Friday, February 6, 2015

A Duck for the Ages: A Tribute to Daffy Duck

Note: This post is a response to the guys over at Trope & Dagger who are debating over the best Looney Tunes character  You should head over and check out some of their stuff if you like some differing points of view on all things pop culture.

No other cartoon series has brought us as diverse a cast of characters as Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, but who amongst this group can be crowned the best? It is certainly a subjective matter, but some characters do stand out more than others. My vote for Best Looney Tunes Character: Daffy Duck.

Of the dozens of characters that were created by the animators at Termite Terrace, Daffy has had the longest, most diverse career, and best represents the spirit of that ragtag collective.

Let's go back to his origins. Daffy was not the first major star at WB (that distinction belongs to Porky Pig), but unlike his stuttering costar, this duck was something new and gave birth to what would be known as the screwball character in cartoons. Bob Clampett, who along with Tex Avery created Daffy in 1937's Porky's Duck Hunt, described the phenomenon thusly:

"At that time, audiences weren't accustomed to seeing a cartoon character do these things. And so, when it hit the theaters it was an explosion. People would leave the theaters talking about this daffy duck."

Over the next thirty years Daffy would be utilized by every directorial unit at the studio, with each one lending its own flavour to the character.

Tex Avery played the duck as a ball of unrestrained manic energy, bewildering Porky, his long suffering straight man for decades.

Under Bob Clampett's unit he achieved his acme (see what I did there) as a complete lunatic who defied every law imaginable, especially the laws of physics. Animator Rod Scribner's artwork still stands as some of the wildest and funniest ever put to paper. Baby Bottleneck and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery are two outstanding examples of the looniest Looney Tune in action.

By the mid '40s, the studio had lost Avery and Clampett and cartoons were drawn by three different units. Each had their own set of characters. Friz Freling had Sylvester and Tweety and Yosemite Sam, Bob McKimson had Foghorn Leghorn and the Tazmanian Devil, and Chuck Jones had Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote and Pepe LePew. Big stars like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were shared by all three.

Of these three units, Chuck Jones emerged as the dominant creative voice and the other two directors largely followed suit in terms of types of gags and general story structure. It must be said however that McKimson held out for a few years and as a result his cartoons have a much more slapstick feel than Jones's more cerebral approach to animating.

In Jones's cartoons, Daffy's character is given a complete overhaul. Instead of a screwball, he is greedy, self-centered and conniving. He was often paired with Bugs Bunny where he served as a foil for Bugs's cool and collected demeanor. The bunny's popularity had by this time eclipsed Daffy's, and cartoons often played up this jealousy with Bugs always getting the better of his feathered costar. The Hunters Trilogy of "Rabbit Fire", "Rabbit Seasoning", and "Duck! Rabbit! Duck!" are the best examples of this.

Daffy was also successful as a headliner during the '50s and early '60s. He played Robin Hood, Duck Dodgers of the 24th 1/2 Century, and the swashbuckling Scarlet Pumpernickel. It was also during this time that he starred in "Duck Amok", regarded as one one of the greatest animated shorts ever made for it's existential breaking of the fourth wall. By the time the studio shut down in the '60s, Daffy was even playing the villain opposite Speedy Gonzalez, although these cartoons are a far cry from the duck's heyday.

Daffy Duck's career at WB spanned three decades, and Mel Blanc voiced him for 52 years, longer than any other character in the history of the medium. He's played heroes, villains, and sidekicks in settings from all times and places. He's hit Adolph Hitler on the head with a mallet! He may lack the coolness of Bugs Bunny or the tenacity of Wile E. Coyote, but he makes up for it with sheer chutzpah. Early on in his career, Tex Avery was quoted as saying, "In a cartoon, you can do anything." No character before or since has embodied that spirit as much as Daffy Duck.

Again, Daffy smacking Hitler with a mallet.

As a final note, enjoy this 13 1/2 minute supercut of all of a Daffy's loony laughter. I can't think of a better way to celebrate not just the greatest Looney Tunes character, but one of the best cartoon characters ever.