"Well, what did you expect from an opera, a happy ending?"
More sad news: Chuck Jones died this past weekend from congestive heart failure, at the age of 89.
If there was ever a short list of the people I considered to be my entertainment heroes, Chuck was near the top of it. I've been a life-long fan of his cartoons and of the sense of humour so evident in his work and his writings.
And now he's gone.
On the off-chance that someone reading this might be thinking, "Chuck Who?," it's okay: you've probably been touched by his work, even if you never associated any particular names to it.
Chuck made cartoons, bringing happiness and laughter to adults and children in a career that spanned almost 70 years. He was one of three legendary cartoon directors at Warner Bros. (Friz Freleng and Robert McKimson being the other two). I don't mean to diminish the work of other directors at Warners, such as Tex Avery, Norm McCabe and Frank Tashlin, but when people think of Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes, the names that come to mind are Chuck, Friz, and Bob.
As an animator and director, Chuck had an enormous impact on the evolution of the Looney Tunes cast, creating many of them himself and developing the personalities of the others. He defined the Bugs-Daffy dynamic in exceedingly human terms: Bugs Bunny is smart, savvy, cool under pressure, extremely resourceful, and resolute in his capacity to care for others. Daffy Duck is vain, egocentric, self-absorbed, stubborn, occasionally willfully malicious, and determined to be numero uno at all costs.
To paraphrase Chuck's words, Bugs represents how we would like to be, Daffy is how we are.
Many of Chuck's cartoons displayed an uncommon emphasis on wit and music, frequently relying on dialogue and Carl Stalling's magnificent scoring and orchestration to propel plots from gag to gag. Favourite examples include the brilliant three-cartoon mini-series built around the duck season-rabbit season conflict between Bugs, Daffy and Elmer. The rewritten lyrics to the 'Marriage of Figaro', transformed to fit Bugs and Elmer in 'The Rabbit of Seville'. House mice Hubie and Bertie tormenting Claude Cat time and time again through elaborate mind games. The oft-cited Wagnerian spoof, 'What's Opera, Doc?"
Including the aforementioned Hubie and Bertie, Chuck also created a long list of other notables, including Pepe Le Pew, Henery Hawk, Marvin Martian and K-9, Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf, Marc Antony and Pussyfoot, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, and many others. These are all more than just cartoon characters. They've become pop culture icons that we all remember with a fond smile.
Why do these characters resonate so deeply with us? It's because they *are* us. As much as Chuck, Friz, Bob, et al., laboured to make the Looney Toons cast represent their own aspirations and foibles, they ended up depicting ours as well.
Did you know that Chuck won an Academy Award for one of his Pepe Le Pew cartoons? Most people forget - or never knew - that cartoons played in theatres, as preludes to the feature attractions. For some reason, the studios stopped that practice sometime back in the mid-to-late seventies. Darn shame, really.
Not that Chuck was the one who clambered up on stage the award, of course. That joy went to the studio exec titularly in charge of production for cartoons at Warners, the one who demanded out of the blue one day that "his" animation units should never produce any cartoons about bullfighting. That edict led directly to Chuck's unit coming up with the classic 'Bully for Bugs' short.
Chuck directed over two hundred cartoon shorts for Warners, heading up a team of creative geniuses (super-geniuses, actually) that included Tedd Pierce, Mike Maltese, Ben Washam, Maurice Noble, Carl Stalling, and many others. Together, they created a legacy that inspires generation after generation. The Energizer Rabbit claims to "keep going and going" but it's the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes gang that will still seem fresh and vibrant long after the stuffed drum-playing long-eared galoot has been consigned to the dustbins of advertising history.
What's amazing is that, despite all this, some of Chuck's best creative work, and some of his best-remembered work was still to come.
There was a series of 'Tom and Jerry' cartoons for MGM. Chuck directed a highly regarded short called 'The Dot and The Line', winning another Academy Award in the process. He animated Walt Kelly's classic 'Pogo' comic strip. He collaborated with Dr. Seuss to produce animated versions of 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' and 'Horton Hears a Who'. The lesser known (these days, at least) literary adaptations: 'Rikki-Tikki-Tavi', 'The Phantom Tollbooth', 'The White Seal', and 'A Cricket in Times Square'. Please note, this is only a partial list.
You might think that someone with a resume this good might retire at some point, particularly after winning three Oscars as a director.
He returned to Warners to work once again with the Looney Toons stable, producing new original material to accompany compilations of the original cartoons. He assembled an animation unit that included many members of his original team to produce new theatrical shorts, including a 1980 sequel to the much-loved 1953 Duck Dodgers cartoon. More recently, Chuck has been the prime mover behind the online Timber Wolf cartoons (www.thomastimberwolf.com).
He's been awarded an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement and honorary life membership in the Director's Guild of America.
Chuck Jones spent his life doing exactly that which he loved most: making cartoons and bringing delight and laughter to the people around him. He rarely sang his own praises - his autobiography talks glowingly more of the people he worked with than his own achievements - but, then again, he didn't really need to trumpet the impact he's had on popular culture and on the lives of his fans. That's always been a job for us, his loyal, and now very saddened, audience.