Hollywood Is Playing Chuck Jones' Toon

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who is Chuck Jones? Short answer: the mad genius behind Bugs Bunny.

The long answer will be offered Monday night by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the form of a tribute to the 82-year-old animation artist and director, culminating in the presentation by Robin Williams of an honorary Oscar.

The Oscar is one of two being presented in recognition of exceptional career achievement (the other going to Kirk Douglas). In addition to Bugs, Charles Martin Jones created or was instrumental in creating such classic creatures as Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig and Pepe Le Pew.

His significance is summed up by one of his lifelong collaborators, background designer Maurice Noble, 84, who got his first screen credit on Walt Disney's "Snow White."

"I would rank Chuck right up there with Walt," Noble says.

Perhaps the grandest assessment comes from Hugh Kenner, a literary scholar and biographer noted for his critical studies of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Kenner, who also has written a book on Jones, calls him not just "a great artist"--the equal of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton--but "a creative genius in a wholly new medium" and a key innovator in a brilliant period of animation art comparable to "the brief flowering of Periclean Athens."

"Fortunately for us, we didn't know it," Jones replied recently, with a boyish smile bordering on a cat-ate-the-canary smirk.

"I never strove for success," Jones said, "any more than I strove to win an honorary Oscar. That's pudding. Nobody figured animation would go any place. I only wanted to do what I enjoyed. I didn't have any ambitions. When I came out of art school and somebody offered to pay me to draw, that's all I ever asked for."

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Tall, balding, freckled from a lifetime of too much sun, and wearing a gray goatee, Jones cuts a figure somewhere between a Bohemian and a boulevardier. He was sitting at a glass-topped desk with a silver-handled cane at his side in an art gallery devoted to his work. He comes regularly to the gallery, on Coast Highway, from his oceanside home nearby. He also commutes several times a week to the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, where he heads a new animation unit.

"The awards are raining down," he said. "I think they're trying to get them in before I go to Forest Lawn."

Earlier this month, the Directors Guild gave Jones its Honorary Life Member Award. (Director D.W. Griffith, one of Hollywood's founders, was the first recipient in 1938.)

"Now that award is quite an accolade because it comes from people who are very accomplished in their field. This isn't necessarily true of the Motion Picture Academy--though the Oscar they're giving me is from the board of governors, so I guess they're competent."

Hardly a sentimentalist, but full of real sentiment, Jones disarms you with a penetrating gaze. If the Oscars seem to him a somewhat-tarnished measure of excellence--Jones measures excellence exclusively against Mark Twain--his opinion comes from long experience with producers who often walked away with Oscars they didn't earn.

Of the three Academy Awards already bestowed on his work over the years, Jones has only one of them--for "The Dot and the Line," an abstract animation that brought a Matisse-like world to life.

When he made "For Scentimental Reasons" in 1949--"the first authentic Pepe Le Pew," he says--his Warner Bros. producer, Eddie Selzer, turned up his nose. He saw nothing entertaining in the idea of a dandified skunk with a French accent and fought to keep the film from being made.

"But," said Jones, "when it won an Academy Award, he gracefully went up and took the Oscar for himself and put it on his mantel. That was the rule: Producer gets the Oscar. Ridiculous! There was a producer at Warners who did all the short subjects. I know he had 14 Oscars, none of which he'd won. In some cases he hadn't even seen the films."

From 1933 to 1963, Jones worked out of an old bungalow dubbed Termite Terrace on the Warners lot, along with the prolific Friz Freleng and Tex Avery. They were the main competition for Disney, turning out hundreds of labor-intensive, hand-drawn cartoons (each 6 minutes long) for theatrical release.

Jones directed 208 of them--that is, he defined the characters and set them in motion with his expert sketches; helped write the story lines, and guided the actors who did the voices (chiefly the fabled Mel Blanc).

Jones also supervised the animators who made detailed drawings from his sketches and who, in turn, supervised the "in-betweeners" assigned to copy their drawings (one for every two frames)--so that with changes in position and perspective enhanced by the designers' backgrounds, this "flurry of drawings" would flesh out the illusion of motion when projected at 24 frames per second.

The result was a menagerie of creatures living in a surreal world that both obeyed and comically defied the laws of physics. But it was Jones's unique sensibility--a combination of absurdist humor, dazzling draftsmanship and intellectual exploration--that informed the entire process and ultimately gave birth to a parallel universe as human as our own.

In 1995, more than 1,000 animators, cartoon historians and animation professionals rated their favorite cartoon films for a book edited by Jeffrey Beck, "The Fifty Greatest Cartoons." Four of the top five turned out to be Jones's: "What's Opera, Doc?" (1957), "Duck Amuck" (1953), first and second; "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century" (1953), "One Froggy Evening" (1956), fourth and fifth. "The Band Concert" (1935), a Mickey Mouse cartoon directed for Disney by Wilfred Jackson, placed third.

Moreover, "What's Opera, Doc?" is one of just five short-length cartoons chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. The others are Winsor McCay's ground-breaking "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914), Dave and Max Fleischer's Betty Boop "Snow White" (1933), Robert Cannon's "Gerald McBoing Boing"(1951) and Tex Avery's "Magical Maestro" (1952).

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Jones, whose conversation is peppered with literary references, quoted from a Robert Frost poem:

My object in life is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

"That's a beautiful analogy," he said. "How many people get to make their hobby and their work the same thing?"

Noble recalled, on the phone from from La Crescenta, that "Chuck was always exploring something new. He was interested in fresh ideas. Friz Freleng was obviously brilliant, but he dug a trench and stayed in it. A lot of directors did that.

"Now Walt Disney had a great feeling for story, and he knew how to encourage talent. But he was not intellectual. He kind of ran things by the seat of his pants. Chuck encouraged talent too, but he led with his drawings. He was a great draftsman; Walt was not. That's a difference between them right there."

Kenner, whose study "Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings" was published in 1994, insists he is not being tongue-in-cheek when he likens Termite Terrace to Periclean Athens in 5th-Century B.C. classical Greece.

"I'm trying to compare historical situations," Kenner said from Athens, Ga., where he is professor of English at the University of Georgia. "You've got the sudden invention of a wholly new medium, which involves not just an epic poet or somebody like that, but a lot of people. It's like Athenian drama. It's like Shakespeare's Globe.

"I'm not putting Bugs Bunny on the plane of 'Hamlet,' by any means. But animation is a totally new form."

Jones prefers to think of himself as a trivia collector who stores up oddities of human nature: "I don't pick out things I think are funny. I accumulate them, and I read. If you read the master, Mark Twain, you get all the information you could possibly use, because he doesn't coach you to be funny; he coaches you how to think, period.

"Comedy is all mistakes. All slippages. Aberrant behavior is all that counts. It's the only thing that makes somebody interesting. If you act the way everybody else does, it's not interesting."

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At art school just before the Depression--Jones was graduated from Chouinard, which later became the California Institute of the Arts--"They said, 'Don't look for the way things should be; look for the way things are.' "

Jones has taken that for a highly personal aesthetic credo: "Let me make it vivid: If you're an alligator, learn to draw alligators; if you're a man, learn to draw humans.

"The first thing any animator must learn, indeed any artist or easel painter has to learn, is that your drawing must be firmly attached to the earth.

"Weight's the whole problem, and we don't pay much attention to it. We take it for granted that things will fall. Our principle enemy is gravity. So if you're drawing elephants, don't ever let an elephant bounce along, because it stops being an elephant and becomes an inflated toy. The best way to realize what weight means is to look at the ballet drawings of Degas."

Shifting gears, he paraphrased the philosopher George Santayana to describe his own balletic duo, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner: "A fanatic redoubles his effort once he loses sight of his goal." Hence, the maniacal Coyote, out of his mind with hunger, is destined to chase his prey, the Road Runner, forever.

"What you look for is not how to catch a Road Runner, but how not to catch him. With Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, the trick is not to shoot a rabbit; it's how the rabbit avoids being shot. Bugs being what he is--a cross between Dorothy Parker, Professor Higgins and Douglas Fairbanks--that's easy. He'd rather talk his way out of a jam, anyway."

Jones being what he is, of course, merely will be reminded by tonight's Oscar of his place in Hollywood's pantheon.

Or as Daffy Duck, the envious egotist who once dreamed of getting an Oscar himself, might say: "Dethpicable!"

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