Saturday, 13 October 2018

Curious Puppies and Mind-Gaming Mice

“Over the past few years,” wrote Alex Ward in the Washington Post in 1974, “there has been a steady rejuvenation of interest in animation, focusing first on Walt Disney, but since broadening to encompass others like Max Fleisher [sic] (creator of Betty Boop), pioneer Winsor McCay and the zany crew at Warner’s: Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Bob McKimson, Friz Freleng, Michael Maltese and Chuck Jones.”

Animation fans today are so fortunate a number of people who loved cartoons decided to start researching them back then. They pretty much started from scratch to piece together the history of animated cartoons and the people behind them. They laid the foundation. Then knowledge built upon knowledge. We reap the benefits of those pioneer historians today.

One advantage they had back then was an awful lot of the people who had major roles in making those cartoons were still alive and (if they were willing) could be interviewed.

The January-February issue of Film Comment magazine was devoted to animation. Joe Adamson wrote a story with quotes from the likes of Maltese, Maurice Noble. Space was devoted to Richard Thompson’s essay on Duck Amuck. Greg Ford put together an elucidation on the Warner Bros. studio. And Thompson and Ford got together to interview Chuck Jones.

Jones seems to have been the perfect interview. He was intelligent and articulate, he spent a long career in animation starting in the early ‘30s, and he lived until 2002, giving him plenty of opportunities to get his thoughts and recollections in print. Jones later wrote two books on his time at Warners (with detours into his personal life) and a collection of his interviews saw print.

I’m not going to reprint Ford and Thompson’s entire work. Instead, I’ll post what Jones had to say about some of his minor characters—the two curious dogs and mind-gaming mice Hubie and Bertie.

The dogs? Ehh. They don’t do a lot for me. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to laugh at their misfortune or feel sorry them. About all these do is sniff around looking for stuff and then try to get out of trouble. Pluto did it first at Disney. Herbie and Bertie are a different matter. They’re great characters. They’ve got great dialogue and insane ideas, thanks to the clever mind of Mike Maltese. And you can laugh at what they pull on Claude Cat because it’s so outrageous (eg. nailing an entire room to the ceiling).

What did Jones think? Let’s find out.

Q: Certain themes started emerging the very first year you began to direct. In Doggone Modern [1938], those two early dogs of yours, the boxer and his puppy pal, were pitted against the absurdities of technology, much as all those "Acme" devices would later backfire on the Coyote in his quest for the Roadrunner. The two dogs got trapped in a modernistic house-of-the-future.
A: That's right. They wandered in, and the place had a robot broom that would sweep up anything, regardless of what it was.
Q: And the dogs had to dodge the robot broom, to keep from getting swept up themselves. You did a remake of the same film about a decade later, this time starring your mice characters Hubie and Bertie [House Hunting Mice, 1947], which seems to be such an incredible improvement on the original Doggone Modern.
A: Well, the style of background was completely different in the two cartoons. In the first few pictures I worked on, we used a man by the name of Griff Jay, who was an old newspaper cartoonist—and he did what we'd call "moldy prune" backgrounds. Everybody used the same type of thing back then—Charlie Johnston [Johnny Johnsen] drew backgrounds for Tex Avery, and he was an old newspaper cartoonist too.
Q: But the biggest difference between the two films is in the starring characters. The situation is the same, a pair of characters being victimized by the crazy electronic house devices, but Hubie and Bertie in house hunting mice are active and fully developed characters, while the dogs are far too passive—they just don't have a chance.
A: No, they don't. The dogs don't really amount to anything. They just walk around and get mixed up in all the gadgetry. But they don't demonstrate any real human reactions, none that we can recognize anyway, beyond a sort of generalized anxiety. The characters aren't really established, so you don't care about them. You do care about Hubie and Bertie, though.
Q: They're real personalities. It's so much more exhilarating to see them respond to the machinery, occasionally react against it, and at odd times even triumph over it. There's a marvelous sequence where Hubie and Bertie succeed in temporarily outfoxing the robot, remember? Unlike the two dogs, they finally realize that this f***ing broom is going to whiz out and sweep up the debris, regardless of purpose, and so, this time, the characters make use of the fact and consciously try to wear the robot out. They turn on an automatic record ejector that shoots out discs and shatters them against the wall, the records fly and break into pieces, and the robot, invariably, has to come out and sweep up, again and again. Also, there are shots, with the simulated editing, of a missile sailing past intercut with a quick insert of a character, just watching it go by.
A: That may have been generated from a fascination with tennis matches, and such intercutting effects would often make the scene work. It also demonstrates that you could get an object to look like it's moving a hell of a lot faster with editing. And eventually, I began to add shadows of the missile flying past; this happened very often in the "Roadrunner" films.

Q: Another thing wrong with the two early dogs that appeared in Doggone Modern and a couple of other films at the time: there seemed to be some question as to what movements were defined for them. They were very naturalistically drawn, but their movements seemed to confuse human-like and canine actions.
A: That's why there wasn't any character, because what we were trying to do was to find out how the hell a dog moves. Just how he moves, and nothing much beyond that. That's when I was fighting the anthropomorphic idea of movement. They were modeled with back-legs like dogs, but nobody really knew how to move them properly. The result was that they looked rather awkward.

Q: Sometimes you have entire cartoons set up around the idea of gravity. In Mouse Wreckers [1948], for instance, you have a whole string of gravity gags, the coup de grâce being the upside-down room sequence.
A: An earlier gravity gag in that cartoon is when Claude Cat is pulled through the house by the rope, which is triggered by the mice pushing the heavy boulder off the chimney. And remember? Claude would get pulled into stacks of dishes, around bannisters, under tables. Gravity is the simplest thing to use if you don't happen to have any other tools at hand.

Q: Mouse Wreckers seems to us to be a major cartoon because of the controlling factors of the film are always kept off-screen. Your two mouse characters, Hubie and Bertie, are stationed on the chimney playing architectural mind-games on poor Claude Cat, who's alone in the house below. The mice reconstruct his entire room, and when Claude wakes up, he doesn't know whether these things are really happening or whether he's hallucinating it all.
A: In the later M-G-M remake, Year of the Mouse [1965], the cat finally realizes that the mice are provoking these disasters, and at the end he catches the mice.
Q: Yeah, it's a moral ending, where the earlier Warners film has an immoral ending.
A: Oh, well, I like immoral endings better. Forgetting the Tom and Jerry, the purpose in Mouse Wreckers was that the cat never realized exactly what was happening to him. And it was based on an actual happening. This upside-down room did exist: some English duke or something has a weird sense of humor, and at his parties, when someone would pass out, he'd haul 'em in there and everyone would look through the holes in the walls and watch them come to. And people would do exactly what the cat did: they'd try to crawl up the wall or something—particularly someone with a dreadful hangover, you can imagine how hideous that was.
Q: The second-to-last image of that cartoon is amazing. It's just Claude's eyes, with the cat being driven totally insane, cowering at the top of a tree, and the leaves falling away just enough to reveal those eyes.
A: In that picture I used a different thing: the eyes were handled almost like a pair of animated breasts—did you notice that?
Q: Yes, the pupil came out of the ball of the eye, like a nipple. The fear registered in Claude's eyes in amazing, as he looks from side to side.
A: Phil Monroe did a good job on that.
Q: When Claude is in the upside-down room, on the ceiling that he thinks is the floor, trying to keep his balance by digging his claws into the ceiling, the camera turns around and goes upside-down with Claude; it's fascinating. I wonder if you were trying to show the force of gravity through motion alone, and without the standard visual presentation of what's up and what's down.
A: Well, Claude opened the bottle and the liquid flowed up, while if it were shown from your viewpoint it would naturally flow down. And I wanted to show what he felt. Actually, Charlie Chaplin used something like that in the opening airplane sequence of the great dictator, when he's piloting his plane upside-down. And the same series of gags are in the Porky Pig cartoon Jumpin' Jupiter [1955] when they lose their gravity. There I didn't have to turn the camera around, obviously, since it was in outer space. I just used a little sign that read: "You are now entering a low gravity zone."

The interview may be more than 40 years old but there is still a lot of information in it I have not read elsewhere. Someone has graciously put the issue of Film Comment on-line and you can read it by going to this site.


  1. Jones on "Mouse Wreckers" (1949) being an immoral ending that he liked... it was simply survival of the hungry. SC

  2. The boxer dog does have early hints of the frustrations caused by technology, gravity, the fates or whatever that would befall Wile E. Coyote in the future Road Runner shorts. He wasn't the same type of schemer, of course, but he would for the most part come out the worse for wear in the episodes, while the smaller dog was the more Pluto-ish, in terms of cute pantomime bits.

  3. For the past 30 years, I have been dining out on the fact that I did a telephone interview with Chuck Jones in 1988. It broke almost no new ground (although I got a dandy original Jones drawing of Bugs Bunny reading the publication for which I wrote at the time), but it was definitely one of the highlights of my life. The interview and the original drawing are posted online on my blog at Also, the interview was published in the compilation book "Conversations with Chuck Jones."

  4. Hubie and Bertie, Claude Cat, The Three Bears, and the talking Wile E. Coyote sans Roadrunner were Jones' best characters.