Thursday, 15 September 2016

Sour Persimmons

This is a still from "Duck Amok" "Duck Amuck". I wasn't sure if Jason had actually seen it - his writing partner Joel tells me the only film he's ever seen is the big screen outing of "Please, Sir!" - but he had seen it. Of course he had. Made in 1953, it's a hard cartoon to overpraise. All of its jokes are either visual or sound-effects-based but, to prove how great it is, I'm going to post just the dialogue below, and even without Mel Blanc's extraordinary performance or Chuck Jones' extraordinary drawing I think you can still tell that here is an absolutely fully-formed, three-dimensional character speaking with a rhythm that can only be captured when you write fully-formed, three-dimensional characters. Story by Mike Maltese, directed by Charles M. Jones (in other words I don't know who actually wrote this) here's "Duck Amok" "Duck Amuck" the dramatic monologue:

Stand back, Musketeers, they shall sample my blade! Touche! Ng, ng! Ng! Ng!
En garde? My blade?
Hey, psst! Whoever's in charge here: The scenery! Where's the scenery?
Stand back, Musketeers, they shall sample... my...
Hng! Okay. Have it your way:
Daffy Duck he had a farm, ee-yi ee-yi-oh.
And on this farm he had an igloo, ee... yi
... eee... yi... Oh. Would it be too much to ask if we could make up our minds?
Dashing through the snow, ya-ha-ha-ha! Through the fields we go, laughing all the wayeee-ee... Eee....
Farewell to thee! Farewell to thee! The wind will carry back our sad refrai-hey-hey-he-hey-ain. Our last embrace, before we say...
Hm. Sheesh. Buster, it may came as a complete surprise to you to find that this is an animated cartoon, and that in animated cartoons they have scenery, and in all the years th
Alright, wise guy. Where am I?
Cock-a-doodledoo! Buckaw kaw kaw-

... Look, Mac, just what's going on around here? Let's get organised, hm? How about some scenery?
That's dandy. Ho-ho, that's rich, I'll say. Now how about some colour, stupid?
Not me, you slop artist! Huh... huh...
Well? Where's the rest of me?
It isn't as though I haven't lived up to my contract goodness knows. And goodness knows it isn't as though I haven't kept myself trim goodness knows, I... I've done that. That's strange. All of a sudden I don't quite feel like myself. Oh I feel alright, and yet I... I, uh...
Eeeee! You know better than that!
Hm, a sea picture, eh? I always wanted to do a sea epic. Now, Mr. Rembrandt, if you'll kindly oblige with a little appropriate scenery: Over the sea, let's go, men. We're shipping right off, we're shipping right off...
Hey, come 'ere. Come 'ere! Give me a close-up. A close-up!
This is a close-up? A close-up, ya jerk! A close-up!
Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin. Now look buster, let's have an understanding...
Now what?
Brother, what a way to run a railroad. Now, as I was saying - Hng! Oof! Urgh! Oof! Huh... Huh...
Alright... huh... let's get this picture started!
NO! NO! Listen pal, let's discuss this thing sanely, huh? Look, I tell you what: you go your way, and I'll go mine. Live and let live, right? Right.
Ladies and Gentlemen, there will be no further delays, so I shall attempt to entertain you in my own iniminimitable fashion.
Now what? What are you doing down there?
Down here? What are you doing up there? "Down here"! Listen bud, if you wasn't me I'd smack you right in the puss!
Don't let that bother you, Jack!
Okay, buddy you asked, for it...
Oh brother, I'm a buzz boy! Uh-oh, time to hit the old silk: Geronimooooooo...
Under the spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands, the smith a mighty man is he, with strong and sinewy... haaaands?
Alright! Enough is enough! This is the final, this is the very, very last straw! Who is responsible for this? I demand that you show yourself! Who are you? Huh?!

Shades of Ophelia. Maybe try it as an audition piece.
 I wonder if Galton and Simpson ever considered Daffy when writing for Hancock, seriously, and here's why: Warner Brothers' animation department originally found success with Porky Pig, whose thing was stuttering, then more success with Daffy Duck, whose thing was lisping and acting crazy, before finally striking gold with Bugs Bunny, whose thing was, let's say, surviving with panache. But in director "Chuck" Jones' hands, Bugs' success also leant new depth to the stars he'd eclipsed.

"Porky Pig" and "Daffy Duck" were no longer just one-dimensional assets, but performers with an inner life you could imagine hanging round the studio lot: Porky the performer who knew his limits, professionally resigned to playing second fiddle to another has-been with a slightly better figure and slightly smaller speech impediment, Daffy the complete opposite: Bugs' rival, killing himself to get a laugh in the rabbit's presence (literally in one cartoon) while desperate for meatier, more seriously heroic stuff in his solo vehicles. You can see all this going on even in a straight spoof like "Duck Dodgers in the Twenty Fourth and a Halfth Century". It's this depth of characterisation that makes these dumb gags so ageless and the image Jason Hazeley posted above so funny.

It blows my mind that these performances never actually existed, that they're just a bunch of drawings. Chuck Jones was no slouch as an acting coach: Bugs always put his weight on one foot - he once pointed out - Daffy on both, knees bent, insecure. For almost thirty years now I've followed that advice. And this brings me to the other reason I've been thinking about Chuck Jones recently, aside from Jason's post, and that's the passing of this guy:

 Gene Wilder was miraculous and a huge influence on me as a person who does stuff in front of people, but I'd never considered his influence until his death, and that might be because so much of that influence was the same as Chuck Jones'. Both created characters who could tell you their life was about to fall apart with a single gesture, who could slip in and out of mania in a couple of frames with total conviction and total discipline. And this resemblance is only possible because as this brilliant video from Tony Zhou which I've just discovered that renders this entire post redundant affirms Jones' cartoons paid a new kind of attention to reality.

 Not Gene Wilder


  1. From the animation nerdery department:

    The title of the short is actually Duck Amuck, which led to Chuck Jones' memoir being titled Chuck Amuck, and hence to nearly everyone in the animation world being unaware that the actual spelling of the word is amok. Kudos to you, sir, for knowing that; you are one up on the rest of us.

    Mike Maltese was Jones' layout guy, responsible for those striking graphic backgrounds that make Jones' cartoons stand out so stylishly. I'm guessing his contribution as 'story' was what we would call 'storyboards,' i.e. Jones wrote the scenario and Maltese visualised it. But I may be entirely wrong. There are probably people out there who know for sure. Given how small crews were on these films, there was probably a lot of cross-pollination regardless of one's official job title. I'd be surprised if Mel Blanc didn't contribute to the development process as well.

    'Surviving with panache' is probably the best description of Bugs' thing that I have ever heard!

    Thanks for a thoughtful and entertaining analysis of an animation classic – it's always a pleasure to read such things, and get new perspectives, from people who are not in the animation industry themselves, but they so rarely get written. Cheers!

  2. Thank you! "Duck Amuck" is a much better title. Consider it amended. I actually thought it was the other way round concerning Jones' and Maltese's duties, so that's my world exploded. I'm sure you're right about Mel Blanc, and yet it's so well scripted I'm not sure if anything was improvised. Of course Mel Blanc might have just been an incredible improviser. That's definitely possible. He died the same day as Olivier, which was annoying.

  3. I need to re-watch some Looney Toons cartoons....