Thursday 20 May 2010


Animator, Andy Latham asked in a comment to my post on Daffy Duck in Sherwood Forest whether I'd ever met the great Chuck Jones, the legendary animator and director of Robin Hood Daffy and dozens of other Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies and Loony Tunes cartoons, including such revered classics of such seven-minute masterpieces of the genre that is the short cartoon as Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening and What's Opera, Doc?

As I told Andy, I did have an encounter with the mighty Chuck when - at least twenty years ago, now - I hosted a Guardian Lecture with him at London's National Film Theatre. The event coincided with his coming to Britain to create a huge mural of Warner Brothers characters for the wall of the Museum of the Moving Image that (along with the museum itself) is, alas, long gone.

It was, I recall, a slightly nerve-wracking experience: as Chuck was maliciously playful and took some delight in seeing his interviewer discomforted.

We got off to a decidedly rocky start when I referred to the fact that he had studied (as had many of the great Disney animators) at the Chouinard Art Institute, founded in Los Angeles in 1921 by Mrs Nelbert Chouinard.

Having never heard Mrs C's name pronounced aloud, I said Choo-i-nard and Chuck immediately corrected my ignorance: "We say, Choonard!" he said, as if it was one of those English-American words the pronunciation of which differs depending what side of the Atlantic you're on.

Somewhat unsettled, I blundered on until, for some reason, the subject of kangaroos came up and Chuck, getting momentarily muddled, referred to the animal as a Wallaboo. I instantly countered with: "We say, Wallaby!"

He fixed me with a Wile E Coyote stare, chuckled and said, "You say Choo-i-nard, I say Wallaboo, let's call the whole thing off!" After which the interview went swimmingly!

At dinner, after the lecture, he drew this little thank you note in my autograph book...

Chuck Jones - "BEEP, BEEP!"

And here's a Chuck Jones film that may be new to you. Entitled The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics it was based on the book by Norton Juster (the author The Phantom Tollbooth, which Jones also directed on film) and has narration by Robert Morley. Utterly charming, it's hardly surprising that it won the Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short in 1965...

By the way, this is as good a place as any to mention that I have just started a new blog devoted to things that are - as it's title indicates - DECIDEDLY DISNEY. I hope those of you with an interest in Uncle Walt and Disney animation will pop over for a visit it now and again...


David Weeks said...

What charming, delightful, little film.

Chuck Munson said...

Delightful story, Brian! While Disney and the alumni of the House of Mouse usually dominates my list of animation heroes, Chuck Jones has my unqualified admiration for the wonderful work he did. My personal favorite and mandatory perennial Christmas viewing is "How the Grinch Stole Christmas".

Your exchange with Chuck is proof of the saying, in reference to the Americans and the British: two people divided by a common language!

Brian Sibley said...

DAVID WEEKS - It is! :)

CHUCK MUNSON - One of the things I admire about Jones is that, in addition to bringing his own crazed vision of the world to the screen, he had the skills and sensibility to bring the work of other brilliant storytellers (including Dr Seuss, Norton Juster and Rudyard Kipling) into animation without losing what made the original authors' stories so special to begin with.

Suzanne said...

How absolutely and utterly charming!
I do envy you that Roadrunner autograph! When I lived in Canada as a teenager, I used to watch hours of Looney Tunes and my favourite was Roadrunner & Wily Coyote!

Phil said...

Chuck Jones is one of my favourite film-makers, never mind that he "just" did cartoons. I agree with what you say about his adaptations from literature, Brian, but what do you think of his take on TOM & JERRY? I think it was bold of him to not try to imitate the Hanna-Barbera style, but I have never been comfortable with the Jones T&J films.

You probably also know that Ray Bradbury's THE HALLOWEEN TREE started out as a film project with Chuck Jones, but alas funding could not be found and it never got made.

There is an exhibition of Chuck Jones' work in Hollywood throughout the summer (simultaneously with a Harryhausen exhitibion!):

If I happen to be in the area of Greater LA, I might drop in...

Brian Sibley said...

SUZANNE - And, of course, we were always hoping (needless to say, in vain) for the Coyote to catch the smug little Roadrunner -- just once!

PHIL - Thanks for the details of the Chuck Jones exhibition at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Wish I could get there!

I'd forgotten, until you reminded me, that Chuck Jones was involved with The Halloween Tree, I wonder if it would have turned out substantially different to the Hana-Barbera version? And we shouldn't forget that he produced Richard Williams' brilliant (and Oscar-winning) 1972 animated film of A Christmas Carol.

I was fascinated by your comment about being uncomfortable with Jones' Tom & Jerry cartoons. I have always felt exactly the same, but have never thought why until now. Perhaps the reason is because, under Jones' pencil, they became just too anthropomorphic and stopped being simply cat and mouse.

Neil-W said...

Brian ,i keep seeing little clips of these Interviews on various Documentaries its just a pity we cant view them in their entirety i guess they were all filmed ?
I did look for them at the mediatheque on the south bank but could'nt find any. i've seen the Art Babbit interview with Richard Williams ,again way too short.
Are they buried in a BFI vault somewhere ? they deserve to be seen .

alex milway said...

What a lovely post! I watched a documentary on Chuck Jones just the other day, and it totally reinforced my view that he's one of the greats.

I love his ability to freeze on a character. The moments where there's no animated movement, usually suggesting the impending doom that awaits someone or other, shows that he's a master of not only animation, but character.

I guess that's why the dot and the line work so well. You really feel for them even though they're abstract shapes.

You must have been so excited by his Road Runner sketch!

Good Dog said...

Ah, I'm glad I'm not alone on that. Much as I love Chuck Jones for Bugs and Daffy and Elmer Fudd, Wile E Coyote and Road Runner, with What's Opera, Doc? my all time favourite, his take on Tom and Jerry just didn't do it for me.

Even at a relatively early age I had it in my head that if the great Fred Quimby's name appeared in the opening credits... Huzzah! If the great Chuck Jones' name appeared instead... Meh! I even hated the Tom and Jerry title cards on his shorts, they just didn't work for me at all.

I know there has to be an answer for why I was so against them. I just wish I knew what it was.

Brian Sibley said...

NEIL-W - Yes, the interview (like all the Guardian Lectures) was filmed, but when I went onto the BFI website to try and find the date of the Jones interview I got nowhere. It is listed (under Guardian Lectures) but says it's unavailable and there are no details given. Hopeless!

I also interviewed Peter Ellenshaw and Ollie Johnston --- or it might have been Frank Thomas - one of them was ill at the time and unable to make the journey.

How old I'm getting not to be sure which of them it was! :( Of course I met them both on numerous occasions (here and in the USA) and I always thought of them as two halves of a single mind and soul, so maybe I'm excused!

ALEX MILWAY - You've nailed the genius of Chuck Jones perfectly. Character was all - I remember, during our interview, that he likened Bugs Bunny (however unlikely it may sound) to Professor Henry Higgins! Anyway, it made sense when he said it!

GOOD DOG - It's odd but, for me, Hanna-Barbera's Mr Jinks/Pixie & Dixie shorts (despite the limited animation and the fact that they speak) are closer to H&B's T&J cartoons than Chuck Jones' Tom & Jerrys ever were...

Bill Field said...

Chuck was a complicated man. For all his contributions, he also had a checkered history of less than great behavior towards his fellow artists. It was widely known amongst the Termite Terrace Gang, that Chuck did everything short of sabotage to get Bob Clampett to hit the road, he harassed Mary Blair, and, fired Art Davis as a director, demoting him back to animator(due to publicly claiming to like McKimson's Bugs over Chuck's). Famous artists through time have been much worse, of course, but I think it gives more layers of our understanding of a genius, such as Jones.

Andy Latham said...

"Freedom is not a license for chaos!". How very true, and something that, although I know comparatively little about the man, I think would have been the number one lesson to learn from him as an artist.

Thanks for the link Brian, and the fantastic post spawned from my comment. Congratulations on standing up to him with the "Wallaboo"!

And a Disney blog?! Excellent idea! I'll be visiting for sure :)

Brian Sibley said...

BILL - No worse than the ugly stories told by some about Walt Disney or by rival Disney artists about each other. Animation required great creative talents to sublimate their personal identity to a corporate one: small wonder that egos itched.

ANDY - So many classic Warner Bros cartoons toyed with that maxim, not least Chuck's own Duck Amuck.

Brian Sibley said...

This post has been picked up by the official Chuck Jones blog, Chuck Redux.