Of Daffy Ducks, Napoleonic Wabbits (And Chuck Barris, Too): The LOONEY TUNES SUPERSTARS Collection and Other Musings

24 Jan

Napoleon has his plans for world conquest foiled by...Bugs Bunny?

By Kevin Wollenweber

In anticipation of the forthcoming LOONEY TUNES SUPERSTARS single disk collections of classic Warners cartoons, I’ve been revisiting the best disks of the GOLDEN COLLECTION series.  I’ve been paying close attention especially to the disks that also feature later cartoons from the studio.  The forthcoming disks seem to spotlight the cartoons of the latter 1950’s and even the early 1960’s, an era that we don’t always get to see.

Never fear, there is no way I’m going to praise the artistic efforts of this period alone, holding them above my beloved 1930’s surreal black and white favorites, but we as collectors do, after all, want each and every cartoon in the Warners library to be restored and released.  At least that is the way I want to see it done, but then again, my ideal originally was to see a massive out-pouring of these cartoons, beginning at the beginning and ending at the last cartoon to be created at the studio.  Sure, this idea probably would have never worked with the general public, but we collectors would be anticipating the various volumes like so many chapters in the Greatest Story Ever Told!!

Anyway, I am hoping that the results of the April, 2010, releases will be quite interesting, especially regarding DAFFY DUCK.

I believe we’ve seen the heyday already issued on the GOLDEN COLLECTION sets, and now it is time to get one last gander at some of the other highlights that have perhaps never seen release on any format.  I’d always suggested “NAPOLEON BUNNY-PART”, a cartoon that I believe is directed by Robert McKimson, and features a running gag in which the Napoleon type is constantly jabbed in the butt with a long sword by his dim-witted henchman, resulting in a return jab that would send the poor fop yowling into the air and crashing to the ground.

[NAPOLEON BUNNY-PART was directed by Friz Freleng, so sayeth the credits.  But then, Freleng's and McKimson's respective styles did seem to blur together by this point, didn't they?--Rachel]

On the DAFFY DUCK disk, we will finally see a restored version of “NASTY QUACKS”, that hilarious cartoon directed by Frank Tashlin in which Daffy is offered as a pet by a doting father to his “cute little daughter” named Agnes, voiced of course by Sarah Berner.  Miss Berner has always worked well with the frenetic directors like Tashlin and Clampett.  There is a great moment when the father is about to strike Daffy and, just as the blow is about to be dealt, the daughter appears out of nowhere, talking at rapid speed so Daddy understands that Daffy shouldn’t be hurt “’cos ya know I love ‘im!”.

Just about any scene in a Tashlin cartoon you can name should be analyzed, frame by frame, including this segment.  It is an amazing surprise that Agnes just suddenly sprouts up between Daffy and angry Daddy to spray out her plea, and all those sentences unravel as Daddy is vibrating from the suddenness of the moment.  In a Tashlin cartoon, the dialogue never stops as action occurs.  Daddy manages to throw Daffy out of the house when Daffy is seemingly going to be replaced by a baby duck.  As he sails headlong out the door and slams against a fencepost, Daffy both implores Agnes to help him in his hour of need and vows revenge on the baby duck upon impact—it has to be seen and heard to be believed.  Frank Tashlin is the kind of director I like, the kind that demanded much of his actors, whether they were doing voices or actually performing in his live action films.  Even the most demure of women had to be ready to perform some physical take that rivals Agnes’ sudden appearance just as Daddy is about to do harm to her lovable pet.  If there was an unusual way that the camera’s eye could see an action or reaction, Frank Tashlin would indeed find it.  Such wackiness would soon become the standard of other filmmakers in the wild and inventive 1960’s.

Tashlin’s work could be similar, at times, to the quick cuts in any episode of “ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN” only in the sense that the pace was always sped up, not as far as camera speed goes but as the speed of the actors on camera is concerned.  To my mind, Tashlin carried over the idea of the harrowing gag from silent pictures.  He would have been quite at home directing Harold Loyd.  He certainly made an impression on comic actor Jerry Lewis, because his movie, “WHO’S MINDING THE STORE” feels as if it has Tashlin’s vision and fingerprints all over it.  You can see the vacuum cleaner sequence as a cartoon very easily, although I still can’t figure out how they filmed that quick cut in which you see Agnes Moorehead’s character’s lacey under-garments pulled off by the increased suction of the vacuum run amuck!

We’ve seen the gag so many times before in cartoons, most notably “BARGAIN COUNTER ATTACK”, a LITTLE LULU cartoon in which Lulu brings back a doll that she bought at a department store days before and drives the clerk mad with her indecision.  All this somehow ends up with a vacuum cleaner sucking up just about everything around it, along with pipes full of water that ends up flooding the store when the bag is burst open.  The bag in “WHO’S MINDING THE STORE” is also burst with amazing results, again, very Tashlin-like!

Incidentally, I don’t think that film is even out on DVD–is it?  [Yes, though it's hard to get. You can get a used copy of  this Jerry Lewis collection-- which includes WHO'S MINDING THE STORE? --through Amazon.com. Though personally, I'd sooner see it online for $5.99, courtesy of Amazon Video.--Rachel]

I digress. Otherwise, I’ve been also listening to so many music acquisitions that they are far too numerous to talk about.  A favorite of the moment is the double-disk collection of live performances from Tom Waits, called GLITTER AND DOOM LIVE.  It is put together rather oddly, with all the songs on one disk and all the in-between chatter to his audience on the other.  Tom has always been part lounge singer and part stand-up comedian.  In his act, they meld together in some odd and cool ways.  He is the quintessential hipster, an observant everyman who likes to tap you on the shoulder and tell you about some little factoid that he’s been obsessing over, something similar to what we all like to do on Facebook, right?  It is really amusing stuff, and I’ve always liked his sweet, sad songs about tragic figures.  Waits’ characters would be played by actors like Tony Franciosa or Montgomery Clift and the ladies would look like Lana Turner or that woman on the Muriel cigar box.  His characters, today, are more abstract, though.

Hmmm, now there is someone who could and should score an animated cartoon, but not the usual cat and mouse antics.  There should be some sort of real characterization, here; perhaps anthropomorphized humanoid furry creatures that think and act like the figures that occasionally appear in Waits’ songs?  these could be specially written for the film.  The man has appeared in Hollywood flicks before, under some of the strangest circumstances.  Doing a cartoon might be an interesting prospect, and that cartoon could be produced in classic black and white with a kind of Fleischer-esque design (“What’s the scoop, Betty Boop?”).  Just a thought!

Another truly fine album is the most recent Charlie Haden album, RAMBLING BOY, featuring all kinds of guest appearances, with his friend, master guitarist Pat Metheny, doing the genre-hopping along with him.  This album, though, is a wonderful look back at Charlie’s early years as an homage to his musical family.  These were songs that Charlie grew up playing, nothing like the jazz we’ve always known he could riff off at any given time.  These are gospel-tinged or mountain ballads and songs that, themselves, have quite a history all their own.  It really is a disk that hardly ever leaves my CD turntable.

Animation always remains my source of comedy.  Like Tashlin, if I were directing a film, I would use his many camera tricks especially when ogling the fairer sex.  My Netflix rental has been “CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND”, a movie that took me back to more than a few TV memories that, I suppose, I should be ashamed of recalling.  No, I can’t say I was ever a huge Chuck Barris fan, but it is timely that this movie was made as we are seeing his influence all over what is on television today.  He could be invading Cartoon Network and strategically screwing up that channel, when you think about it.  This is the first thing I thought of when I watched the mind of Barris, as portrayed by Sam Rockwell, coming up with program after program of debauchery and voyeurism.  I flashed back to recollections of the real “DATING GAME” and the ridiculous questions that the girls and guys were asking each other.  In the movie, we are flies on the wall to what might have been regarding that game show if the censors were not apparent, but in all honesty, I don’t remember the game that aired as being too far removed from the uncensored version.  Methinks that, somewhere, there are reels and reels of material from that show that would make Hugh Hefner blush.

I am thankful for George Clooney’s enthusiastic commentary, discussing how the scenes were filmed on revolving sets.  There were some trying long takes done on this film, the kind of take that would take hours to reset if an actor blew his or her cue!  Whew!  I got dizzy just thinking about how alert the performers had to be in some of these scenes.  There were other visuals that Clooney did not discuss at all, like the montage that must have been seen as Barris’ one claim to musical fame, “Down at Palasades Park” played on the soundtrack.

Me?  When I hear that song, like early songs of the Beatles, I see the girls dancing as if possessed on “AMERICAN BANDSTAND”, the camera loving their moves in close shots, but I don’t think that the cinematographer was quite going for that look.  It sure wouldn’t have been out of place, though, in a film of this type.  It had a hipster noir-ish sensibility at times as the “legend” behind Barris’ career had come to light, his alleged involvement with espionage and the CIA.  Did he or didn’t he?  We feel that sense of compassion for free spirit Penny, played so perfectly by Drew Barrymore, and the camera certainly enjoys the ladies in this film, including an unexpected appearance by Julia Roberts as a girl that we guess Barris believes will perhaps be his eventual assassin.  His demons would actually be the blackouts of his existence, however.  Sam Rockwell embodies the personality of Barris so well that you almost think that you are watching original footage from the shows in question.  Dick Clark appears as well, long before his stroke (this film was made in 2001 made in 2002 and released widely in 2003) since the whole “BANDSTAND” scenario is part of where it all began in this man’s twisted world and, again, when you see this film, one has to recall that this is partially the legend in his own mind.  We’re never sure whether anything here is true or just embellished for our general depraved entertainment.  Some might be a little put off by the impression of Chuck as a kid talking to a little girlfriend of his sister.  I won’t spoil that zinger for y’all.  The flashbacks are nice touches, too, as some of them appear to be sepia-toned instead of seen in full color.  The colors burst out when we are on the sets of his various TV shows.  The darker moments are the SPY VS. SPY antics of his other life.

Hmmm, this makes me recall that some of the gems we will get on the forthcoming DAFFY DUCK disk also include “BOSTON QUACKIE” and “CHINA JONES”, the latter not ever seeing the light of day since an old videotape of PORKY PIG cartoons issued in the early 1980’s.  I know I’ll enjoy these as well.  “BOSTON QUACKIE” also features the voice of June Foray as Mary, Quackie’s date in constant waiting.

Yes, out of everything, I still prefer the flexibility of the animated cartoon.  It can be anything we want, and we do not take seriously the words Paul McCartney was to read at the Golden Globe Awards telecast.  I may have gotten stoned in my lifetime, but I did not learn about animation during a drug-addled episode.  Animation was in my blood from my earliest days of paying attention to media.  It made more of an impression on me than any other art form.  So it shall remain!

Edited to correct a minor error 1/24/10.–R.

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