Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lay Off the Talent

Daffy-blogging, essay 2 of 15 blog entries on
Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century

Part One, A Jones Menagerie

Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century
stars two characters, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, who were initially developed by other Warner Bros. animators.  The Jones’ unit can lay sole claim to Marvin the Martian.  In addition to Marvin, there were many other unique and popular characters in the Jones’ menagerie.  Here are some of my favorite Jones’ stars, most of them developed by the same team that made Duck Dodgers.

Only appearing in a single cartoon, One Froggy Evening (1955),
Michigan J. Frog nevertheless became one of the Jones unit's most
memorably enduring creations.

Dog characters were a staple of Hollywood cartoons.  One of the
Jones' unit's contributions to the cartoon kennel was Marc Anthony,
a very emotional bulldog, seen here in the classic cartoon
Feed the Kitty.

It took the genius of the Jones' unit to transform Maurice Chevalier into
an eternally deluded skunk named Pepe le Pew, seen here in
For Scent-imental Reasons (1949).

Reducing the cartoon chase to its most basic elements, the Jones' unit
settled on a Road Runner for their "hero," guaranteeing maximum speed
for their chases.  Dialogue reached a minimalist extreme: "Beep beep."

The Jones' unit ultimate villain and perpetually-falling fall guy,
Wile E. Coyote.  As with Jones' later animation of the Grinch, 
Wile E. Coyote bears a surprising resemblance to Chuck Jones himself!

Part Two, Lay Off the Talent

#1 duck of 1953.
Chuck Jones had a whopping 12 shorts released in 1953.  Of these, I’d count one as a world-class masterpiece (Duck Amuck).  Two others, Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century and Duck! Rabbit, Duck!, are nearly as good.  The rest—a couple more Bugs Bunnies, a Road Runner, a Pepe le Pew, and others—are uniformly enjoyable.  In this early 50s period, the Chuck Jones unit was
working at an awesome level of creativity.

Most Warner Bros. cartoons were created on a five-week schedule and then the studio held onto them, releasing them whenever they thought it was appropriate.  They liked to have a backlog of cartoons.  Although Duck Dodgers was completed in early October 1952, it wasn’t released until ten months later, July 25, 1953.

We have a record of Jones’ thoughts at completing Duck Dodgers, thanks to a surviving letter he wrote to his 15-year-old daughter Linda on October 3, 1952:

"We put the finishung (sic) touches on Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century yesterday, saw it complete with music, sound, color—the works, in short.  It’s a parody on the ‘Space Cadet,’ ‘Captain Video,’ type television show, but the funny thing is, it came out not only quite funny, but exciting, too.  The backgrounds were beautiful and very 24 ½ th cen-tury-ish.  Try to say 24 ½ th century.  It’s very difficult, is it ‘twenty-fourth and a half’or ‘twenty-four and a halfth’?”

And Jones was right.  Duck Dodgers was indeed a funny and exciting cartoon.  It was something to be very proud of.  But that must have been rather bittersweet knowledge for Chuck Jones and most of his co-workers because it was released a month after Jones and crew were laid off by Warner Bros.

The threat of television...
Spooked by television and confused by the brief 3-D craze, Warner Bros. panicked and closed the animation studio in mid-June.  A handful of animation staff were retained, but many great talents scattered out across the other Hollywood studios, including Jones, his main writer Michael Maltese, and background artist Maurice Noble (who actually left a few months before the closure).

Warner Bros. came to its corporate senses a few months later and began rehiring and reassembling the animation teams.  Jones spent a brief unhappy period at Disney before negotiating a decent return package with WB in November.  Maltese returned nearly half a year after that in August 1954.  Noble returned to the fold a year after that.  They still had some good shorts left in them—including the magnificent What’s Opera, Doc? in 1957.  But the consistency of achievement never returned to that 1952/53 level when the Jones unit was casually tossing off brilliance like firecrackers.

The last hurrah: The Jones' unit pulls it together for the great
What's Opera, Doc? in 1957. 
Reference Sources
Chuck Amuck by Chuck Jones
Chuck Reducks by Chuck Jones
Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier
Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide by Jerry Beck
Warner Bros. Animation Art by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald
7 Minutes by Norman M. Klein
That's All Folks by Steve Schneider
Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set, Duck Dodgers commentary by Michael Barrier
Friends at the IMDb Classic Film message board including Rollo Treadway, Chloe Joe Fassbender, Illtdesq, and Fish Beauty
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch Duck Dodgers...
Purchase Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Disc Two of Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2011 Lee Price

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