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That's Not All, Folks

Those Looney Tunes weren't just kids' stuff. A documentary makes the case for Chuck Jones as an influential artist of the 20th century.

November 19, 2000|MICHAEL MALLORY | Michael Mallory is an occasional contributor to Calendar

During the heyday of the short cartoon, so an old story goes, a young animation artist who had landed a job at "Termite Terrace," the ramshackle Hollywood cartoon studio of producer Leon Schlesinger, wrote to his family explaining that he had been hired to write jokes for Bugs Bunny. The fellow's grandmother reportedly wrote back: "Bugs Bunny is funny enough on his own; why does he need you?"

For much of the history of American animation, the artists behind the cartoon laughter were no better known or appreciated than the young man in the story. While things have improved in the last two decades, it is still rare fort cartoon creators to be hailed as true filmmakers and fine artists. For that reason alone, "Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens, A Life in Animation," which airs Wednesday under PBS' "Great Performances" umbrella, is a unique video document.

Charles M. "Chuck" Jones, who recently celebrated his 88th birthday, is probably the best-known cartoon director around, due in part to his honorary Oscar in 1996. Through his quarter-century as director of more than 200 classic Warner Bros. cartoons and beyond, he has become a legendary figure to animation buffs and an inspiration to a generation of mainstream filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Still, serious examinations of his artistry have been scarce, a situation that documentarian Margaret Selby set out to remedy. "I want people to respect animation, and I want people to respect Chuck Jones," says Selby of New York's CAMI Spectrum, the media and TV division of Columbia Artists Management Inc. She produced, directed and co-wrote (the latter with animation historian Greg Ford) "Extremes and In-Betweens." "He's an American treasure, a living legend, and we need to honor him," she adds.

Jones, who was feted at a gala birthday bash at Warner Bros. Studios in September that doubled as the premiere screening of the documentary, has nothing but praise for the production. "The picture was beautiful, though I thought the subject matter was really weird," he says with a laugh.

When asked for his thoughts about how the documentary positions him as a major, and influential, creative artist of the 20th century, he adds: "You dare not suggest that that's the truth."

Even so, it is hard to overestimate the impact Jones has had on popular culture. "Extremes and In-Betweens" got its name from two kinds of animation drawings--extremes being a character's key performance poses, and in-betweens, drawn by junior animators, the drawings that link them in the action. The title fits, as the film examines every aspect of Jones' career and the art of making animated shorts.

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One of a family of artistic children blessed with supportive parents, the teenaged Jones was allowed to leave high school and enroll in L.A.'s Chouinard Art Institute. His first job in the animation business was as a cel washer--someone who cleans the ink and paint off a celluloid sheet so it can be reused--for the short-lived studio of Walt Disney's (temporarily) roving right-hand man Ub Iwerks. It is doubtful that in 1934, when Jones landed at Schlesinger's Hollywood studio, which was making Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies for Warner Bros., Jones had any idea of the impact that would result. (Warner Bros. eventually bought Schlesinger out and moved the cartoon operation to the main lot in Burbank.)

Jones was elevated to the position of director (which at that time was called supervisor) in 1937. While his compatriots--including directors Friz Freleng, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett--were exploring increasingly zany counterattacks to the heartfelt but soft Disney cartoons, Jones' first directorial efforts were exactly in that softer Disney mold. But there was a reason: He needed to discover how the Disney style worked so that he could move on.

"I was pretty young then--I was only 24--and I had been raised and had read so much that acting was emotional," Jones says. "I realized that the emotion was the thing that had to be."

Jones' true style and unerring comic timing began to emerge in the early 1940s, specifically with a 1943 short titled "The Dover Boys" that was quite radical for the time in its use of extreme character posing and "smear" animation--like the blurred movement that accompanies most of the Road Runner's runs--for comic effect. Before long, he was turning out one gem after another, including a series of riotous Bear Family cartoons, which Matt Groening refers to in the documentary as "the American dysfunctional family predating [Groening's own] 'The Simpsons.' " And there were Jones shorts featuring personal creations Pepe Le Pew, the Road Runner and Marvin the Martian.

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