Monday, November 21, 2011

Masters of Comedy

Daffy-blogging, essay 6 of 15 blog entries on
Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½th Century

Part One, A Very Expressive Duck

Preparing to launch the rocket, Dodgers winds up for his heroic
"Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century" pose.  Note comic
cross-eyes as he prepares to attempt a serious heroic pose.

Character movement is always very expressive in a Chuck Jones'
cartoon.  Dodgers must drop into a crouch before the force of his
"Duck Dodgers" pronouncement will propel him upward.

The big moment:  "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century."
Jaw fully dropped, mouth wide open, it's a big thing to say.

Holding the heroic pose.

A brief moment of faux humility as Dodgers basks in the adoration
of the audience.

More faux humility.  Hold the applause, folks...

The gag:  Dodgers has put the rocket into reverse, jamming
it into the ground instead of launching it.

Sheepish Dodgers:  "Oops!  Had the silly thing in reverse."

Maybe nobody will notice the mistake if he closes his eyes and
looks vaguely penitent.

Part Two, Masters of Comedy

Marvin the Martian has just claimed Planet X in the name of Mars.

Daffy responds:  “Look, bud…  I’ve got news for you…  I have already claimed this bit of dirt for the Earth and there just ain’t room enough on this planet for the two of us.”

Daffy plants the earth flag first...
Is it even possible to read these lines without falling into Daffy Duck speech?  It’s so wonderfully smug, so condescending, so entirely lacking in any self-knowledge.  The “bit of dirt” flourish is especially funny.  Daffy’s perfectly ready to escalate the situation even though he concedes the planet itself has little value.  In Daffy’s mind, the real subject is always Daffy.  And I love how the threat at the end smartly foreshadows the memorable conclusion.

... then Marvin claims Planet X
in the name of Mars....
This is brilliantly written comedy, instinctively built on character.  After refining the insane 1930s Daffy into tamer Daffy over a couple of dozen shorts, writers Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese intimately knew (and loved) their self-confident, eternally deluded character.

Jones was the sophisticated Abbott to Maltese’s Costello;  the Dean Martin to Maltese’s Jerry Lewis.  Jones brought book-smarts to the table and Maltese brought life-smarts.  After working with several other writers, Jones latched onto Maltese because he sensed that Maltese added a hard-edged imaginative freedom to his work that was needed.  Without Maltese, Jones could easily slip towards a more Disney-esque realism and sentimentality.  Maltese dared him to be a little crazier.

"Look, bud... I've got news for you...  I have already
claimed this bit of dirt for the Earth and there just ain't
room enough on this planet for the two of us."
If this had been a normal Hollywood screenwriting situation, Maltese might never have made the cut.  Eventually, most writers have to face the typewriter and bang out some material.  But that’s not the way Warner Bros. animation worked.

With support from Jones, Maltese threw together a fast comic-book version of the proposed story, with the scenes presented in a few dozen little rectangles.  These sketches were mounted on the wall and a “jam session” was called.  Maltese excelled at these “jam sessions” (sometimes called “yes sessions” because criticism of ideas wasn’t allowed) where writers and directors gathered together to brainstorm gags.  To be noticed, you had to be fast, loud, and prepared to prove your gag was funny by acting it out.  Maltese loved this.  He could express crazy slapstick ideas with enthusiasm.

Afterwards the plot would continue to gel through the recording sessions and Jones’ endless drawings of character sketches, matching the sketches to dialogue exposure sheets that would guide the animators.  Jones’ spirit infused the work but he was supported every step of the way by extraordinary artists in their own right.

When writing his memoir Chuck Amuck in the late 1980s, Jones remembered the golden days of the Jones-Maltese writing partnership with great affection:  “...(as) the squirrel cannot explain or even be aware of his symbiotic relationship with the redwood, Mike and I never knew which of us was the squirrel and which the redwood.”

Reference Sources
Chuck Amuck by Chuck Jones
Chuck Reducks by Chuck Jones
Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier
Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide by Jerry Beck
Warner Bros. Animation Art by Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald
7 Minutes by Norman M. Klein
That's All Folks by Steve Schneider
Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set, Duck Dodgers commentary by Michael Barrier
Friends at the IMDb Classic Film message board including Rollo Treadway, Chloe Joe Fassbender, Illtdesq, and Fish Beauty
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch Duck Dodgers...
Purchase Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Disc Two of Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume One DVD set at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2011 Lee Price

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