Chuck Jones: Four Months At Disneyby Wade Sampson, staff writer
“When Warners shut down the [animation studio], I went to work at Disney’s for a while. I couldn’t stand it. [Walt Disney]asked me what kind of job I wanted and the kind of job I wanted was his. But I got to know him and like him," animator and director Chuck Jones told well-respected and well-liked animation historian Joe Adamson in a 1980 published interview. "Walt called me in when he was going to underwrite the Chouinard Art Institute and the all-new California Institute of the Arts. I got very close to him in his later years. He kept doing things nobody else believed in. As far as general-audience entertainment is concerned, Disney probably had the best touch of anybody in the whole world. Walt was a strange kind of guy, but he’s still by all odds the most important person that animation has ever known. Anybody who knows anything about animation knows that the things that happened at the Disney Studio were the backbone that upheld everything else. Disney created a climate that enabled all of us to exist.”
On his 85th birthday celebration on Sunday, September 21, 1997, the legendary Chuck Jones spoke to a group of 500 of his friends, family, fans,and colleagues. He recalled the many letters he had sent to Walt Disney in his early years, and how Walt personally replied to each one. Later, when he met Walt, Jones thanked him for those letters and Walt replied, "Well, of course, you're the only animator that ever wrote to me!"
It was a story that Jones told many times over the decades.
When I first started interviewing animators a couple of decades ago as a cocky young man, I was still very respectful not only of their knowledge and memories of animation but also the wisdom that they had gained over the years. One of them told me that when I got older, I would discover that “you don’t regret the things you did as much as you regret the things you didn’t do.”
Now that I have stumbled through more than two decades of life since that interview, I know exactly what he meant. I had the pleasure of interviewing and exchanging correspondence with the amazing Jones in the years before his passing. We talked about many things but his life was filled with so many interesting moments that I never thought to explore the four months he worked at Disney Studios during the mid-1950s.
To make matters even worse when it comes to regrets, during that time at Disney, Jones was teamed up in a room with Disney genius and innovator Ward Kimball and, even though I spent time with Kimball and also did an extensive interview with him, I never asked about his time with Jones because there was so much else to discuss.
Jones worked briefly at the Disney Studios from July 13, 1953, to November 13, 1953.
Fortunately, the respected and pioneering animation historian Michael Barrier (and make sure you visit his always interesting web site for outstanding insights into Disney history), interviewed Jones in 1969 and got this great quote from him about his Disney experience:
“When 3-D came in, we [Warners] made a 3-D cartoon with Bugs Bunny, called Lumberjack Rabbit. That was when Jack Warner made The Wax Museum, and he decided, I guess, that the entire world was going to wind up wearing Polaroid glasses. He decided that the animated-cartoon business was through, since it was too expensive to make three-dimensional animated cartoons, so he laid off everybody. He couldn't lay off a few of us, because we were under contract, but I didn't want to work there if none of my people were there.
“I called up Walt Disney and asked him if I could come over there for a while. He said, ‘Sure, come on over.’ I was there for four months. I worked on Sleeping Beauty and the beginning of the television show. But I couldn't adjust to waiting for Walt ... the Disney people were raised that way, and used to it. You'd finish a sequence, and then you'd wait, maybe for weeks. Five or six men, just sitting around waiting for Walt to come around. When he did come around, he'd already been there the night before when the plant was dark and looked at the boards, and everybody knew he'd seen the sequence, but they still had to show it to him as though he hadn't.
“Eventually, I felt I just couldn't take it any more, so I went in and talked with Walt. He said, ‘Well, what do you want to do? We can work out something for you.’ I said, ‘Well, you have one job here that I want, and that's yours,’ because he was the only one there who could make a decision. He said, ‘I'm sorry, but I'm afraid it's filled.’ So we shook hands and I left. By that time, Warner's had decided to start up again, because 3-D hadn't completely revolutionized the world. That was the only time I left Warner's until they closed it down again in 1962.”
However, I know there is always more to any story and I have been fortunate to find some first person memories of what happened during those four months from others who were at the Disney Studio.
The artistic designer for Sleeping Beauty was painter Eyvind Earle and what he recalled about those months was “Way back when we did Melody [Time] and Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, Walt had let Ward Kimball sort of take over and strive for a new look at Disney. He was put on Sleeping Beauty at the same time I was. I remember he had a special room up on the third floor, and with a newcomer to Disney’s—the famous Chuck Jones, animator, director from some other studio—the two of them [Ward and Chuck] sat upstairs in their private room, and talked and talked and talked, and for many months did absolutely nothing at all. I have never been able to figure it out. I asked Ward Kimball once, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything?’ And Ward Kimball answered me, ‘You don’t know Walt Disney’, whatever that was supposed to mean.”
When these comments were shared years later with Kimball, he responded, “I was just filling in between animation assignments. Walt had said, ‘Why don’t you go up and work on that sequence about the fairies changing colors’ and so forth. I was a fill-in. That happened a lot. I could leave the animation department and go and work on things of that sort, as a story man. All we [Chuck and Ward] did was sit around. I think every time, Eyvind came up there, Joe Rinaldi, he and myself and Chuck Jones would get into these gabfests. Chuck had just discovered one-upmanship, and he ran into his nemesis with Bill Peet, because Bill Peet wouldn’t say much, but he was funny, and he could cut you to the quick. I started enjoying it, because I knew Chuck always wants to dominate the conversation, and Peet would cut his legs out from under him. Maybe that’s one reason he didn’t want to work there.”
As Disney producer Harry Tytle recalled, “Chuck’s brief stint with Disney in 1953 lasted only four months. During this short time, he earned no screen credits and, to the best of my recollection, made no significant contributions. Chuck has joked that the only job he wanted at Disney’s was already filled by Walt. He and Walt were used to the being the biggest fishes in their respective ponds. Chuck was a talented innovator but at Disney’s, as far as Walt was concerned, he was the new kid on the block and had to prove himself. This must have been a new and confusing role for Chuck.”
Fortunately, like Kimball, Tytle kept a detailed journal diary of his time at Disney and thanks to those notations, a much fuller insight exists into the brief Disney experience of the co-creator (with writer Mike Maltese) of the Road Runner and Coyote, Pepe Le Pew and so many other classic Warner characters.
Here are some excerpts from Tytle’s diary and I wish the Kimball family might consider releasing some of the Disney related excerpts from Kimball’s diaries someday:
“June 10, 1953: This morning I was called into Walt’s office. Chuck Jones at Warner Brothers had called Walt applying for a job. Walt asked my opinion of Jones. I said, to the best of my knowledge, he was a very nice fellow personally and considered to be on of the best directors on the outside. That he had done a lot of work for Warner Brothers across the years.
“June 15, 1953: At 9 a.m. we met with Chuck Jones. Chuck explained how he had been working, stating he would like to work here. That he was not under contract anymore and could be available to us in a month, after winding up what he had to do at Warners and taking a vacation. Walt knew what Chuck’s salary was. Peterson had gotten it for him and we had discussed it—so Walt pulled a cutie by saying he didn’t know ‘what your salary is, Chuck, but whatever it is, you must be worth it to Warners, and I will pay you the same.’ Chuck, I believe, expected more because he mentioned something about working under scale. The one thing that I thought Chuck failed in was he made clear to those in the meeting that he dominated his unit, especially story, which is un-Disney. It was felt that Chuck would get a clearance and it is possible that we could pick him up in six weeks, and he is going to work through Hal Adelquist.
“June 23, 1953: Chuck Jones knows he is definitely coming in on the 13th. Although I do not think we should bring it up, he will probably ask about contract and we have no decision or directive as to Walt’s thinking. Incidentally, Chuck was in today and Hal told me he didn’t make out so well in his meeting with Walt. He had a sheet of typewritten suggestions he tried to hold forth, and Walt was not interested. Chuck is going to have to learn to work with Walt. I presume that he feels he was called in for his creative thinking and ability. He will soon have to learn that Walt sets the direction, the pace, and even the topic of conversation. Hal stated that Walt made the remark to him later on that Chuck had a lot to learn.
“September 15, 1953: I heard today, through Hal, that Chuck who was just put on Sleeping Beauty, and had never directed for Disney’s, requests the same salary as the other feature directors. Hal is going to present this demand to Walt this morning. It will be very interesting to see the outcome.
“September 16, 1953: [Walt] got into the Chuck Jones’ deal and asked me if I knew that Chuck has asked for an increase, which he indicated he would have no part of. I told him that I was very interested in what his reaction would be, that I for one, feel as Walt does, Chuck should prove himself here first. Walt got a little upset because I understand he feels maybe this increase was instigated by Ward [Kimball]. He made it clear again that nobody is indispensable, Ward included. It was the organization that counted.
“November 5, 1953: Chuck hit Walt the second time, through Hal, for an increase. Supposedly, he has an offer from Sutherland for $500 and an offer to return to Warner Brothers. Walt’s remarks to Hal were ‘Have Chuck make up his mind as to what he wants to do. There is no increase until we find out Chuck’s ability—he has shown nothing to date’.
“November 5, 1953 (later that day): Hal tells me further that Jones is going to see Walt and if things do not work out he plans to return to Warner Brothers who start up the first of the year.
“November 13, 1953: The Chuck Jones situation came to a head today….The story is that he left for New York this evening, starts work at Warner Brothers again the first of the year at a $40 increase, making the new salary $400. I had heard in the morning that he was telling people that ‘the place here worked at too slow a pace’….”
Despite the fact that his brief tenure at Disney was not satisfying for either himself or Walt Disney, Jones still held the Disney Studios and Walt in the highest regard for the rest of his life. “Disney was not a good animator, he didn't draw well at all, but he was always a great idea man, and a good writer,” Jones remarked .
In a 1975 interview with Greg Ford and Richard Thompason, Jones stated: “Disney’s was to animation what Griffith was to live action. Almost all the tools were discovered at Disney’s. They were the only ones who had the money, and who could and did take the time to experiment.”
It was obviously better for everyone that Jones returned to Warners and created some memorable cartoons in his distinctive style and later formed his own animation studio. At the time Jones was at Disney, Walt was cutting back on the theatrical short cartoons, an area of strength for Jones, and concentrating less on animation and more on the creation of Disneyland.
So once again, I am just sharing an interesting little footnote that usually escapes notice in books and articles because it is so slight in comparison with the other accomplishments of Jones and Disney.