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.)

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

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(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.