoons to project on its big screen in all their original, Technicolor glory.

Jones (1912-2002) believed an animator was “an actor with a pencil,” and the lively model sheets he drew to conduct his small army of draftsmen through the gestures, postures, and facial expressions of Bugs, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, and other studio stalwarts can be viewed as method acting, graphite-style. “I felt that somebody should always try to impose his will on Bugs,” Jones once explained. “That gave him a reason to act, and I couldn’t understand the character unless he had a reason for what he did.”

Jones’s lithe draftsmanship formed the figurative backbone of the more than 300 cartoons he directed over his career, including the wisecracking menagerie at Warner Bros. (1938-1962), the poignant grouch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and Milo, the intrepid hero of The Phantom Tollbooth (1970). Although his oeuvre has been regularly rerun on television since the 1960s, Jones generally dismissed cartoons designed specifically for the small screen: “For Saturday morning, they make a full radio track and then use as few drawings as possible to put in front of it. . . . If you can turn off the picture and know what’s going on, that’s illustrated radio. But if you can turn off the sound and know what’s going on, that’s animation.”

Still, Jones valued talented writers, and many of his classic cartoons pivot on sprightly wordplay. In “Rabbit Seasoning” (1952), Bugs bamboozles the ever-volatile Daffy Duck by substituting “you” for “me” and “he” for “I,” prompting Elmer to blast Daffy instead of Bugs. Daffy reattaches his beak, calmly asks Bugs to run through the dialogue again, then turns to the camera and sagely proclaims, “Pronoun trouble.”

When not practicing blithe postmodernism, Jones cribbed from earlier artworks, as in “One Froggy Evening” (1955), which includes a briefly seen background derived from Van Gogh’s painting of his own bedroom in Arles. Noting that Degas drew ballerinas “with one leg so securely grounded, the other could be in any position without suggesting instability,” Jones grafted this equipoise onto Bugs’s body language. Such source material might also explain why the rascally rabbit often dressed in drag to outwit all manner of rabid adversaries.

Although Jones did not create Bugs or Elmer, he did oversee a number of definitive productions, such as the Daffy vehicle “Duck Dodgers in the 241/2th Century” (1953). A background panorama featuring X-shaped fauna on “Planet X,” crafted by Jones’s scenic designer Maurice Noble and painted by Philip DeGuard, illustrates the industrial-scale teamwork necessary to get these seven-minute epics onto movie screens around the world. Noble brought a stripped-down graphic modernism to his designs, which befitted the existential hijinks of the two most famous characters Jones did invent, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Coyote’s eternal quest to capture and eat the scrawny bird was codified by Jones through a set of nine specific rules, including “No dialogue ever, except ‘Beep-Beep!’ ” and “The coyote could stop anytime — if he were not a fanatic. (Repeat: ‘A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.’ — George Santayana).” The insanely complicated contraptions Coyote cobbled together from catapults, rocket-powered roller skates, and other Acme Corporation products can be seen as accoutrements to Cold War nuclear testing in the American West, while there’s a Jackson Pollock–like panache to Road Runner as he zooms from frame edge to frame edge, his jet-age acceleration levitating parabolas of blacktop.

Jones appreciated Noble’s abstract layout style, even if others didn’t grasp its graphic verve. When he saw “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957), a senior animation director reportedly snarled, “What kind of shit is this?” — but Noble’s jigsaw-puzzle clouds, collapsing shadows, and clawing “smog” smartly complement Elmer Fudd’s demigod hunter clad in a sort of golden artillery shell. Bugs temporarily dodges Elmer’s stabbing spear by donning pigtails and descending sidesaddle on an obese horse — Jones wrote in his autobiography that the animators gave the horse the “operatic curves we couldn’t give Bugs.” Noble also supplied dynamic, triangular compositions, such as a dress floating above a flowered staircase and a cone of elegiac light, which visually propel the narrative well beyond the spare dialogue.

Museum visitors can listen to a tape of Jones and his voice actors repeating ersatz lyrics to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Arthur Q. Bryan, who sang the part of Elmer, laments at one point, “I don’t think I’m right yet on ‘I’m going to kill the wabbit!’ am I?” But he was, and this sui generis satire continues to top lists of great animated cartoons year after year because Jones respected the emotional complexity and bombastic thrill of the original while simultaneously skewering its pretensions to immortality. A beautiful colored-pencil sketch by Jones, translated by Noble and DeGuard into the cartoon’s dramatic closing set, frames a sobbing, remorseful Elmer Fudd as he carries the limp bunny toward a radiant Valhalla. Streetwise Bugs (given a Brooklyn/Bronx accent by vocal wizard Mel Blanc) then lifts his head and shreds the fourth wall once more, declaring, “Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”

Listen to Baker talk more about the exhibit in this audio clip:


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