The daffy genius of Chuck Jones
Jan Herman

Jones was the equal of Chaplin or Keaton, "a creative genius in a wholly new medium" and a key figure in a period of animation art comparable to the "flowering of Periclean Athens."

The daffy genius of Chuck Jones
Cartoon artist, who died at 89, was godfather
of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and
Pepé Le Pew
Image: Jones
Producer-director-artist Chuck Jones at the drawing table in his southern California home
By Jan Herman

Feb. 23 "I once asked Chuck Jones, the Oscar-winning animator who died Friday at 89, to sign his autobiography "Chuck Amuck" for me. Generously, he wrote "Daffy Duck" on the title page and dashed off a cartoon drawing of Daffy pointing to his autograph. Then, with typical Chuck Jones wit, he penciled in what Daffy was thinking: "Much more valuable signature."

IT TOOK a literary scholar, Hugh Kenner, who is noted for his critical studies of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett, to sum up the significance of the artist behind Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig and Pepé Le Pew.

Jones, who died of congestive heart failure at his southern California home in Corona del Mar, was the equal of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, Kenner once told me. He called Jones not just ?a creative genius in a wholly new medium? but a key figure in a period of animation art comparable to "the brief flowering of Periclean Athens."

It was a stunning assessment. But Kenner, who has published a book about Jones, was not kidding. He compared the heyday of Termite Terrace - that's what they called the old bungalow on the Warner Bros. lot where Jones worked for 30 years, beginning in 1934 - to 5th century B.C. classical Greece.

Daffy Duck points to his autograph and thinks: "Much more valuable signature" than that of Chuck Jones.
image: Daffy Duck

Like the Athenian dramatists, Kenner insisted, Jones and colleagues Friz Freleng and Tex Avery, among others, invented and refined a wholly new form of art.

Put that way, Jones's importance looms larger than, well, Picasso?s. After all, Picasso may have been the Mount Rushmore of 20th-century art with his multifaceted genius for painting, drawing, sculpting, ceramics, print-making and collage, but he merely re-invented old forms; he didn?t invent a wholly new one.

An equally Olympian, if somewhat more contemporary, ranking came from a lifelong Jones collaborator, the late Maurice Noble, a background designer who got his first screen credit on Walt Disney's "Snow White."

"I would put Chuck right up there with Walt," Noble told me.

Besides Noble, other admirers of Jones's work include directors Peter Bogdanovich and Steven Spielberg.

In his foreword to"Chuck Amuck," Spielberg notes that while "Disney was the first animator who taught me how to fly in my dreams, Chuck Jones was the first animator who made me laugh at them."

Chuck Jones cut a dapper figure, somewhere between a Bohemian and a boulevardier.
Image: Jones

Margaret Selby, who spent two years making the documentary "Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens, a Life in Animation," about the life and the career of Daffy Duck's godfather, called Charles Martin Jones "a national treasure."

Indeed, even when it comes to the legacy of the fabled Dr. Seuss, the nation is reminded every Christmas of Jones's value. In 1966, working with Theodor S. Geisel (Seuss), Jones directed and co-produced "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," now a perennial holiday TV broadcast.

The man himself cut a figure somewhere between a Bohemian and a boulevardier. He was tall and freckled from a lifetime of too much southern California sun. He had a gray goatee and a penetrating gaze, and he carried a silver-handled cane.


"If you read the master. You get all the information you could possibly use, because he doesn't coach you to be funny; he coaches you how to think, period."
referring to Mark Twain, his favorite author

His conversation was penetrating, too, always peppered with quotations from his favorite writers. But it was Mark Twain, above all, whose humor and wisdom he aspired to.

"If you read the master," Jones told me, "you get all the information you could possibly use, because he doesn't coach you to be funny; he coaches you how to think, period.

"Comedy," he added, "is all mistakes. All slippages. Aberrant behavior is all that counts. It's the only thing that makes somebody interesting. If you act the way everybody else does, it's not interesting."

Born Sept. 21, 1912, in Spokane, Wash., Jones grew up in Hollywood, sometimes working as a child extra in silent-film comedies. After attending art school, Jones got his first job in animation with former Disney animator Ub Iwerks.

In 1936, Jones joined the Leon Schlesinger Studio, which later was sold to Warner Bros, and in 1938 directed his first film, ?The Night Watchman.? Jones, heading his own unit, stayed at the Warner Bros. animation department until it shuttered in 1962.

Jones directed more than 300 animated films, most of them no more than six minutes each and all of them hand-drawn, labor-intensive cartoons. He set them in motion with his sketches, helped define the characters and the story lines, and guided the actors who did the voices (chiefly the great Mel Blanc).

As director, Jones also supervised the animators who made detailed drawings from his sketches and who, in turn, supervised the "in-betweeners" assigned to copy their drawings (one for every two frames) - so that with changes in position and perspective, a "flurry of drawings" would flesh out the illusion of motion when projected at 24 frames per second.

The result was a menagerie of creatures living in a surreal world that both obeyed and comically defied the laws of physics. But it was Jones?s unique sensibility - a combination of absurdist humor, dazzling draftsmanship and intellectual exploration - that informed the entire process and ultimately gave birth to a parallel universe as human as our own.


Jones's "What's Opera, Doc?" is one of five short-length cartoons chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

In 1995, more than 1,000 animators, cartoon historians and animation professionals rated their favorite cartoon films for a book edited by Jerry Beck, "The Fifty Greatest Cartoons."

Four of the top five turned out to be Jones's: "What's Opera, Doc?" (1957) and "Duck Amuck" (1953) were ranked first and second; "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century" (1953) and "One Froggy Evening" (1956) were ranked fourth and fifth. "The Band Concert" (1935), a Mickey Mouse cartoon directed for Disney by Wilfred Jackson, placed third.

"What's Opera, Doc?" is one of 11 short-length cartoons chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. (Included among them are Winsor McCay's ground-breaking "Gertie the Dinosaur" [1914], Dave and Max Fleischer's Betty Boop "Snow White" [1933], Robert Cannon's "Gerald McBoing Boing" [1951] and Tex Avery's "Magical Maestro" [1952]).

Despite his advanced age, Jones continued to write, teach and sketch. "I can't stop drawing," he said. "It's a disease. . . . Michelangelo started on a statue when he was 92 that, I believe, would have taken him 40 years to complete. ... He didn't believe in time."

Apparently, neither did Jones.

Jan Herman, senior editor-producer for Entertainment and Arts for MSNBC Living, is the author of ?A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood Director William Wyler.?

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