In the golden age of animated shorts, making classic cartoons was frequently a game of cat-and-mouse. And no one did it better than director Chuck Jones.
Jones was the legendary animator whose unique design, clever timing, inventive staging and flat-out-funny comedic sensibility would come to define the best in cartoons, both on Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes line (where he crafted timeless shorts featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and his own creations Pepe Le Pew, Marvin the Martian, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, among others) and on such ambitious later-career projects like “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and the Oscar-winning “The Dot and the Line.” No matter where his increasingly artful instincts took him, though, Jones never tired of the old standby of feline-rodent rivalries.
“Looney Tunes: The Chuck Jones Collection Mouse Chronicles,” on home video August 28, collects a stash of 19 slightly forgotten treasures from Jones’ wealth of work at Warner Bros., including a dozen shorts crafted from 1939 to 1946 starring the deliberately adorable but overly talkative mouse Sniffles, and seven cartoons from 1943 to 1951 featuring the creative cat-torturing mouse duo Hubie and Bertie.
“It's almost a cliché that classic animation was ‘cats chasing mice’ – Tom and Jerry and Mickey Mouse and that sort of thing,’ animation historian Jerry Beck says. “Chuck Jones was really the genius amongst the [animator] group and his cartoons are the classic Warner Bros. cartoons. Here we get to see a side of Chuck with the thing that bridges it all: his mouse characters.
“Sniffles was the first thing that Chuck did,” says Beck. “When Chuck started to direct cartoons, he came up with a character that was extremely cute. Chuck's idea – this is back in the '30's and Warner cartoons [style wasn’t quite] established yet. So Chuck, of all the directors, for some reason decided that instead of going with this funny stuff that he was developing at the studio he would go to the more Disney-like route – the almost sentimental and sweet/cute thing that Disney was doing – so he came up with Sniffles.”
“Those early cartoons with Sniffles are completely different from what Chuck would do later,” explains Beck of the shorts’ more sweet-natured tone. “They are sort of aimed at children – they're unlike the Warner Brothers cartoons, so they're almost an anomaly in that way. They're incredibly well-animated. They're animated in a way that Chuck's own cartoons would not be later on. They're animated in more full Disney style: rounded and dimensional and really, really sweet and cute – the word ‘saccharine’ can almost be applied. That's not a put down! These are beautiful, beautiful cartoons, but they're not what we think of when we think of Warner Brothers cartoons…Comic books, merchandising – they did a lot of stuff around Sniffles. Sniffles was a popular character in its day”.
After interest in Sniffles eventually waned – both on Jones’ part and the audiences’ – the animator reinvented himself and focused on what would become his specialty: wildly inventive visual comedy. For that, he would draw upon a personality-rich pair of mice pals named Hubie and Bertie who amuse themselves by devising increasingly elaborate ways to physically and psychologically torment Claude Cat, the champion mouser who shares their home.
“This a really different take – a more modern take,” says Beck. “Exactly what he developed into. The main gimmick of the Hubie and Bertie cartoons, they would play psychological tricks on their adversary, the cat. This is not something that Tom and Jerry did, or Herman and Katnip or anybody else. This is something that Chuck Jones would do, which is so the polar opposite of Sniffles. These are the sharp, witty, beautifully caricatured drawings.”
“What the characters put the cat through in these cartoons is absolutely off-the-wall crazy,” chuckles Beck. “They sneak into the house and turn the furniture upside down, making him think that he's upside down. There's a cartoon where they tricked the cat into thinking he'd died and he's going to heaven. There's one cartoon where they wander into the house, and they realize quickly that the cat is a hypochondriac and so they do everything that they can to convince the cat that he's completely sick. It's just funny, funny stuff done in Chuck's classic style.”
Together the two sets of mouse tales encompass a period in which an artist is finding his own unique voice in animation. “What's great about it is that you get to see the full range of Chuck Jones's talent, from the very beginning when he's doing Disney style to later, a witty, sharp, artistic style – It's all here,” says Beck. “If you're just somebody who wants to watch cartoons with mice, you're going to have fun. If you want to study Chuck Jones's artwork, this is probably the best collection that you could possibly get.”