Saturday, October 03, 2009

Chuck, The Duck, and Luck

I've become really interested in the ongoing series of Chuck Jones' letters to his daughter Linda, being posted one at a time at his official site. As I said earlier, it's a chance to see that Jones in private was pretty much the same as his public persona, but less reserved, and with a better sense of his opinions and feelings on other things besides animation.

The last two letters, from January 28, 1953 and from February 16 of the same year, also give us a look at his satisfaction and disappointment over "Duck Amuck." On January 28, he writes proudly that the film is "still wowing them with Hans Christian Andersen" (so WB cartoons were shown with non-WB pictures) and that he's "had more comments on this cartoon than any since “For Scent-imental Reasons” and maybe more than even that." But then he writes about the cartoon's chances of getting an Academy Award ("hell, I can't believe that it will go any place"), and in the next letter, he's gotten his answer:

We didn’t get into the finals for the Academy. Very, very disappointing. I had high hopes for that picture. Like Stevenson, I can only say that I’m too old to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh. I know it is a fine audience picture; perhaps it just isn’t as unusual as I thought it was. Two UPAs and two MGMs and, of all things, a Canadian cartoon got in the finals. The Canadian picture is a beautiful job and should win. It’s called The Romance of Transportation in Canada and is a lively and beautifully designed parody on the documentary short subject. It is very funny, too. It should win and I hope it does. If I sound disgruntled it is only because I am. I did love Duck Amuck and I think you will, too. Oh, well, better luck, or better picture, next time.

"Duck Amuck" was submitted for the 1952 Oscars, though it is listed as having been released in 1953; since Jones says it played with "Hans Christian Andersen" (a 1952 release) it must have been eligible. The nominees for that award were:

Johann Mouse (MGM, Tom and Jerry, winner)
Little Johnny Jet (MGM, Avery)
Madeline (UPA)
Pink and Blue Blues (UPA)
The Romance of Transportation in Canada (National Film Board of Canada)

Not a great batch of nominees, and one of the weaker T&J winners (and it's still puzzling that no Avery cartoon had been nominated in years, yet the good-but-not-great "Little Johnny Jet" somehow made it into the finals). Jones hopefully came to realize that he was right and that the Academy was wrong. Meanwhile, here's the NFB film he felt should have won -- but didn't -- "The Romance of Transportation."

Back to Jones' letters, the Feb. 16 letter also has some tidbits on the development of the Pepe Le Pew cartoon that would eventually be released as "Past Perfumance." And Jones brings up something that I think is hard to argue with: the best parts of most Pepe Le Pew cartoons after "For Scent-imental Reasons" are the parts that focus on the fractured French and the local color, not the Pepe formula itself.

I sometimes feel that I could make an excellent Pepé picture if I didn’t have to have Pepé in it, just the French customs, language and literature. I may do it sometime.

The closest the series ever came to that was Mike Maltese's formula-breaking script for "Really Scent," which Jones did not direct (Abe Levitow did it while Jones was away). But even that is primarily a Pepe story.

"Past Perfumance" is an interesting case because it takes so long for Pepe to arrive, and so much of it is devoted to gags involving the French movie studio, that, yes, I kind of do feel like it might have been better if they had just cut Pepe and done a cartoon about a French movie studio. Though I don't actually know how they could have sustained that for six minutes.


Thad said...

I'm really loving these letters. I can't wait until they get to the shutdown. (If they do.)

Thad said...

And yes, PAST PERFUMANCE is definitely one of the prime Pepé shorts. Come on, the "oui men", that's funny stuff!

Ricardo Cantoral said...

I'll never understand why alot of these cartoons won Oscars and why some of them even were nominated.

Michael said...

Regarding your comment about Warner Bros. cartoons being shown with non-Warner Bros. features, of course they were. It's a common misconception that during Hollywood's Golden Age a studio's shorts were seen only with that studio's features. Bookings for short subjects were made seperately from bookings for features, and while studios naturally preferred theaters to book their shorts and features together, theaters--at least those not owned by the studios--were under absolutely no obligation to do so. A theater might run, say, MGM features with RKO Disney cartoons. A theater newspaper ad from 1945 I have advertises a 20th Century-Fox feature, a Paramount Popeye cartoon and a Columbia Three Stooges short.

J Lee said...

What I would have loved to have seen is the comment notes of the Academy's nomination screeners on the 1952 entries. The ones selected seem to have been done based on the studio power of MGM (though '52 was pretty much Metro's last hurrah on that front), and the trendiness of UPA (where for most of the 50s the company name at the start of the short was more important to many of the cinema critics than what actually showed up over the following seven minutes).

Michael said...

In addition to booking their cartoons seperately from their features, studios often sold their biggest cartoon stars apart from their other animated product. For example, booking the annual slate of Warner Bros. animated shorts wouldn't get you any Bugs Bunny. Those were sold apart from the others as "Bugs Bunny Specials." MGM did the same thing with Tom and Jerry, Universal with Woody Woodpecker, and Paramount with Popeye, Superman and Little Lulu. Disney, so far as I know, never engaged in this practice.