My interview with cartoon director Chuck Jones – February, 1988

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It’s amazing, what you can get in life if you only ask.

I had admired the work of Chuck Jones (creator of The Road Runner and Pepe LePew) ever since I became one of those movie nerds who read credits. The interview below was obtained after only a couple of calls to the office of Jones’ daughter Linda (who was handling her father’s cartoon work at the time). I freely admit that the interview didn’t set the animation world on fire, but it was certainly one of the highlights of my life.

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Steve Bailey: So how does it feel to have influenced an entire generation of filmmakers?

Chuck Jones: Well, I don’t like to look at it that way. If you start to take yourself very seriously, you don’t go very far. When one of my colleagues was given an Academy Award, he said, “What do I do now? I’ve earned the highest honor possible. There’s nowhere else to go.” And you have to think, Well, it’s just an award!

SB: But certainly you’re aware of your influence, when you can go to a record store and buy a Leon Redbone album with your drawing on the cover, or you see a Mel Brooks movie [Spaceballs] where an alien sings the same song your frog sang [in Jones’ 1955 cartoon One Froggy Evening].

CJ: I’d say I did a lot of good cartoons that were enjoyed by a lot of people, and someone else pegged me as an “artist.” We certainly didn’t regard ourselves as artists when we were doing them — we were making films that we thought would last maybe two or three years. We didn’t know what the audience wanted. And it probably still doesn’t know what it wants — this business of testing and marketing is pretty silly. We made the pictures for theaters, and for ourselves.

SB: Well, then, let’s say your cartoons had an impact on people. Were you aware of an impact when you were making them?

CJ: Oh, no. In fact, when UPA [creators of Mr. Magoo] first came about, their P.R. man decided they needed an enemy, so he said, “Our enemy is Disney. We’re doing ‘modern’ animation, and we’re against fuzzy animals.” Well, we never did fuzzy animals to begin with — you can hardly draw them. But people were impressed with UPA, and so all the local schools hired people from UPA. They never bothered with us. We were recognized in Europe long before we were in the United States, and I think the Californians were the last to notice.

SB: What’s the most surprising response you ever received to your work?

CJ: To be asked to lecture at Oxford is pretty startling. But then again, they’re all pretty startling. I don’t know how many languages we’ve been translating into. I saw a comic strip of the Coyote once in Copenhagen. It was a printed comic where the Coyote is falling, and as he fell off the cliff, he was saying in big letters, “HJELP!” I said, “What do you know? We can write in Danish!”

SB: What does an animation director do?

CJ: It depends on where he works — a director at Warners didn’t work the same way as at M-G-M. At Warner Bros., you’d work with a writer, though you’d find that you’d have to be about half of your own story department. Most of the writers at Warners didn’t draw very well, and really, I didn’t want them to — I wanted them for storylines and gags.

After we finished the story — and of course it wasn’t really finished, just like a director isn’t finished just because he has a script — then I’d take the storyboard into my room. And I’d ask Maurice Noble [Jones’ layout artist at Warners] to do “inspirational” sketches to see what worked visually. I’d do three or four hundred drawings myself, out of a cartoon with maybe four thousand drawings, and then I’d write the dialogue. Then I’d call in Mel Blanc [legendary voice artist for most of Warners’ cartoon characters] and direct him with the dialogue.

Then I’d time it before it went to animation. This is the part that amazes directors like Steven Spielberg. They can’t see how we’d do it. We’d time it in our heads so that it would come out pretty close to 540 feet, the average length of a six-minute cartoon. We had to time it ourselves, because we didn’t have the luxury of shooting it and then not using it, as was done at Disney. The director makes all the decisions.

SB: Is the humor in your cartoons based on your triumphs and failures?

CJ: Totally. Where else can you go for inspiration? You act on what you know. I’d like to think I’m Bugs Bunny or Pepe LePew, but in my heart I know I’m more like Daffy Duck or the Coyote. Or take the Grinch [from Jones’ 1966 TV special based on Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas]. Everyone hates Christmas a little. Someone who hates Christmas a lot is a real character find!

SB: What amused or influenced you when you were growing up?

CJ: Mostly reading — anything. My father always said, “If you read, you’ll get in the habit.” If you read The Bobbsey Twins, you’ll probably throw up. But in doing so, you’ll discover what is good. Beatrix Potter, on the other hand, is wonderful and can be read by children and adults, and that’s the key. If you try to write just for children, you’ll talk down to them, and I don’t think that’s the way to go.

SB: What sort of comedy do you find funny?

CJ: I loved Chaplin and Keaton. We didn’t consciously copy them, but a lot of it got in there, I guess. City Lights and Modern Times are two of my all-time favorite comedies, but then Chaplin started regarding himself as an artist and trying to be profound. I’m not even sure The Great Dictator is good social commentary, much less comedy. Woody Allen was wonderful until he tried to become Ingmar Bergman, and that’s a pity, because there aren’t enough talented comics around.

SB: There seems to be a resurgence of high-quality animation in the past few years. Do you think animation will ever return to the level it was when you were working at Warner Bros.?

CJ: Well, it’s possible — there are some great things going on. You have guys like Ralph Bakshi [Fritz the Cat] and Don Bluth [Anastasia] doing some wonderful things. I may not like a guy’s particular style, but if he likes animators, I’ll follow him to the end. I liked The Duxorcist [Daffy Duck’s 1987 “comeback” cartoon], but it was rather imitative of the old style. You have to find something new.

SB: Your work seems to reflect your philosophies. Do you subscribe to any particular religion or philosophy?

CJ: Oh, no. As the man once said, I have some suppositions but no facts. I prefer to live with the questions.

SB: If you had a choice, would you do anything differently?

CJ: No, not at all. You know, I don’t get residuals from my movies or videocassettes of my work, but it’s silly to complain about not making money from it. All those years, somebody paid me for what I wanted to do!

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THE BUGS BUNNY/ROAD RUNNER MOVIE (1979) – Highlights from Cartoon Heaven

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This weekend, New York’s Museum of the Moving Image pays tribute to animation raconteur Charles Martin Jones (1912-2002) with the opening of their exhibit “What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones.”

Like a lot of cartoon buffs, I latched onto Jones’ hilarious animated work early on in life, on Saturday mornings, before I even realized how important it was to read movie credits. Later on, I realized that most of the Looney Tunes cartoons I most enjoyed were the ones that sported the credit “Directed by Chuck Jones.”

One of the highlights of my life was during a year-long period when I lived in Los Angeles, and I managed to finagle a telephone interview with Chuck Jones for a small monthly publication. Years later, the interview was immortalized in print, in the book Chuck Jones: Conversations. As nice as it is to have my name in a printed book, I’m still more excited to have interviewed one of my life-long heroes.

How can someone single out Jones’ finest cartoon ever? Too many to choose from! So I’ve copped out and written a review of Jones’ compilation film, The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie.

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Most of the Warner Bros. compilation cartoon features are iffy at best, taking six-minute shorts and trying to pad them to a feature-length storyline. The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie, the first of these efforts, at least presents most of its cartoons in complete form. It also helps that it exclusively features the work of Chuck Jones, arguably the greatest of the Warner Bros. cartoon directors.

For anyone unlucky enough to be unfamiliar with his work, Chuck Jones created the characters The Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, and the amorous skunk Pepe Le Pew. He also took the characters of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to their zeniths in cartoons such as What’s Opera, Doc? (1957, with Bugs and Elmer’s chase taking place in a Wagnerian opera) and Duck Amuck (1953, with Daffy being tortured by an unseen animator). Both cartoons, and many other delightful gems, are featured here, and it’s enough to make you a Jones convert on the spot.

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The fast-forward button will be most handy at the movie’s beginning, when Bugs gives us an unctuous lecture on the history of movie chases. The music of Dean Elliot, a Jones veteran, is mostly nondescript and particularly painful in this feature; after the glorious heights of Carl Stalling’s and Milt Franklyn’s music in the classic shorts, Elliott’s work pales even more in comparison. But when the original cartoons begin, you know you’re in the hands of a comedy master.

If you’ve ever wanted some of Warner Bros.’ best cartoon work on a single DVD, this is as good as it gets.

POPEYE THE SAILOR (1933) – Popeye A Movie Star!

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

Paramount Pictures hedged their bets by introducing comic-strip character Popeye the Sailor to the big screen as a co-star in a cartoon featuring the Fleischer Studios’ “star” Betty Boop. But the Fleischers knew better from the start. The first image of the sailor’s debut cartoon features newspapers coming off the press that are headlined, “Popeye A Movie Star” — one of the few instances where Hollywood hype was truly prescient. (This, despite the fact that the star enters his first scene singing his theme song while beating up inanimate objects, and lifting his sailor shirt long enough to mistakenly show us he’s wearing a girdle.)

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The cartoon gets right down to cases. A sailing ship on shore leave dispenses with its sailors, and Olive Oyl stands beside it, calling out for Popeye. However, this is apparently not the first time Olive has met the ship; two unknown sailors try to hit on Olive even before Bluto arrives on the scene. Naturally, when Bluto does arrive, he also tries to force himself upon Olive. Popeye nonchalantly pushes Bluto aside, bleating the last line of his theme song at Bluto for good measure. Bluto is so furious that his anger sinks the battleships that are tattooed on his chest. Hmm, this can’t be good.

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Then a ten-second establishing shot shows the carnival where the trio is about to enter. Not to make too much of it, but take a good look at the hyper-activity in the shot; objects are moving so quickly that one group of carnival riders is deposited directly from a ferris wheel onto a roller coaster before they even hit the ground, and a merry-go-round is so giddy that it nearly slides off its framework. Now try to imagine any cartoon nowadays that would expend this much effort on a simple bit of exposition.

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The trio eventually come upon Betty Boop, who displays the reason for her then-current popularity by doing a hula dance in which a thin lei barely covers her chest. (Other Popeye websites have said that if you look closely enough, you can actually see one of Betty’s nipples briefly exposed. I haven’t examined the cartoon that thoroughly, having sworn off arousal by animated characters after my traumatic experience with Jessica Rabbit.)

For a guy who wants everyone (including his new movie audience) to like him, Popeye is awfully brash. He jumps up on stage and does the hula dance right in sync with Betty Boop (though one imagines he’d be considerably less popular if his clothing were as minimal as Betty’s). In fact, Popeye is so eager to show off his dance lessons, he doesn’t even notice Bluto’s kidnapping of Olive until Betty points it out to him. Bluto demands of Olive, “Marry me!” — which, as the later cartoon For Better or Worser blatantly demonstrated, was the ’30s movie equivalent of “Gimme some lovin’!” Bluto’s id is so off the charts that he barely gives Olive a chance to snub him before he ties her to a railroad track (with one of the track’s own beams, no less).

Popeye intervenes, and of course Bluto starts to wail on him. But Popeye is so blasé about what is to become a standard motif for his series, he quietly lies on the ground, as if he was on a picnic instead of getting his butt kicked. Eh, what does Popeye care? The spinach’ll keep.

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Not surprisingly, Popeye knocks Bluto and the oncoming train flat and still squeezes in the final line of his theme song at the finale, establishing that he’s going to be with us for quite some time and we darned well better get used to it. It’s a threat one can live with.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCanCan

Popeye, Swee’pea, and Poopdeck Pappy in CHILD PSYKOLOJIKY: Paging Dr. Spock!

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(Yesterday was the 73th anniversary of the release of the Fleischer Bros.’ 97th Popeye cartoon Child Psykolojiky, and the final such cartoon to feature the ship-door opening credits. WARNING: Spoilers ahead!)

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The story: Popeye and his Pappy are babysitting Swee’Pea, who is up to his usual shenanigans. Pappy wants to give the baby a good thrashing, but Popeye recommends a gentler, diversionary approach to discipline. Unfortunately, neither method is very effective.

This is another of those Popeye cartoons that got by in a less politically correct era, but today it comes off more cringe-worthy than funny. Popeye tells Swee’Pea the story of “George Wash-Lincoln” and how George confessed when he was caught chopping down a cherry tree. Swee’Pea gets about half the point; he chops a hole in the floor and lets Pappy fall through it, and when Swee’Pea confesses to the misdeed, Popeye goes out to buy him a toy as a reward for confessing to the wrongdoing. (Uh, yeah.)

On the other hand, it’s also not a good idea to leave a baby alone with Pappy, who dangles Swee’Pea out of his apartment window and tries to teach him to shoot a gun, all so that he’ll be less of a sissy. Then when Pappy practically blows the place up with his gun, he tries to pin the rap on Swee’Pea upon Popeye’s return.

Wherever Olive Oyl is, text-message her and get her home, real fast.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCanHalf