It’s been said that artists, like all creative people, draw from what they know in creating their artistic visions. This is particularly true for animator Charles “Chuck” M. Jones, who parlayed his experiences growing up with a quixotic father and an indulgent, supportive mother into a career that is virtually unparalleled for its influence and noteworthy output.
Like many animators who emerged during the “Golden Age” of Hollywood animation, Jones was influenced by the work of pioneering cartoonist Winsor McCay. When McCay’s groundbreaking effort Gertie the Dinosaur premiered, Jones was two years old, soon to move from Washington to Los Angeles with his family as his father sought better business opportunities. As recounted in the documentary Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009), Jones’ father founded–and lost–several businesses during Jones’ childhood, and with each closure, the Jones children were given massive amounts of company letterhead and pencils to use as they pleased. The children drew hundreds upon thousands of pictures over the years, an exercise that greatly prepared Jones for his later career. In the documentary, Jones also gives much credit for his creative development to his mother, a creative woman in her own right whom he says “would never criticize a drawing” and was endlessly encouraging of his abilities.
Jones eventually attended and graduated from Chouinard Art Institute–a school that also saw such notable students as Mary Blair, Ollie Johnston, Bill Melendez, and Hollywood costume designer Edith Head (among many, many others) pass through its doors over the years. His ascent through the ranks of the animation elite started slowly, as he worked his way up from the bottom, one job at a time. After a brief stint as a commercial artist, Jones’ first “real” animation job, in 1931, was as a cel washer for recent Disney escapee Ub Iwerks, and he soon became the assistant animator for Grim Natwick (best known as the creator of Betty Boop for the Fleischer studio).
In 1933, Jones moved on to Leon Schlesinger Productions, which produced cartoons under the Warner Bros. banner. It was the most important step he would take toward cementing his status as an animation pioneer in his own right. In 1935, a brash new arrival to the studio, Frederick “Tex” Avery, convinced Schlesinger to give him a shot as a director. Avery did not have all that much experience, and he was a bit of a renegade, but Schlesinger believed that this was the man who would finally help his studio compete with the big boys (i.e. Disney). He “gave” Avery some animators–Jones, Bob Clampett, Virgil Ross, and Sid Sutherland–and assigned the group to a small, bug-infested building on the Warner Bros. backlot, which the crew affectionately nicknamed “Termite Terrace.”
Soon, this small band of eager young animators began producing a popular series of shorts for the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies imprints, and in the process, redefined the rules of animation. Avery did not ascribe to the belief that animation should strictly reflect reality; instead, he believed in the zany promises of freedom that animation offered. Though Jones would never fully give himself over to the anarchy that reigned in much of Avery’s work–Jones was a proponent of believability with his animation, if not strict “realism”–he was nonetheless greatly influenced by Avery’s insistence upon the limitless possibilities allowed by the form. As Hugh Kenner explains in Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings (1994): “What Tex Avery did establish–though for Chuck Jones the lesson took time to stick–was simply the autonomy of the Director’s created world. The world of the transcendent Jones cartoons–think One Froggy Evening or What’s Opera, Doc?–has no firm connections with any world outside itself … It doesn’t seem too much to say that Tex Avery’s presence … underlaid the great period when Warner cartoons … paced the cartoon industry, and also fostered Chuck Jones. Jones needed Avery’s example.”
It’s true that Jones’ best work took time to develop. His cartoons throughout the remainder of the 1930s and the early 40s are not particularly memorable, and not particularly funny. What could be called the Chuck Jones “ethos”–a mixture of energetic action, brilliant animation, and unexpected humor–first emerged in 1942’s The Dover Boys at Pimento University, a rowdy, satirical take on the popular Rover Boys series of children’s books. The unique animation style of this short–which is so vastly different from the typical Warner Bros. output that it reportedly almost got Jones fired–would later influence the artists behind the heavily stylized UPA cartoons (among them Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing) produced in the 1950s and beyond.
The 1940s brought an important collaboration for Jones, when he teamed up with children’s author Dr. Seuss for a series of animated cartoons featuring a character named Private Snafu (the character itself was dreamed up by Hollywood director Frank Capra). These cartoons were created exclusively for the United States Army, which had quickly discovered that straightforward, live-action educational films were not very adept at holding the soldiers’ attention. The Private Snafu shorts were thereby devised as a way to engage soldiers and humorously educate them about the rules and regulations of service. The partnership between Seuss and Jones would be a prolific one; Jones eventually produced and directed the perennial holiday special How the Grinch Stole Christmas, based on Seuss’ popular book, in 1966.
By the end of the 1940s, Jones had found his footing as an animator and director. Starting with 1948’s Scaredy Cat, featuring Sylvester and Porky, Jones produced an almost unbroken string of hit cartoons, featuring some of the most beloved shorts ever created. His 1949 Pepe Le Pew feature For Scent-imental Reasons was Jones’ first ‘toon to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. That same year, he introduced a newer take on the Daffy Duck character in The Scarlet Pumpernickel; Jones’ Daffy was less loopy and zany, and more fame-hungry, jealous, strident, and insistent, eventually forming a rivalry with the perpetually-popular Bugs Bunny that saw a hilarious trio of hunting-themed cartoons opposite Elmer Fudd in the 1950s (Rabbit Fire, Rabbit Seasoning, and Duck! Rabbit, Duck!).
1949 also saw the debut of one of animation’s most enduring cartoon pairings: that of the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, in Fast and Furry-ous. The cartoon also featured the debut of one of the most legendary cartoon tropes–the Acme Corporation, which provides all of the gadgets that never seem to work quite right for the constantly-frustrated coyote. In Memories of Childhood, Jones explains that he named the infamous “Acme” company somewhat ironically after a childhood habit: “Whenever we played a game or we had a grocery store or something, we called it the ‘Acme Corporation.’ Why? Because, in the Yellow Pages, if you looked, say, under ‘drug stores,’ you’d find the first one would be Acme Drugs. Why? Because A-C was about as high as you could go. It means the best, the superlative.” In creating the dynamic between the carnivorous coyote and his would-be prey, Jones went so far as to craft a series of inviolate rules to maintain consistency with the characters–a list that included such tenets as preventing the Road Runner from actively harming the coyote and maintaining the setting of the Southwestern deserts.
The 1950s were arguably the most successful decade of Jones’ career, as he directed almost two dozen cartoons during that period. Eight of these cartoons would eventually be voted to the 50 Greatest Cartoons list in 1994; four of them–What’s Opera, Doc; Duck Amuck; Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century; and One Froggy Evening–appear in the top five of that list. Jones is the most-represented animator on the list–with ten total entries, his work comprises a full TWENTY PERCENT of what is considered the “best” animation of all time. No other artist comes close.
Jones was undoubtedly the biggest asset to the Warner Bros. animation empire, and he was locked into an exclusive contract with the studio. But in the early 1960s, Jones collaborated with animators from UPA to produce the feature Gay Purr-ee, which he co-wrote with his wife, Dorothy. Ironically, Warner Bros. won the distribution rights for the film; when Jones’ role in its production was discovered, his now-violated contract with the studio was terminated in 1962. The Warner Bros. animation department was shut down the following year.
Jones subsequently formed his own animation studio, Sib Tower 12 Productions, and rehired his old unit from Warner Bros. (which has been disbanded after Jones was fired). The studio was contracted to create new cartoons for the Tom and Jerry series for MGM; two years later, Jones’ studio was purchased outright by MGM and renamed MGM Animation/Visual Arts. Jones produced nearly three dozen Tom and Jerry shorts throughout the 1960s, and also created the Oscar-winning short The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics in 1965 as well as MGM’s final animated short, 1967’s The Bear That Wasn’t, and the studio’s final animated feature, the 1970 adaptation of Norton Juster’s classic children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth (which mixed animation with live-action). The MGM animation studio was closed soon after that film’s release.
Again, Jones went the independent studio route; he formed his own company, Chuck Jones Productions, and continued to produce cartoons for television and film, including the 1979 compilation film The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie, a couple of Raggedy Ann and Andy specials, and several animated adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s work, including a memorable version of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi narrated by legendary actor Orson Welles. He even delved into comic strip work, creating and maintaining the comic Crawford for two years in the 70s.
Jones was still animating and directing up until his death in 2002; his final project was the self-titled The Chuck Jones Show (2001-2002) for Cartoon Network. He never seemed to tire of creating; quite simply, he loved his job. In Chuck Jones: Conversations, author Maureen Furniss perhaps puts it best: “A dominant narrative heard in … interviews [with Jones] is that, lacking sufficient pay or even a boss that recognized his value as an artist, self-fulfillment and his love of drawing kept him at work. This scenario is a familiar story of the ‘American way’ that only strengthens our admiration for Jones as a cultural icon.”
And an icon he remains: Jones is, without a doubt, the most celebrated animator of all time, outshining even the master of self-promotion, Walt Disney himself (who, let’s face it, wasn’t exactly known for his personal prowess with pen and ink). His influence is virtually unmatched, his talent unparalleled as both a creator and a director. Jones was the ultimate cultural ambassador for animation, promoting the work of talented, young animators and continually educating people about the importance of animation as not only a field of entertainment, but an art form. Over the years, his work was nominated for eight Oscars (three of his cartoons won the award, and he personally won one–for producing The Dot and the Line–as well as an Honorary Award in 1996); he also won the prestigious Winsor McCay Award for lifetime achievement in the animation field in 1974 (along with former boss Avery, fellow Warner Bros. stalwart Friz Freleng, and Disney animator Art Babbitt). All things considered, though, the prizes didn’t matter to Jones; in Memories of Childhood, he even jokes that all it means is that “during that year, you were considered by your peers to be the best of that particular year. But it may be a very bad year. You still accept it!” Still, he adds, though he was “glad” to receive recognition, “The road is better than the end.”
Chuck Jones’ road was one any person would love to travel, and through his cartoons, we get a little glimpse of what that journey must have been like for him. When Jones died ten years ago, he left behind a legacy of laughter and beauty, inventiveness and inspiration, that continues to touch us and, most importantly, to move us to gales of chuckles. And it will always be this way, because thankfully, there will never be a day when a Chuck Jones cartoon is anything less than thoroughly enjoyable.
*Want to enter our drawing for two Looney Tunes collections on DVD? Don’t forget to leave a comment on this post!*