Daffy Duck in THE SCARLET PUMPERNICKEL (1950) – In like Flynn

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The following is my second of two entries in the Swashathon!, being hosted by the blog Movies Silently from Nov. 7-9, 2015. Click on the above banner, and read blog entries about a wide variety of swashbuckling adventures throughout the history of movies!

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound)

Legendary Warner Bros. cartoon director Chuck Jones said that Bugs Bunny is who he wished he could be, but Daffy Duck was more like he really was. The Scarlet Pumpernickel (an obvious play on the original hero-with-a-secret-identity, The Scarlet Pimpernel) is Daffy doing his heroic best — not quite making the grade, but soldiering on nevertheless. The schlump-in-a-hero-costume bit worked so well that Jones let Daffy similarly demolish other genres in the hysterical cartoons Drip-Along Daffy (Western, 1951) and Duck Dodgers in the 24th-1/2 Century (science fiction, 1953).

The story begins with a long tracking shot through a movie lot (presumably Warner Bros.). We hear both the strains of the song “Hooray for Hollywood” and the voice of someone shrieking about being murdered. The camera finally settles on Daffy, complaining to his studio boss “J.L.” (an obvious potshot at WB boss Jack L. Warner, whom Jones claims never realized he was being satirized in the cartoon).

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Daffy loudly gripes about being typecast in nutty comedies and begs J.L. for a dramatic role. Before J.L. can stammer out a refusal, Daffy hauls out a self-written script (nearly as tall as he is) and begins proudly reading “The Scarlet Pumpernickel, by Daffy Dumas Duck.” Daffy intones, “‘Chapter 1, Once upon a time’ – Great opening, huh?” (Yes, for a book!)

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From there, the cartoon segues into the story proper (if that’s the word for it) about the titular hero, a crafty British highwayman whose deftness defies any threat of capture by the gang of the Lord High Chamberlain (Porky Pig!). The Lord plots to marry off his daughter, the fair maiden Melissa, to the evil Grand Duke (Sylvester the Cat), in order to draw out The Scarlet Pumpernickel, and then…

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Well, you can pretty well figure out where the plot is going from here. What you’re probably asking yourself is, how did Porky Pig and Sylvester come to be threatening figures in a macho swashbuckler? The answer is that Chuck Jones decided that if he was going to make an all-out epic, he ought to use every character he could from the Looney Tunes repertory company. (The all-star cast, above, clockwise from left: Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester, Daffy, Henery Hawk, Mama Bear from Jones’ Three Bears “trilogy,” and the fair maiden Melissa.)

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I hate to even give away the rest of the delicious (parody-)plot. Suffice to say, Jones and his story writer Michael Maltese have great fun with the swashbuckling genre in general. The cartoon is filled with lovely, mock-dramatic high-angle and shadowy shots, outright references to Errol Flynn (although Flynn played Robin Hood, not the Pimpernel) and, in at least one case, a direct “quote” from one of the Zorro movies.

My only warning about this otherwise wonderful cartoon is that it has quite the unhappy ending. I mean, for crying out loud, it’s definitely the only swashbuckler movie that has the nerve to end with its village-setting suffering from a recession!

(Sadly, I cannot get the cartoon to post on my blog, but you can click here to view it for free online. Also, if you’ve enjoyed this entry, please click here to read my first Swashathon! entry about Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in The Mark of Zorro.)

Happy Father’s Day from Chuck Jones

Happy Father’s Day! Director Chuck Jones said that this gem of a cartoon was inspired by his young daughter Linda’s well-intended but disastrous efforts to fix him a nice breakfast on Father’s Day. The cartoon’s uncredited but priceless voicework is provided by Billy Bletcher (Papa Bear), Bea Benaderet (Mama Bear), and Stan Freberg (Junyer Bear).

When my children were young and more easily intimidated, I used to make them watch this cartoon with me every Father’s Day. If the ending doesn’t make you bust a gut laughing, see your doctor.

A Bear For Punishment (1951) with original titles recreation from Mihai Chetreanu on Vimeo.

My interview with cartoon director Chuck Jones – February, 1988

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It’s amazing, what you can get in life if you only ask.

I had admired the work of Chuck Jones (creator of The Road Runner and Pepe LePew) ever since I became one of those movie nerds who read credits. The interview below was obtained after only a couple of calls to the office of Jones’ daughter Linda (who was handling her father’s cartoon work at the time). I freely admit that the interview didn’t set the animation world on fire, but it was certainly one of the highlights of my life.

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Steve Bailey: So how does it feel to have influenced an entire generation of filmmakers?

Chuck Jones: Well, I don’t like to look at it that way. If you start to take yourself very seriously, you don’t go very far. When one of my colleagues was given an Academy Award, he said, “What do I do now? I’ve earned the highest honor possible. There’s nowhere else to go.” And you have to think, Well, it’s just an award!

SB: But certainly you’re aware of your influence, when you can go to a record store and buy a Leon Redbone album with your drawing on the cover, or you see a Mel Brooks movie [Spaceballs] where an alien sings the same song your frog sang [in Jones’ 1955 cartoon One Froggy Evening].

CJ: I’d say I did a lot of good cartoons that were enjoyed by a lot of people, and someone else pegged me as an “artist.” We certainly didn’t regard ourselves as artists when we were doing them — we were making films that we thought would last maybe two or three years. We didn’t know what the audience wanted. And it probably still doesn’t know what it wants — this business of testing and marketing is pretty silly. We made the pictures for theaters, and for ourselves.

SB: Well, then, let’s say your cartoons had an impact on people. Were you aware of an impact when you were making them?

CJ: Oh, no. In fact, when UPA [creators of Mr. Magoo] first came about, their P.R. man decided they needed an enemy, so he said, “Our enemy is Disney. We’re doing ‘modern’ animation, and we’re against fuzzy animals.” Well, we never did fuzzy animals to begin with — you can hardly draw them. But people were impressed with UPA, and so all the local schools hired people from UPA. They never bothered with us. We were recognized in Europe long before we were in the United States, and I think the Californians were the last to notice.

SB: What’s the most surprising response you ever received to your work?

CJ: To be asked to lecture at Oxford is pretty startling. But then again, they’re all pretty startling. I don’t know how many languages we’ve been translating into. I saw a comic strip of the Coyote once in Copenhagen. It was a printed comic where the Coyote is falling, and as he fell off the cliff, he was saying in big letters, “HJELP!” I said, “What do you know? We can write in Danish!”

SB: What does an animation director do?

CJ: It depends on where he works — a director at Warners didn’t work the same way as at M-G-M. At Warner Bros., you’d work with a writer, though you’d find that you’d have to be about half of your own story department. Most of the writers at Warners didn’t draw very well, and really, I didn’t want them to — I wanted them for storylines and gags.

After we finished the story — and of course it wasn’t really finished, just like a director isn’t finished just because he has a script — then I’d take the storyboard into my room. And I’d ask Maurice Noble [Jones’ layout artist at Warners] to do “inspirational” sketches to see what worked visually. I’d do three or four hundred drawings myself, out of a cartoon with maybe four thousand drawings, and then I’d write the dialogue. Then I’d call in Mel Blanc [legendary voice artist for most of Warners’ cartoon characters] and direct him with the dialogue.

Then I’d time it before it went to animation. This is the part that amazes directors like Steven Spielberg. They can’t see how we’d do it. We’d time it in our heads so that it would come out pretty close to 540 feet, the average length of a six-minute cartoon. We had to time it ourselves, because we didn’t have the luxury of shooting it and then not using it, as was done at Disney. The director makes all the decisions.

SB: Is the humor in your cartoons based on your triumphs and failures?

CJ: Totally. Where else can you go for inspiration? You act on what you know. I’d like to think I’m Bugs Bunny or Pepe LePew, but in my heart I know I’m more like Daffy Duck or the Coyote. Or take the Grinch [from Jones’ 1966 TV special based on Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas]. Everyone hates Christmas a little. Someone who hates Christmas a lot is a real character find!

SB: What amused or influenced you when you were growing up?

CJ: Mostly reading — anything. My father always said, “If you read, you’ll get in the habit.” If you read The Bobbsey Twins, you’ll probably throw up. But in doing so, you’ll discover what is good. Beatrix Potter, on the other hand, is wonderful and can be read by children and adults, and that’s the key. If you try to write just for children, you’ll talk down to them, and I don’t think that’s the way to go.

SB: What sort of comedy do you find funny?

CJ: I loved Chaplin and Keaton. We didn’t consciously copy them, but a lot of it got in there, I guess. City Lights and Modern Times are two of my all-time favorite comedies, but then Chaplin started regarding himself as an artist and trying to be profound. I’m not even sure The Great Dictator is good social commentary, much less comedy. Woody Allen was wonderful until he tried to become Ingmar Bergman, and that’s a pity, because there aren’t enough talented comics around.

SB: There seems to be a resurgence of high-quality animation in the past few years. Do you think animation will ever return to the level it was when you were working at Warner Bros.?

CJ: Well, it’s possible — there are some great things going on. You have guys like Ralph Bakshi [Fritz the Cat] and Don Bluth [Anastasia] doing some wonderful things. I may not like a guy’s particular style, but if he likes animators, I’ll follow him to the end. I liked The Duxorcist [Daffy Duck’s 1987 “comeback” cartoon], but it was rather imitative of the old style. You have to find something new.

SB: Your work seems to reflect your philosophies. Do you subscribe to any particular religion or philosophy?

CJ: Oh, no. As the man once said, I have some suppositions but no facts. I prefer to live with the questions.

SB: If you had a choice, would you do anything differently?

CJ: No, not at all. You know, I don’t get residuals from my movies or videocassettes of my work, but it’s silly to complain about not making money from it. All those years, somebody paid me for what I wanted to do!

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BULLY FOR BUGS (1953) – Bugs Bunny vs. a lot of bull

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For the existence of one of the funniest cartoons ever made, we owe a debt of gratitude to one of the most humorless men in cartoon history.

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Edward Selzer was the uncredited producer of late-era Warner Bros. cartoons. Chuck Jones was not wild about the man, especially when Selzer graciously accepted the Academy Award for For Scent-imental Reasons (1948), the first Pepe LePew cartoon, which Selzer adamantly assured Jones would be a bomb.

One day at Termite Terrace, Jones was killing time drawing a caricature of a bull. Selzer walked by, saw Jones doodling, and told Jones that bullfights aren’t funny. (Selzer should have told that to the Fleischer Brothers, who used that very premise for their Popeye cartoon Bulldozing the Bull 14 years earlier.)

Jones quickly decided that if Selzer found bulls unfunny, there must be a gold mine of humor in them.

By that time in his career, Jones had already decided that Bugs Bunny was funnier when he was psychologically motivated, rather than being Groucho Marx-crazy from the get-go. So once the bull gave Bugs a reason to declare, “Of course ya know, this means war!”, then the cartoon was off to the races.

And as Joe Adamson pointed out in his marvelous 1990 book on Bugs Bunny, Bugs suffers nearly as many defeats as the bull in this cartoon. That only makes the cartoon’s finale — achingly beautifully animated (and scored, by the great Carl Stalling) — that much more delicious.

I’ve tried to “embed” the cartoon on this blog but am unable to do so. So I ask that you click on the following link to enjoy this cartoon gem:  https://archive.org/details/BullyForBugs