In 1923 the Fleischers made the groundbreaking four-reel educational film, Einstein's Theory of Relativity . In the face of increased competition from the technically adept Fleischer Studio, Disney created the first fully synchronized sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), introducing animation's first cartoon superstar, Mickey Mouse. Nine years later, Disney made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first full-length, sound-synchronized, Technicolor animated film, along the way making the seminal Silly Symphonies, including Flowers and Trees (1932), the first cartoon made in three-strip Technicolor; Three Little Pigs (1933), famous for its Depression-era rallying cry of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"; The Country Cousin (1936), which established a definitive design for cartoon mice; and The Old Mill (1937), using the multiplane camera. All of these made aesthetic, technical, and narrative strides in the field. Many of early Silly Symphonies were drawn by Ub Iwerks and based on a "rope" aesthetic of elongated faces and limbs. Fred Moore's use of the "circle"-based "squash 'n' stretch" animation in Three Little Pigs , however, essentially prompted the change in Disney's aesthetic that led to an advance in "personality" animation and an increased realism in the films that was to characterize the studio's signature style. The multiplane camera, which made its debut in The Old Mill , facilitated this style further by ensuring that all the moving figures and changing environments stayed in perspective and maintained a depth of field. At this point, Disney effectively defined animation and created a legacy that all other producers have sought to imitate or challenge.
As Disney continued its development with what were arguably the studio's two masterpieces, Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940)—films that consciously strove to define the "art" of animation in aesthetic and cultural terms—the Warner Bros. studio established itself through the work of Hugh Harman (1903–1982) and Rudolf Ising (1903–1992) and the presence of Bosko, the studio's first animated star. Much of the Warner output was based on music already owned by the studio, and the early cartoons—the Looney Tunes series and, later, the Merrie Melodies —may be seen as prototypical music promos, as these films reinvigorated the market in sheet music and recordings. Following the Disney strike of 1941 (which essentially ended the first Golden Era of animation) and the purchase in 1944 of Leon Schlesinger Productions by Warner Bros., a new house style emerged, first under director Friz Freleng (1905–1995), then through the major creative impact of Tex Avery (1908–1980), which saw Chuck Jones (1912–2002), Frank Tashlin (1913–1972), Bob Clampett (1913–1984), and Robert McKimson (1911–1977) become the new heirs to the animated short. Altogether more urban and adult, the Warner Bros. cartoons were highly inventive, redefining the situational gags in Disney films through a higher degree of surreal, self-reflexive, and taboo-breaking humor.
The Fleischers had the highly sexualized Betty Boop, with her cartoons' strong embrace of African American culture and underground social mores; the blue-collar hero, Popeye; and the outstanding Superman cartoons of the 1940s. Hanna-Barbera had the enduring Tom and Jerry; Walter Lantz (1899–1994) had created Woody Woodpecker; and Terrytoons had debuted Mighty Mouse, parodying Mickey Mouse and Superman. But Warners had the zany Daffy Duck, the laconic wise guy, Bugs Bunny, and gullible dupes Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd, who became popular and morale-raising figures during the war-torn 1940s and its aftermath. The cartoons continued to be innovative and developmental. Their soundtracks also progressed to enhance the dynamics of the more surreal narratives. Former Disney stalwart Carl Stalling (1891–1972) and effects man Treg Brown combined short pieces of music and a bizarre range of inventive sounds to "mickey mouse" the movement (follow the action on screen with exactly matching sound) or to create comic counterpoint to the dramatic events. And Mel Blanc (1908–1989) continued to supply the vocalizations for all the Warners' cartoon characters.
Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, in particular, revised the aesthetics of the cartoon, changing its pace and subject matter, relying less on the "full animation" of Disney and more on different design strategies and thematic concerns such as sex and sexuality, injustice, and the inhibiting expectations of social etiquette. In many senses, the innovation in cartoons as various as Jones's The Dover Boys of Pimento University or the Rivals of Roquefort Hall (1942), Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), and Bob Clampett's Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943) anticipate the more formal experimentation of the United Productions of America (UPA) studio, a breakaway group of Disney animators (Steve Bosustow, Dave Hilberman, John Hubley, and Zack Schwartz) wishing to work more independently and more in the style of modernist art (actually pioneered at the Halas and Batchelor and Larkins Studios in England during the war) than in comedy. Though now remembered for popular characters like the short-sighted Mr. Magoo, UPA made Gerald McBoing Boing (1951) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1953), which used minimalist backgrounds and limited animation and was clearly embracing a European modernist art sensibility that was emerging in the "reduced animation" of the Zagreb Studios in then-Yugoslavia, and particularly in the work of its leading artist, Dušan Vukotic (1927–1998).
In this work, as in work by studios in Shanghai, the National Film Board of Canada, and even at the short-lived GB Animation Unit, a desire existed to embrace the art and technique of Disney while ultimately rejecting its aesthetic and industrial model in order to privilege different notions of the cartoon. It is pertinent to remember that progressive conceptions of the cartoon had occurred in Britain as early as 1934, when Anthony Gross and Hector Hoppin had lyricized the form in Joie de Vivre , and later, when Halas and Batchelor made their short Poet and Painter films for the Festival of Britain in 1951,
Chuck Jones has become rightly revered as one of the true masters of animation. While Tex Avery sought to extend the art and language of animation by interrogating its boundaries and possibilities, Jones was responsible for fully integrating animation with other disciplines, in particular by drawing upon classical music and literature as touchstones to structure his cartoons and to extend their thematic concerns.
A high school dropout, Jones attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. In 1931 he became a cel washer (cleaning the transparent cels the animated characters were painted on) at Pat Powers's Celebrity Pictures, but soon became an in-betweener (drawing the "in-between" movements between two key positions of the character action chosen by the lead animator) under the supervision of Grim Natwick, later the designer of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). In 1933 Jones joined Leon Schlesinger Productions, which made shorts for Warner Bros. He thereby became part of the legendary unit employed by Schlesinger after Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising left his studio, taking with them Bosko, Warner's first cartoon "star." With Friz Freleng as their initial director—followed by the more experimental Tex Avery—Bob Clampett, Robert McKimson, and Chuck Jones all defined the Warner Bros. cartoon, each enjoying the collaborative inventiveness of the unit but also defining his own distinctive vision.
Jones's first cartoon was The Night Watchman in 1938, followed quickly by his first series (ultimately twelve cartoons) featuring the mouse, Sniffles, who debuted in Naughty But Nice (1939). These gentle, Harman-Ising-style cartoons would be a far cry from his dozen Snafu (Situation Normal, All Fouled Up) cartoons for the Army-Navy Screen Magazine , made during World War II and featuring Private Snafu, an inept recruit who implicitly taught young servicemen how to do everything right by constantly getting everything wrong. The more knowing, adult, urbane approach to such cartoons was to be the staple of the Warner's output. But it was a cartoon like The Dover Boys of Pimento University or the Rivals of Roquefort Hall (1942) that properly signaled Jones's interest in aesthetics with his innovative use of smeared, "jump cut"-like, pose-to-pose movements for his characters.
Jones was instrumental in developing all the studio's major stars, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig, but several of his own creations, Pepe Le Pew and Roadrunner and Coyote, have become enduring figures, each characterized by Jones's thematic concerns with compulsion, obsession, and failure. His three late masterpieces, One Froggy Evening (1955), Duck Amuck (1953), and What's Opera, Doc? (1957), all extended the parameters of the cartoon before the closing of Warner's Animation division in 1962. Jones enjoyed further success as head of MGM's Animation Department from 1963 to 1971, revising Hanna-Barbera's Tom and Jerry cartoons to be more literate and lyrical adventures and making the perennially popular How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). As CEO of Chuck Jones Enterprises from 1962, he continued to make highly successful cartoons until his death.
The Dover Boys of Pimento University or the Rivals of Roquefort Hall (1942), The Rabbit of Seville (1950), Duck Amuck (1953), One Froggy Evening (1955), What's Opera, Doc? (1957), The Dot and the Line (1965), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
Furniss, Maureen, ed. Chuck Jones: Conversations . Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Jones, Chuck. Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist . New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989.
——. Chuck Reducks: Drawings from the Fun Side of Life. New York: Warner Books, 1996.
Kenner, Hugh. Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Peary, Danny, and Gerald Peary, eds. The American Animated Cartoon . New York: Dutton, 1980.
and in their adaptation of George Orwell's novel in Animal Farm (1954), which addressed serious subject matter and represented animals in a more realistic and less Disneyfied way. There is some irony to the fact that Halas and Batchelor recalled the "animal" to the animal cartoon by going beyond the standardization of cartoon technique, the caricatured rather than realistic representation of animals, and the comic imperatives of the short film. Animal Farm had to be more realistic, given the seriousness of Orwell's theme and its allegory of the Russian Revolution.
As the Disney studio entered a period of decline, Chuck Jones created three masterpieces: Duck Amuck (1953), deconstructing the codes and conventions of the cartoon and filmmaking in general; One Froggy Evening (1956), satirizing the idea of celebrity and commercial exploitation in the figure of a performing frog who refuses to demonstrate his unique talents for its owner in front of potential entrepreneurs and audiences; and What's Opera, Doc ? (1957), a seven-minute compression of Wagner's Ring cycle. All three exhibited Jones's ability to reinvent the cartoon, work with literate and complex themes, and create what can only be called art. Also significant was the contribution of designer Maurice Noble, whose backgrounds, color scheme, and lighting all add to the sense of operatic grandeur. Jones's cartoons were the last great works of the theatrical era in the United States as the major studios closed their short cartoon units—Disney (1954), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1956), Warner Bros. (1962), and Terrytoons (1967)—and the television era began. Jones was to be highly critical of what was to follow, arguing that at best it was "illustrated radio," but nevertheless that period of cartoon history is an important one for the form.