Most people can recall sitting in front of a television watching Bugs Bunny slyly outwit his would-be captors. Or perhaps, as a child, you were a fan of the trials and tribulations of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote as they chased each other endlessly. (And maybe you still are.)
Whoever your favorite Looney Tunes is, without the direction of the late Charles Martin “Chuck” Jones, the characters as we know them would never have made it into our living rooms. In what seems to be a timeless testament to the longevity of the animated medium, the Looney Tunes characters have been enjoyed by generations of people decades apart.
“When I was little, I completely remember loving the ones that were even without dialogue. It was so incredibly communicative with just gesture,” said Peggy Stern, director of “Chuck Jones: Memory of a Childhood,” a documentary about the Warner Bros. animator who introduced the world to shorts such as “Duck Amuck,” “One Froggy Evening” and “What’s Opera, Doc?” -– all three of which have made it onto the National Film Registry.
Airing at 8 tonight on Turner Classic Movies (and followed by a cornucopia of Jones’ work), the documentary chronicles Jones’ upbringing and experiences, offering insight into what influenced the director’s vision for Warner Bros. Cartoons and his other animated works.
“Working at Warner Bros. and making cartoons was not what it was like today,” Stern said. “They were making shorts in front of features, and they weren’t being made for children. They were being made to just appeal to everybody, in terms of story line and the use of music, which is actually quite sophisticated.”
Heavily influenced by Mark Twain, Jones saw his cartoons far surpass the realm of anyone’s expectations for animation. His childhood, however, was not all sunshine and play. Jones’ abusive father made growing up difficult, a subject touched upon in the film. Despite everything, he kept an upbeat outlook on life and focused on the positive points in his past, a worldview that was transported into his work.
Stern, who won an Academy Award for the short “The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation,” was drawn to Jones because of the idea that animation can emphasize emotional content through whimsical means. She was thrilled when Jones, who had already been the subject of multiple documentaries, said he would sit for an interview. Not only did he agree with her vision for the documentary, but Jones also had a lifelong commitment to encouraging youth to use their imaginations for creative means. (Jones died in 2002 at age 89.)
“I think it is just like Chuck said, ‘If we can make ourselves laugh, we can make other people laugh. We weren’t trying to focus on a demographic. We weren’t being told we had to make something for 3- to 5-year-olds, ” Stern said. “They were really trying to make human stories. Failure, success, human flaws, embarrassment: things that are universal for children through the ages.”
— Michelle Castillo
Top: Chuck Jones with Bugs Bunny; credit: TCM. Middle: Michigan J. Frog; credit: © 2000 Warner Bros. Bottom: Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote; credit: © Warner Bros.