Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Falling Behind with the Joneses
(January 24, 2008)

(What's below is a piece I wrote in March of 1995 for Apatoons, looking at the latter part of Jones' career as a director.)

My favorite animated shorts director is Chuck Jones. I'm saying that up front, so what follows doesn't seem like Jones-bashing.

I'm glad that Jones is getting the attention he deserves from the press and public and I'm glad for Jones that he's been able to stay active. However, there's something pitiful about Jones' planned projects, sequels to some of his best and most popular films like Duck Amuck and One Froggy Evening.

It's now more than 30 years since Jones worked regularly on the Warner characters. In that time, he's become an independent producer, the vice president of ABC, directed one original feature, one compilation feature and numerous TV specials, done a comic strip, a children's book and entered the original animation art market. In his personal life, he has suffered the death of his first wife, remarried, and lost many of his collaborators and contemporaries in the animation business. He has persevered through skin cancer, a pacemaker, and hip and ankle replacements. This is a lot to have experienced. Is any of it reflected in his work? I don't believe it is.

This isn't to say that Jones is completely responsible for the gulf between his life and art. The animation business is frankly retarded in the area of artistic growth. But I always hoped that Jones, one of the most intellectual directors in animation, would find a way to keep his art vital. Instead, his art is now 30 years behind his life.

It's as if the Marx Brothers reassembled in 1960 to make Another Night at the Opera or Bob Hope today making Grandson of Paleface. How about Paul, George and Ringo re-uniting to record "I Want to Hold Your Other Hand?"

Some artists create themselves continuously. They change with the times and continue to say something meaningful. Duke Ellington, Charlie Chaplin, John Huston, Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner are examples. The late work by these artists, while perhaps not their most popular, is often their most deeply felt.

By contrast, other artists create themselves only once, and when they enter decline they thrash around noisily, trying to recapture something they once did effortlessly. Preston Sturges and Frank Capra come to mind in this category.

Jones is also in this category and he resembles Capra in many ways. Both were dependent on key collaborators (Capra on writer Robert Riskin and cameraman Joe August; Jones on writer Mike Maltese and designer Maurice Noble). Without their collaborators, both directors usually failed to do their best work. Both fell back on earlier works at the end of their careers (Capra remaking some 1930's films in the '50's and '60's; Jones returning to the Warner characters) with the new works being inferior. Jones is now recycling his earlier work, and his sequel to Duck Dodgers does not bode well for whatever comes next.

Michael Barrier was there first (he always is) with his essay on Jones in Funnyworld #13. He implied in the early '70s that Jones' career might end with a whimper. What do we have from Jones' last 30 years that can compare to his Warner work? The Dot and the Line, The Grinch and Riki Tiki Tavi are the only things that I would put in that category. Am I missing one or two? If so, the number is still agonizingly small.

I'm not implying that this is a failure on Jones' part. Creativity is mysterious, and the artist has to be in tune with the zeitgeist and the marketplace as well as himself. Preston Sturges and Frank Capra did their best but couldn't sustain their art. That does nothing to diminish their best films. No other American animation director has managed to succeed where Jones failed, but it looked to me like Jones had the best shot at deepening his work as he aged. His current path is a painful reminder of how little he's contributed in the last 30 years and that animation directors don't gain wisdom or expressiveness with age, they just peter out.