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Still Daffy After All These Years : Current Efforts Bug Chuck Jones, but He Still Welcomes a Renaissance of the Art Form

January 07, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | For The Times

"The characterizing trait of all authentic masterpieces is their capacity for infinite self-renewal."

--Lawrence Gilman

It's a rotten shame that Gilman died before he could get to know Daffy Duck. Because the astute critic often has a keen eye for both blazing innovation and artistic endurance, Gilman surely would have been enthralled--or at least rocked back on his heels--at the sight of mankind in the waning years of the 20th Century splitting a gut over the antics of a misanthropic waterfowl with a lisp that could drench a large room.

Daffy Duck turned 50 in 1987. Chuck Jones, one of the loopy crew from a Never Neverland called Termite Terrace who inflicted Daffy on a stupefied world, turned 75. Both of them look pretty good. Chuck is living the life of an emeritus crazy in Corona del Mar, and Daffy has just finished starring in a new Warner Bros. cartoon, the first animated feature released by that studio in more than 20 years.

Daffy has re-emerged in a six-minute opus called "The Duxorcist"--which combines the odder elements of "The Exorcist" and "Ghostbusters"--and Chuck Jones, one of the daffiest of Daffy's past mentors, says he likes it, with reservations.

"It's a good first effort," he said. "The people that did it are, I think, serious about bringing back the characters. It's being done respectfully by people who care."

The current animators are "trying to be faithful to our unique niche in the animation business," said Steven Greene, vice president and executive producer of the Warner Bros. animation department."Chuck and Friz (Freleng, another director of Warner's cartoons) have become legendary, and now we have a new group of animators and directors. We'd developed a staff of new director-writer teams for commercials and we just felt that the time was right to do a new (cartoon) feature. We've kept the legacy alive, but it takes a special marketing strategy to do that and what it is we're not sure. This is kind of an experiment."

Jones is happy to see Daffy back on the big screen and said he'd like to see more. Still, he said, "what they're trying to do, it's like the IBM ads with that guy who plays Charlie Chaplin. The guy who does it obviously likes Chaplin, and he knows how to move like Chaplin, but he isn't Chaplin."

Well, sure. Could Andrew Wyeth butt heads with Da Vinci? Randy Newman outshine Mozart? Steven Spielberg eclipse Frank Capra?

They can try, of course, but can it be possible-- really --to come up with one this good?:

Daffy, as the swashbuckling Scarlet Pumpernickel, leaps semi-swashbucklingly from an upper window, caped, masked and armed with a foil, only to splat ignominiously on the ground next to his waiting horse, saying, "Funny...that never happenth to Errol Flynn."

Who dreamed that stuff up? Chuck Jones, that's who. It was Jones, along with a few other nut cases in the Warner's animation department, such as Freleng and Robert McKimson and Bob Clampett and Tex Avery, who inflicted deathless characters such as Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn and Sylvester and Tweety and the Tasmanian Devil on the world. Jones' fertile mind alone was responsible for giving birth to the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, as well as Pepe Le Pew, the amorous French skunk.

During the 1940s and '50s, the whole silly bunch thrived in a building on the Warner's lot popularly known as Termite Terrace, where they and writers such as Michael Maltese and music czar Carl Stalling and the multivoiced Mel Blanc turned out what was easily the zaniest third of the animated cartoon triumvirate, composed at the time of Warner's, Disney and MGM.

Jones directed 25 Daffy Duck cartoons during his tenure with Warner's and drew the embryonic character for a time as an animator before that, in the 1930s, when the Daffy persona was less of a fall guy and nearly 100% insane.

But, as with all the characters in Warner's animation stable, Daffy evolved. David Chute, in Film Comment magazine, wrote that, as time went on, "Daffy, by meeting the real world halfway, found himself crushed by its capricious cruelty. . . . And still he soldiers on, always a game bird, a team player on a suicide squad."

Daffy, as well as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and the others were not products of a mind--actually, minds--that intended to appeal to children, Jones said.

"Our pictures weren't made for kids," he said. "They weren't made for adults, either. We made them for us."

Each director had his own ideas about how each of the characters should look and move and react, Jones said, and each director contributed a bit of his own personality to the character that would eventually become, say, Bugs Bunny.

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