By Merle Exit
Perhaps you are not familiar with the name Chuck Jones, but you likely are well versed in his animated legacy encompassing Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.
Back in the 1950s it was common to view two cartoons at a movie theater prior to the main attraction. These shorts were made to be viewed on the big screen.
Now, the Museum of the Moving Image is giving the public the chance to watch these cartoons and to go behind the scenes of these characters in an exhibition sure to give audience members a “Chuck-le.”
“What’s Up Doc? The Animation of Chuck Jones” explores the highlights of his career divided into seven categories ranging from creating characters and directing animated shorts to developing memorable bits in his films.
In 1949, Chuck Jones created the characters Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner for the cartoon “Fast and Furry-ous.” Jones was inspired by author Mark Twain’s description of the coyote as “a long, slim, sick and sorry skeleton” that is “a living breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.”
The characters represent the purest expression of his approach to screen comedy. Each of these cartoons is a series of visual gags, with no dialogue, except for the Road Runner’s occasional “Beep, Beep.”
“The difference between a laugh and no laugh,” Jones said, “is only one frame.”
Jones also developed a set of rules for the dueling desert duo: “The Road Runner cannot harm the coyote except for going ‘Beep, Beep.’ No outside force can harm the coyote — only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products. The coyote could stop anytime — if he were not a fanatic. Whenever possible, make gravity the coyote’s greatest enemy. The coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.”
In 1938 Warner Bros. director Ben “Bugs” Hardaway created a rabbit character for the film, “Porky’s Hare Hunt.” For Bug’s next appearance character designer Charles Thorton made a model sheet and referred to the rabbit as “Bugs Bunny.” This bunny was screwball, antic and cute. Two of Chuck Jones’ early cartoons featured this proto-Bugs.
“What’s Opera Doc?” released in 1957 is widely considered Jones’s magnum opus. It condenses Wagner’s Ring Cycle — 14 hours of opera — into a seven-minute cartoon, and elevates the classic Bugs Bunny-running-from-Elmer Fudd story into a majestic drama. It parodies the use of classical music in Disney’s 1940 feature “Fantasia” and its humor comes not from “gags” but the incongruity of the characters’ personalities in the setting. Production took longer than any other cartoon Jones made for Warner Bros.
Many of the exhibits have an accompaniment monitor showing either full length or excerpts from a cartoon such as “One Froggy Evening” about a dancing and singing frog who performs for one man but is still when in front of an audience. There are 23 films to enjoy.
A middle area of the exhibit features a room with bean bags and leveled seating showing a selection of Chuck Jones’s greatest films with introductory remarks to each selection by John Lasseter, co-founder of Pixar Animation.
Barbara Miller, the curator of the exhibition, had to figure out how to tell the story, delineate the sections and what part to highlight.
“We had to look at the available material as well the whole trajectory of what Chuck Jones is,” Miller said. “Aside from the known cartoons, Chuck made animated public service films during WW II that are worth viewing.”
“This exhibition is such a delight.” Linda Jones Clough, Jones’ daughter, said. “It’s overwhelming and absolutely wonderful. We want people to be inspired to find their own creativity.”
You can enjoy a Saturday matinee of classic cartoons from Jones’ personal collection and the Academy archive until Jan. 19.
Each weekend’s program will be different. Check movingimage.us for the complete schedule. In addition there will be animation takeover in the drop-in studio. Working with museum educators, children will be able to make their own media projects.
If you Go
What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones
When: Through Jan. 19, 2015
Where: Museum of the Moving Image, 36-01 35th Ave, Astoria
Contact: (718) 777-6800