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[whitespace] Rabbit Run

Animator Chuck Jones was a comic master

By Richard von Busack

I SAW THE LATE Chuck Jones exactly once, 15 years ago, at a Union Street art gallery in San Francisco, where he was selling some of the lithographs that made up a large part of his retirement income. He had the grave yet playful demeanor I'd seen in old Quakers and Unitarians from Berkeley.

He was like those people whose natural comic quality masked a reservoir of seriousness. You could look at his work and know that, like those decent old lefties, here was a lifelong student of injustice--yet he hadn't let injustice sour him.

I wanted to ask him about one of his classics: the 1953 short "Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2th Century." At the finale, Daffy Duck is togged out as a spaceman, his finger poised over a planet-destroying button, laughing, "Heh, heh, heh." We cut to his adversary, Marvin the Martian, laughing the same evil laugh.

The explosion goes off. When the smoke clears, Daffy, Martin and Cadet Porky are all hanging from a clod of earth in deep space, still quarreling over the billiard-ball-sized chunk of planet that was left. This seemed to me a film as risky as Dr. Strangelove--and made 10 years earlier, to boot. Had he intended Duck Dodgers as an anti-nuclear war statement?

Jones deflected my question with an anecdote: "During Prohibition, my father used to go to parties by car. He'd bring along a bottle of whisky with him, and my mother would beg him to put it in a paper sack to hide it from the police. My dad said, 'No, why bother? Nothing looks more like a bottle than a bottle with a paper sack over it.'"

That wasn't the first time I'd learned a lesson from Jones, who died Feb. 22. In his career, he created hundreds of seven-minute masterpieces.

Now, Jones could be high-toned--see "The Dot and the Line" or the celebrated but overly swank "What's Opera, Doc?" At times, his restraint left a yearning for the rough-housing of the other, less celebrated Warner Bros. animators. Think of Bob Clampett's elaborate visual puns and brutal shocking colors. Or the little-praised Warner Bros. director Robert McKimson, who was a champion of ruthless, rubbery slapstick.

(McKimson's "Corny Concerto," a spoof of Disney's Fantasia, is funnier than "What's Opera, Doc?" His character Foghorn Leghorn is an apt display of bumpkin arrogance. In real life, you never get to meet Bugs, but you sure do get to meet Foghorn Leghorn. McKimson directed "Rebel Rabbit," a post-WWII malaise comedy that is the most anarchistic of Bugs' adventures. It's probably a censored picture today, since the rabbit's misdeeds verge on terrorism; he paints the Washington Monument with barber-pole stripes and saws Florida loose, crying out the title of a then-popular Xavier Cugat rumba, "South America, take it away!")

Trickster Figure

Other directors--and writers Tedd Pierce and Mike Maltese--fathered Bugs Bunny. But it was Jones who really took the character and finessed him into an urban comedian that unseated Mickey Mouse and became the real symbol of the United States, everywhere from postage stamps to Ramones albums.

Jones made Bugs a national trickster figure as funny as Groucho Marx and Bob Hope, but even more popular. His version of Bugs was less animal and more human. When Jones directed the rabbit, his reactions were small: the twitch of a whisker, the ascent of an eyebrow, the descent of an eyelid. His Bugs was a sworn enemy of phonies and bullies but--unlike too many cartoon characters--never pious.

Jones wasn't a preacher, as the allegory of the bottle suggests. Still, I always hate that line in the film Network about the spiritual bankruptcy of children learning their morals from Bugs Bunny. I thought then, and think now, that Bugs was an excellent teacher.

The rabbit gives lessons in skepticism and bravery--and in that necessity that excuses the weak in having to hide and deceive. In the rabbit's dismaying ability to change gender, he taught children that we all have male and female in us. That was a desperately radical idea in the America I grew up in.

Think of Jones' other work though: the Grinch, with his understandable loathing of the holidays in the original and best version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas; the sweaty avarice and egomania of Daffy Duck; that magnificent dialogue-free Zen lesson "One Froggy Day," in which a tragic little man tries to get a performance out of a perverse singing frog.

Not to mention the epic on predators and their prey in the Road Runner series. The Coyote may starve himself, but he feeds that nervous inner suspicion that technology will not save us every time. Jones followed a razor balance between comedy and catastrophe in "Feed the Kitty" (1952), with Marc Anthony the bulldog and his cute, fragile and apparently suicidal pet kitten.

All--and so much more--are proof that Jones was not just the last man standing from the Termite Terrace, but one of the most sophisticated and influential comic filmmakers who ever lived.

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Web extra to the February 28-March 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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