A really interesting bit of animation history appeared over at Thad Komorowski’s blog: the infamous “Jones-Avery letter.” It is an open letter written by Chuck Jones (and annotated by Tex Avery) angrily denouncing Clampett’s attempts to “claim” the history of Warner Bros. cartoons. Michael Barrier adds his commentary from an old essay on the letter here; the letter also provides interesting background to this essay by Milton Gray here.
It’s one of the great stories of animation: the three best directors at Warner Bros., and I think arguably the three greatest figures – outside of Disney – of animation’s Golden Age, start as collaborators and finish in their twilight years bickering over their legacy. Jones, in particular, would barely acknowledge Clampett’s existence when he talked about the studio.
One quibble I have with Barrier’s commentary, though, is that he is overly harsh on Jones. While he may well be right that Jones wasn’t a nice person in his later years (certainly he is correct that he was a lousy interview subject), and is right to be annoyed that Jones failed to provide Barrier chapter-and-verse rebuttal of Clampett’s comments before the letter was published, the basic point is that pretty all of Jones’ comments in the letter are spot on. On this point, I agree with Nate Birch’s commentary in the comments on Komorowski’s blog:
Looking at this letter the situation as it went down back then really crystalizes much more clearly and nobody really ends up coming off like a bad guy. Clampett was long removed from Warner’s or directing theatrical cartoons and some guy from a small-time publication comes to interview him, so he decides to show off a little. Maybe pass a few drawings that weren’t his off as his, fudge a few facts. Clampett wasn’t one to take things too seriously and and this was all stuff from a totally different period in his life… I’m sure he thought nobody would really pick up on the interview or care much. Of course he didn’t count on Jones, who was still immersed in the world of animation and tended to take the artform more seriously seeing the interview, and he writes a letter trying to put the real history out there even though it probably wasn’t really necessary (nobody was going to write history books entirely on the word of Bob Clampett). Still, you can understand where Jones was coming from. Tex was asked to comment and tossed off some notes he probably realized were a bit rash and later apologized. Really, much ado about nothing.
I find it pretty easy to understand Jones’ anger at works others (including but not limited to himself) labored on being claimed by Clampett, and in that context the tone of his letter is pretty easy to understand.