In his wonderful and artistic autobiography, Chuck Amuck, Chuck Jones, the principal creator of such animated comic geniuses as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, reminds us of what a life of practical freedom used to look like. The reminder is all the more powerful in its matter-of-factness.
Jones takes for granted that the reader would appreciate the freedom he enjoyed when he was a boy, then a young man, and finally one of the directors of animation at Warner Brothers. I bring it up, because we Americans often assume that liberty is something guaranteed by a government or a Constitution, rather than by the common habits of a people.
When he was a boy, Chuck Jones did things, and he grew up among others who did things, most of which would be prohibited now for being too dangerous. He also read books, not because he was bookish, but because he had a free spirit. His father insisted on renting “furnished” houses, and in those days before radio, furniture included books, says Jones; hundreds at least, thousands if you were lucky. Kipling and Mark Twain, no surprise, were among his favorites: The Jungle Book, Tom Sawyer, Roughing It, all great influences upon his boy-imagination.
Jones’ father pitched into one hare-brained scheme after another, each time buying new stationery for the enterprise, and that meant for Chuck and his siblings an endless supply of paper and pencils, for drawing. Mother and Father let the children be. There was no “deadly use of unqualified criticism or excessive praise during the early, very critical, very creative years of childhood.” No teachers, no tiger-mother hiring an art instructor, or perhaps scoffing at the business as useless.
Jones had an Uncle Lynn, “Unclynn” as they called him, “the ne-plus-ultra uncle.” Dogs and boys loved him, says Jones, because “he thought like a boy, or a dog, and he was of adult size, which we were not, and could implement such thought with action.” One typical incident speaks volumes:
If a mule-drawn dump cart passed, full high with moist red earth, he immediately engaged in comparing notes with the driver. He was always able to compare notes with anyone, human or animal. He always had something in common with every dog, cat, turtle, sea gull, child, or man. He had somehow, somewhere, someway done something they, too, had done, and from this common ground an uncommon miracle always occurred: two average small boys and one average small dog digging luxuriating toes into that same lofty loamy lovely dirt, as Uncle Lynn talked to the enchanted driver about Missouri mules, Malayan buffalo, hickory shafts, goatskin hames, and rattail files.
And the great climax, when the driver would pull the release bar and send boys and dog into the landfill with the dirt. “Lost ‘em,” said Uncle Lynn. “Guess we’’ll have to go back and get some more boys.”
Those were thin slices of life, then; a couple of cels in an animated boyhood. In this time of plague, when children cannot be together, why are they not roaming the outdoors? I walk the trail in the woods behind our neighborhood, and see only the prints of dogs and men’s boots in the snow; no children. At every pass we have absorbed laws, not of morality, which are liberating, but of etiquette, which is a curb on adventure and genius, and of security and sloth, which deaden the soul.
One of those absorptions is the notion that everyone must graduate from high school. For many young Americans, high school is little more than an antisocial sandbox, a terrible waste of youth. Chuck Jones, like many a creative and restless young person of his time, left high school early, at age fifteen. Why not? Boys need acreage. He enrolled at the Chouinard Art Institute, in Los Angeles, where, he says with his typically ruthless and comic honesty, he did not learn how to draw, but he did learn how to fake it well enough to get a job.
A peculiarity of the animation studios then was that they were, not by design but by the natural inclinations of the people involved, almost wholly male. Freedom of association was still taken for granted. That goes a long way toward explaining their aggressive readiness to laugh at everything, including themselves. Tex Avery, says Jones, “ridiculed every platitude” implicit in educational films for children, “a lizard doing a striptease while shedding her skin; different sides of a split screen for grownups and children,” and so forth. But the quality of the humor was never snide, never flippant. “You must love what you caricature,” says Jones, “unless it is ridiculously self-important.”
The crucial feature of comedy, says Jones, is not the smart remark, but character, and he assumes, in drawing those characters, that human nature does not change. Most of the time we hide what we really are and what we want. “Daffy [Duck],” he says, “gallantly and publicly represents all the character traits that the rest of us try to keep subdued.” To get what he wants, Daffy “cheerfully and always rationally chews up moral codes by the yard.” We are more like him than we want to admit. Or like the fanatic coyote, who could stop at any time, says Jones, but who has forgotten why he wanted the Road Runner in the first place.
We might go farther, and ask how many of the cartoons made by Jones, Avery, and the delightfully crazy Friz Freleng could not be made now, because we are not free to think or even to notice things about men and women, let alone dogs and pussycats and tweety-birds. “Come, my little peanut of brittle,” croons the amorous skunk Pepé Le Pew, chasing the girl cat he mistakes for one of his own malodorous kind, “I will help you . . . wait for me . . . Wait! I am the cornbeef to you, ze cab-baj . . .” We can’t have that. We can’t have the faux-French. We can’t have the faux-Spanish and the little mouse Speedy Gonzalez, coming to the help of his sombrero-wearing siesta-taking Mexican fellows. We can’t have satires on fat people, skinny people, bullies, thugs, old ladies, sexy women, henpecked husbands, cowboys, Ay-rabs, Eskimos, German oom-pah bands, Italian sailors—”Atsa matta fo’ you,” says the dwarfish Columbus to his big threatening men aboard the Santa Maria, “a-Rabbit she’s a good luck!”
The proof is in the results, I say, and the cartoons Jones and his associates made will be watched as long as there are children, of any and all ages. What made those cartoons possible needs no justification. In large part it was not license, which can give even dolts the illusion of courage and creativity; think of easy and pointless obscenity. It was freedom.