Saturday Morning Toons: Chuck Jones Top Ten
Yesterday would have been legendary animation director Chuck Jones’s 100th birthday, and as you might expect, there are lots of celebrations going on for him. Here in Los Angeles alone, at least two different theatres have planned tribute screenings, showing just a few of his best shorts. Meanwhile, classic film blogs like True Classics have devoted past week to celebrating Jones’s life and work. As for me, Jones is easily my favorite of all the Looney Tunes directors, and it seemed like a good time to bring the Saturday Morning Toons feature out of hibernation to highlight some of my absolute favorite Jones-directed shorts.
Like all of the Looney Tunes directors, Jones worked with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, but didn’t create either – however, he was a major influence on Daffy’s shift from whacked-out loon to the irascible, egotistical duck we all know and love today. He also created Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, directing over 26 shorts featuring the pair, as well as skunk loverboy Pepe Le Pew. A lot of credit when talking about Jones goes to his frequent collaborator, writer Michael Maltese – the two of them developed some of Warner Bros’ most lasting and iconic animated shorts, including many you’ll see below. They brought wordplay to slapstick in Rabbit Seasoning (and its Hunting Trilogy partners Rabbit Fire and Duck, Rabbit, Duck), meta-humor in Duck Amuck, opera to cartoons in What’s Opera, Doc and The Rabbit of Seville, sci-fi in Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century, heart and warm humor to Feed the Kitty, and outrageous one-off visual gags to a multitude of Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons.
The combination of wit, slapstick, character moments, heart, and guts to try something new permeates Jones’ best cartoons, and that’s why they remain just as hilarious, moving, and iconic as ever. But enough of this. Let’s watch some cartoons!
First off, two special mentions. One for Jones’s version of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), which doesn’t quite fit the theme of short cartoons as it’s nearly half an hour long. That in no way diminishes its brilliance, thanks to Jones’s emotive animation, minimalist approach (compare to the overblown Ron Howard live-action version) and Boris Karloff’s narration. It’s a Christmas staple at my house.
And secondly, the afore-mentioned Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century (1953) would certainly have made my top ten, except there isn’t a good version on YouTube and I wanted to keep to the theme of being able to show what I’m talking about. Daffy gets one of his best lead roles as the adventurous Duck Dodgers, even though his sidekick Porky is by far the smarter of the two, PLUS he gets to square off against Marvin the Martian (who was usually an adversary for Bugs Bunny) in their fight to claim Planet X.
Beyond those two, here are ten MORE Jones cartoons that crossed my mind as potential contenders as I was drawing up my eventual top ten. Links go to the short on YouTube, if it exists. Rabbit Fire (1951) and Duck, Rabbit, Duck (1953), The Rabbit of Seville (1950), The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950), Drip-Along Daffy (1951), The Abominable Snow Rabbit (1961), Operation: Rabbit (1952), Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z (1956), Water, Water Every Hare (1952), Elmer’s Pet Rabbit (1941). As you can see, choosing just ten films to represent Jones’s 300+ film career is an impossibility. but here goes.
#10: Fast and Furry-ous (1949)
Even though some of the other shorts mentioned above might be individually better than any individual Roadrunner and Coyote short, I had to include one to represent the facility Jones and Maltese had for straight-up slapstick sight gags. That’s basically all the Roadrunner shorts are, a random collection of gags as the Coyote tries and fails miserably to catch the Roadrunner, but when they’re on, they’re some of the best sight gags in the business, taking full advantage of Jones’s evocative facial expressions. This is the first of the series, and it sets up the template that the rest would follow, and in fact, many of the gags in here would be repeated with variation in later toons. Watching it now, it almost feels like a “greatest hits” collection. Just about every gag lands, and it’s impossible not to be entertained. (Interestingly, Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z, mentioned above, is almost an inverse of this cartoon – very similar gags, but in some way opposite to this one.)
#9: The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (1965)
The only non-Warner Bros. cartoon in this list, Jones did this one after he went independent and was contracting for MGM in the early 1960s. It’s something of an abstract cartoon, and owes something to the UPA style of drawing that gained traction throughout the late ’50s and ’60s. It also owes a lot to the culture of the 1960s, as a straight-laced line falls for a dot, who spends all her time with a shapeless squiggle. Without much imagination, it’s easy to interpret the line as a clean-cut, old-fashioned “square”, while the squiggle is a hippie, and the film doesn’t make any bones about which to side with. Whatever you think of the message, though, this is a film that really makes the most of its minimalist art style, and stands out among all of Jones’s work. It’s also one of only two Jones shorts to win the Best Animated Short Oscar (the other being Pepe Le Pew-featuring For Scent-imental Reasons).
#8: High Note (1960)
One of the later shorts Jones did at Warner, and one without any existing or recurring characters. Instead, a bunch of musical notes prepare to play The Blue Danube, but one note has gone awol to get drunk over in the sheet music for “Little Brown Jug.” Jones and Maltese come up with some absolutely delightful visual gags based on sheet music. Perhaps even more fun for people who know how to read music, but this is a pretty delightful cartoon from start to finish.
#7: Hair-Raising Hare (1946)
It was pretty common for Looney Tunes to caricature big-name actors of the time (some shorts are built almost entirely around this conceit), but this is one of the most successful ones, modeling a mad scientist after Peter Lorre. When he needs a rabbit dinner to feed his hungry monster, he lures Bugs with a mechanical female rabbit – and Bugs takes the bait without hesitation, despite the flashing neon “evil scientist” sign above the door. The monster, Gossamer, appears in a few other cartoons (notably in the similar Water, Water Every Hare), but this one has some of the most iconic Bugs-Gossamer scenes. This is a great one to pull out for Halloween.
#6: The Dover Boys at Pimento University (1942)
The Dover Boys is one of Jones’s earlier cartoons, and kind of the one that really set him apart as a talent worth watching. It’s also one of Warner’s first cartoons to take a stylized approach to animation, and though Jones wouldn’t stick to this visual style though the rest of his career, it continues to be striking today. The story is a pastiche on turn of the century characters and stories, with a trio of college boys having to rescue a maiden from a villainous lecher – although how much saving she really needs turns out to be questionable!
#5: One Froggy Ending (1955)
A bum finds a frog buried in a building site and lo and behold, the frog can sing and dance! Jones created Michigan J. Frog for this cartoon (though he wouldn’t name him until an interview in the 1970s) and this is the only classic WB cartoon in which he appears – even so, he is instantly recognizable to many television viewers from numerous guest appearances in various shows and as the mascot of the WB network from 1995 to 2005. The great thing about this cartoon is there actually isn’t any real dialogue in it. The frog sings, but everything else is done only visually, making it an intriguing combination of pantomime and vaudeville-inspired song and dance – which the frog only performs for the man, and never for talent agents, thwarting the man’s dreams of getting rich off this amazing frog. It’s a delight.
#4: What’s Opera, Doc? (1957)
Many would claim What’s Opera, Doc? as Jones’s undisputed masterpiece, and there’s certainly a lot of validity to that view. In terms of sheer chutzpah, I might have to agree – I mean, building an entire cartoon, a short entertainment for kids before the main feature starts, out of a tragic opera? Who would even think of doing that? Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese, that’s who. Now, plenty of other cartoons before this had used classical music as a basis, whether it’s Tom and Jerry fighting over performing a concert piano piece, or Elmer Fudd trying to conduct a symphony, or even Bugs and Elmer caught in a performance of “The Barber of Seville” and playing along. But this one doesn’t try to ground itself in an outside story at all – it’s simply an opera from start to finish, with Elmer as a viking trying to kill Bugs and Bugs turning the tables on him. Same dynamic, but in fully operatic mode. It’s a masterpiece, and the only reason I have it at #4 instead of higher is because I just personally have so much love for the other three.
#3: Rabbit Seasoning (1952)
The middle and best installment of the “Hunting Trilogy”, all of which feature Elmer trying to hunt either ducks and rabbits and Bugs and Daffy constantly confusing him on what hunting season it is. It was with this series of cartoons that Jones and Maltese reshaped Daffy from the purely zany uncontrolled character of the 1940s into the sly, egomaniacal foil he became in the ’50s, and this cartoon is the best example of this new Daffy playing Bugs Bunny’s foil. I can pretty much quote this whole cartoon, but I won’t – I’ll just point out that the recurring “pronoun trouble” sequence is one of the must sustained examples of a wordplay joke in a cartoon I’ve ever seen. Though Jones and Maltese excelled at sight gags (just watch the Roadrunner and Coyote series), they also weren’t afraid to do a cartoon that’s very dialogue heavy and has a lot of pretty simple two-shots.
#2: Feed the Kitty (1952)
This cartoon featuring Marc Antony and Pussyfoot (not named here) is one of the warmest, most genuine, and yet funniest cartoons any of the major studios ever made. Disney did a great job at being heartwarming, WB and MGM were great at being funny, but here Jones and Maltese combine the two into a cartoon that I can watch over and over and never tire of. When Pussyfoot avails himself of the softness of Marc Antony’s back, Marc Antony is first angered, then non-plussed, then totally won over by the cuteness. He does all he can to keep the little kitten, but there’s one moment where he thinks he’s lost him forever, and it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious, thanks to the Marc Antony’s wonderfully expressive face. Jones is always great with facial expressions, giving us some of Bugs’ and Daffy’s most iconic stills, but Marc Antony is probably his most expressive ever, with those big eyes and puppy dog grins. I won’t lie to you. Marc Antony can make me cry in this cartoon. It’s probably the only Golden Era animated short that has EVER made me cry.
#1: Duck Amuck (1953)
I gave masterpiece praise to What’s Opera, Doc?, but frankly, Duck Amuck has my vote for greatest cartoon short ever made. And that’s not a light statement, because I really have a high view of animated shorts. According to my Flickchart, which lets you rank shorts up against features if you want to, Duck Amuck is in my Top 50 favorite films OF ALL TIME, short or feature, animated or live-action. This is a brilliant film, full stop, and far ahead of its time in terms of meta-narrative and breaking the fourth wall. It wasn’t unusual, actually, for cartoons of this time period and earlier to break the fourth wall, but usually just for a quick aside or comment to the audience, then back to the action. This one is nothing BUT breaking the fourth wall, as Daffy tries to do his job, but is constantly thwarted by the animator changing backgrounds, props, sound effects, or even Daffy’s own physique. It’s a one man show as Daffy first conforms to the new scenarios, trying to be the good little studio employee (“It isn’t as though I haven’t lived up to my contract, goodness knows!”) but before long it gets to be too much for him and he loses it. It’s a brilliant deconstruction of filmmaking itself, and Daffy’s truest chance to shine.