Saturday, January 26, 2008

Jumping on the Chuck-Wagon

All right, since all the cool kids are posting about Chuck Jones, I'm feeling left out. So here's my take on Chuck's artistic ability and whether or not it waned in his later years. Cut to the chase - NO, of course he was not drawing at his best in his old age, but even his drawings for the limited-edition sericels that he was mass producing to satisfy the animation collectibles market that was springing up, were pretty damn good when taken on their own terms. I think ol' Chuck was no more guilty than other "Animation Legends" that were out making some easy dough in their golden years by exploiting their illustrious filmic past. Friz Freleng was doing it too, but if you take a look at the sericel images in these two runs, I think Chuck's drawings were far better than those of Friz. However, I don't believe that Friz in his prime was ever as notable for his draughtsmanship as he was for his directing skills, so I don't hold it against him.

To be sure, Chuck's drawings on the sericels and also the illustrations he did for his two memoirs, "Chuck Amuck" and "Chuck Reducks" were pretty off-model, as they say, when compared to any of the cartoons he directed back in his heyday at Warner Brothers. But when taken out of context, his drawings are still examples of damn fine cartooning nonetheless! I always suspected that when any of the oldtimers, once having long retired from their respective studios, were basking in the glow of the recognition and popularity that came their way later on, they basically didn't care how accurate their sketches were to the original character models. They were a bunch of old farts just enjoying all of the overdue attention they were now getting from their legions of fans and, free from the constraints of actual cartoon production, were allowing their own personal artistic styles to take over in the same manner as their handwritten signatures. If the characters weren't exactly on-model, so what? Being a beloved oldtimer in this industry buys you a lot of slack, in that, who is going to tell you that you no longer know how to draw the characters that you had a hand in originating? Guys like Ward Kimball and Bill Justice from Disney were taking the same liberties with their characters that Chuck took with Bugs and the gang, but any fan lucky enough to get a quick sketch from these delightful old codgers treated it like gold (as well they should), despite whatever inaccuracies to the design had taken hold with the passage of several decades of their being away from the animation desk.

For the record, by the way, Chuck Jones was also my favourite of the Warners cartoon makers. Even back when I was a young kid catching them on the old "Bugs Bunny / Roadrunner Hour" for the first time, I noted that the cartoons I liked best mostly seemed to be directed by some cat named "Charles M. Jones". They always seemed very sophisticated, though sometimes given to self-indulgence, in retrospect I suppose. It was years later before I delved into the history a bit and learned something about the various animation greats at both Warners and Disney. If memory serves me, I think one of the first times I actually saw Chuck Jones at length on TV was in an interview he gave on "The Dick Cavett Show" sometime back in the 1970's on PBS. I vividly recall what a fun interview it was and that Chuck did seem to come across as a guy who loved to hear himself speak. In fact, it seemed to me at the time that both he and Cavett were two of a kind, engaging in their know-it-all banter, with Chuck likely quoting Mark Twain and Cavett quoting back with Groucho Marx. But, as I am also often guilty of being a bit of an elitist blowhard, I felt a certain kinship with these guys!

In his post Warners animation career, Chuck was pretty hit and miss. I still consider his "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to be the gold standard in animated TV specials, but his three adaptations of Kipling's stories from "the Jungle Book" later on were good, but not great. Sadly, his very odd version of "Carnival of the Animals" with Bugs and Daffy I consider to be pretty abysmal, which proves that even a once great director like Chuck was not infallible. And I don't think any of us are being disrespectful for pointing out such shortcomings either. Chuck Jones was only human, after all.

To see a retrospective of Chuck Jones art, running the gamut from "Classic Chuck" to "Make a Quick Buck Chuck", please take a look here on John K's site.


Jinny Liang said...

I love the caricature Pete! I love how you drew Chuck's face all squished in like that! so cute =)

Eric Noble said...

Awesome caricature, and a very thoughtful post. He wasn't at the top of his game after they left Warners, but hey, none of the other directors were either. Compare Clampett in 1942 and then Clampett in 1962. "Beany and Cecil" was not as funny as his Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck cartoons. Great stuff. You're right that those later drawings are still fine Chuck Jones drawings.

Floyd Norman said...

Well said, Pete. It's true Chuck became a bit of a blowhard in his later years, but what the hey - - he had earned the right to do whatever he wanted.

As a young animation artist, having an "audience" with Mr. Jones was a rare opportunity. Plus, I was lucky enough to visit the Warner Bros. cartoon unit when these old guys were in their prime.

Finally, it was cool to be in a movie theater back in the fifties, and know that most of the audience recognized his name.

Thad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thad said...


As another fan who quickly realized all of my favorite cartoons were by "Charles M. Jones", I'm biased too, but only slightly.

I think everyone is starting to tie themselves into knots over this though. Of course his later work isn't as good as the best of it. He was declining while he was still at Warners in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Come on, put on High Note, Nelly's Folly, Hare-Breadth Hurry, or Transylvania 6-5000 and look me in the eye and say "Chuck isn't pretentious, he's still got it!"

The later drawings aren't very good, but they're not awful either. I have a strange affinity for them. Friz Freleng pointed out to a friend of mine, "Look at how Chuck is drawing Bugs now! He has no neck!"

I'm glad you posted that caricature too Pete! I hope to see more of Termite Terrace displayed! (And I'm still waitin' to see them Marilyn and Audrey caricatures too!)

Mitch Leeuwe said...

Loved reading the post! It's great to learn some more about Chuck Jones. I just seen an interview of him on drawn.

He Pete, are you gonna do some more lessons on you're blog? Like the "Angry Girlfriend" post, or the post where we can see you on video where you draw.

Marlo said...


Brian Sibley said...

A great image of a great talent. I interviewed CJ on stage at the National Film Theatre in London many years ago and had a great time, although he was a slightly tricky bird and gave me a run for money that would have done credit to the Roadrunner!!