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

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.

"The Bugs character," he said, "stabilized about 1945. He ended up being a kind of cross between Henry Higgins, D'Artagnan and Dorothy Parker. And Bugs, like each of our characters, represented a facet of our own (the directors') characters. Rabbits usually have several children, but Bugs was unusual in that he had several fathers."

Jones' trademark was eyes. The quick sidelong glance in the instant before the hand grenade explodes in the Coyote's hand. The disgruntled narrowing of Daffy's brows as, once again, the dimwitted Elmer Fudd fails to realize that it isn't duck season, but wabbit season.

"When you laid out a Daffy Duck picture," said Jones--who is a friendly, thoughtful, well-spoken man without a hint of the Daffy bluster--"you have to think like Daffy Duck. And when you do Daffy and Bugs together, you have to be both of them."

Which, he added, is rather schizophrenic work.

"I think we'd all like to be like Bugs," Jones said, "but we find we're really more like the Coyote, or Daffy. Daffy rushes in and fears to tread at the same time."

When Daffy emerged in the late 1930s, he was, as he declared himself in an early Warner's opus, "just a crazy darn fool duck" who caused endless problems for his co-stars. When Bugs arrived in the early 1940s, director Friz Freleng said he wasn't much more than "Daffy Duck in a rabbit suit." But under the guidance of Avery, Clampett, Freleng, McKimson and Jones, the two soon grew up to be co-stars and antagonists.

Jones said he had no favorite character in the Warner stable, but does have a favorite feature, a "single" that he directed in 1956 called "One Froggy Evening." The plot revolves around a wonderfully pliable frog that sings and dances brilliantly, but only for one man. When the man tries to cash in on the frog's talent by showing it to theatrical agents and others, the frog merely sits and croaks. But the minute anyone influential is out of sight and hearing, the frog produces a top hat and launches into a strutting turn of "The Michigan Rag."

"People recognize that one more than any other picture I ever did," Jones said. A sociology professor at New York University, he said, regularly shows the cartoon to his incoming freshmen to gauge their thinking.

"And if they don't laugh, he knows they're hopeless."

Jones' characters still surround him. In his small home studio are various drawings, sketches, posters, celluloid prints and oils of the Loony Tunes crew in action. In addition to oils of the characters, which he said "are going across the country for up to $5,000 apiece," he's reproducing the artwork from the original cartoon celluloids, or "cels," that were burned when the Warner animation department closed.

"We made about 30 pictures a year for about 30 years, and there were about 5,000 cels in each picture," Jones said. "To destroy them was ridiculous because we now know that the individual cel will retail from about $300 to $400."

Jones' daughter, Linda, has organized her father's works and markets them through Linda Jones Enterprises in Costa Mesa.

Termite Terrace, at least the one Jones knew, shut down in 1962. The studio farmed its animation out to a separate company, and the resulting cartoons that were made in the 1960s tended to be bloodless and wooden in comparison to earlier efforts.

"They were just terrible pictures," Jones said with a wince.

However, the best stuff continued to find an audience on television, beginning in 1957. And in the early '60s, Jones' work found a showcase during one weekly hour of prime time called "The Bugs Bunny Show." His cartoons are still being shown on Saturday mornings.

Jones said he has little use, however, for most of the rest of Saturday morning programming.

"All the pictures we made were made originally for the big screen, not TV," he said. "You take the other Saturday morning (animated) stuff and put it on the big screen and you'll see how little is there. I call it illustrated radio."

A good amount of oomph also has been taken out of some of the Warner cartoons being shown on Saturdays by censors who have deemed some scenes too violent for children. The perpetually shotgun-wielding Elmer Fudd, for instance, is a frequent victim of the scissors. Jones said it doesn't make sense.

"When you do that," he said, "I think you're doing something that is worse for children, and that's taking out the cause-and-effect situation in a scene. It's confusing to the child. There's no logic. These people object to violence, yet they still want to run the picture on TV. They don't have the guts to take the whole thing off the air.

"I'd just tell the mother who's worried about her children to look in the mirror. Anybody under 50 was raised on our cartoons and all you have to do is look at any adult who watched them to see how they turned out. When a mother says she's worried about her kids being exposed to violence, what she's saying is that she thinks she's better than her children are.

"It's obvious," he said, "that so many of these shows play down to children. And one of the most dangerous things they're doing is telling kids that the only way a problem can be solved is with a group effort. The Smurfs are like that. But the entire history of man is contradictory on that point. With our (Warner's) characters, if they got together in a group it would be nothing but confusion."

What calculated confusion there was on-screen (and there was a lot of it) continues to be beloved by new generations of audiences who are continually discovering gems such as "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century," "What's Opera, Doc" and "The Scarlet Pumpernickel." And Chuck Jones, in recent years, has found himself in the unaccustomed role of great artiste. He has received honors and tributes throughout the world--in England, France, Japan, Iran (before the fall of the Shah) and in Yugoslavia. He also won an Oscar while at Warner's for "For Scent-imental Reasons" in 1949. And in 1985 he and Freleng were honored during a wildly popular display of Warner's cartoon art at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Jones claims to be bemused by it, but he loves it.

"We tried to make films we enjoyed making," he said, "and I still think the things are just lovely, but we thought they'd be like most movies and not really last more than three years. But they're still being replayed on TV, and they're finding a new audience about every five years. This is so surprising, 50 years after I started directing . . . to me, all this is fantasy."

Meanwhile, Daffy Duck is on the loose again, or at least he should be soon. Warner's Greene, who produced "The Duxorcist," said that the cartoon likely will go into general release early this year (it was released initially over the Thanksgiving weekend to qualify for Academy Award consideration). Greene said that although there's another Loony Tunes feature on the drawing boards at Warner's, he doesn't know if the world is ready to handle a deluge of celluloid silliness. A new series of cartoons is still just a thought.

Which ought to please Chuck Jones, alias Daffy Duck.

"Where it happens is up here," he said, tapping his forehead. "We never thought of them as drawings but as living personalities. Drawing was only a method of activating them. They were real and they still are."

As if an audience cue, or a summation, were needed, in one of Jones' features, Daffy, once again frustrated, downtrodden, passed over for still another boffo gag, shows his colors with dripping sarcasm--and at the same time manages yet again to speak the truth.

"Ho-ho. Very funny. Ha-ha," he smirks. "It ith to laugh."

Yes. It ith.

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