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

swashathon-header

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!

220px-The_Scarlet_Pumpernickel_Title

(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).

images

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!)

images (2)

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…

scarlet-pumpernickel

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.)

images (1)

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

1

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.

*

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!

images

Tex Avery’s PORKY’S DUCK HUNT (1937) – An auspicious movie debut for Daffy Duck

download

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

This is where the Tex Avery legend really begins. The cutesy, Disney-like gags and slow, deliberate pacing of the early Warner Bros. cartoons finally start to be shed like an old snakeskin here, besides introducing a character that would last through more than a half-century of his animators’ best permutations.

It begins typically enough, with Everypig Porky preparing for a day of hunting (as Elmer Fudd would start doing three years later, when Tex Avery created Bugs Bunny). Porky tries to reassure his scared hunting dog (improbably named Rin Tin Tin) that his gun isn’t loaded and then accidentally fires it through the ceiling — rankling the pants (and the demeanor) of “the guy from upstairs,” who comes down to punch Porky’s lights out. (The guy is voiced by Billy Bletcher, who voiced the Big Bad Wolf in Disney’s The Three Little Pigs [1933]. Another symbolic passing of the torch?)

On to one of the funniest cartoon duck hunts ever, even after years of variations afterward. Porky takes aim at one high-flying duck, only to be scared into the bushes when a million other local hunters get the same idea and shoot skyward. The duck travels on unassailed, whereupon the sea of hunters all wail, “Aw, shucks!” Another hunter, dramatically cross-eyed, aims at a bird and shoots down two, count ’em, two airplanes instead.

Porky then takes aim at a duck sitting atop a barrel of discarded liquor. He misses the duck but opens the barrel, happily for a hard-drinking group of fish(!), whose drunken rendition of “Moonlight Bay” calls to mind the final scene of Wagnerian Elmer Fudd in What’s Opera, Doc? twenty years later: the image is so majestically funny, you’re not sure whether to laugh at it or embrace its perfection.

Porky finally knocks Daffy Duck out of the sky and sends Rin Tin Tin to fetch him out of the river. By the time they reach shore, though, it’s the dog who’s waterlogged and the duck who throws him ashore. When Porky complains that this moment wasn’t in the shooting script, Daffy reassures him, “Don’t let that worry ya, skipper. I’m just a crazy, darn fool duck!” and hoo-hoos, dances, and skates across the pond, in Looney Tunes’ first throwing down of the gauntlet at Disney’s overly precious style of animation. Daffy does the same routine later, after Porky’s gun jams and Daffy nonchalantly unlodges it for him.

After Porky returns home — sadder, wiser, and duckless — he takes one more shot out his window, at some ducks who are doing a perfect shooting-gallery pantomine up in the sky (another of Avery’s priceless images). Porky succeeds only in putting a second hole in the-guy-from-upstairs’ pants, who comes down and socks him a second time. But that’s too mild of a closing gag. Instead, we’re left with Daffy doing his hoo-hoo routine over, up, and around the closing “That’s All, Folks!” titles, again offering Walt Disney his first serious competition in cartooning.

Even if it hadn’t introduced Daffy Duck to an unsuspecting world, Porky’s Duck Hunt would be memorable enough for its MAD Magazine-type peripheral gags, which make the early Warners cartoons look like the Disney-envious fillers they are. A new force in animation was slowly evolving, without which Cartoon Network might have been mostly Felix the Cat reruns.

THE BUGS BUNNY/ROAD RUNNER MOVIE (1979) – Highlights from Cartoon Heaven

index

This weekend, New York’s Museum of the Moving Image pays tribute to animation raconteur Charles Martin Jones (1912-2002) with the opening of their exhibit “What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones.”

Like a lot of cartoon buffs, I latched onto Jones’ hilarious animated work early on in life, on Saturday mornings, before I even realized how important it was to read movie credits. Later on, I realized that most of the Looney Tunes cartoons I most enjoyed were the ones that sported the credit “Directed by Chuck Jones.”

One of the highlights of my life was during a year-long period when I lived in Los Angeles, and I managed to finagle a telephone interview with Chuck Jones for a small monthly publication. Years later, the interview was immortalized in print, in the book Chuck Jones: Conversations. As nice as it is to have my name in a printed book, I’m still more excited to have interviewed one of my life-long heroes.

How can someone single out Jones’ finest cartoon ever? Too many to choose from! So I’ve copped out and written a review of Jones’ compilation film, The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie.

*

1

Most of the Warner Bros. compilation cartoon features are iffy at best, taking six-minute shorts and trying to pad them to a feature-length storyline. The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie, the first of these efforts, at least presents most of its cartoons in complete form. It also helps that it exclusively features the work of Chuck Jones, arguably the greatest of the Warner Bros. cartoon directors.

For anyone unlucky enough to be unfamiliar with his work, Chuck Jones created the characters The Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, and the amorous skunk Pepe Le Pew. He also took the characters of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to their zeniths in cartoons such as What’s Opera, Doc? (1957, with Bugs and Elmer’s chase taking place in a Wagnerian opera) and Duck Amuck (1953, with Daffy being tortured by an unseen animator). Both cartoons, and many other delightful gems, are featured here, and it’s enough to make you a Jones convert on the spot.

BugsDuck

The fast-forward button will be most handy at the movie’s beginning, when Bugs gives us an unctuous lecture on the history of movie chases. The music of Dean Elliot, a Jones veteran, is mostly nondescript and particularly painful in this feature; after the glorious heights of Carl Stalling’s and Milt Franklyn’s music in the classic shorts, Elliott’s work pales even more in comparison. But when the original cartoons begin, you know you’re in the hands of a comedy master.

If you’ve ever wanted some of Warner Bros.’ best cartoon work on a single DVD, this is as good as it gets.