Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chuck Jones, Always The Same

If you haven't checked out Chuck Jones' letters to his daughter Linda, being posted on the blog, I suggest you do.

The letters are from 1952, and some of them mention cartoons he was working on: he talks about the scoring of "Wild Over You", seeing the final assembled version of "Duck Dodgers," and pre-production on "My Little Duckaroo." There's also a look at WB's corporate freakout about the television menace (this being before Jack Warner became the first mogul to embrace television).

Other letters don't say much about the cartoon business and talk about personal matters, dieting, politics, movies he's seen (loves High Noon, dislikes that strangely unfunny Howard Hawks segment in O. Henry's Full House), and square dancing, which, as Michael Barrier has mentioned, was a big Termite Terrace obsession.

The thing that impressed and surprised me about these letters was that (and a commenter at Thad K's blog already made a similar point) Jones was essentially the same even when he wasn't trying to impress anyone. I always kind of assumed that, like many aging filmmakers, Jones's public persona -- in his interviews and his books -- was a bit of a put-on. (It certainly seemed of a piece with the self-indulgent turn his later films took.) But the Chuck Jones who emerges in these letters is pretty much Chuck Jones as he later presented himself to the public. That's not to say that these letters encompass all of Jones's personality, just that they reveal that as the best cartoon director in America (which is pretty much what he was in 1952) he was not substantially different from what he was when he wrote and talked about those golden years.

Even his descriptions of the characters, when he offers them, show that his view of (say) Daffy Duck was not a reductive idea he made up after the fact, but something he had in mind at the time:

I love Daffy dearly, he is so completely and foolishly human. I think he serves to accent all the human frailties and vanities and conceits and is funny doing it.
(Oct. 1, 1952)

Letters are being posted when they have a chance. I'll be interested to see if there are any letters where he sets out the "rules" for the Road Runner/Coyote series. I used to think it was something he made up after the fact; now I'm not so sure.


Ricardo Cantoral said...

I have always assumed Chuck was pretty much the way he portrayed himself in interviews during his elder years, though he most likely put on aires dressing like Mark Twain and frequently quoting him.

J Lee said...

Mike Maltese made a comment in an interview that Chuck even back in the 50s was prone to "pontification" and had to be reminded every once in a while that he was just a crazy cartoonist like everyone else at the studio.

Going by that, and by the letters posted by Linda Jones, you start to get the feeling that as good a storyman for Jones as Maltese was, he was also an anchor for Jones, holding him down from the self-indulgence that you can see a little bit of in his early cartoons, and which reappears with a vengeance in 1961.

Chuck was definitely marching to his own drummer at Schlesinger's for much of the time during his first 2 1/2 years as director, but it really got overpowering Maltese left for his stint at Hanna-Barbera and there was noone left on his level to pull him back to the ground (and while Mike's stories in general were the best for Chuck during the Tom and Jerry period, once the self-indulgence genie was out of the bottle and Chuck was his own boss at Metro...)

rich said...

I met Chuck Jones a few years ago at some kind of reception at Duke University (maybe 2001, I think). He was with his wife, who never left his side; moreso 'cause Jones was a little frail so she was kind of propping him up. He didn't seem to have any airs about him, but I didn't spend much time talking with him. He was surrounded by students the whole time, and it was tough to get his attention. Though there was some little kid there who got an autographed copy of a Chuck Jones sketch which pissed me off to no end 'cause we were told specifically not to bring anything 'cause he wasn't signing anything for anyone. Except for little five year-olds who probably had no idea who the old man was.

Anyway, he seemed like a good guy who liked that I brought up Ralph Phillips, and then proceeded to talk to me about my marriage and how you had to work at it blahblahblah. I think it even surprised his wife when he started talking about that.