THE NEW YORK TIMES
By Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Published: November 16, 1989
If a telephone surveyor had called me while I was reading ”Chuck Amuck” and had asked me what I was doing, I might have had to admit I was reading the following sentence: ”The Bugs Bunny ending in ‘Duck Amuck’ was not discovered until the last week of layout; the opening of ‘The Scarlet Pumpernickel’ came after the film was half laid out.” It might have been awkward to have to explain.
Of course, I love those old Warner Brothers animated cartoons, and I had a good time with Chuck Jones’s loose-limbed autobiography, ”Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist.” Mr. Jones is almost as verbally imaginative as he is visually gifted. The creator of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, along with Pepe Le Pew the skunk and Henery Hawk, he also helped to develop Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig. Still, there’s something a little incongruous about how verbally analytical the author waxes over such a highly visual medium. I’d never thought of the Road Runner films as ”pure mass moving, perhaps for the first time, in pure space.”
And it’s hard to get used to the idea that so much thought and planning had to go into something that while obviously work-intensive, still seems spontaneous and wacky. At the height of their popularity in the 1940’s and 50’s, the cartoons ran for exactly 6 minutes and were 540 feet long. ”Each scene cut,” the author writes, ”each step, each phoneme of dialogue, each hand movement, bite, explosion, laugh, was meticulously timed to the twenty-fourth of a second, each of 5,000 drawings accounted for, each piece of action carefully planned and timed.” A good animator at Warner Brothers could do about 15 seconds of film time a week.
Happily, ”Chuck Amuck” is crammed with witty drawings to illustrate the author’s abstract points. If you flip the pages rapidly, you’ll see Wile E. Coyote fruitlessly chasing the Road Runner and falling off a cliff.
And many of his words evoke equally vivid cartoons. Here he is describing an actual cat from his youth. The cat arrived one day ”on little fog feet,” with an old tongue depressor inscribed ”Johnson” secured to a string around its neck. Johnson soon revealed a passion for eating grapefruit, but had trouble when the fruit was uncut. ”It took him many frustrating hours of chasing grapefruits fruitlessly around the house before he recognized the wisdom of trapping it by dribbling this elusive adversary to the nearest corner. There it became possible for him to scratch a small flap of rind and thus burrow greedily in, ripping the innards out of the hapless fruit, often ending up with three-quarters of the rind cocked over his face like a small space helmet.”
Johnson the cat showed Mr. Jones the cartoonist the single-mindedness that was essential to a cartoon character – Daffy Duck’s ambition, Pepe Le Pew’s passion, Yosemite Sam’s volatility, Elmer Fudd’s determination to get rid of that ”pesky wabbit,” Bugs Bunny’s determination to stay alive.
From his own misadventures with objects, particularly one of those spiny flower holders that somehow got glued to the bottom of his tool drawer, Mr. Jones discovered the essence of Wile E. Coyote, whose origins, he writes, lay in Mark Twain’s ”Roughing It.” Among the rules of the Coyote-Road Runner series listed in the book were that ”all materials, tools, weapons or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation,” and that ”no outside force can harm the coyote -only his own ineptitude or the failure of the Acme products.”
Another autobiographical dimension of ”Chuck Amuck” is not so comical. Mr. Jones seems determined to get revenge on the people he worked for in his early days of cartooning, or more precisely the people who never understood what he was doing but were responsible for making sure that it got done as fast as possible. He devotes much space to the shortcomings of studio heads like Leon Schlesinger, whose lisp served as the model for Daffy Duck’s, and he ranks a couple of his producers near ”sphagnum moss” on the ladder of living things.
Yet he concedes that such people served the purpose of stimulating him, for ”creativity without opposition is like playing polo without a horse.” Perhaps they also accounted for some of the anger so evident in the cartoons. If the Road Runner films are not so obviously ”pure mass moving in pure space,” they certainly reveal themselves as expressions of pure rage mitigated only by the speed with which the coyote recovers from his mutilations.
Mr. Jones also goes after himself in these pages, with varying degrees of charm and egotistical modesty. One of the better moments is the story he tells of his sixth birthday party, when he was handed a knife for his birthday cake and told he could slice as big a piece as he wished. As the size of the slice he wanted required no cutting at all, he handed the knife back. This earned him a trip to his room and a lecture on the meaning of selfishness.
Fortunately, he acquired more years of wisdom after that birthday, which is why, a long time afterward, when Ray Bradbury was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied: ”I want to be 14 years old like Chuck Jones.” That seems just about right. It takes the eternal 14-year-old in all of us to savor the humor of ”Chuck Amuck.” Gags like a cat with a grapefruit on its head. Titles like ”The Scarlet Pumpernickel.”
If the telephone surveyor had asked me what I was doing when they called, I’d have said I was watching old cartoons. The coyote is triggering his Acme Product. The Road Runner is going ”Beep Beep.”