Retrobituaries: Chuck Jones, animator of Looney Tunes
Few animated series have aged as gracefully as Looney Tunes, and that’s in large measure because of director Chuck Jones. He drew relentlessly as a child, a result of a nearly unlimited access to pencils and stationery because of his father’s business ventures. (Each time one of his dad’s companies closed, Chuck and his siblings were given the remainder office supplies.) He never stopped drawing, and would go on to elevate animated shorts as an art form. Here are a few things you might not have known about the man behind Bugs Bunny.
He worked for Walt.
After Warner Brothers closed its animation studio, Chuck Jones worked for Walt Disney. “In animation,” he said in an interview, “asking ‘Walt who?’ would be a very strange thing. It would be like saying ‘Jesus,’ and saying ‘Jesus who?’—he was that important.” (Jones added that poor Walt Lantz, director and producer of Woody Woodpecker, was always overshadowed as the other Walt. “There were no Chucks, which is just as well.”)
He didn’t last long at Disney, though.
“The reason I stopped working [at Disney] was because I saw that nothing happened unless Walt okayed it, and you might have to wait three weeks to get an appointment with Walt to come in and see this sequence you were working on. And it was old stuff to these guys, but not to me. I was used to working at a pace.”
Dr. Seuss was an old war buddy.
During World War II, Jones served with Theodor Geisel in a unit that produced training films for soldiers. They worked on such series as Situation Snafu and Fubar. Army training shorts could be pretty boring, he noted. “The pictures were made by some Army colonel who thought he was a director.” Jones and Geisel made it a point to keep their films interesting and entertaining. As if it’s not weird enough that the guy behind Bugs Bunny and the guy behind the Cat in the Hat were war buddies, they later collaborated with the Navy on other films. The Navy liaison? Hank Ketcham, the cartoonist behind Dennis the Menace.
He didn’t make Saturday morning cartoons...
This might sound weird to anyone under 30, but for a very long time, if you wanted to watch cartoons, you had to wake up early on Saturday mornings. Looney Tunes, of course, was a mainstay. But none of Chuck Jones’s work was made for children on Saturday mornings. “They were always made for theatrical release right up to ’63. None of them were made for television. There’s a perfectly logical reason for it, and it was that there wasn’t any television.” In the 1930s and 40s, he and his team figured the work that they were doing had a total lifespan of three years—first run through fifth run—until finally the films would be worn and retired. Accordingly, they were unafraid to take risks with what they were doing. This often drove their producers crazy. “We got a double pleasure, and that was to make pictures that we enjoyed making, plus making someone else uncomfortable by doing it.
“Because we were so young and had recently left our parents, or teachers, we had very little respect for adults. So we ended up where every creative person is, and that is where you paint or draw for yourself. And we figured if we made each other laugh, hopefully the audience would as well. And it turns out they did.”
...and yet he helped invent Saturday morning cartoons.
In the mid-1950s, KTLA in Los Angeles and WNEW in New York starting running old Warner Brothers cartoons from the archives on Saturday mornings, thus beginning the tradition of programming for children. Animated features at the cinema didn’t last long after that. “We used to kid about it when television was being done... We figured TV might put us out of work, which eventually it did.”
He said of his work at Warners, which was never meant to survive, let alone endure, “We kind of lived in a paradise and we didn’t know it.”
He reportedly considered "What’s Opera, Doc?" to be his greatest work.
If the words “Kill the wabbit!” mean anything to you, then you’re familiar with arguably the greatest cartoon of all time. The 1957 animated short features Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, and parodies Wagner’s operas. (The cartoon’s most famous line is sung to "Ride of the Valkyries.") This wasn’t his only take on opera. He took on Rossini in 1949’s Rabbit of Seville.
He had to persuade his old friend that How the Grinch Stole Christmas would make a great show.
“I had known Ted during the war, but it had been 15 years... I had really wanted to do something of his, and Charlie Brown was one of the only works I knew doing a Christmas special.” Jones thought that Dr. Seuss was the natural person for such an annual tradition. “So I called up Ted, so I ask him would he be willing to think about doing it? He was anti-Hollywood, very much, because when he left after the war they pirated a lot of his stuff and took his credits off of his features... He did some documentaries—one of which won the Academy Award and someone else took it. So he was pretty sour about that.” How did he persuade Geisel? “I told him this was another field—this was television!—and he didn't know much about televisions either.”
Ironically, a banking consortium agreed to sponsor the show, which helped Jones sell the Christmas special to the networks. Jones later noted that Dr. Seuss’s publisher should have sponsored the show, because the cartoon doubled sales of the book that year, and they haven’t slowed since.
He was once, under protest, the vice president in charge of children’s programming at ABC.
In 1972, he was hired by ABC TV to be its vice president of children’s programming. “I’m guilty of a lot of sins,” he said, “but that is one I’d just as soon forget.” How did he get the job? “I complained so much about children’s programming that these guys called my bluff. They said come over and do something... well that was a very good idea except nobody listened to me.” He didn’t last long. “I didn’t want to be vice president. I wanted to go back to doing drawings.”