It would be dethspicable if a tribute to the greatest directors of people made no mention of Chuck Jones, who brought some of Hollywood’s most vivid animal characters to life — and triggered with his Road Runner-Coyote saga the most hilariously combustible relationship in film. Since the 83-year-old ‘toon king set the fur flying at Warner Bros. in 1934, he’s delighted children and adults by making the passions, grudges, and romantic dilemmas of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and ripe lothario Pepe Le Pew seem nothing less than human.
At last month’s Oscars, where Jones accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award, the line between life and art became too blurred even for him, as he wondered if the honor hadn’t been engineered by Acme Corporation. ”The clips were poorly done,” Jones now says of the montage (which featured the obscure yet Oscar-winning 1965 short, The Dot and the Line) preceding his acceptance. ”I hadn’t seen them. That’s why I said, ‘What can I say in the face of such humiliating evidence?”’
If Oscar seemed ill-acquainted with the charms of Jones’ 300-plus six-minute cartoons — not to mention such perennial TV specials as 1966’s Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas — other classic directors are most certainly not. Steven Spielberg has proclaimed him ”a comic genius, up there with Keaton and Mack Sennett,” for his Road Runner odes to the laws of physics. And Martin Scorsese, Jones says, remains awestruck by the animator and his old Warner team’s intuitive gift for comedic pacing: ”He couldn’t believe anybody could time an entire picture, and cut it to exactly the proper length before production.”
Jones, who grew up in Southern California, where he lives with his wife, Marian, is back at Warner, which had shut down its shorts shop in the mid-’60s, but recently rehired him to bring up the next crop of animators working on new cartoons starring the old characters. But he’s not happy that the sequel he directed to 1955’s One Froggy Evening (the one with the perversely silent singing toad) is still unreleased. ”I’m not sure it was completely successful,” he says. ”But what picture is?” The answer to that is as close as any video collection of vintage Chuck Jones.