Here’s a real treat…a breakdown of Chuck Jones’ directorial debut!
I mentioned a few weeks ago that, as far as I knew, there were no drafts from Jones’ Warner Bros. cartoons I have since then been assured that these documents, indeed, exist.
Chuck Jones is a highly significant figure in animation, but his esteem couldn’t have been sustained without the company of his colleagues Friz Freleng, Bob McKimson, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin. Jones attended the Chouinard School of Art after he quit high school. During his first year, he worked part-time as a janitor in order to pay for his fine arts studies. After enrolling in Chouinard, around 1930, Jones had an unsuccessful stint in commercial art. Classmate Fred Kopietz recommended him to Ub Iwerks’ studio, where he became a cel washer. He rose through the ranks as an inker, painter and in-betweener before Iwerks terminated him.
In March 1933, he started at Leon Schlesinger’s studio as an assistant animator for Paul Fennell. Jones soon became a full-fledged animator, with 1934’s The Miller’s Daughter as his first on-screen credit. Tex Avery arrived at the studio in 1935 and recruited Jones to the original “Termite Terrace” unit with Bob Clampett and newcomers Virgil Ross and Sid Sutherland, creating irreverent B&W Looney Tunes beyond the norm.
After Avery’s promotion to direct the color Merrie Melodies, Jones and Clampett went over to the Iwerks studio to supervise two cartoons – Porky and Gabby and Porky’s Super Service – in order for them to be recognizable as Schlesinger product. Jones was Clampett’s head animator and character layout artist on his first few cartoons. His excellent character designs and drawing style cemented the look of those cartoons. Chuck’s approach to drawing and animation were finely handled, such as his scenes of the objectionable Mr. Viper in Avery’s Milk and Money.
Jones stepped into the director’s chair in the spring of 1938, after Frank Tashlin’s departure over an argument with studio assistant Henry Binder. Animation for The Night Watchman was underway by mid-April, as indicated on the draft, with Bob McKimson and Ken Harris as Jones’ two lead artists. Chuck’s early cartoons embraced the Disney philosophy, with realistic movement and layered colors that suggested depth and contour. These early efforts have slower pacing and are gentler than the studio’s trademark brassy, eccentric output.McKimson’s scenes closely follow Chuck’s layouts and brim with detail, often using difficult angles on the head and body of the characters. He handles most of the scenes with the tough leader rat, and uses subtle, unobtrusive gestures, such as the leader rat drumming his fingers against the chair waiting for his steak in scene 18. He also employs some great streak lines in sc. 34 when little Tommy Cat rushes over to the mouse hole, plumber’s helper in hand.
It’s interesting to see how Ken Harris’ early style, before it became more recognizable in Jones’ cartoons of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Harris has a propensity for smears in this cartoon, such as the drummer rat in scene 18 and Tommy’s cathartic punching sequence in scene 32. He trained under McKimson, and his use of clever touches in these scenes show the influence of the studio’s most gifted draftsman. The drummer rat swallowing a chocolate while performing, and Tommy stepping over a defeated rat as he moves on to the next one, are cleverly handled. Harris also animates the rats performing the swing rendition of “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree,” performed by the Sportsmen Quartet.
Phil Monroe’s animation in Night Watchman shows more elasticity than McKimson’s or Harris’. When he started at Schlesinger’s in the summer of 1934, Monroe was McKimson’s in-betweener and was later his assistant. He handles the introduction scenes of Tommy Cat (in one of Margaret Hill-Tarlton’s first vocal roles for cartoons) that establishes his clumsiness before guarding the kitchen. Scene 17, where Tommy attempts to be assertive towards a rat cook only to be brusquely shooed away, is wonderfully acted.It’s surprising to see Ace Gamer, typically an effects animator, credited for character animation here His rats are drawn in a simplistic fashion, and seem more like rodents from the Freleng unit. Gamer’s last few intercuts of Tommy trying to silence them during the musical sequence have exaggerated drawings similar to a Clampett Looney Tune.
Ben Washam and Rod Scribner started animating around 1938; hence they are only credited with one scene. There are slight earmarks of Scribner’s future drawing style as the cowardly rats back away from Tommy. Jones removed Scribner from his unit, and the animator moved to the Hardaway/Dalton unit. Based on speculation, Jones believed Scribner’s animation didn’t fit his vision of attempting a Disney style. In later years, as Monroe claimed in an interview, Jones grew to respect his animation.
There is a perplexing mystery on The Night Watchman breakdown. There is an uncredited artist, misspelled “Kieth,” on scene 12. Could it be Keith Darling? Darling’s credits as an animator for Warners begin in the mid-50s. This might have been a test scene, but more is not known. The hypothesis of Darling’s identification comes from in-betweener Lee Halpern’s appearance in the 1939 Termite Terrace gag reel. His credits as an animator first appear in the early ‘60s. Did these animators work for decades before their first screen credits? There are rumors that the story for this cartoon might have been finalized by late ’37, before Jones was slated to direct. Since the rats appear like a Freleng cartoon in some sequences, one wonders if he was the intended director prior to his time at MGM?
Jones was ambitious in his first cartoon in other aspects. Note the extensive use of double exposure, used for the illumination of Tommy’s flashlight, the singing rat trio against the spotlight and the ghosting effect on the “better self” sequence. The characters tend to flicker in these scenes, because the shots were reversed and re-exposed for the transparency by hand-cranking them. When the cameraman would turn back the individual frames, they would have to guess the exposure – a tricky feat before the advent of electric-drive animation cameras.
Hope you all enjoy this one! Expect many more Jones cartoons to follow! (No requests, please.)
Images courtesy of the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity. Looney Tunes characters, names, and all related indicia are TM & © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. 2015.
(Thanks to Michael Barrier, Keith Scott, Frank Young – and each and every week, Jerry Beck – for their help.)