Sunday, December 11, 2011

Chuck Jones | Rabbitt of Seville / Wearing the Grin / Rabbit Seasoning / Duck Amok / One Froggy Evening

wearing the grin
by Douglas Messerli

Michael Maltese (story), Chuck Jones (director) Rabbit of Seville / 1950
Michael Maltese (story), Chuck Jones (director) Wearing of the Grin / 1951
Michael Maltese (story), Chuck Jones (director) Rabbit Seasoning / 1952
Michael Maltese (story), Chuck Jones (director) Duck Amok / 1953
Michael Maltese (story), Chuck Jones (director) One Froggy Evening / 1955

With the death of film animator and director Chuck Jones on February 22, 2002, I decided to revisit several cartoon works by him, a joyful task which reminded me of my childhood, and gave me the opportunity to really watch these innovative and, often, abstract works of art.

     Jones' long career, spanning work for Warner Brothers from 1933 to 1962, when his job was terminated for illegally working on the animated cartoon feature, Gay Purree, saw a complete transformation in the cartoon industry from realist-like images and cartoon characters to abstract and even surreal-looking backdrops and absurdist figures. From early characters such as Charlie Dog, Hubie and Bertie, and The Three Bears, Jones refined and transformed his art, creating such memorable figures as Claude Cat, Michigan J. Frog, Pepe LePew, the Road Runner, and Wile E. Coyote. Working with Michael Maltese, he also transformed the characters of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd.

I watched about twenty of Jones' cartoons, but will focus on just a few in order to point to some of his remarkable transformations. In Rabbit of Seville (1950), for example, Jones and his staff took on the relationship of opera and animation more seriously than before as Bugs Bunny, chased by the gun-toting Elmer Fudd enter the domain, much like the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera, of an opera-going audience. The lyrics are a zany mix of nursery rhyme and doggerel:

[singing to Elmer outside the barbershop]

Bugs Bunny: How do?/Welcome to my shop/Let me cut your mop/Let me shave your crop/Daintily, daintily... Hey, you!/Don't look so perplexed/Why must you be vexed?/Can't you see you're next?/Yes, you're next, you're so next!

     With manic shifts in character and scene, the two undergo battles of rising barber chairs, a scalp-massage timed to the music of Rossini, and numerous other hilarious interruptions as the befuddled conductor and orchestra blithely play on. As in other Jones cartoons, Bugs shifts in and out of gender, here ending the eternal battle between him and Elmer, briefly, by marrying him!

     Wearing of the Grin (1951) features Porky Pig on his way to Dublin. In a heavy rain he finds himself still twelve miles away and decides to spend the night at the nearby castle, haunted, he soon discovers, by leprechauns, who eventually convene a court, trying him to "the wearing of the green shoes." Once Porky has put on the shoes, like Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes, he cannot stop dancing and quickly enters a surreal, dream-like world made up by terrifying Irish smoking pipes, pots of gold, shamrocks and other Erin icons that consume and taunt him. When he awakens to be invited again into the castle, Porky suddenly remembers that he has another appointment—with his psychiatrist!

     In 1952's Rabbit Seasoning, Fudd is again on the road to murder, as the self-assured Bugs and the increasing confused Daffy Duck join together to create a chaos of visual and linguistic signs that flummoxes the slow-minded Elmer. Their "Shoot me now" routine, right out of Laurel and Hardy, further confuses the would-be hunter, who by the end cannot even recognize his prey.

Bugs Bunny: Would you like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?
Daffy Duck: Shoot him now! Shoot him now!
Bugs Bunny: You keep outta this! He doesn't have to shoot you now!
Daffy Duck: He does so have to shoot me now!
[to Elmer]
Daffy Duck: I demand that you shoot me now!
[Elmer shoots him.]
Daffy Duck: Let'sth run through that again.
Bugs Bunny: Okay.
[in a flat tone]
Bugs Bunny: Wouldja like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?
Daffy Duck: [flat tone] Shoot him now, shoot him now.
Bugs Bunny: [flat tone] You keep outta this. He doesn't hafta shoot you now.
Daffy Duck: [with sudden passion] Ha! That's it! Hold it right there!
[to audience]
Daffy Duck: Pronoun trouble.
[to Bugs]
Daffy Duck: It's not: "He doesn't have to shoot "you" now." It's: "He doesn't have to shoot "me" now." Well, I say he does have to shoot me now!
[to Elmer]
Daffy Duck: So shoot me now!
[Elmer shoots him]

     Duck Amok (1953) is perhaps the quintessential Jones film. Here a slightly paranoid Daffy is delighted to have captured a role as a slightly mad musketeer, but the moment he attempts to enter the set, the scenery shifts, first to a farm, then to an igloo, later a Polynesian paradise, each with its own music. As he absurdly attempts to play along, things become even more impossible as, first the sound, then the scene, and, finally, he himself disappears. "Where am I?" he existentially pleads, trying to return the story to some semblance of order before being mixed and matched with all sorts of other figures dressed in outlandish mixes of costumes. A final frame reveals that the mad animator of this piece is none other than Bugs Bunny.

     One of my very favorites is One Froggy Evening (1955) with the infamous Michigan T. Frog, who, discovered by a worker in a time capsule of a demolished building, suddenly springs to life singing and dancing—top hat on head, cane in hand—songs from ragtime and popular music. The amazed witness of this event suddenly envisions fame and money, and quickly runs off, time capsule in hand, to promote his new discovery. Yet every time he opens the box to others, the frog simply sits as a regular frog. Michigan will sing only for the man, who ultimately nearly loses his sanity before placing the box in the cornerstone of a new skyscraper.

     After leaving Warner Brothers, Jones continued to work on his own, making the truly abstract cartoon, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and working with his friend Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) on How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966).

     Jones' work. obviously, was simply funny to children, but his crazy battling characters, believing in the power of guns and all other forms of killing devices manufactured by the Acme Company, reveal to adults the kind of insanely absurd violence that dominated post-war America, helping us, perhaps, to laugh heartily at some of our deepest fears.

December 27, 2002
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (December 2009).

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