THE NEW YORK TIMES
By Eric P. Nash
Published: December 29, 2002
Most Bugs Bunny fans are too young to remember that the classic cartoons were originally made for the big screen. Like Norma Desmond in ”Sunset Boulevard,” Bugs could easily have declared: ”I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Chuck Jones, who helped hone Bugs’s character, was a pioneer of a quintessentially 20th-century American art form — Hollywood animation.
If Disney was like Charlie Chaplin, spinning reality into magic, Chuck Jones and the Warner Brothers crew were Buster Keaton-like anarchists, attacking the rules of time, space and gravity. Where Disney had a top-down management, with Walt getting all the credit, Warner Brothers animators were rampant individualists, each stamping the product with his own style.
Jones was the third of four children, sired by a ne’er-do-well jazz-era entrepreneur who tried to sell avocados when the public considered them poisonous. Young Jones attributed his drawing ability to the fact that his father bought new letterhead for every unsuccessful venture, so there was always plenty of high-quality drawing paper around.
The Jones tribe lived in rented houses, chosen mainly for the number of volumes in their libraries; when all the books were read, the family moved out. The young artist learned to love Mark Twain’s skeptical humor and Kipling’s anthropomorphic ”Jungle Book.” He also adored movies and absorbed his sense of comic timing from the great silent comedians of the era.
Jones got his first job in animation in 1931, washing the paint off used animation cels (short for celluloid) for Ub Iwerks, the co-creator of Mickey Mouse. Jones then became an ”in-betweener” for Leon Schlesinger Productions — a company later acquired lock, stock and bunny by Warner Brothers — filling in the gaps between the animator’s drawings so that the figures appeared to move. Schlesinger put the malcontents in his studio in a decrepit bungalow known as Termite Terrace, where Jones worked for two of the field’s great innovators, Tex Avery and Friz Freleng.
Jones came into his own in the 1950’s, with classics like ”Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century,” which influenced a squadron of admirers including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; ”Rocket Squad,” a pre-”Blade Runner” sci-fi police caper starring Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, and ”What’s Opera, Doc?” a Wagner sendup featuring the unlikely heldentenor Elmer Fudd singing ”Kill the wabbit” to the tune of ”Ride of the Valkyries” and Bugs Bunny in Brünnhilde drag.
Under Jones’s tutelage, Bugs evolved from bucktoothed Brooklyn wiseacre to worldly Renaissance rabbit, while Daffy Duck went from hooting loon to outraged spokesduck for the id. Daffy’s lisp was copied from Leon Schlesinger’s. Worried how he would respond, the animators showed him the clip, to which Schlesinger obliviously responded, ”Jeethus Christh, that’s a funny voithe!”
Jones was inconsistent about which character he most identified with. He sometimes said Wile E. Coyote, whom he first encountered in his boyhood reading of Twain’s ”Roughing It”: ”The coyote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down. . . . He has a general slinking expression all over. The coyote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.” Jones saw himself in Wile E.’s technological ineptitude, but at other times, he pointed to Daffy’s unbridled egotism. Bugs Bunny’s ”savwah faire” was clearly an idealized portrait of himself. Where is the man behind this flurry of masks? Perhaps in the entire menagerie. ”I never had to leave home to develop any character,” he wrote in his autobiography. ”All I had to do was reach down inside my own self, and there lurking was the essence of Daffy Duck, the Coyote, or Elmer, or the Martian. It was simply a matter of bringing it to the surface.” There is something to be said for working one’s aggressions out by hurling characters off a cliff or running over them with locomotives. Animators tend to be long-lived, and one can only guess at what keeps them going. Perhaps it is the ability to stay close to that inner teenager, who would rather light a stick of Acme dynamite than curse the darkness.