"Relegated to decrepit, back-lot buildings dubbed ' Termite Terrace,' Jones and his team of animators took full advantage of their secondary status to the studio executives and produced hundreds of classic cartoons, the heart and soul of what is now considered the "Golden Age" of animation..."

chuck jones: exit stage left
by marc covert


©warner bros.
When I was a child, I was painfully aware of the wide chasm between my world and that of the adults around me. Nowhere was it more apparent than in the television shows watched by our two ranks. Being a one-T.V. household, some semblance of order and fairness had to be maintained in our family’s viewing habits, much to my parents’ credit. My father’s tastes in movies ran to W. C. Fields, Abbott & Costello, and Laurel & Hardy, luckily for me; even at that tender age I would collapse with laughter at pretty much the same scenes that made my dad erupt as well, spewing glowing embers from his pipe if he really lost his composure.

But for the most part it seemed to me that adults watched the news, and little kids like me watched cartoons. I clearly remember observing my father as he watched Walter Cronkite reciting the day’s grim events, Dad somber-faced for the most part, as the body counts mounted in Vietnam or yet another Kennedy was carried in a coffin to Arlington National Cemetery. The news was gray and gloomy and boring, and I always asked myself, "When I grow up, will I stop watching cartoons and just watch the news?"

Well, I’m 41 now and still wondering when I’ll make the switch. I wouldn’t describe today’s news programs in quite the same way—if anything they are loud, brash, aggressive and saccharine—but the classic Warner Brothers cartoons that delighted me in my childhood delight and sustain me to this day. So now I find myself mourning the man who did more in his long career to make those cartoons a part of our national consciousness than any other—Chuck Jones, who died at the age of 89 on February 22.

There is a lot to celebrate and little if anything to lament in looking at Jones’ 60-plus year career. Warner Bros. always regarded their animation unit as little more than an afterthought, a bunch of eccentric misfits cranking out cartoons to warm up theater audiences before their full-length productions. Relegated to decrepit, back-lot buildings dubbed "Termite Terrace," Jones and his team of animators took full advantage of their secondary status to the studio executives and produced hundreds of classic cartoons, the heart and soul of what is now considered the "Golden Age" of animation.

The nice thing about their arrangement was that preoccupied studio bosses rarely exerted any influence on Jones and his crew, at least not on purpose. Jones loved to remember one unnamed boss in particular—"this guy went through life like an untipped waiter"—who barged into their peaceful little production hovel and screamed at Jones and one of his writers that he didn’t want them doing any cartoons about bullfighting. Jones and the writer looked at each other after their chewing-out and decided the little tyrant’s tirade could only mean one thing: they absolutely must do a bullfighting cartoon, since everything their boss said was entirely wrong. The result was the classic "Bully for Bugs" cartoon. I like to think that this story does not represent an isolated incident.

It goes without saying that Chuck Jones was probably the most gifted cartoon director of all time. He breathed new life and personalities into the frenetic, madcap characters he inherited from Leon Schlesinger and Bob Clampett—Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd—and personally created such immortal characters as Pepe Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote, the Roadrunner, Marvin the Martian, Michigan J. Frog, and, my personal favorites, the dimwitted Three Bears: explosive, dumpy father-bear Henry, his inane wife and mother-bear, Maw, and the monumentally stupid, gigantic baby-bear, Junyer. Jones’ sense of timing, wickedly astute wit, and genuine love and respect for his characters made it possible for Papa bear to reach the end of his extremely short fuse and unload an endless barrage of punches, kicks, bellows, and backhands on Junyer bear without the audience so much as batting an eye. That was no small feat in the 1950s and is all the more impressive in the hand wringing, over-sensitive society we live in today. Jones’ unfaltering sense of humor and decency is simply impossible to miss, even by the most easily offended among us.

Jones and Warner Bros. parted ways in 1962, the year they closed their animation unit (someone saw the moneymaking potential behind resurrecting the old Warner Bros. characters for today’s T.V. public, but it’s a sad, watered-down product). He never stopped producing cartoons, though; his perennial holiday classic, "Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas," is just one of his post-Warners epics in a career that amassed four Academy Awards. And in his later years he accomplished something that few animators ever manage to do: he stepped out from behind the scenes and became a true raconteur and advocate for his art, a genuine living legend who inspired countless artists and fans. I suppose if you looked hard enough you could find someone who has something bad to say about Chuck Jones, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

©yousuf karsh

The only time you were likely to hear Jones speak negatively was when he was asked about the state of animation today. He once referred to Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Scooby-Doo or Huckleberry Hound as "little more than illustrated radio," but even then he was trying to respond to something he didn’t care for with wit and aplomb. Rather than decry the use of Michigan J. Frog to hump the WB’s current lineup of shows like Elimidate, Gilmore Girls, or Seventh Heaven, Jones would just make it clear that the frog character belonged to the corporation and there was nothing he could do about it. He just preferred to keep on working.

There has been a tremendous outpouring of tributes to Jones since word of his death, and that is as it should be. Those who knew and loved him must feel some degree of comfort in the fact that Chuck Jones was given the accolades he deserved during his lifetime; that he was able to live a long, fulfilling life, working on new projects to the very end; that he died peacefully at his home with his wife by his side. "Yes, the outpouring of well wishes, grief, praise, and memories is overwhelming," says Jones’ grandson, Craig Kausen, "but so deserved by a true icon of 20th Century America, loved by so, so many all over the world. He will definitely be missed by all of us." What I find myself feeling now is not so much sadness as a growing appreciation for what Chuck Jones did with his life, following his heart and vision and talents, and leaving a lasting legacy of fun, hilarity, and commentary on the human condition, mostly in six-minute masterpieces.

(images courtesy of ChuckJones.com)



text © 2002 Smokebox
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