Friday, September 21, 2012

The funniest man of the 20th century

There are about a hundred serious contenders for that spot, but only one was hilarious for exactly seven minutes every time. If he still lived, he'd be celebrating his 100th birthday today.

When you ask for "Chuck Jones" on the Internet Movie Data Base, the search engine assumes you're likelier to mean Chuck Connors, Chuck Norris, Chuck Zito or Chuck Lorre. This is like asking about Francis Ford Coppola and being referred to Francis the Talking Mule. Well, people forget; Jones' last masterpiece as director came in 1970, when he made "The Phantom Tollbooth."

He's best known as the top man at Termite Terrace, the Warner Bros.' animation team responsible for the greatest cartoons ever produced. Jones' classics include two shorts which generally battle for the top spot on best-of lists: "One Froggy Evening" and "What's Opera, Doc?" He also produced classic cartoons about Daffy Duck, Pepe LePew and especially Road Runner -- and, when people thought his creative powers had dimmed, directed the animated version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

His cartoons were "adult" in the best way: not manically paced or violent or oversexed, but aimed at a point of comprehension somewhere between children and the average grownup. He produced them in an era when it was OK to know that not every member of the target audience would get every joke. The folks at Termite Terrace wanted children to think upward, so to speak: If a young viewer didn't get a reference, he was expected to look it up or figure it out in context, coming out of the cartoon a bit smarter than he went in.

Other directors consulted Jones even after he stopped directing: He advised about animation on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" before dying at 89 in 2002. His work can be sampled on YouTube and other outlets, but the best of it can be found in the Looney Tunes Golden Collections, volumes 1 and 2. Used copies sell on Amazon for less than $20; at $4.50 a disc, this is the animation bargain of the year.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go watch "Duck Dodgers in the 24 and 1/2th Century" and see Marvin the Martian employ his Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. Funnier than this, cartoons do not get.


JD Harris (Great American) said...

Let's give some credit to Leon Schlesinger, as the Looney Tunes directed by McKimson, Freleng, Clampett et al. also stand the test of time, in my opinion.