If Chuck Jones could have chosen the way he left this world, why do we suspect that it would have involved an anvil? Sadly, we'll never know the exact fashion in which Jones might have directed his own demise, but you can bet that there would have been shotguns, a coordinated musical score, and killer sound effects. Jones, who created some of Warner Brothers' most beloved cartoon characters (including Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner), left a tremendous body of work comprising some of the most memorable cartoons of all time.
Rather than seek out particular examples of Jones' work, we let the pervasiveness of his cartoons work for us. We set the Tivo to catch a couple of hours' worth of generic "Bugs Bunny" programming on the Cartoon Network and sifted through the footage for the gems from Jones. While we didn't luck out and catch "What's Opera Doc?" or "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century," we did see a good number of cartoons from different periods in Jones' career.
Sniffles Takes A Trip (1940)
Some cartoon characters are icons, like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. Some characters are beloved even though their cartoons are somewhat less seminal, like Scooby-Doo and the Jetsons. And some cartoon characters are just pathetic, like Jabberjaw. Whoever thought that a slobbering, sycophantic shark was what kids wanted on television should be taken out back of the woodshed for a quick lesson. If Jabberjaw cartoons are more fun than you can handle, however, you can always watch Sniffles the mouse.
Really, we shouldn't be that hard on Sniffles, an early Chuck Jones creation. In his first cartoon he got blasted on the 1930s equivalent of Nyquil. But after that good start, Sniffles became a cloyingly sweet mouse who starred in cartoons where little or nothing happened. For instance, Sniffles Takes a Trip can be described as follows: Sniffles walks out to the country, tries to fall asleep, is scared by some sounds. That's it. There was plenty of time to notice that Sniffles is pretty much Porky Pig with a little bit of hair and an only slightly less annoying speech impediment.
We were a bit surprised to find that Chuck Jones actually created Sniffles; there seems to be little of Jones' trademark cynicism and a lot of Disneyesque scenes in which a wide-eyed protagonist meets the forces of nature. It actually reminded us a lot of the scenes in which Snow White gets lost in the dwarves' forest for the first time. Overall, it was goofy, saccharine, and, apart from a scene in which Sniffles pitches a hammock between the legs of a stork, practically humorless. If Sniffles is a parody of Mickey Mouse, he's a darn subtle one.
Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears (1944)
Three other bears (Ma, Pa, and Junyer) decide to get in on that Goldilocks scam. But they don't have porridge so they use carrot soup, attracting a certain rabbit instead of the usual damsel in distress. This cartoon would be okay except for the scenes where Bugs macks on Ma Bear. We can get behind a frog and a pig dating, but Bugs really ought to leave the married ursines alone.
It's fairly obvious that someone (Jones? the studio?) thought the bears were funnier than audiences did; despite their weak showing here, they were allowed several additional cartoons, including "A Bear for Punishment" (below). The antipathy between the dumb-but-lovable Junyer and his grumpy father is supposed to provide much of the humor, but in the end Pa is so taciturn that he seems a bit abusive to modern sensitivities. Still, there's a lot of great slapstick in this short, and you can really see the early stages of what would become Jones' high style, in partnership with writer Michael Maltese. Watch for the trails of steam/scent from the carrot soup, which not only lead Bugs by his nose to the soup, but also tie a napkin bib around his neck!
The Weakly Reporter (1944)
This is not a character piece at all, but a series of loosely connected skits built around the theme of the sacrifices people had to make on the home front during World War II. This was one of our favorite pieces of the evening, laced as it was with topical humor and then-pop-culture references. If you have any affection for the WWII era at all, it's difficult not to be charmed by these jokes about rations and women in the industrial workforce. Told from a purely civilian point of view (since Jones was probably too old or too nearsighted for military service), "The Weakly Reporter" mocks the style of a newsreel in order to tell a dozen lame jokes about daily life during a war.
Some of the jokes will doubtless play as a bit sexist to today's audiences, but it's difficult not to see the good humor with which these jokes are told. The snippets in which people pay for mere whiffs of the odor of a steak, or in which a block of butter is escorted by armed guards, are rather more obviously bitter than those in which women are fitted for welding masks at the beauty shop or trained in the "fighting tactics of the commandos" at a nylons sale. ("And brother, do they fight dirty!") Other bits of humor will later have to be explained to us; we'll confess that we didn't get the scene in which gangsters hold up a jewelry store and make off with an alarm clock. Of course, the obligatory "buy war bonds" message makes an appearance.
Most telling about this short is the way it ends. A Rosie-Riveter type is called upon to delicately ungum the works of some factory machinery, returning the manufacturing juggernaut to operation. Despite the earlier jokes about "dainty" cab drivers and "feminine intrigue," Jones & Co. pay homage to the women who kept the war machine moving. A dated bit of cartoonery, but an entertaining one.
A Bear for Punishment (1951)
Jones and Maltese were allowed to cut loose with the bear characters seven years later in this, the last of the bear cartoons. The others were What's Brewin, Bruin? (1948), The Bedeviled Bruin (1949), and Bear Feat (1949), as well as the aforementioned Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears. In this installment, Ma and Junyer celebrate Father's Day in high style, despite the objections of Pa. Described by one of our fellow toon-watchers as "messed-up," this gem features repeated affectionate abuses heaped upon the increasingly grumpy Pa, who submits to his son's attempts to pay homage at the behest of his wheedling wife. (Ma Bear makes an art out of saying "But Hennnry!")
The short is topped off by a poetry reading and a musical number that really puts the "looney" in Looney Toons. Not exactly our favorite Chuck Jones bit ever, but certainly a fitting capstone to one of his wackier series.
Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953)
Of all the cartoons we watched that evening, this one is the most classically Chuck Jones. Made in the mid-Fifties, it carries the sharp lines, vibrant colors, and running visual gags that help you to instantly recognize Jones' work. Fortunately, it also contains classic Looney Toons characters and plot, which were sorely missing from our earlier Jones experiences.
Elmer Fudd is out hunting at duck season (properly placed in mid-winter), and Daffy, not wanting to end up in the pot, tries to convince Fudd that it is actually rabbit season. Part of this involves painting a yellow line through the snow to Bugs' hole. How this is accomplished is mercifully left ambiguous. Then a battle of wits is engaged between Daffy and Bugs, with Daffy always coming up short. Just counting the number of ways that Daffy's beak can be blown off his head is entertainment enough, but Jones & Co. (this is yet another classic bit of Michael Maltese work) have to be funny too.
When the studio in which Jones and his colleagues worked was shut down, many worried that the art of the cartoon short was soon to be lost. Fortunately, this turned out not to be true, especially when one gauges by more recent successes like Animaniacs and Dexter's Laboratory. This year's animated short film from Pixar, "For the Birds," won an Academy Award and it obviously owes much to Chuck Jones.
In fact, we all indebted to Jones. His humor, visual style, and ideas infect our very culture. Remember that every time you complain of pronoun trouble, or hug something and love it and call it George, you invoke the spirit of Chuck Jones, his eyes twinkling beneath that craggy brow. Certainly there were a great many people at Warner Brothers who contributed to his cartoon legacy, but in the end it was Jones who was responsible for the final product, and it was his name that was splashed up on screen at the beginning of every cartoon. Without him, the world would have been a much less looney place to live.