The duck that turned greed, envy and shameless self-promotion into an art form
by Gordon Campbell
These days, Daffy Duck seems to be a less dated character than the other big stars in the Warner Brothers cartoon stable. Sure, its possible to still like Bugs Bunny and his wise-guy sense of style, and Sylvester the Cat and Wile E. Coyote are still pretty wonderful at times. Yet it is Daffy, with his deep sense of insecurity and his neurotic feats of over-compensation, who still strikes a modern chord. ”Fearful that he counts for nothing,” one American writer concluded, “Daffy has to prove he is capable of anything.” Time and again, his passion is his undoing.
By general consent, Daffy Duck’s finest moment – and one of the high points in screen animation, full stop – came with the great 1951 cartoon short Duck Amuck, by Chuck Jones. Here, the duck’s burning need for validation takes on cosmic, almost theological dimensions.
This time around, Daffy is not being driven by his usual inner demons (greed, envy, blatant self-promotion etc.) but by a god-like animator who keeps on changing the scenery, re-fashioning Daffy’s body and even fiddling with the frames of the film itself. The baffled duck is reduced to desperate pleading and rationalization (“It isn’t as if I haven’t lived up to my contract goodness knows, and it isn’t as if I haven’t kept myself in trim, goodness knows…”) Finally, Daffy asks for an explanation for this random and hostile universe, and orders the Creator to reveal his identity : “Who is responsible for this – I demand that you show yourself !” At which point the camera draws back to reveal that the sadist orchestrating all of these torments has been none other than Daffy’s nemesis, Bugs.
Down the years, the duck has touched a soft spot in many. Reportedly, he was the character that almost all the Warners animators preferred to be working on. “Daffy expresses all the things that we’re afraid to express,” the Warners cartoon master Chuck Jones once said. ”I’m probably closer to Daffy than to anyone. He was one of the great comedians, and I was lucky to be associated with him.”
In the finest showbiz tradition, Daffy started out in a bit part, grabbed the spotlight and came home a star. He made his debut in 1937 as an anonymous, hyperactive duck in the Porky Pig short Porky’s Duck Hunt, directed by the maverick genius, Tex Avery.
(Oddly enough, Bugs Bunny also made his cartoon debut un-named exactly one year later, in another Avery short called Porky’s Hare Hunt, before coming into his own in The Wild Hare in 1940.) Even before Daffy was officially named, the little black quacker had stolen the show (“Don’t let it worry you skipper, I’m just a crazy dangfool duck!”). The cartoon itself was otherwise just an undistinguished series of pratfalls involving Porky, who was to become the duck’s regular straight man for the next few years. From the outset, Avery knew he was onto something – that this hooting, unhinged and over-adrenalised creature could be the perfect vehicle for all sorts of random cartoon excess.
Too bad that a good deal of our subsequent knowledge of the birth and evolution of Daffy Duck and other Warner stars has been filtered through two central – and mutually hostile – sources, the directors Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones, who came to dislike each other intensely. The Clampett version is available here in this long 1970 interview with the historian Michael Barrier. An even earlier, fascinating Jones interview is here, also courtesy of Barrier’s website. Both men seem to have evolved into titanic egos with a keen interest in re-writing history in their own image, and Barrier tries to arbitrate as best he can in this piece:
For all the name-calling, bitchiness and backbiting, the Clampett vs Jones feud has a fascinating, almost cartoonish quality in its own right. (It was like this ! No, outa my way you knucklehead, it was like this! )
What we do know is that eventually, every single director who got his hands on Daffy – and the list included Avery, Clampett, Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson and Jones – interpreted his lunacy in their own distinctive ways. Clampett for instance, made Daffy into a master of unbridled physical comedy. To that end, as Steve Schneider pointed out in his excellent book That’s All Folks! Daffy was made skinnier, taller, and cross-eyed by the Warner artists – all the better to equip him for the screwball sight gags and elastic body variations dreamed up by Clampett and his writers. This fantastic excerpt from the 1945 cartoon Book Revue features a barrage of visual and verbal jokes (eg ”How different is my native willage ! Soft music, wiolins ; the happy peoples sitting on their balalaikas, playing their samowahrs…!”) all delivered at beyond warp speed.
As Schneider adds though, Daffy’s screwball ways were going out of fashion by the mid to late 1940s. For the next few years, Daffy was drawn as a rounder, more substantial character – even at times, as quite a handsome fellow. Instead of just being physically manic, he had begun to exhibit a driven intellectual and emotional side to his personality as well. “Daffy was still a child,” Schneider explains, “but now he was a brilliant child – crazy and crazily articulate at the same time, flapping his mouth where before he had flapped his wings. Daffy was still daffy, but he had learned to harness his nuttiness, with a mental agility that matched his physical agility.”
Friz Freleng has started down this road with Yankee Doodle Daffy in 1943, in a cartoon that combines Clampett’s flair for brilliant physical comedy with Daffy’s new mental dexterity and motor-mouth tendencies. In this cartoon,
Daffy the showbiz agent is trying to buttonhole a reluctant theatre manager (Porky Pig) who really just wants to leave the office and go play some golf. The joke here – besides the parody of Carmen Miranda – is that Daffy is the genuine talent, and not his dimwitted client.
The final transformation of Daffy Duck into the compulsive, tormented being we know today occurred at the hands of Chuck Jones. In many respects, Daffy came to resemble Jones’ other major creation, Wile E. Coyote. During this period, the duck came to look as if his inner demons had burned through his physical shape, leaving him frazzled, sharp angled, and edgy. He’d changed. The same Daffy Duck who had started out as a dizzily uninhibited winner – hitting Porky Pig with a mallet and yoo -hooing with delight etc etc– had now become, in Jones’ hands, a driven, compulsive loser undone by his own desires and longings.
Inevitable, in a way. As Schneider says, a character as undisciplined as Clampett’s Daffy would have been unthinkable for a rationalist like Jones. Inside the Jones duck, Daffy’s volatile instincts came to be in uneasy conflict with his mind. While Jones took the duck’s physical energy as a given, he added a raft of personality traits such as greed, envy, malice, and an overweening desire for acceptance. Dread and desire became perpetually at war within him. The result was a character as complex and vibrant as anything that Warners – or Tex Avery, who had moved on to do brilliant work for MGM – ever produced.
By the mid 1950s, Daffy Duck had become a sort of juvenile delinquent In Schneider’s opinion at least, he was a rebel, a social outcast. “Like other such 1950s antiheroes as Brando and Dean, Daffy is an outsider who both struggles to enter the mainstream and resists it, but who earns our sympathy for his conflicted ordeal. In particular, Jones made Daffy into what he called a ‘self preservationist’ fighting furiously to preserve his skin or his dignity against a world that would rob him of them.” Failure was a boomerang a launched by Daffy’s own doomed determination to excel and to conform. (Think Christopher Hitchens, but without the booze.) Time and again, the duck’s pursuit of self-interest ended in disaster. Again, you can see the similarity to Jones’ other great tragi-comic go-getter, Wile E. Coyote.
I’ve chosen a few examples, as illustration. In this excerpt from 1952’s Rabbit Seasoning, most of Daffy’s problems arise from his shaky command of pronouns.
As an aside : can you imagine anyone working in big budget animation today like the ghastly Skrek, who would dare to suggest that pronoun error might be a rich source of comedy? No way. In Ali Baba Bunny, Daffy’s greed for the hidden treasure survives multiple setbacks, including being chased by a giant, sword-wielding guard (“Hassan Chop!”) and being shrunk by an offended genie
Mindful of the recent efforts of Russell Crowe in Sherwood Forest, I’ve also included the 1958 Robin Hood Daffy parody, where the duck’s delusions of heroism and dexterity get their comeuppance, and he finally gives it all away and joins a monastery.
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As I said before, I think it is this gap between his delusions and reality – not to mention his rage, when failure comes tapping him on the shoulder – that makes Daffy Duck seem like an entirely modern character. Bugs Bunny’s casual courage under fire, by way of contrast, just as clearly belongs to the 1940s, when the rabbit became a national icon. In fact, Bob Clampett says (in Barrier’s interview) that Bugs Bunny came to play a major role in the US war effort :
“Just as America whistled the tune from Disney’s “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” in the dark days of the Depression…so, Bugs Bunny was a symbol of America’s resistance to Hitler and the fascist powers. In both instances, we were in a battle for our lives, and it is most difficult now to comprehend the tremendous emotional impact that Bugs exerted on the audience back then… Psychologists found that the public subconsciously identified the stupid little man with the gun and his counterparts with Hitler, and strongly identified the rabbit—unarmed except for his wits and will to win—with themselves.”
That was a different time, different mood. Just as neatly, I think the image from Ali Baba Bunny of Daffy staking claim to his stolen gold (“Its mine, you understand ! Mine ! All mine!… I’m rich ! I’m wealthy! I’m comfortably well off !”) captures the anxious greed of the modern market economy pretty well. Although far more transparent in his actions and desires, Daffy Duck has a lot in common with the boys in banking who brought on the economic recession – like them, he is driven by avarice, self indulgence and an underlying terror that it could all be snatched away at any moment.
Suffering succotash, though…in the 480 page semi-official history of Warner Brothers by Richard Schickel, only two pages were devoted to the animation department at Warners, with most of it being devoted to Mel Blanc, the voice behind the main characters. A grand total of two paragraphs were devoted to the Warners artists. As Daffy would say, “That’s dethpicable !”.
For no good reason at all – other than to give those same artists the very last word – I’ll end with the other Chuck Jones masterpiece, the 1955 cartoon, One Froggy Evening.
If you’ve never seen if before, you’re in for a treat.
For this essay, Gordon Campbell is deeply grateful to ‘That’s All Folks – The Art of Warner Bros Animation’ by Steve Schneider, and also recommends the wealth of cartoon material on the Michael Barrier.Com website.