Chuck Jones' accolades are well-deserved

"Weinman would have been better off writing an article championing Bob Clampett, not just using him as a cudgel to beat Chuck Jones with."

By Salon Staff

Published June 8, 2000 7:04PM (EDT)

What's up, Chuck?

A little genius goes a long way, in my book. Chuck Jones may get an unfairly large slice of the publicity pie, but that doesn't take away from the extremely high quality of some of his work. I found your article negative and vindictive. For my money, I'd rather watch the worst work of a good artist, than the best work of a good critic.

-- Rich Smith

Jaime Weinman's capacity for judgment is best measured by the fact that his view on the rather fundamental matter of what constitutes a great cartoon stands at considerable odds with the people who are most knowledgeable about animation and its history. Notwithstanding his personal critique of "What's Opera Doc?," a massive array of more than 1,000 animators, cartoon historians and other animation professionals completely contradict him. A survey of the 1,000-plus resulted in the publication of "The 50 Greatest Cartoons" (Edited by Jerry Beck, JG Press, 1994), which placed the film at the very top of its list, as the No. 1 cartoon of all time.

My own merely personal opinion is that Tex Avery is the funniest director in animation history (that being only one category for rating, but it is a view shared by Jones). And no parade of his less successful cartoons -- and he did plenty -- diminishes him in the least. Yet Weinman's argument to discredit Jones is so devoid of logic that, by terms of his reason, a Nobel Prize winner should be rejected as overrated and undeserving, if he or she won the award only once. Jones can't be held responsible for what other people say about him. And with respect to the remarks for which Jones can be held to account, Salon's readers should know Jones's very first words in his autobiography, "Chuck Amuck": "This book is not a record of facts, it is not exact; it makes no claim to being exact; it is, I hope, a fond catchall, a remembrance of events and people who, consciously or not, shaped my life and character."

There have been many influential contributors to the world of animation, and there is certainly room for debate about what constitutes greatness. Where Chuck Jones will stand precisely, among the pantheon of cartoon luminaries, may well remain for the historians to judge in another couple hundred years. But there is no intellectually credible basis upon which to assert he has played other than a particularly significant part in cartoon history.

-- Brian Zick

Jones never denied the fact that he relied on the pre-established characters and story structures of the early classics created by Freleng and Avery. Indeed, Jones' fresh approach to these tropes (which were in eminent danger of becoming overfamiliar) breathed new life into them, just as a great jazz musician can reinvent an old Tin Pan Alley chestnut.

The humor of "What's Opera Doc," which Weinman can't seem to fathom, stems from the power of these irreducible tropes of Bugs Bunny cartoons (i.e. Elmer threatens Bugs, Bugs dresses like a woman, Bugs feigns death) which survive intact despite an expressionistic Wagnerian setting with full operatic mood and pacing. I don't know what disdainful audience Weinman saw this with, but it invariably brings down the house whenever I see it. Weinman conveniently focuses on Jones' relatively sedate portrayal of Bugs, who Jones found less engaging than Daffy. There is no mention at all of his transformation of Daffy Duck from a "loony" one-note boor into the personification of greed, avarice and cowardice; Jones' Daffy Duck was easily the most detailed and fully realized cartoon character before Homer Simpson. It's ludicrous for Weinman to purport to examine Jones without acknowledging the brilliance of "Duck Amuck," "Scarlet Pumpernickle", the "Duck Season! Wabbit Season!" trilogy, and "Ali Baba Bunny" (Which I, and many others, think showcases Chuck Jones AND Mike Maltese at the very top of their form.)

And it hardly seems fair to single out Jones for the shoddiness of his work in the 1960s. The '60s were tough on ALL cartoonists -- budgetary constraints and the encroachment of television led to an industrywide drop off in quality. Jones's Tom and Jerry cartoons are slightly better than McKimson's Warner Bros. shorts of that era, and slightly worse than Freleng's contemporaneous Pink Panther cartoons for MGM. So what? The fact remains that NO other Warner Bros. cartoonist had as much success in the '60s and '70s as Jones.

Weinman can't ignore the phenomenally successful (on every level) Dr. Seuss adaptation "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," but he damns with faint praise: "Jones' preference for slow, formalized movement and wide-eyed facial expressions seemed to suit the character of the Grinch." But of course, no mention at all is made of the innovative and atmospheric 1975 "Rikki Tikki Tavvi."

Jones may have slighted Bob Clampett, but so did everyone else. Now that Clampett's moon is waxing (the Cartoon Network recently presented a showcase in his honor, as if to make up for past neglect) it seems strikingly opportune for Weinman to suggest that Jones was alone in ignoring Clampett's legacy. Clampett is coming back into vogue, just as Jones did, and just as Tex Avery more recently did. It does rankle that so many people know Jones's "One Froggy Evening" and so few know Clampett's "Book Revue." But Jones isn't in any way to blame for this. Weinman would have been better off writing an article championing Clampett, not just using him as a cudgel to beat Chuck Jones with.

-- Chris Baker

Jaime Weinman's analysis of Chuck Jones' career is certainly one of the most thorough deconstructions of the Warner Bros. cartoons I've seen in a magazine, so it's particularly disappointing that he does not even mention one of the indispensable elements of the cartoons' success: the music.

To my mind it's the work of Carl Stalling and, to a slightly lesser degree, Milt Franklyn, that gives the great cartoons their impeccable comic timing. I don't know anything about the background of either composer, but it's clear from their inspired pastiches of Wagner, Richard Strauss and Louis Armstrong -- to name just three of their innumerable sources -- that they were highly educated, witty and sophisticated musicians.

And they were prolific: For Stalling alone the Internet Movie Database lists more than 700 shorts to which he contributed the soundtrack between 1928 and his death in 1972. It's true that the great Warner cartoons boasted a distinctive visual style, but their musical style is truly unique. One can almost mark the end of the golden age with the replacement of Stalling and Franklyn by the execrable Bill Lava. Chuck Jones was still directing Road Runner shorts in the early '60's, but saddled with Lava's plodding music they lay limp on the screen.

-- Michael Hiltzik

Jaime Weinman's article, "What's Up, Chuck?" was refreshing on several levels, especially for someone who was expecting yet another Gen X rant against the evils of Boomerism. I derived as much pleasure from Weinman's page-turning, balloon-bursting critique of cartoonist Chuck Jones as early Roadrunner fans do from watching a crispy Coyote stagger from his Acme contraptions.

-- Barbara MacKellar

Salon Staff

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