Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Daffy Duck and Egghead: One The Hardaway (or, 'Bugs' Bugs Me*)

RELEASE DATE: January 1, 1938 (according to the Big Cartoon Database and IMDb)
DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. III (Warner Brothers DVD 68890)

You can watch this cartoon  HERE. Enjoy!

J. B. Hardaway, known to his colleagues as "Bugs," is a pivotal but problematic figure in classic animation history. He helped nudge Hollywood animation away from bland, nice-guy characters. Perhaps the most appealing studio cartoon character of them all bears his nickname.

Bugs Bunny, in a primitive first draft, was of his hand. He also helped develop Walter Lantz's Woody Woodpecker (for whom he did the voice in the 1940s). As such, he should be considered as great a force as Tex Avery and Bob Clampett in the fight against curdling Disneyfication in later 1930s/early '40s animation.


J. B.  "Bugs" Hardaway
Hardaway wrote, animated and directed for the Lantz, Leon Schlesinger and Columbia studios. Among these efforts are two Warner Brothers cartoons that offer his undiluted vision of the screwball cartoon--Porky's Hare Hunt (released 5 months after this cartoon) and Hare-Um Scare-Um.

Hardaway shared direction credit with Cal Dalton on the latter cartoon, released in the Merrie Melodies series in 1939, but it gives a strong example of his idea of the character that would eventually sophisticate but bear his creator's name. It's worthwhile to watch these two cartoons in conjunction with Daffy Duck and Egghead. What Avery brought to the table as director and comic mind becomes strikingly clear.

Despite his pedigree, Hardaway ultimately did more harm than good for the art form. Hardaway seemed to lack that all-important internal editor. Knowing when to stop is the great gift of Avery, Jones and even Clampett. Pushing an idea to its brink without ruining or overdoing it is, arguably, the genius of the best Warner Brothers cartoons.

Corny, obvious puns from
The Greatest Man in Siam
Hardaway had no such warning signal. Once his humor concepts begin, they power through until they leave, in their wake, gaping wounds that eventually heal (as in the brilliant musical cartoon The Greatest Man in Siam) or metastasize (the Woody Woodpecker cartoon Chew Chew Baby, from 1945). 

His heavy hand nearly ruins the 1940s Lantz cartoons, despite innovative staging and directing by James Culhane. Although I love Culhane's expressive, expressionistic Lantz films, I groan and sigh when Hardaway's belabored, time-killing puns and senseless,
WTF gags from same cartoon
story-destroying sight gags and jokes screw up what could have been near-perfect Hollywood cartoons.

Hardaway's exit from the Leon Schlesinger studio was liberating for their cartoons. The excision of his clodhopper humor and third-rate screwball gags gave the directors and writers a chance to advance their comedic concepts. The Schlesinger cartoons truly become first-rate after 1941, as Hardaway's influence ebbed.

Thus, his credit on Daffy Duck and Egghead is a warning flag. Were this cartoon made by a lesser director, Hardaway might have run rampant with his stale bag of gags. Fred Avery was perhaps the only cartoon film-maker who could turn "Bugs" into an asset.

This film's most important agenda is to solidly install a screwball sensibility into the higher-budgeted Technicolor Merrie Melodies. Avery's black-and-white days are over, and though he still struggles to get the right balance of chaos and class, 1938 will be a very good year for he and his staff.

Compared to films to come, Daffy Duck and Egghead is minor stuff. High-spirited and funny stuff, to be sure, but it's mostly a less plot-driven reheat of Porky's Duck Hunt, the Avery unit's pivotal 1937 film.

I suspect the following character introduction was Hardaway's idea. Of his own volition, Avery would not tend to celebrate the figures who populate his films.
That is some nice Irv Spence animation. As said, such attention to characters is mostly alien to Avery's comedic view. He needed characters, so that his cartoons could have stakes and consequences. They're seldom more than chess pieces to him. This tendency comes to full flower in his M-G-M films.

1938's Avery still attempts to play by the rules. The rules say that cartoons have to have audience-pleasing protagonists. Though mediocre, Egghead has some vague appeal as the easily vexed, none-too-swift Everyman. His bland presence gave the flamboyant, unpredictable Daffy Duck (named in this film) a solid-if-stupid foil.

Following this ceremonial display is Avery boiler-plate--a corny intertitle that spoofs the pomp of live-action movies:
We'll see variations on this theme through the mid-1940s, when he finally got the need for this event out of his system.

He makes up for this Hardaway-worthy fault with a delicate, intricate time transition. Animation couldn't have time-lapse cinematography, so a series of painstaking backgrounds show the gradual change from dawn to morning.
Avery becomes fascinated with time of day, and the change of moods conveyed by different light sources, in his 1938 and 1939 cartoons. This can be seen as the first inkling of that preoccupation.

Mood, schmood--let's get this show on the road.
 Intrepid hunter wonders if any other sportsmen are in the vicinity.
 A reprise of the "Whoa, yeah" gag from Picador Porky confirms
that he is not alone in the universe. 
Quacking! That's our dim hunter's cue to get things rolling...
 Well, almost. Avery's pet gag of 1937-1939 interrupts the non-extant action.
 E-head shushes the silhouetted latecomer, and beckons him to sit down.
 Latecomer jockeys for a better seat. The matter-of-factness in this consequential interplay of cartoon star and assumed real-life filmgoer is still remarkable. It's so downplayed that the viewer wants to take it for granted. The even-tempered presentation is the polar opposite of Hardaway's lurid screwballism.
 E-head further protests this mobile distraction.
 He's sitting down. FINALLY! Now, where was I...
 Son-of-a...
In an Avery first, animated figure kills assumed viewer. Avery and Tashlin's villains had verbally teased and threatened their real-life audience (see Tashlin's Case of the Stuttering Pig for a most flamboyant example). To lay them on the cold, cold ground, without consequence, was quite another thing.
 Latecomer's death throes are hammily protracted.
 Egghead seems pleased--even proud of himself.
Now, what was I d... oh, yeah... about to peer through the bulrushes...
 ...and get my nose bitten.
 "That duck's craaaazy!"
 "You tellin' me?"
Another nose-tweak for good measure. Daffy then breaks into a reprise of
his nutjob water ballet from Porky's Duck Hunt.
That these shenanigans were allowed in a Merrie Melodie is significant. It's possible that such scenes irritated a good portion of the moviegoing audience, yet unaccustomed to such nonsense in color cartoons.
Like Porky, in the prior duck film, Egghead attempts the use of a sure-fire novelty device doomed to failure.
This animator is clearly inspired by the better draftsmanship of Irv Spence. After several scenes of horrible character design, this slightly better rendition is most welcome.
Carl Stallings uses his typical vamp for vamps, "The Lady in Red," with the duck's mechanical quacks right on the music's beat.
Daffy seems pissed off. Adult viewers will assume he attempted sexual congress, and found no, er, outlet for his expression.
Much funnier than the Avery Sign is the decoy's continued quacking. This, too, is a call-back to an amusing moment from Porky's Duck Hunt.
This trifecta of tacit adult gag, Avery Sign and mechanical device failure is a classic Avery moment. This screwball cartoon operates at a higher level of intelligence than we dared expect.
 Or does it? Here comes the not-funny-then, not-funny-now rifle barrel bow-tie bit. Sigh.
Next is a more high-functioning gag Avery will repeat in his first M-G-M cartoon:
 Egghead's nose is a most biteable target.
 Here's the reprise of this gag from The Early Bird Dood It (1942)...
After more spaz-ballet, Daffy delivers a manifesto that might have come from Hardaway:
 "I'm not crazy--I just don't give a darn!"
This sequence smacks of Avery's drawing style. We switch to Irv Spence, who is leagues above Avery as a draftsman, but gets to the heart of the director's energy and urgency.
E-head is appealing in Spence's hands, despite his lack of appeal as an ostensible cartoon leading man.
 E and D have a rousing match of phallic gunplay...
 Daffy works some of that old Ted Healy magic on his alleged hunter.
Following is an out-of-nowhere screwball moment that has Hardaway's touch, albeit filtered through Avery's smarter sensibility:
 Ethnic turtle produces dueling pistols; instructs opponents on proper procedure.
 "Kip yeur nose outta odder pipple's BIDNESS!"
 Self-evident gag finale moves away from Spence's elegance.
The cigar-offering topper seems to be a Hardaway bit.
 E-head is slow to realize the obvious. (That seems to be the entirety of his character.)
 This next sequence represents Hardaway's spastic hayseed vision,
as filtered through Avery's more sophisticated palate.
 Daffy's poses are redolent of the Avery drawing style.
 Avery's influence on the musical scores of his cartoons begins to be deeply felt. Here, a motif from the "William Tell Overture," in reference to the apple-on-head business, raises in key and urgency each time Egghead fails to hit the target. Stalling's music, here, is almost interchanegable with a Scott Bradley score, circa 1946.
 What happens next is pure Hardaway. In lesser hands, this would have: (a) fallen flat (b) seemed tasteless (c) gone on forever [choose one answer]
Hardaway's bumpkin screwballs always require a song sequence, in which they extol their nuttiness and celebrate themselves. Even Avery couldn't stop this inevitable scene.
Irv Spence's animation helps somewhat.
I include these screencaps for the beauty of the Spence figures. This sequence is all that is wrong about Hardaway's comedic sense. To explain lunacy is to stalemate it. That was "Bugs"' MO, and the fatal flaw in his sensibility. In his later, more refined version, the '40s screwball Daffy NEVER addresses his own lunacy. He simply lives in (and with) it.

This Daffy is very aware he's a gadfly, a pest and a willful tormentor. He's less likable for his braggadocio.

In his two peak films with Bob Clampett, Book Revue and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, Daffy is no less screwy than here. But it's a comfortable, lived-in screwiness, and he's in complete command of it. It runs the show; he is not the least bit aware of it.

The same is true of Bugs Bunny, in A Wild Hare and The Heckling Hare. Bugs is more of the Hardaway essence--a willful tormentor who's out for kicks--but he plays it with a general cool. This version is also seen in the Avery/Clampett hybrid Wabbit Twouble.

Hardaway never got anywhere near the sophistication of A Wild Hare. His cornball sensibility was deeply engrained. Subtlety and control weren't easily available to him.
 The coda of Daffy's reflection emerging from the water, and the two shaking hands, is a nice touch, whomever's idea it was.
We fade to black, and fade up on a new scene (which may occur many hours later):
 The matter-of-factness of this gag is its charm. 
 The birth of a gag Avery will use 10 years later, to greater effect:

From Lucky Ducky (1948):
The rifle-as-impotent phallus gag wasn't on Avery's 1938 radar, but the essence of both sequences is the same. Like all comedians, Avery stockpiled gags and motifs, and wasn't afraid to re-use them. As the animated cartoon was considered as disposable as a Depends diaper, in its golden age, its makers had no compunction about rerunning gags that worked once, or that they had rethought.

Back to 1938... where were we again?

E-head has one more novelty hunting item to try out.
A cat-tail serves as a naturally-occurring gun tamp.
 D-did it w-w-work?
 Hallelujah!
Even in 1938, this can't be the ending to an Avery cartoon. The hero's triumph, if any, is checkered at best. Hardaway comes up with a fine finale, to his credit, and Avery plays it just right:
 A siren sounds. An ambulance arrives.
 "Gee! Thanks a lot, chum, for catchin' this goof!"
 "You know... we've been after this guy for months." 
 Asylum guy claims that Daffy is "looney tuney" and "oofty-magoofty."
 Asylum guy "feels sorry" for Daffy, but declares, "he's 100% nuts..."
 Egghead: [incredulous] Yeah?
 Asylum Duck: Yeah. [honks Egghead's nose]
 Daffy revives to join in the betrayal/onslaught, which is genuinely funny.
 Both ducks partake of the woo-hoo water dance.
 Stunned, E-head watches them spaz into the horizon.
 Edgar Kennedy-school exasperation...
 ...leads to loss of sanity. Egghead joins in the wet woo-hoo...
 ...and is a dot on the horizon as we iris out.
Avery keeps Hardaway in check throughout Daffy Duck and Egghead. He wrings a few clever gag set-ups from his writer, downplays the cornier stuff and does the couple of A-grade bits justice. While this is not an innovative or ambitious cartoon (as will be most of Avery's 1938/9 output), it is brash and funny, and walks the fine line between boorish spazzfest and successful screwball comedy.

Hardaway seldom worked with a director who knew how to keep him in line. James Culhane simply gave up, and grudgingly allowed Hardaway and Milt Schaffer to pollute his cartoons with stale puns, dumb ideas and train-wreck finales. He grouses about Hardaway in his indispensable memoir, Talking Animals and Other People. (Culhane grouses about a lot of people and things in that book.)

There are sublime moments in the Culhane/Hardaway/Schaffer Lantz cartoons--Wally Walrus' dismantling of his girlie pic collection in Chew Chew Baby, the characters and dialogue of the two spiders in The Painter and the Pointer and the ping pong ball/hard boiled egg business in The Dippy Diplomat come to mind. Outside of Avery, Hardaway never found a director-collaborator who might smooth out his worst tendencies, while finding a viable outlet for the loonier side of his humor sensibility.

Hardaway soldiered on, the cheerful corn peddler, ignoring narrative logic and character motivation in search of the crazy sight gag, belabored pun, or cumbersome set-up for results that often weren't worth the effort. He is an important figure in Hollywood animation, as said at the start of this essay, but time has not been kind to his work. It probably seemed awkward in its heyday.

"Bugs" Hardaway was a necessary evil in the development of the American animated cartoon in its path away from the Disney method. He will work with Avery again at the Schlesinger studio, in a sequence of cartoons that are the high moments in his filmography.

* Thanks to Devon Baxter for suggesting the alternate title to this essay.

Thanks, also, to Chase Pritchard, for remembering THIS POST on Michael Barrier's great blog about the discovery of cut dialogue for this cartoon. I'd love to hear the contents of this found recording!

PS: This isn't a blog about who-did-what, but an exploration of a brilliant filmmaker's growth in his formative years. That said, cartoon voice authority Keith Scott offers this dense factoid block, for those who need to know the little details. Thanks, Keith!

The radio references in this cartoon should be mentioned...the hunter is an excellent imitation of Joe Penner whose radio show was, at the time of this cartoon's release, a top-rating comedy program. The hunter chorus saying "Ooooooooh yeah" is a catchphrase used on the Ken Murray Show by his stooge "Oswald," and the tortoise referee is a Mel Blanc imitation of Harry Einstein's Greek-accented character Parkyakarkus, heard regularly on the radio shows of big-timers Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. All these audio gags would have got big laughs at the time from the original theatre audiences as topical humor. Also Clampett said that the silhouette is Ted Pierce who performed this action on film for the animators' reference.

PPS: For extra credit, click HERE to hear about five minutes of unedited voice tracks from the recording session for this cartoon. Included are several cut lines of dialogue.

UP NEXT: Cause and Effect 101: The Sneezing Weasel

3 comments:

  1. I excuse the self-aggrandizing musical number here, since "The Merrie-Go-Round Broke Down" at the time was still a relatively new song that Carl Stallng had fallen in love with, and as part of the Merrie Melodies' requirement for some sort of musical number, it may have had to be included in order to get the defiantly non-MM aspects of the rest of he cartoon through the production process. If that's the case, having the Looney Tunes' new signature theme with specialized lyrics as the featured number is a small price to pay.

    There also used to be audio on the Internet of Mel doing some lines by Daffy cut from this cartoon, which I saved, but lost in a computer crash, and which I can't find online anymore. It included a gag on Social Security, with Daffy pleading with Egghead to spare him so he could live long enough to see it. Both aspects would end up elsewhere -- the Social Security jabs coming out of Porky's dog, Streamline, in Tashlin's "Porky's Spring Planting" later in the year, while Hardaway would use the pleading-for-his-life bit in both of his rabbit cartoons.

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  2. And to Keith Scott's commentary I shall further mention that Eggy's voice was done now by Dave Weber aka Danny Webb, though Mel Blanc did the voice in the debut ("Egghead Rides Again") and some later ones like 1939's "A Day at the Zoo".And glad to find out about cut dailogue.

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  3. Good analysis. I can overlook hardaway's faults in this cartoon because I prefer the early crazy daffy and he gets 7 minutes of screen time in this cartoon (and I like egghead more than elmer fudd but I may be the only one who does). For what it's worth, I see the song as a celebration of his craziness, an anthem if you will rather than an explanation or self aggrandizement.

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