Olivia Domba takes a look at some of the shorts of Chuck Jones, the subject of a retrospective at BAM running from November 23 to 26.
Even if you’ve never heard of Chuck Jones, you’ve probably seen at least one of his animated shorts before. The creator of Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner, Marvin the Martian, and Pepé Le Pew, Jones also helped define characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd while working at Warner Brothers. Beyond the characters, Jones is largely responsible for redefining popular American animation: Jones made cartoons funny. He also didn’t just make funny cartoons; he made great, funny cartoons. His use of motion, in the vein of slapstick comedy and silent films, design, and editing changed the range and possibilities of the medium.
A few of his best shorts:
Duck Amuck (1953)
The star of this short, Daffy Duck, can’t seem to catch a break. He starts out the short as a heroic musketeer, but quickly loses any semblance of heroism. Within the first minute, Daffy finds himself a musketeer without a background, and he voices his opinion in what eventually becomes a protracted argument with the animator. The brilliance of Duck Amuck is the very relationship the narrative has with the medium: it makes the viewer aware of the artifice of the form through comedy. The focus shifts from background to sound to character design, isolating each component and addressing it through Daffy’s communication with the anonymous animator. When the animator draws a door closing over Daffy, the action makes sense in relation to the animator’s identity and as a statement about this kind of discourse, as if revealing any more would spoil the magic of animation. That’s all folks!
Rabbit of Seville (1949)/ What’s Opera, Doc? (1957)
It is a bit unfair to lump together two of Jones’ opera-themed shorts together. The operas on which they are based, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and an assortment of Wagner operas, respectively, share very little in common beyond being, well, operas. The shorts share a common protagonist (Bugs Bunny) and antagonist (Elmer Fudd), and the similarities don’t end there. Jones’ opera shorts demonstrate the very best of the director’s use of comedic timing and of character and background design. In one scene in Rabbit of Seville, Bugs massages Elmer Fudd’s head, first with his hands, then with his feet, before eventually building a salad on top of Fudd’s head. This is all made even more ridiculous with the added soundtrack; Bugs does all of this perfectly in synch with the music of the opera. What’s Opera, Doc? starts with a thunder storm, eventually revealing the shadow of an imposing viking on the side of a mountain. The viking’s arms move, as if conjuring the storm itself, and as they lower with the music, the camera pans down to reveal none other than Elmer Fudd, dressed as Siegfried, but resembling more of a horned bullet, as the source of the shadow. Of course, he’s chasing Bugs Bunny, but that, as with Rabbit of Seville, should go without saying in a Jones short. The characters have been established; Jones, as always, plays with the visuals. Although What’s Opera, Doc? doesn’t have the distinction of being called the “Citizen Kane of animated film” by Steven Spielberg (that would be One Froggy Evening), its relationship to its own form and other artistic forms – opera and, to a certain capacity, dance – distinguishes it from the majority of animated offerings of the time.