Thursday, January 24, 2008

Falling Behind With the Joneses

Will Finn has written two blog entrys (here and here) about what he sees as the deterioration in Chuck Jones' drawing ability towards the end of his life. What's below is a piece I wrote in March of 1995 for Apatoons, looking at the latter part of Jones' career as a director.

My favorite animated shorts director is Chuck Jones. I'm saying that up front, so what follows doesn't seem like Jones bashing.

I'm glad that Jones is getting the attention he deserves from the press and public and I'm glad for Jones that he's been able to stay active. However, there's something pitiful about Jones' planned projects, sequels to some of his best and most popular films like Duck Amuck and One Froggy Evening.

It's now more than 30 years since Jones worked regularly on the Warner characters. In that time, he's become an independent producer, the vice president of ABC, directed one original feature, one compilation feature and numerous TV specials, done a comic strip, a children's book and entered the original animation art market. In his personal life, he has suffered the death of his first wife, remarried, and lost many of his collaborators and contemporaries in the animation business. He has persevered through skin cancer, a pacemaker, and hip and ankle replacements. This is a lot to have experienced. Is any of it reflected in his work? I don't believe it is.

This isn't to say that Jones is completely responsible for the gulf between his life and art. The animation business is frankly retarded in the area of artistic growth. But I always hoped that Jones, one of the most intellectual directors in animation, would find a way to keep his art vital. Instead, his art is now 30 years behind his life.

It's as if the Marx Brothers reassembled in 1960 to make Another Night at the Opera or Bob Hope today making Grandson of Paleface. How about Paul, George and Ringo re-uniting to record "I Want to Hold Your Other Hand?"

Some artists create themselves continuously. They change with the times and continue to say something meaningful. Duke Ellington, Charlie Chaplin, John Huston, Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner are examples. The late work by these artists, while perhaps not their most popular, is often their most deeply felt.

By contrast, other artists create themselves only once, and when they enter decline they thrash around noisily, trying to recapture something they once did effortlessly. Preston Sturges and Frank Capra come to mind in this category.

Jones is also in this category and he resembles Capra in many ways. Both were dependent on key collaborators (Capra on writer Robert Riskin and cameraman Joe August; Jones on writer Mike Maltese and designer Maurice Noble). Without their collaborators, both directors usually failed to do their best work. Both fell back on earlier works at the end of their careers (Capra remaking some 1930's films in the '50's and '60's; Jones returning to the Warner characters) with the new works being inferior. Jones is now recycling his earlier work, and his sequel to Duck Dodgers does not bode well for whatever comes next.

Mike Barrier was there first (he always is) with his essay on Jones in Funnyworld #13. (Hey Mike, put that essay on your website!) He implied in the early '70's that Jones' career might end with a whimper. What do we have from Jones' last 30 years that can compare to his Warner work? The Dot and the Line, The Grinch and Riki Tiki Tavi are the only things that I would put in that category. Am I missing one or two? If so, the number is still agonizingly small.

I'm not implying that this is a failure on Jones' part. Creativity is mysterious, and the artist has to be in tune with the zeitgeist and the marketplace as well as himself. Preston Sturges and Frank Capra did their best but couldn't sustain their art. That does nothing to diminish their best films. No other American animation director has managed to succeed where Jones failed, but it looked to me like Jones had the best shot at deepening his work as he aged. His current path is a painful reminder of how little he's contributed in the last 30 years and that animation directors don't gain wisdom or expressiveness with age, they just peter out.


Thad said...

Mark, I'm so glad you published this article on your blog for others to see. We need more of your Apatoons work up here!

I personally find it interesting that those who revere Jones as their favorite are more open and capable of criticism that others do with their favorite. For instance, have we ever seen constructed criticism of Clampett's work outside of Jones himself?

Pete Emslie said...

I always thought it was odd that Chuck did not do any more of the Dr. Suess TV specials after "The Grinch" and "Horton Hears a Who", both of which I think are just great (though some critics may disagree with me on the latter.) Instead, the later entries, starting with "The Cat in the Hat", were produced by Friz in his Depatie-Freleng partnership. They were quite good too, but I was always curious why those shows fell into their hands. Mark, are you aware of any story behind that? Did Chuck decline on producing any more or were they taken away from him for some reason?

I liked his three adaptations of the Kipling stories too, although I was so smitten with Disney's "The Jungle Book" that I found "Mowgli's Brothers" a bit hard to accept, even though it was trying to be truer to the Kipling source. I think it was actually quite good to see Chuck Jones at least trying to do other work aside from his Warners characters and I'd always hoped he'd continue to do more TV specials. I do recall being very disappointed in his Bugs and Daffy "Carnival of the Animals" special, though, and I think it was clear at that point that his best years were well behind him in regards to the Looney Tunes gang.

Pete Emslie said...

Oops, spelling error: that should be Dr. Seuss

Anonymous said...

I still say his Tom & Jerry cartoons are horribly under rated and that if you don't judge his later work from his 40s and 50s work, his 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s work was brilliant compared to what else was being made at the time. They were completely unique and non derivative of anyone else.

I'd compare it to Elvis Presley. Elvis became a bad caricature of himself in the 70s but his voice was so unique that it was still better than what else was being done in pop music in the 70s. There WERE redeeming qualities in both instances.

Anonymous said...

>>For instance, have we ever seen constructed criticism of Clampett's work outside of Jones himself?

[sarcasm]Yeah, I'll get right on that, Thad.[/sarcasm]

I never heard Jones offer criticisms of Clampett's films, only very broad criticisms of his sense of humour and personality.

Unknown said...

Seuss began grousing about how Jones slightly redesigned his characters for ease in animation. This may be why Freleng's shop ended up with that string of specials. Toward the very end, Seuss preferred that his actual book illustrations be virtually traced rather than altered, whenever possible. Seuss certainly had the right to feel that way, with his track record.

Thad said...

BTW, a "Grandson of Paleface" with a 90+ year-old Bob Hope and 70+ year-old Jane Russell would have been a horror to behold.

Anonymous said...

Mark, I too am very glad you published this essay. The articles, and particularly the comments, on Will Finn's site did indeed feel like Jones bashing to me (although I know Will and many other didn't intend their comments that way). I was really quite angry and depressed about it for a couple of days, to a degree that surprised me. Perhaps the written word gives a coldness of tone that might not have been apparent had I heard those comments in person. But I was somehow troubled, particularly since many comments came from some of my favorite animation blog writers.

Jones is also my favorite director, and a huge influence on my life in general. Although I can agree with many criticisms of his later work, I have a protective feeling about Chuck Jones that is almost familial. Your post here, Mark, helped to put the comments on Will's blog in a context that took the personal sting out of them, for me. I will sleep better tonight.

Jenny Lerew said...

Wow...I'm surprised and somewhat horrified that the carefully couched observations Will made about Chuck Jones's very late work was enough to anger anyone. Based on the hoohah I probably should have amended my own comment on his blog too. I'll do it here, then:

I worshipped and revered Charles M. Jones. He was exceptional in every way. When he made an appearance at UCLA decades ago(I think I was still in high school at the time--in fact I'm not sure I was old enough to drive myself there), and after screening some of very best(and most famous films)questions were taken from the audience, I stood up, was called on and prefaced my question(which I can't remember)with this:

"Mr. Jones, first I just want to say-thank you for my childhood".
Crony, sure--but heartfelt.

Chuck(a GOD to me) smiled from the Melnitz stage as the entire audience thundered with likeminded applause.

So that's how I felt, and feel, about Chuck Jones.

The best of his cartoons--and there are too many to list from me--are sublime, touching, hilarious, beautiful, immortal. Among the very best of American film, period.

Now that we've got that straight--that's the entire point of WHY it hurts to see off work from him. I don't know the answer to the question of "why did the latter-day WB drawings of Chuck's own characters look so unappealing and poorly done as they do", but it's still a fair question. If Jones weren't such a genius it wouldn't be worth asking. And as many other have pointed out, raising it does NOTHING to diminish in any way the incredible, virtually one of a kind legacy he left us. It's just a fair question posed by one animation artist and as stated before asked also by many other artists who are sad to see talent chnge into efforts unworthy of an artist of his caliber.
Will used a great draughtsman--one of the the greats--as an example of what he worries about for his own talent and abilities' longevity. I thought he did it honestly and with tact. And I'd add that unfortunately Michael Barrier's reaction to the fallout of Will's post apparently isn't as extreme as I initially thought.

If there's artists or filmgoers who don't like Jones' work,. that should be open to discussion too--but that wasn't at all the subject broached by Will or by me.

We really should be able to talk about all of this without being thought of as bashing an earned reputation.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

>>I personally find it interesting that those who revere Jones as their favorite are more open and capable of criticism that others do with their favorite. For instance, have we ever seen constructed criticism of Clampett's work outside of Jones himself?<<

I don't think that's true. Barrier is a fan of Clampett's cartoons and he certainly criticizes some of Clampett's work in his book Hollywood Cartoons. I'm also a big Clampett fan (seeing as he is my favorite cartoon director) but I would never claim that "Time For Beany" and "Beany and Cecil" are anywhere near the quality of his color Warner Bros. cartoons. I think you might be confusing a certain group of people with the rest of us.

Also, Clampett really didn't do as much work as Jones did in the later years of his life. He never directed any television revivals of the Looney Tunes characters in the 70's as Jones and Freleng did. Nor did he make bad theatrical sequels to his classic WB cartoons like Jones ended up doing.

I also think Jones's pretensions hurt him in regards to his fans. He wrote two memoirs after all, and claimed in the second one to present the proper way to draw and think about the classic characters. Clampett's greatest shortcoming was his grasp for more credit than he was due, but he at least didn't participate in the active destruction of those beloved characters like Jones did.

Thad said...

>>>I think you might be confusing a certain group of people with the rest of us. <<<

True. They're definitely louder and grosser than contrary viewpoints.

Robert said...

I guess the lesson we should take away from all this is to recognize what a magical collison of talents occured a WB in the golden age, and resist the tendency to lay it all at the feet of one person. Jones, Clampett or otherwise. Our urge to find "stars" we can extract a secret from is why we do that.

BTW, a "Grandson of Paleface" with a 90+ year-old Bob Hope and 70+ year-old Jane Russell would have been a horror to behold.

For the morbidly curious, there is (83 year-old) Mae West's "Sextette" as an example of how that sort of venture can turn out.

Eric Noble said...

Interesting post. I also liked "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi". You're right, creativity is something that's hard to grasp and even harder to keep.

Anonymous said...

Considering your blog popped up when I googled Andrew Loomis, I think you'd want to read this:

Anonymous said...

On the ill-advised geriatric comedy subject, not long before Bing Crosby's death, Bob Hope announced that he and Crosby were planning to team up and do one last road picture, "The Road to Tomorrow", this one written in the style of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", which would've probably been penned by the likes of the elderly Norman Panama. Crosby passed on before the project could get very far, saving the world one huge filmic embarrassment.

Larry Levine said...

"For the morbidly curious, there is (83 year-old) Mae West's "Sextette" as an example of how that sort of venture can turn out."

Are you saying Mae lost some of her sex appeal by 1978?