Jones, Charles Martin (“Chuck”)
Posted in WB Cartoon Companion on March 22, 2004
As of this writing (1997), the last of the surviving major directors from the “high period” of Warner Brothers animation; though of course Norm McCabe and Arthur Davis are still alive, as well. Thanks to the two volumes of his very chatty and amusing memoirs, we have been able to get a glimpse into what makes this highly articulate director tick.
Jones is seemingly under no illusions as to his early career in animation in the 1930s. Like Bill Hanna, he started out as a cel washer, scraping the paint from cels so that they could be used again. From there, he graduated to animation -- though he had a rocky start, managing to get fired not once but twice from Ub Iwerks’ studio. The second firing may have been the doing of a secretary there, Dorothy Webster, who later became his wife. Jones also had a brief career at the Lantz studio before ending up at Warners.
Along with Bob Clampett, Sid Sutherland and Virgil Ross, Chuck got his big break in being one of the charter members of the “Termite Terrace” brigade under the direction of Tex Avery. It was this unit which did so much to change the face of Warner Brothers animation, and ultimately American animation in general. His talent matured to the extent that he was selected, along with Clampett, to go to Iwerks’ studio to supervise some subcontracted cartoons. Whether or not Jones was supposed to co-direct with Clampett when he returned to Warner’s is a matter of dispute, but Jones became the leading animator in that unit. Eventually, and somewhat to his surprise, he was chosen to succeed Frank Tashlin as director in 1937, possibly at the instigation of Henry Binder.
Jones’ early efforts were very strongly influenced by the contemporary Disney style. While his work from this period is generally very well animated -- indeed, better animated that most of the studio’s contemporary efforts -- for the most part these cartoons lack any characteristic spark of humour and move very, very slowly. Beck and Friedwald reserve particular ire for Good Night, Elmer (1940), stating that all of the film’s action could have been performed in live action. Jones himself admits that his work from this period was weak, in particular, two of the early Bugs Bunny cartoons, Elmer’s Candid Camera (1940) and Elmer’s Pet Rabbit (1941).
All this began to change in the mid-1940s. Starting with The Dover Boys (1942), the Jones cartoons began to exhibit both genuine style and comic substance. Hair-Raising Hare (1946) marks the first of his outstanding Bugs cartoons. Jones notes in retrospect that this was the first Bugs cartoon in which he felt completely comfortable with the character, and it shows in the sharp timing and witty gags, tendencies which would pick up speed over the following few years.
In the opinion of the author, Jones’ directorial peak came between 1948 and 1953. His Bugs cartoons from these years are outstanding. Haredevil Hare (1948) introduced Marvin Martian. Long Haired Hare (1949), Frigid Hare (1949), and the masterful Rabbit of Seville (1951) are other high points. His Daffy Duck cartoons practically burst with energy: witness You Were Never Duckier (1948) and Daffy Dilly (1948). The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950) and Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century (1953) served to further enrich Daffy’s already complex character.
Jones directed the “Hunter’s Trilogy”, and created Hubie and Bertie, Claude Cat, and Wile E. Coyote. The Coyote’s debut in Fast and Furry-ous is one of the handsomest and wittiest cartoons Jones ever directed, accompanied by the truly great musical score of Carl Stalling. A major element in the success of these cartoons was the partnership between Jones and Mike Maltese, who likewise was at the peak of his powers during this time, not to mention the great staff of animators Jones had working for him, to which he gives due credit in his memoirs. It was during this period that Jones won his only two Oscars for Warner Brothers, both in 1949, for For Scent-imental Reasons which featured the premiere of Pépe le Pew, and for the documentary short So Much For So Little, to which Friz Freleng had also contributed.
During the brief shutdown of the studio in 1953, allegedly occasioned by Jack Warner’s belief that 3-D would spell the end of animation, Jones worked at Disney, and apparently did some early work on Sleeping Beauty.
Jones, who was one of the highbrows of the studio, was heavily influenced by the stylistic changes wrought by UPA in the 1950s. More than any other Warner Brothers director, his cartoons reflect this change. (Incidentally, Jones had worked with some of the UPA personnel during 1944 in producing, as an outside project, a pro-Roosevelt cartoon, Hellbent for Election.) While some cartoons, such as the beloved classic One Froggy Evening (1955) only reflect this influence slightly; other cartoons, including Hare-way to the Stars (1958) and What’s Opera Doc (1957) reflect it quite strongly. Whether one considers this an improvement or not is largely a matter of opinion. Personally, I think Jones started to go rather overboard toward the end of his tenure at Warners, finally reaching the outer limits in his 1963 tribute to Treg Brown, Now Hear This.
After the shutdown of the Warner Brothers cartoon studio in 1963, Jones formed his own production company and associated himself with MGM, where he directed some Tom & Jerry shorts which were rather succesful, commercially. He won his third Oscar there, for The Dot and the Line (1966). He went on to produce the beloved Christmas classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas with his old friend Ted Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”), whom he had met when both worked on the Private Snafu cartoons of World War II.
Jones continued to produce television specials well into the 1970s, and currently heads a production company producing new theatrical shorts for Warner Brothers -- still at work in his mid-80s, the grand old man of American animation. He received a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1996. One can only wish they had thought to honor Avery, Freleng, Clampett, Blanc and McKimson in time, too.
Jones also has either solo or shared story credit for the following cartoons which he directed:
Heaven Scent (1956)
Hopalong Casualty (1960)
Zip ’N’ Snort (1961)
A Scent of the Matterhorn (1961)
Lickety Splat (1961)
Beep Prepared (with John Dunn, 1961)
Nellies Folly (with Dave Detiege, 1961)
A Sheep in the Deep (1962)
Martian Through Georgia (with Carl Kohler, 1962)
I Was A Teenage Thumb (1963)
To Beep Or Not to Beep (1963)
Now Hear This (with Dunn, 1963)
Jones is caricatured as part of a picket fence of petrified animators in Porky’s Hero Agency (Clampett, 1937), and, according to Robert Givens, was the physical model for the rascally ghost in Ghost Wanted (Jones, 1940). He can be seen, along with Clampett and Avery, in the crowd at the end of Page Miss Glory (Avery, 1936). The giant person seen from the perspective of Joe Glow, the Firefly (Jones, 1941) is Jones himself. Along with Michael Maltese and “Eduardo Selzeri”, a “Carlo Jonzi” is one of the performers on the poster seen in Rabbit of Seville (Jones, 1951). Jones may also be one of the Gremlins, specifically a big, beefy white one in Russian Rhapsody (Clampett, 1944).