Sunday, April 26, 2015

Daffy Duck in Hollywood: A Mixed Bag of Miscarried Madness

Release date: 12/3/1938 (according to IMDb*; no release date given on BCDb)

DVD-Blu-Ray Availability:
 Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. III (Warners Home Video)

You may view this cartoon HERE.

Avery's third and final cartoon with Daffy Duck is a regressive affair that abandons the formal advances made in his unit's previous three pictures.

Tho' amusing, it operates at a much lower level than Avery & Co. have performed in recent work. Daffy Duck in Hollywood feels more like a 1937 Avery effort, with its barrage of screwball gags, nose-biting and broad comedic strokes.

By this time, Daffy was used by director Robert Clampett in two memorable, anarchic black-and-white shorts, Porky and Daffy and The Daffy Doc. Daffy was ideal for Clampett's tense, explosive brand of comedic film-making. (Black ducks appear in his What Price Porky? but, contrary to popular belief, they are NOT Daffy.)

Such loose-limbed zanies were no longer vital to Avery's sense of comedy. His 1938 cartoons (of which this is the last) bookend with Technicolor Daffy Ducks. The first, Daffy Duck and Egghead, is over-full of crazy-kooky moments--many of them a bit forced. This last Daffy, less frenzied and formless, can be seen as Avery's farewell to the kablooey school of cartoon comedy. A cool has entered Avery's worldview in this year. Playing it deadpan, with cards close to his chest, is now his way of working.

Avery would never make another cartoon like DDiH. That task was left to his many imitators, who continued in this vein through the 1940s. At the dark end of the tunnel is the Screen Gems cartoon Wacky Quacky (1948), which represents the last forlorn outpost of this school of comedy.

This cartoon was restored to breath-taking brightness in the 2000s, and our screen captures will prove much more pleasant going than recent posts.

We iris in on a joke that seemed the shared property of every theatrical cartoon studio:
 No time is wasted getting down to cases:

Irv Spence animates the opening scenes, and he's in fine, controlled form here.
 Bulldog producer reads executive memo...
 Then door flings open.
Typically, in Hollywood-based cartoons, the mischevious character
has a hell of a hard time getting onto the studio lot. Daffy has, to
his credit, avoided time-consuming conflicts with a belligerent
lot policeman. He just appears, like bad news.
 "Say, fella, do ya need a good duck actor?"
 The answer is "NO," delivered a la wastebasket.
Stupendous thinks he's rid of Daffy.
I. M. utters famous last words:
"You know..."
"...that duck's screwy."
That Daffy got through security and intruded his inner
sanctum is beside the point. Suddenly, the phone rings.
"You're correct! You're absolutely correct!"
 [nose tweak with honk SFX]
 Daffy emerges from the phone...
 ...and has a woo-hoo spree in the office.
Stupendous shakes this off... he has employees to hector!
 "Get me director von Hamburger on the wire!"
 The dir-r-r-r-r-rector answers; camera trucks back to reveal he's in the same room. It's unexpected and cleverly achieved.
 Director promises completion of big picture ASAP.
Beret dances on his head with each rolling R.
Rolfe Sedan provides the voice of the director, von Hamburger, according to voice artist expert Keith Scott. It's long been though that the voice was done by character actor Herman Bing, but Scott says it's Sedan.

Sedan's career stretched from the silent era to the ball of dread that is the late 1970s. IMDb credits him with over 300 roles. (They don't include this cartoon, as they have Bing doing the voice).

Sedan's characterization dominates the cartoon, and in a larger dose than the eight minutes here, it would become irritating.

New scene, different animator.
 Director decides next scene is a close-up.
Inquires with his army of sycophants as to this choice.
 "Yes, SIR," they reply in eager unison.
Reversal of expectation is the core of Avery's world. Inside the fancy cigarette case...
 ...are disgusting butt-ends of smokes.
von H delicately selects one.
Sycophants nearly commit arson.
Their efforts prove feeble.
Cigarette case/lighter has Rube Goldberg-ian solution.
Daffy has been off-screen a bit too long. Director's peaceful puffing is in peril.
 And a nose tweak for good measure!
Duck indulges in inside joke.
 "Just givin' my bosses a plug--I've got an option comin' up!"
 Undaunted by this tobacco theft, von Hamburger
consults with his Irv Spence-animated sound man:
 "Okey-dokey, Chiefie!"

We now enter a suite of lowbrow gags best suited
for a "Heckle and Jeckle" cartoon.** These moments
really don't work--they cause the viewer to stop and
question their plausibility, which is cartoon suicide.
 Lighting is now vandalized.
The Inevitable occurs.
 Smart staging--with von Hamburger's moviegoer-esque
silhouette in the foreground--offers a slight salvage.
 Camera becomes lethal weapon.
 Daffy's anarchy wears on von Hamburger.
"Dis issent a gangster-r-r-r pictur-r-r-r-r-e!"
Contrite troublemaker attempts detente.
Daffy calls director "skipper," offers present along
with assurance of no more bad behavior.
All seems forgiven.
 Avery's "it can happen here" motto briefly asserts itself,
with a bonus nose-tweak.
 He immediately ruins the effect by shouting
"It's me again!" and woo-hooing as we fade to black.
Some time later: filming continues in earnest. A
well-achieved truck-in shot, with silhoutetted
figures animated in moving perspective, is more
evidence of Avery's film-making ambition.
The fowl actors indulge in an Avery favorite--
the overblown, self-congratulatory pretense of
live-action feature film-making. As always, a
Katherine Hepburn-meets-Bette Davis voice
for the female actress nails this solemn idiocy.
 Avery inserts his favorite "so sadly happy" line.
This scene marks the beginning of a unique acting
style native to Avery's WB cartoons. Though what
occurs is silly, it's played absolutely straight, with
subtle reactions and movement.
 Mel Blanc-voiced rooster really hams it up.
"Oh... kiss me, my sweet... kiss me..."
Daffy carpe diems.
 Again, he spoils the moment with un-needed
dialogue; returns for second pecking session.
von Hamburger is not pleased. Here is an original cel
from this sequence, paired with the microphone from earlier.
Re-purposed Schlesinger cels were often daffily combined
for sale back in the day.
"It's r-r-r-r-ruined!"
 Director regains decorum; asserts status.
"What time is it, boys?"
[en masse] "12:00, sir!"
Delighted, director orders...
 "tu-r-r-r-rkey... mit all de tr-r-r-r-r-r-rimmings!"
Here's another re-purposed cell from this sequence,
of the pleased chef checking the entree before presentation:
von Hamburger is eager to eat.
Surprise, surprise!
Daffy sneaks in another nose-tweak; departs.
Daffy finds his calling.
 One of the greatest expressions pure joy in the
history of film-making.
 "I'll give 'em a REAL feature!"
Avery studied live-action film-making, and had
a fondness for the over-the-top montage sequences
common to Warner Bros.-First National features.
This sequence is far more delightful than the
film Daffy cobbles together.
Nervous von Hamburger presents Stupendous with
his completed feature. (Things happen mighty fast
in one of these here cartoon pictures!)
 Ah, yes--the old "sliding panel in the side of
exec's desk" routine. Always a winner.
 Daffy's director's cut is in place.
 "R-r-r-run this for-r-r-r us,
 That crucial moment, as the lights dim...
For reasons lost to time, Avery and Co. decided
to use the name of a for-real contemporary WB
feature--Michael Curtiz' Gold is Where You Find It.
The real movie is a decent, standard Warners feature.
Avery's is a crudely re-painted title card:
 What follows is one of the great disappointments
in Avery's career. The concept of anarchic Daffy
splicing together his dada found-footage feature is
great. What we get (which occurs from 5:23 to 7:20)
is tiresome gag footage, most of it black and white,
and it is little more than two minutes of space-filler.
 von Hamburger swells with pride.
 Most of the footage is corny mock-newsreel stuff--
way below Avery's skill-level as either comedian or
film-maker. It brings a so-so cartoon to a miserable halt.
 A few cutaways remind us this is a Warner Brothers cartoon.
 Two minutes seems a small eternity.
Stupendous likes it. In a spirited performance by
Mel Blanc, he proclaims all the positive adjectives in
the English language, and concludes: "And it's good, too!"
 Irv Spence is back.
von Hamburger is kaput.
Iris in: change has occurred.
 Director von Duck has assimilated von H's wardrobe,
ego and accent. He demands a turkey feast for lunch.
DD now has Sedan's sped-up voice.
 His inherited canine yes-men agree.
Clever footage re-use.
Of course, an insane von Hamburger is under that lid.
How else could this cartoon end?
 A nose-tweak of Biblical retribution.
 Woo-hoo, etc., by Mel Blanc as we iris out.

Daffy Duck in Hollywood is a bright, frenzied failure. Full of energy, music and industry in-jokes, it is less clever, inventive and daring than Avery and his unit have been in almost a year. In his previous three cartoons, Avery has found his voice, and pushed his formal experiments further outside his established comfort zone. At their best, the '38 cartoons are incendiary, jarring and revolutionary.

At their worst, they've been racist, corny and retrograde. The last two aspects are seen, to a despairing degree, in Daffy's two-minute "feature." There is so much more Avery could  have done with this concept. The general intention, of course, is to show that Daffy's film is a psychotic mess. To realize that, fully, on 1938 theater screens, would have caused complaints, dissent and medical problems for its mass audience. It wasn't feasible, and might not have been allowed by the front office.

The mini-movie's descent into stale joke-book stuff (which does manipulate stock footage in clever ways) is a bummer. I'm sure many classic cartoon fans will take umbrage at my assessment, but Avery was capable of far better. It seems he thought this stuff was funny; witness his Speaking of Animals series for Paramount, initiated between stints at Schlesinger's and M-G-M. (Thank goodness he moved on from those!)

This same misguided sensibility makes the coming string of topical spot-gag pictures a miserable low in his filmography. At his worst, Avery uses corny humor to torment his viewers. There's no knowing wink--the effect is that of a kid holding a magnifying glass on an ant-hill, watching the smoke appear.

In 1938, Avery came a long way as a film-maker, and as a humorist and a stylist, His animators, aside from Irv Spence, were on the verge of shedding the lumpen '30s cartoon style for something sleeker and more expressive. 1939 will be another year of masterpieces and misfires. Avery continues to take risks, and to learn from his mistakes. That he took risks is admirable, but the resultant efforts are a mightily mixed bag.

*IMDb is as reliable as Wikipedia, but it's the only online source for this release date. Mea culpa.
**I don't mean to disparage ol' H & J--not one bit. Their best cartoons are funny, charming and chaotic. Rocket science they're not, but they're full of vim and personality.

NEXT: The Mice Will Play--a minor musicale. (Ain't we got fun?)


  1. You're right, Frank. I have taken "great umbrage" at your hatchet job on this cartoon classic. I think the newsreel gags are OK, but the fat lady saying "I'm Happy all over, thank you.." always cracks me up. I love the zany, long-billed Daffy that Tex and Bob Clampett used, I find him cosmically funny. ("I'm so crazy, I don't know that this is impossible!") I think you are just too tough on this one, sorry.

  2. I agree with Mark. I don't think the heckling gags are any more misguided than those in Avery's later Screwy Squirrel cartoons, which I'm also fond of. The newsreel footage of the inactive boxing match with Mel Blanc's frenzied accompaniment ("I CAN'T STAND IT!") cracks me up, and Virgil Ross gets a nice piece of character animation in with Daffy giving the director a present. Avery and Clampett could be quite good with cheaters, where the savings on production costs are overt but never at the cost of the entertainment. (See the immortal What's Cookin' Doc? and how it has barely three minutes of new footage.) This isn't Avery's best, but it's still a highly likable entry and solid finish to his primordial Daffy trilogy.

  3. Part of the gag with the live footage is that it's supposed to be disjointed and in essence, not very good, to set up the payoff for I.M.'s hyperbolic favorable reaction. So there was a limit there to how much Avery could gag up the scene.

    But in terms of the craziness of the character, you're right in that Tex began veering away from Daffy after this and into characters where he and the audience could get more into their thought processes (even Screwy's lunatic actions at MGM are set up in a more logical way in that he wants someone to chase him, and even explains some of the gags as we go along. Daffy's just come out of nowhere, which would still be the case in the Clampett unit for another year, until Freleng returns from Metro to at least partially take the character out of the looney bin).

  4. I agree as well...a lot of Daffy's stuff is very funny here in this, his last of his three Avery appearances (but without the first two one of the others would have happened..)

    Sarah Berner is the Hepburn voice.

  5. Box Office Magazine also gives December 3, 1938 as the release date for this cartoon.