Hugh Kenner’s lively Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings belongs to the ‘Portraits of American Genius’ series launched two years ago by the University of California Press with the intention of celebrating American creativity. Books about Toni Morrison and Miles Davis will strike no one as unusual, although the volumes on Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, and Mabel McKay, a native American medicine woman, were less conventional. Chuck Jones falls somewhere in between. Until he won the Oscar this year only a few self-identified cartoon fans knew his name, but everyone knows the characters in the cartoons he directed and, in some cases, created at Warner Brothers between 1938 and 1962: the dapper rabbit from Brooklyn who, when confronted by the barrel of a rifle, munches his carrot and asks with an insouciance positively sublime, ‘Eh, what’s up doc?’; the gamesome darnfool duck who, foiled in some greedy plot, lisps indignantly. ‘You’re dethpicable’; the horny, ‘scent-imental’ skunk who, oblivious to the flowers and felines drooping with asphyxia everywhere around him, coos suavely, ‘Ah, c’est l’amour, c’est toujours!’; and the resourceful but hapless coyote who – singed, smashed, flattened or otherwise hoist with his own (Acme Co.) petard – blinks dolefully while his roadrunning prey, pausing for an infuriating ‘beep-beep’, whizzes away unfazed. For the adults who watched Bugs, Daffy et al before feature films in cinemas, and the children who watched them on TV, the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes of Chuck Jones and his colleagues such as Bob Clampett and Tex Avery have become part of our cultural heritage, as familiar as the actors elsewhere on the Warner Bros lot – Cagney, Bogart, Raft – whose toughness they mirror.
With dozens of books on subjects as various as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, geodesic domes and computer poetry to his credit, Hugh Kenner, one of the moving forces behind the California series, is the éminence grise of American Modernism. It is not hard to imagine why he likes cartoons in general and Chuck Jones in particular. But his book actually has rather little to say about self-reflexivity, word-play, absurdism, the machine age or any of the other hallmarks of Modernism. Instead, Kenner sketches Jones’s career from the early Thirties to his post-Warner Brothers triumphs such as The Grinch who Stole Christmas (1967) and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1974). His book is a breezy, engaging and highly opinionated discussion of the culture of cartoon-making at Warner Brothers and its recurrent theme is that the limitations imposed on the labour and cost-intensive cartoon division by pennypinching bigwigs at Warner Bros prompted rather than thwarted the development of Jones’s condensed, tensile animating style.
This is not a scholarly history of cartoons but a more idiosyncratic study, animated by Kenner’s erudite asides; the funny throwaways and offhand observations tells us as much about the diversity of his interests as they do about Jones. Accordingly he informs us that the gait Pepé Le Pew uses when engaged in amorous pursuit – springing vertically on all fours – is properly called a ‘pronk’ (from the Dutch pronken), and is the ‘least frequent of the eight main quadrupedal gaits’; that the production of a single comma on one’s desk-top computer, starting with a tap on the keyboard, requires a convoluted yet highly co-ordinated process of interactions among microchips, scan codes, device drivers and data buffers before the squiggle appears on the screen; that Jones knew a cat who said ‘mokgnaow’ and credited Leopold Bloom’s cat in Ulysses for quoting him, though Bloom’s cat actually said ‘Mkgnao’, and later, more urgently, ‘Mrkrgnao!’ Sometimes our knowledge of Chuck Jones is enriched by these asides (as with his interest in the speech of literary cats); sometimes it isn’t.
Peppered with punchy filler from cartoon dialogue (get this! right? spare us! get it?) and sometimes with cartoon sound effects (WHOMP, ZAP!!!), Kenner’s brash and digressive book itself aims for the unfettered vitality of cartoon. Sometimes the results are happy. Discussing Jones’s lavish What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), a parody of Wagnerian opera, Kenner cites an anecdote about a professor of music who announced a few years ago to his class that that week’s subject was the Ring cycle. ‘All forty students promptly burst into a massive Valkyrieesque rendition of “Kill the wabbit,” as sung by the great Heldentenor, Elmer Fudd.’ Did all forty students break forth without missing a beat? Probably not, but it is deliciously fun to imagine it happening this way because we have absorbed the dramatic logic of Warner Bros cartoons. Which is Kenner’s larger point: ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture enjoy a closer relationship than is typically assumed; What’s Opera, Doc? is by now better known to undergraduates than the Ring, and is likely to constitute their exposure to Wagner.
The ‘Portraits of American Genius’ series specifically recommends that its authors write in a style appropriate to their subjects and it would be ungenerous to fault Kenner for complying. But since we do not necessarily admire the same things in books as we do in cartoons, it is worth asking whether writing like cartoons is the best way of writing about cartoons. Cartoon-consciousness has a conspicuously short memory, and when Daffy or Wile E. get blasted into smithereens in one frame, we are not disturbed to find them walking around healthily in the next. By contrast, when Kenner claims on one page that the cartoon division of Warner Bros is the only place in cinedom where the auteur theory can be applied and on another page explains the collaborative nature of cartooning there, I am stymied by the anomaly. Similarly, when he notes parenthetically that ‘the stuff of animation is metamorphosis,’ I yearn for elaboration that never comes – for some meditation on Bugs’s polymorphousness in Clampett’s What’s Cookin’, Doc (1944), where Bugs appears as Carmen Miranda, or Jones’s Rabbit Seasoning (1952), where he drags it up as a blonde bombshell with a yen for duck meat. And then there is the issue of cartoon tone. Sometimes Kenner tries to sound so unaffected, so spontaneous, so much like a regular guy, that he unintentionally patronises his subject, sounding amazed that a cartoonist from Spokane who didn’t finish high school has actually read Joyce, Kipling, Dorothy Parker and the New Yorker.
In one place, at least, Kenner’s prose cartooning seems particularly unfortunate.
My first afternoon with Chuck Jones was punctuated by a woman with a Social Conscience who charged him with promulgating violence, vide those awful ‘Road Runners’. Having heard that, oh, say, 8053 times, Chuck Jones wasn’t deterred. The Coyote, he pointed out, is the only one who gets battered; but never, ever, does the Coyote find himself in a situation he didn’t set up, personally and in detail. (Unmollified, Ms Conscience, a lighter-into, next lit into the hors d’oeuvres.)
As cartoon, this is passable. Ms Conscience is a walking cliché, an enemy to the imagination and its freedom; an aggressive, stupid woman who, on top of everything else, likes to eat. Her humiliation is rapid, effortless and wholly deserved. As criticism, however, Kenner’s caricature is high-handed. Although the interview took place in 1974, Kenner’s redaction now smacks of the smugness peculiar to self-appointed freedom fighters against so-called p.c. Obviously, as Kenner goes on to observe, cartoons aren’t real: when watching this ‘wondrous arrangement of lines and colour and movement’ different standards of verisimilitude and sympathy obtain than under more realistic modes of representation.
But Kenner sounds crude when he dismisses charges of violence as ‘nonsense’. Of course Jones gets huffy on this question, but his rejoinder that Wile E. Coyote only gets what he asked for is beside the point: the ‘violence’ he suffers isn’t easier to take for being relentlessly self-inflicted. Besides, having seen Duck Amuck – where Daffy finally turns to his invisible animator to ask why he is being persecuted – we have learned that there is an agency behind cartoon destiny quite distinct from that which characters bring on themselves. In this case Daffy’s sadistic animator is none other than Bugs who, admitting his enjoyment of Daffy’s suffering, shrugs: ‘Ain’t I a stinker?’ And finally, if ‘oh, say, 8053’ people find Road Runner cartoons violent, they must be responding to something. Kenner almost admits this himself. He mentions that Jones leads us to care about his characters more than less sentimental directors at Warner Bros did; he acknowledges that pain intrudes on the edge of Jones’s cartoon world; he remarks how the question of violence comes up more often ‘chez Jones than, say, say chez Avery’. If all this is so, why not just forego the cheap shot at Ms Conscience’s expense?
Asked in a 1989 interview why he drew animals rather than people, Jones replied that it was easier to humanise animals than people, citing the insipidity of the humans in Disney’s Snow White. Although Jones tends to recycle his answers, his self-accountings often have the force of aphorisms. But, as with his retort to Ms Conscience, they can also be evasive. In the present case we might wonder why he considered it his job to humanise cartoon animals in the first place. In Kenner’s book, as in many other sources, Jones explains his transformation of Daffy Duck from a pudgy screwball, who could never wipe a demented smile off his bill, to a leaner bird, whose brow is always darkened with ressentiment, by stating that since he could not understand crazy people and could not animate what he could not understand, he had to change Daffy by giving him comprehensible motives. When we compare Jones’s psychologised approach to Bob Clampett’s in Daffy Doc (1938), the difference is clear. Determined to become a doctor (what more fitting occupation for a quack?), Daffy needs a patient, so he clobbers the unsuspecting Porky Pig with a gigantic mallet and drags him to a hospital bed. Sitting gleefully astride his captive patient, Daffy cannot proceed without calling the mandatory preop consultation. Never at a loss, he clubs his own pate until he sees two of himself, enabling the three ducks to huddle in conference, their voices murmuring in the dialect of sage expertise, their tail feathers twitching pertly. This Daffy does not ask to be ‘understood’. When he is thrown into an artificial lung, which inflates first his face and then his behind into a room-size balloon, or when he explodes into whoops of infectiously manic laughter, careening off the walls and ceiling, we recognise that this is not a human subject cartooned, but an occasion for the expressions of Clampett’s maniacally expansive invention.
Jones on the other hand always imparts the illusion of personhood to his cartoons. Citing Jones’s epigrammatic description of Daffy as someone who ‘rushes in and fears to tread at the same time’, Kenner observes that this makes Daffy, by Pope’s standards, ‘simultaneously Fool and Angel’. But surely Jones regarded Daffy’s fear as human rather than angelic, and looked to himself for cues. ‘When I look in the mirror I see Daffy Duck ... Daffy Daily Duck is a rueful recognition of my own (and your own) ineptitude. Bugs Bunny is a glorious personification of our most dapper dreams.’ Of course, this self-identification need not preclude the formal pleasures so palpable in Jones’s Rabbit Seasoning (1952), for example, where the aggressive but ineffectual Daffy is tricked into getting himself rather than Bugs repeatedly shot in the head. We share Jones’s pleasure at inventing new ways of distorting Daffy’s face – sometimes placing the orange bill atop his head like a dashing cap, sometimes swinging it over to one side or another, sometimes blasting it off altogether, leaving nothing but a black face and blinking white eyes. But this pleasure is complicated by wincing now that Daffy is humanised.
Ingenuous persistence in face of perpetual failure, the hallmark of Jones’s psychological world, is more conspicuous in Pepé Le Pew and Wile E. Coyote, characters he invented. Reputedly anguished by self-doubt – not least of all concerning his own talents relative to those of his predecessors at Warner Bros – Jones makes these failures personable and likeable, even as he ritually dooms them again and again. About Pepé, he waxes autobiographical: ‘He’s the man I always wanted to be ... I never had much luck with girls when I was in school. But there is somebody who is absolutely certain about his own sexuality, who’s so secure with women that it’s inconceivable to him that he could offend them.’ Precisely because Pepé is endowed with so much of Jones’s own wishfulness, however, the spectacle of his impermeability is excruciating. Give up, I want to shout a few seconds into every cartoon, she’s not even your species. Similarly, the Road Runner series, which has many admirers who find in it the apotheosis of a single gag over all else, becomes unwatchable to the degree that Jones has obliged us to feel solicitude for the coyote’s fanaticism, as well as his lucklessness with gadgets. Jones’s characters are so richly endowed with the pathos of vulnerability that the running gags in his cartoons start to feel like repetition compulsion, and the failures of his psychologised creatures are peculiarly punishing.
It is not surprising, then, and certainly not nonsensical, that Ms Conscience and thousands of others are jarred by the violence of his cartoons. Jones’s career marked the pinnacle of Warner Bros animation, but the discipline he brought was not necessarily an advance. The same consolidation that makes his characters comprehensible and self-consistent can also make them a bit boring. While the more anarchic cartoons of the Thirties are endlessly engaging, Jones’s pall when three or four are watched in succession. Despite his enormous respect for the energy of Jones’s drawing and its genius for conveying character through movement, Kenner has reservations too, withholding enthusiasm just where we might expect it. ‘Chuck Jones directed 204 Warner Brothers cartoons. A handful are masterpieces of the art.’ Kenner never tells us why his judgment is so severe. Instead, sharing the jauntiness, the exuberance and the polymathic eccentricity of its subject, Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings dwells on the positive.