And the world is, once again, slightly darker. It got dimmer when Douglas Adams left us last year (to whom my good friend, Ghost Rider, and I, still have a tribute song in process...). It got dimmer when George Harrison left us last year. Before that, it was Phil Hartman, and Jim Varney, and Dr. Seuss, and Mel Blanc, and Jim Henson (with a great many of high significance in between!), and the list goes on. I can even claim some personal ones in my life, and I think they probably make a more profound dent in my consciousness than most of those with theatrical or cinematographic accolades.
This time, it was Chuck Jones' turn to sit under the ridiculously small cocktail umbrella, waiting for the anvil from the sky to land with a self-satisfying TOONK that only a master of animation of Mr. Jones' calibre would appreciate in his final moment.
If only that were the case. Apparently, he passed away from something much more mundane. Congestive heart failure, from what I am told.
From time immemorial (okay, from about 1978), I can remember sitting up on saturday mornings with my Brother and my Dad and, occasionally, my Mom, watching Wile E. Coyote plot various acts of revenge upon that embodiment of pure luck, the Road Runner. The one with all the blueprints -- including the one that came to life and karangued Wile E. upside the head with a blue-printed rock -- is probably the one most vivid in my memory. Other treats, such as Marvin the Martian disintegrating Daffy Duck with a casual ZORCH! from his portable disintegration ray, or the episode in which Daffy Duck is shown being animated (by, as it turns out, Bugs Bunny), became instant hits with my own off-beat sense of humour.
The one which hit my funny bone most recently depicted Sylvester trying, of course, to get Tweety from his cage without getting hopelessly mauled by this ocean of bulldogs. Sylvester's final solution was to paint a white stripe down his back in the hopes of quelling the onslaught -- which it did, only to produce a last-minute cameo appearance by Pépé Le Pew, who has now decided upon the silent -- and apparently skunk-like -- Sylvester as a lust object just before Sylvester can grab the pesky canary. The timing was brilliant, as usual.
All this is to say nothing, of course, of his longer animation achievements, Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and Gay Purr-ee, the last a full-length feature having been produced in tandem with his wife, Dorothy. There may well be others I have missed.
Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese made the perfect Supervisor/Animator team. Between them there must be at least a score of cartoons to their credit, and there's not a dog in the bunch (outside of the one that keeps popping up and thrashing the tar out of Sylvester, poor hapless feline). Very few people have the gift of timing of being able to affect the public at large so poignantly for such a long period of time.
Chuck made his debut at WB studios, under the tutelage of none other than the first God of Speed Violence, Fred Avery (later billed as "Tex Avery"), and I quite vividly remember seeing Charlie M. Jones as the name on the credits for the cartoon. It was a black-and-white, probably the only one in which I've seen Jones' name listed in the credits. I could be wrong about this, but I'm reasonably sure (without having done extensive literary research) that this is correct. Avery later left Warner Brothers for MGM, where he animated a good many Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Chuck animated Bugs and Elmer a few times, danced Daffy in rings around Bugs, and gave us some of the best gut-busters (the lack of memory of titles for which I apologise profusely) as he began to blur the commonly accepted lines between characters and, as shown in "Duck Amuck", the line between animator and creation.
His most noteworthy contributions were the original characters Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, Pépé Le Pew, and Marvin the Martian. Backed by musical composer/director Carl Stalling and vocal wizard Mel ("Man of 1,000 Voices") Blanc, he created what were to be some of the most memorable cartoon interactions to hit the screen, including some adventures with the Abominable Snowman ("Gosh, it's hot, George!").
From what I can gather, he took a small breather somewhere in the middle to animate what has become one of the most beloved winter holiday animations, Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Narrated (and sung!) by, appropriately, none other than Boris ("Man of 1,000 Faces") Karloff, this gem instantly and irrevocably wove its way into the hearts of young and old alike to be a mainstay of what would otherwise be a trite collection of Christmas animations. Let's face it, how many times can you watch "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" followed by "Frosty the Snowman", followed by "Rudolph and Frosty"? It's enough to make a hairless cat cough up a furball.
Shortly after, he and his wife directed and animated "Gay Purr-ee", a tale of two kitties (actually, a lot of kitties -- the animated cast is entirely feline) in two different worlds; Jaune-Tom (voiced by Robert Goulet), a cat on the French countryside who's content to zero in on mice and leave their senses reeling just before he lets them go; and Mewsette (graced with the voice of Judy Garland), a country cat who has her sights on becoming a high-status cat in Paris. I cannot describe the entire story line here due to the lateness of the hour and the sieve-like nature of my memory of late, so I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to go to their local video store and rent it, or keep an eye on their Extended Basic Cable Channels. Occasionally, Toon Disney will plop it on. Voice talents also include Maurice Chevalier (or is it Robert Jourdan?) and Red Buttons.
Of course, how could I forget the animated interpretation of Rudyard Kipling's Rikki Tikki Tavi? Rikki zips around from scene to scene, nose twitching, eyes twinkling in typical Chuck fashion, as he heads in to eventually take Nag and Nagaina out of the picture. It is a half hour to be remembered.
After that, to be honest, I have no idea what he did. He was almost sixty by that time, so maybe he retired -- after forty years of constant production and collaboration, he certainly deserved it. He was Daffy Duck, having entered the Genie's cave and claimed all the riches, beating Bugs senselessly back into the dirt tunnel from which they had emerged, only to determine that they probably should have taken that left turn at Albukoiky. He was Marvin, disintegrating the foes from the Earth in the name of Mars. He was the Road Runner, always stopping just short of the scheduled désastre du jour.
This year, Wile E. Coyote has caught the Road Runner, and the world is just a small bit dimmer for it. Never mind that nine decades is a good chunk of time to spend on this spinning blue-printed rock.
Here's to you, Chuck. Thanks for giving this world some light and laughter while you were here. May the legacy you've foisted upon us through some dark times see us through many more years.
And to the parents out there: Introduce your kids to the wonderfully zany work of this fellow. It is no less than genius. In these dark, socially uptight times, laughter is of vital importance.