A most impressive exhibit. Four Bugs Bunnys, four Daffy Ducks, two or three mithellaneous matherpieces, and the vintage classic "One Froggy Evening." They were all hung on a screen at the American Film Institute Theater, which became for one grand night a Looney Tune Louvre.
And the artist who had committed all the mayhem was right there in front of the screen, quoting one of his most durable stars. "As Daffy would say, 'We're not thloppin' over with kultcher tonight,'" Jones told the first of two sold-out houses. "I promise we'll send you home empty-handed."
Or -- "Har Har," as the Duck himself sputtered later from the screen. "It is to laugh."
It was to laugh.
Chuck Jones, 67 now, but only by a technicality -- he seems about 20 years younger -- suggests a soft-spoken, mildly distracted combination of Thomas Alva Edison and Andy Warhol, which makes sense because he is both a great artist and a great inventor.
He invented the Roadrunner, among other characters, and thereby gave the world a new universal symbol of all that is desired by impossible to attain. However, Jones revealeld this weekend, in mid-May on a CBS TV special he just completed, Wile E. Coyote is finally going to get his mitts on that beep-beeping little bird.
"The coyote catches the roadrunner, but I'm not going to tell you how," said Jones, smiling slyly, he catches him, but he doesn't win. I know it sounds impossible, but we found a way."
For 30 years cartoons made by Jones and other directors in the Warner Bros. animation unit were the madcap accoutrements to a night at the movies. Many opened with music called "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down," but then the merry-go-round did break down and the animation unit was shuttered. Bugs, Daffy, Tweetie Pie, Elmer Fudd, the Roadrunner -- even the Tasmanian Devil -- were evicted.
Now, however, the work Jones did is more highly prized than ever, and he has become a culture hero of a high order. Directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Hal Needham have acknowledged debts to or openy imitated him. He is revered by film buffs and honored by the cinema intelligentsia. And none of this keeps his films from being as funny as they ever were.
"We thought at the time that maybe they'd go two or three years and then disappear, and before television, that was true," Jones said Friday before the AFI appearance. "So we figured they'd be gone. Now to suddenly find them getting all this attention, to be appearing here at the Kennedy Center, is just, just -- what do they call it in New Orleans? A lagniappe. It's something that is given to you that you don't really deserve but that you're bloody well glad to have.
"It's astonishing and miraculous. I'm extraordinarily pleased and flattered that it happened, but I never tried for it."
From one great American humorist to another, Jones credits as his greatest influence Mark Twain, whom he quotes like crazy: "Mark Twain once said, 'I never disliked anybody so much I wasn't willing he should admire me.' I was raised on Mark Twain, and I've never found any problem that couldn't be solved by referring to him.
"The only way I know how to solve anything really is to take a light-hearted look at it. Never a cynical look -- that was the nice thing about Twain, although occasionally he would get cynical. There were times when things got about the way they are today and he said once, "There is only one native criminal class in America, and that's Congress.' So the times don't change much, do they?"
Jones has a few other heroes, and his Washington visit centered on meeting one of them -- Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Block, known of course by his signature, "Herblock." Jones called Herblock "one of my great heroes" at the AFI screening; the night before, Herblock told Jones, "I'm one of your biggest fans."
Let us say, then, that during a long night's journey into dinner, they did seem to hit it off. For 3 1/2 hours of free association, they exchanged anecdotes, remembrances and extravagant encomiums. There probably was no more important history made in Washington that night than by this encounter; it was like Stavinsky meeting Gershwin or, or -- or Freud meeting Einstein.
Or, as President Kennedy once noted: "Not since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. . . ."
Jones has won three Oscars. Herblock has won three Pulitzers. But they didn't talk about Oscars or Pulitzers. They talked about Walt Kelly, and Mark Twain, and Jean-Paul Sartre and wild boar, and the kind of pens you can't buy anymore because the shop in London closed down, and linguistic anthropology, and Nixon, and how much the waiter sounded like Pepe Le Pew, the lovesick skunk who always fell in love with cats who had stripes down their backs.
For a time, the two men carried on a weighty debate about exactly what kind of hat Boob McNutt used to wear in the comic strips.
There were frequent outbursts of "Oh that's wonderful," and "What a great story."
People at nearby tables inched closer to try to figure out who these gesticulating comrades were. In between Alphonsing and Gastoning, the two men turned the menu into a joke book and a plate of asparagus into a creature from another world.
Jones recalled how an MGM producer told his staff not to make an anti-Hitler cartoon in 1944 because he wasn't sure who'd win the war and he didn't want to offend anybody. And Jones remembered how one of the Warner brothers was so aloof to what the animation unit was doing that he once congratulated Jones on making all those swell Mickey Mouse cartoons.
Mickey, or course, was reclining on a drawing board over at Disney at the time.
At the AFI, Jones told the audience he has probably done 45 million drawings in his "40 or 50 years" in the animation biz. "The nice thing to remember about me is that deep down, I'm shallow," he said. And he had told Herblock, "Every character I've ever done was either everything I wanted to be or feared I was."
In mid-April, for the first time in years and years, Warner Bros. will release a new animated short subject, Jone's "Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24 1/2 Century," which is a 25-year-late sequel to "Duck Dodgers and the 24 1/2 Century." Original plans were for Steven Spielberg to work on the film in exchange for Jones' working on "1941"; fortunately for Jones, perhaps, this deal was not consumated, though Spielberg did not make a contribution to the new cartoon.
"I love working on the old characters again," Jones said. It was obvious that loving to work was what gave the greatest of the Warners cartoons their sparkle, their rambunctious and impudent wit, sensational energy and timeless drollery.
Jones explained the origin of one cartoon, "From A to ZZZZZ," by saying, "I was once a little boy and I used to have dreams" The little boy and the dreams are still there.
It is to laugh.