Saturday, March 1, 2014

Porky's Duck Hunt: Return To Monochrome Inspires Director; Gives Birth to Archetype To End All Cartoon Archetypes

RELEASE DATE:
4/17/1937 (according to the Big Cartoon Database; IMDb concurs)

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
Available on the Warner Home Video DVD THE ESSENTIAL DAFFY DUCK, released in 2011)

This epochal cartoon--as important to the artform as STEAMBOAT WILLIE or ROOTY TOOT TOOT--has, at long last, been lovingly restored and released on legit DVD.

It's the sole "new" attraction of the double-disc, double-dipfest that is The Essential Daffy Duck. Thanks to the wonderful Patrick Malone at The Internet Animation Database (link: http://www.intanibase.com) I have a sumptuous rip of the restored version. You can view this gorgeous, accurate version of Porky's Duck Hunt HERE. Do take nine minutes and watch it before you read further.

It is downright curious that such a crucial cartoon has been so overlooked in the restoration process. This cartoon appeared on one of the Warner VHS collections of the 1980s, and was in dire need of some TLC then. WHV also waited to restore Avery's other seminal game-changer, A Wild Hare (1940) until after the heyday of the scattershot-but-sweet Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVD sets.

In a sense, Porky's Duck Hunt, like Steamboat Willie, has outlived its own effectiveness. Revolutionary upon its release, its gags and attitude were so absorbed into the lifeblood of the American cartoon landscape that it might elicit a "meh" from the casual viewer.

If this cartoon had not appeared when it did, and made the way it was made, American animation might have further suffered the stifling constraints of the Disney way.

Like another Avery masterwork, made a decade later--King-Size Canary--this cartoon's first minute is so low-key and genteel that a new viewer has no idea what to expect--or what's to follow.

Avery and Stalling are in fine form for the film's opening volley of excitable pan-and-truck shots. Each shift of the camera, accompanied by a swaggering rendition of "A-Hunting We Will Go," adds to our knowledge, and builds a coherent scenario without one spoken word.

At the end of this highly controlled pan, a multiplane camera move provides a nice visual surprise. The camera quickly lands upon a self-satisfied consumer.Porky Pig has just dropped a load at his neighborhood sporting goods store...
Satisfied that he looks the part of a duck hunter, Porky brims with enthusiasm, and practices his aim on Rin-Chin-Chin, his napping black dog
Said dog is not amused. His shiver-take resembles something the Fleischer studio might have done in a contemporary Popeye cartoon.
The dog's synchronized blinks, accented by Stalling's score, as he sheepishly peers from the cabinet door, is among the first recognizable moments of the Warner Brothers cartoon sensibility.

The same effect would be used, over and over, to the end of days for the studio. Part of the significance of the WB cartoons is what Stalling brought to the table. In concert with an inspired director, as here, he could create little musical moments that boost the credibility of this comedic universe.

Immediately, another wonderful thing occurs: Mel Blanc speaks the role of Porky Pig. His first words: "D-d-d-d-d-d-don't-don't worry-- it's n-n-n-n-not l-l-l-l-loaded! Watch..."
No one needs to wonder what happens next, but it's fun to see these weird in-betweens of the action:
The next moments, as the reality of what happened dawns on Porky, and he looks up at the ceiling, to confirm his silent fears, are a fine example of how well Avery understood the character of Porky Pig, who visually comes into his own in this cartoon. There's a touch of Stan Laurel to his slow-borne realization--a touch perfectly invested in this Laurel and Hardy-esque bit of interior comedy.
That knock on the door can't be good news. Devon Baxter spotted the hand of Charles M. Jones as animator in the following scene.
The upstairs neighbor's fist precedes him, in a gorgeously timed moment that is, again, perfectly in sync with the Laurel and Hardy universe.
The devil's in the details in Averyland, and the highly noticeable blast mark in the fellow's pants seat is significant.By the time we come back to it, due to all that's happened in between, we've all but forgotten it.

Cut to EXTERIOR: DUCK POND--DAWN. (click to enlarge)
Cue delicate strains of "The William Tell Overture." Audiences of spring, 1937 had no clear sense of what would happen in the next six minutes of this cartoon. There had been several hunting-themed cartoons by 1937, most of them painful things like The Quail Hunt, a 1935 Oswald the Rabbit short.

What the Avery unit did--and how they diverged from a well-trod road--may seem old-hat now. It's been copied, remade, simulated, emulated and mutilated thousands of times, from 1937 to right now. In that golden moment in April, Avery had the element of surprise 100% in his power.

Blanc, as Porky, utters the first instance of a phrase that will empower many more WB cartoons:
 "Shhh... Shhh!"
 "B-b-b-be quiet."
 "B-b-be v-v-v-v-v-very..."
 "v-v-v-v-very... V-V-V-V-VERY... ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca..."
"Qu-quiet."
Suddenly--a heavenly quack from above! Porky and canine pal are, it seems, given a big fat bounty!
Necessary cut-away insert shot of fowl in flight.
Carefully... delicately... pig raises rifle in the eerie pastoral hush...
But he is not alone! 
 
 
Goose is utterly unscathed. 
OTHER HUNTERS (as one): Aw, SHUCKS!

Might as well do at least one goofy hunter joke, while the scene is set. As in Porky The Wrestler, there's a cross-eyed gag, this time wittily scored to "I Only Have Eyes For You:"
 (Duck depicted is not Daffy.)
 Cross-Eyes is horrified by the results of his shooting...
It's one of Avery's outrageous-yet-dark shock gags--a sequence that ends with a haunting image of engulfment and black smoke.
Before that last image can get to us, we cut back to ever-chipper Porky, who puts more of his sporting-goods purchases to proper use.
Look, folks! It's the first glimpse ever of then-nameless Daffy Duck, who vaguely resembles his future self, circa 1939...
Daffy plays the "quack while his back's turned" game with Porky, who takes the bait once too often before that 15-watt lightbulb (that we don't see) appears overhead...
Time for another sporting-goods purchase: the never-fail duck decoy bonnet.
The rusty garbage that litters the pond is a nice touch.
It's surprising how absent Avery's drawing style seems, so far, in this film. Great pains have been taken to redesign Porky Pig, and this design would essentially continue through the 1930s, with gradual refinements (including a more svelte stomach size).

Suddenly, we're given a few bracing frames full of Avery's trademark look...
...including an accomplished early full-body take. The drawings here, as in some Avery cartoons prior, look like they'd be at home in a 1929 Ub Iwerks-directed Disney short.
Rifle fails. Big surprise.
'Zat all you got, chuckles?
 'Cos I'm outta here!
Self-satisfied, priceless "ain't-I-a-stinker?" glance to the audience...
Some extremely crude (and badly inked) effects animation follows, as a narrative-convenient barrel of hooch is released into the mellow pond water...
 How will this affect the eco-system?
Fish emerge soused to the gills...
And, to the tune of "When My Dreamboat Comes Home," they grab a rowboat (and a banjo) and sing!
We're treated to a lovely brief bit of "On Moonlight Bay," expertly punctuated with drunken hiccups, and flourished with a bit of into-the-lens distortion that previously occurred in Avery's Picador Porky.
The blotto bass bid us a too-soon adieu with a genuinely graceful piece of film-making--a pan shot that fades into darkness, then dissolves up to the next scene. We still have no damned idea what this cartoon is about--but that scarcely matters!
Ticked off from his earlier embarrassments, Porky is determined to get his duck. Not, alas, before uttering a crappy joke that smacks of Ben Hardaway's hayseed humor. Throughout his cartoons, Avery often follows a sublime moment with one so stupid that the effort seems intentional.
I shan't dignify the bad joke by repeating it here. 
Oh, joy! Another quack! Pig springs into action...
 Bulrushes are gently peeled back...
and Daffy's first nose-bite occurs!
Porky seems to regret being alive.
In righteous anger, he reaches for rifle...
 It's a hit!
Finally! All that money spent on guns, decoys and clothes was not in vain!
 Porky bids Rin-Chin-Chin to g-g-g-go g-g-get th-th-the d-d-d-d-duck.
 Another standard switcheroo gag makes its possible cartoon debut in scene that follows.
Avery's drawing style seems to manifest itself  most strongly in this first Daffy Duck. The art deco-ish contours of the character, and its poses and attitude, smack of his hand.
Avery now gives us his most overt fourth-wall breaker to date:
"Hey! Th-th-a-th-th-a-that w-w-w-w-wasn't in th-a-th-a-the s-s-sc-s-sc-script!"

We're not given a moment to digest this revolutionary action. Daffy replies with an early manifesto of his character-type...
"Oh, don't let it worry you, skipper... I'm just a crazy darn fool duck!"

Bob Clampett proudly claimed the animation of the following scene--a triumphant moment in the American animated cartoon, one that defecated all over the Disney ideal, and gave audiences something they'd never seen before... 
Again, we have no time to reflect upon what just occurred. Avery reaches into his recent past for a gag from the finale of Porky the Rainmaker. Cartoon Physics Note: When needed, a visible narrator or guide can magically float on water, the better to carry, hold and display a completely redundant sign.
We get the picture... electric. Cut down-pond to Daffy, who displays some fine animated acting as he anticipates, scopes out and devours his prey. This is the most like a duck that Daffy ever is.
 Duck is pleased with self; swims away to digest wriggly luncheon. But...
 Love these way-out distortions!
 Daffy is scared sh!tless at this shocking development.
 His dilemma dissolves into Porky's next moment o' frustration.
Note the sandwiches. Porky displays a gluttonous side not seen since The Blow-Out, one year and many films earlier:
Rifle is abandoned, and lunchtime is declared! But...
 This bait-and-switch happens twice. Porky reaches for his rifle, wrong-side-up, and destroys his rowboat (and sandwiches).
Insult to injury is surreally applied re an underwater visit from popular Depression-era comedian Joe Penner. Penner was the Pee-wee Herman of his day, and his loopy humor may have inspired the foundation for the Avery Screwball Type.
 Animated-Penner utters his zany catch-phrase: "You wanna buy a duck?"
Porky does not.
Here's a photo of Penner, in a 1934 Paramount musical.
The Serbian-born comedic anarchist died in 1941, but was hot stuff for a few years. HERE's a Wikipedia article, errors and all, on Joe Penner's life and career, if you're so inclined.

No? Well, let's move on...

Rin-Chin-Chin, with that now-familiar WTF expression, urges Porky to return to dry land.
Porky wasn't wearing the fake-duck-head hat in the previous scene, so perhaps sequences were shuffled at the last minute. There will be another, more jarring, continuity error shortly.
Daffy's within easy reach! It's the perfect moment for rifle failure. Porky ought have bought the next-most-expensive model.
Daffy is delighted, and swims to shore to "help."
Porky gives the gun to Daffy, who, in another soon-to-become-stale-business gag, finds that it works just fine for him.
Great Avery poses abound in this sequence. No one else could have drawn those perfect blasé expressions on the duck's face.
"It's me again," Daffy says in a yokel voice similar to the ur-Bugs Bunny in Chuck Jones' 1940 cartoon Elmer's Candid Camera. Duck then reprises his signature spazz-exit for our viewing pleasure.
Bob Clampett clearly enjoyed animating these free-for-all scenes, and it shows.
Porky tries one last time for the ungettable Daffy. As a result, he echoes the eerie airplane gag, earlier in this cartoon, as the force of his defective rifle drives him, body and soul, into the boggy marshland. 
 Quacking beckons Porky from his sort-of grave.
Flying in perfect V formation!
None of Porky's hunting tools have worked at all... so why not try another?
 How could a duck call possibly malfunction?
 It looks worse than a live-action gangland massacre.
 Those gaping holes blown into the landscape... brr!
 Porky realizes that duck hunting, his life, and any attempt to better himself all suck.
 @#%^(!&@#} duck call...
Down Rin-Chin-Chin's gullet it goes...
...in a bit that eerily presages the climax of one of Avery's greatest MGM cartoons, 1949's Bad Luck Blackie. Dog hiccups, emits duck call, and unseen hunters blast at him. 
 Handkerchief-tied-to-stick flag of surrender is attempted.
The unseen hunters are blood-crazed. The shooting begins in earnest. Dog and pig flee with their lives barely intact. They make more of those awful holes in the background.
The miserable trek home is made worse by Rin-Chin-Chin's hiccup/quack emissions. 
Porky's scowl suggests the countenance of Oliver Hardy.

At least there's still a home to go to...

Just when Porky sinks into self-loathing...
 Quacks! Lots of quacks!
 The ducks are complete jerks, and in one of the funniest moments in the Avery catalog, they acrobatically taunt Porky en masse.
 The f***ing rifle doesn't work--again!
 Utterly disgusted, Porky throws the firearm away...
 ...natch, it discharges into the ceiling once again...
and, in a strange gaffe of continuity, Porky's home becomes Escher-esque.
 The sun was just seen shining through windows in the wall. Now, those windows are gone, and a darkened interior staircase appears where open skies and fresh air were, moments ago.
Note the two ass-blasts. Iris out on a classic call-back.
But we're not done! As if to etch this cartoon into the 1937 gestalt, Daffy returns, to ooze, cavort and attempt sexual congress with the Looney Tunes end title card.
Nearly every moment of Porky's Duck Hunt was quickly assimilated into the lifeblood of Hollywood animation. Not every moment was unprecedented--most of the gags were re-treads of what had gone before.

What matters here is the attitude and the execution of the material. Porky's Duck Hunt is a straightforward, clear-eyed mission statement by the Fred Avery unit that cartoons are going to be cartoons once again. The hell with attempted realism. By 1937, many had already tried to go the Disney route--and failed.

With Porky's Duck Hunt, what we recognize as the essential Warner Brothers cartoons sensibility emerges from the hesitant steps and clumsy attempts of the previous two years. All the key players are starting to click. Carl Stalling's witty, stylish musical score, Mel Blanc's distinctive voice work and the solid, assured direction and gag-making of Avery and his staff coalesce remarkably. 

Never again would the WB cartoons be mistaken for anyone else's. Avery would throw down many formal gauntlets in his theatrical animation career, but none of them quite shook the earth like Porky's Duck Hunt. Rival studios were imitating the cartoon before the prints had scratches on them. The fabric of the short cartoon was permanently affected by what happened in this film's eight and a half minutes.

As with the Disney copyists, those who tried to emulate Avery's work seldom came anywhere close--in overall effect, if not in spirit. If this cartoon seems overly familiar, as said earlier, it's because it was so thoroughly copied and dissected by every other animation studio (Disney included)--and by Avery's peers at the Leon Schlesinger studio.

Frank Tashlin, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones would (in that order) get hep to the jive in their own directorial efforts. By the time Avery left Warner Brothers in 1941, all its units were operating at approximately the strength of this 1937 cartoon. (Jones, arguably, wouldn't begin to create truly funny cartoons until 1942.)

Avery is on the verge of one of his richest periods as a humorist, filmmaker and cartoonist. His tendency to follow superb efforts with so-so ones will be explored in our next Technicolor blog post.

NEXT: Retrograde musical "fun" -- ain't we got it?