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ESSAYS

Termite Terrace, 1935

The "Termite Terrace" crew in the summer of 1935, Tex Avery and his four animators. From the left, Virgil Ross, Sid Sutherland, Avery, Chuck Jones, and Bob Clampett.

From 1992: On the Jones-Avery Letter

By Michael Barrier

[An introductory note: I wrote the following piece on August 4, 1992. It was originally published as part of one of my contributions to the animation-themed amateur press association called APAtoons. I was writing in response to the publication by Mark Mayerson, another member of the APA, of a letter from Chuck Jones to Tex Avery. That letter, written in 1975, was intensely critical of Bob Clampett and the interview with him that I published in Funnyworld in 1970. Avery annotated the letter, expressing enthusiastic agreement with Jones. The annotated letter has since been widely distributed in the animation community.]

Chuck's letter was not a disinterested expression of rage over Bob Clampett's supposed distortions of history. Neither should it be read as venting Chuck's frustration because Clampett was getting so much attention, at the expense of the other Warner Bros. directors. As Mark noted, Joe Adamson's book on Tex Avery was published in 1975, before Chuck wrote his letter, and my files from the early '70s are full of clippings about Chuck from mainstream publications. The Clampett interview in Funnyworld was very small potatoes by comparison. Bugs Bunny Superstar [a compilation of Warner Bros. cartoons with connecting live action in which Clampett was featured] got wide exposure, of course, but I know of no one who took it very seriously.

Chuck's letter was simply a power play. He wrote it when it seemed likely that there would be an art book on the Warner Bros. cartoons, along the lines of Finch's The Art of Walt Disney, and that I would write it. The letter—Chuck gave a copy to Benny Washam [a former Jones animator at Warners], who gave it to Milt Gray, who sent it to me—was Chuck's way of telling me that his sensibilities, and specifically his ferocious hostility to Clampett, would have to be taken into account in my preparation of the book.

That's not to say that there isn't justice in many of Chuck's specific complaints about the Clampett interview. Had I published the interview a few years later—it was, instead, the first one I ever published in Funnyworld—I certainly would have annotated it, and probably pressed Bob to back up some of his more questionable statements. I reasoned, incorrectly, that Clampett, as one of the leading Warner Bros. directors, was entitled to say his piece without such editorial intereference.

But please note that Chuck's letter contained the first specific criticisms he had ever made—five years after the interview was published. The earlier letters I had gotten from him, and from Avery and Freleng, had simply been of the "how dare you publish anything that Clampett said" variety. As I told Chuck (in a letter that he quoted so as to leave a grotesquely misleading impression), I didn't think that such blanket condemnations were acceptable, given the demonstrable accuracy of much of what Clampett said.

The substance of most of Chuck's complaints about the Clampett interview could have been conveyed much more effectively through one simple sentence: "Bob tends to assume that whatever he was doing was the most important thing going on at the Schlesinger studio at the time; but it usually wasn't." Such a criticism would have had the great virtue of being true. Clampett was very rewarding as an interview subject, because he was extraordinarily accurate on most matters of fact; but he was very difficult, too, because he was so often unreliable as a guide to interpeting those facts. Bob was, like many other people in show business (Chuck Jones, for example), an enthusiastic self-promoter, but far more hazardous to the interviewer was his fundamentally innocent tendency to take for granted that he stood at the center of the Warner cartoon universe. He really believed that if, say, he spoke in passing with someone about a possible change in Bugs Bunny's design, any future changes in Bugs's looks necessarily flowed from that conversation. I learned over the years to watch for that tendency, and question it (and I caused Bob some unavoidable distress, as a result).

The exact source of Chuck's intense hostility to Clampett is still something of a mystery to me; his resentment certainly did not originate with the Funnyworld interview. I'm sure we can believe Chuck when he says that he thinks that Clampett cheated him out of a director's chair in 1937; the two-part mystery is (a) why he would think that, and (b) why he would still care, even if it really happened that way. I talked with Chuck about that 1937 episode at considerable length in a phone interview, and try as I might, I could not get a clear account from him of what he thought happened—that is, why Clampett wound up a director and Jones stayed an animator. It was just a year later, of course, in 1938, that Chuck was put in charge of a Merrie Melodies unit, making nothing but color cartoons; so, why would he resent not being co-director in a unit that made nothing but cheap-looking black-and-white stuff? If Clampett really did cheat Jones out of a director's chair, Jones had the last laugh.

(As for Avery's annotations: Tex, on the few occasions when I saw him in the '70s, was from all appearances a desperately unhappy man—his son had just killed himself, and his long marriage had broken up—and I'm sure that Chuck tapped into that mood. Clampett was an energetic tape-recorder of telephone conversations, and if Clampett/Avery tapes exist, and become available for researchers' inspection, we will learn whether Tex did in fact concur in most of the statements in the Clampett interview that he later attacked. I suspect strongly that he did.)

I've known Chuck Jones since 1969. He was—like Bob Clampett, Mel Blanc, Ward Kimball, and Billy Bletcher—one of the animation people I met and interviewed on my very first trip to California. Of all the hundreds of animation people I've since come to know, he is one of only two with what I would call a Hollywood ego (Ralph Bakshi is the other). I've encountered plenty of animation people with healthy egos—you didn't get to be a director at most cartoon studios unless you had one—but Hollywood egos stand out because of their all-embracing vanity. They demand not just respect, but absolute fealty to themselves and to their version of events. It's that vanity that colors Jones's letter to Avery, and gives it its vicious tone. Whatever it was that happened between Clampett and Jones in 1937, Chuck's vanity suffered a wound that still stings.

Because I've encountered so few Hollywood egos over the years, for a long time I clung to the hope that maybe Chuck really wasn't one. Certainly the Chuck Jones of the '40s and '50s was an almost wholly admirable figure; the ego was there, but it was submerged in the service of wonderful films. Over the last thirty years or so, as the films have gotten steadily worse, the ego has gotten larger, or at least more visible.

After blowing hot and cold with Chuck for more than seventeen years, I met with him for the last time in December 1986, at his home in Corona del Mar. I got an icy reception from Chuck and his second wife, Marian, and I decided, after leaving them, that I would take what I considered an extraordinary step to demonstrate to Chuck my good intentions, and my regard for his opinions.

By that time, I knew that That's All, Folks, my book on the Warner cartoons, would never be published. I also knew that when I reworked that material for [Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age], it would emerge very different, but my fundamental conclusions about the directors would be the same. So I sent the Warner manuscript to Chuck early in 1987, with a cover letter that, if anything, went too far in an effort to placate him. I said in part: "I'm interested, of course, in how you will react to the book as a whole, but especially to the passages about Bob Clampett's involvement in the creation and evolution of some of the characters. I tried to be very scrupulous here; I wanted to separate the core of fact that was usually present in Bob's accounts from the inflated importance he attached to what was typically a very limited role."

Chuck returned the manuscript a few weeks later, with a sarcastic note that reflected what I can only interpret as a willful misreading of the book. He said: "I had the feeling that there were other animators at our studio besides Rod Scribner, but I could be wrong. Also, I had a suspicion, shared by others, that Clampett learned more from Avery than Avery from Clampett. Shows how faulty one's memory becomes as one approaches dotage." (If I need to say it, I discussed the work of several animators besides Rod Scribner—and mentioned many others—and I never suggested that Avery had somehow learned more from Clampett than the other way around.) Most revealing, though, were the markings that Chuck made on the manuscript itself. Beside every line in which Clampett's name was mentioned, Chuck had penciled a "C"; beside every line in which Rod Scribner's name was mentioned, he had penciled an "SC." (Why not just an "S"? Damned if I know.) Atop the manuscript was a Post-It note, in Chuck's hand-printing, addressed to "Todd" (his grandson): "Will you have someone erase the little `C's and `SC' etc. from this script." Todd missed seeing that note, and so the manuscript came back to me with all of Chuck's markings intact.

Those markings finally persuaded me that it was pointless to try to stay in touch with Chuck; there was no way I could ever get into his good graces except by paying a price that was much too high. If Chuck's hostility toward Clampett was ever less than obsessive, that was no longer the case. When I read Chuck Amuck two years later, I felt vindicated in my decision; for much of its length, the book is either silly (e.g., the pseudo-Mark Twain story of Johnson the cat) or sickening in its condescension toward people like Mike Maltese and Leon Schlesinger. (Avery, Tashlin, and Clampett all thought Schlesinger was a great boss, because he didn't hassle them, but Chuck evidently found Leon offensive on aesthetic grounds.)

I'm glad that I have the alternative of spending time, through the films and other people's memories, with the Jones of forty and fifty years ago, a man who was, as I say, an admirable figure—an inspiring one, really, who stuck his neck out for the sake of better films even though he was working in what amounted to an artistic vacuum. I have copies of a few letters Chuck wrote to fans in the '50s, and they're really quite poignant—you can sense in them Chuck's joy at hearing from people who actually were paying attention to what he was doing. I always feel a sense of dislocation when I'm writing about young animators and directors whom I've known only as old men, but that dislocation is more acute in some cases than in others; and it's most acute when I'm writing about Chuck.

I feel as though I'm still in touch with the latter-day Jones whenever I read an interview with him or see something like that tedious Chuck Amuck documentary. By now Chuck has been interviewed so often that his statements are wholly predictable, and his act—the avuncular old animation genius—polished to a high gloss. But every once in a while, a faintly hysterical note creeps into some newspaper writer's fawning story. It's as if the writer has begun to figure out that he's really been talking not with one of Santa's elves, but with Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

¶¶¶¶¶

Before I leave the subject of Clampett v. Jones, I think I should briefly address a related subject: reputations, good ones and bad ones.

As Mark Mayerson said, "Bob Clampett was a man who could upset people." He mentions three people by name—Avery, Jones, and Stan Freberg. For reasons set out above, I think that Avery and Jones are suspect as witnesses against Clampett. The same goes for Freberg: Clampett sued him, successfully, for appropriating Cecil when Freberg did a puppet act on an NBC show in the mid-'50s, after leaving "Time for Beany." It's hard to feel warm toward someone who hauled you into court.

Far more disturbing, to me, have been the negative stories that Milt Gray and I have heard about Clampett from "little people" in the business—animators and others who were sure that they had been treated shabbily. Sometimes they may have been; in other cases, there may have been nothing more involved than a serious misunderstanding. Clampett has always aroused strong negative feelings in some of his co-workers, but those feelings often seem to have had no more solid a base than a distaste for Clampett's eccentricity. (I don't use that term pejoratively; I think Bob enjoyed being a little different from everyone else. You don't run around in a blue jacket covered with cartoon-character patches if you want to be mistaken for a corporate executive.) Other people—Lloyd Turner and Bob McKimson come to mind—found him a trial to work with, but came away without any hard feelings toward the man himself. And still others—I think of Norm McCabe, Willie Ito, Jack Hannah, Bill Melendez, and the list could go on—who worked with Clampett at different points in his career either had no particularly disagreeable experiences to report or had only good things to say.

All of which is the long way around to saying that Bob was an imperfect man, but he was hardly the clownish but vaguely sinister figure he's painted by some people in the Jones camp.

For that matter, it's not particularly difficult to find people who have bad things to say about Chuck.

It's hard for me to think of anyone who was in any way a boss—director or producer—in animation's golden age who hasn't been the target of negative stories. (After all, who has been the subject of more venomous gossip than Walt Disney?) Here, as always, it's best to regard skeptically what "everybody knows."

[Posted April 30, 2008]

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