Sunday, September 9, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 9, "Pearl of Wisdom"

"Pearl of Wisdom" is a very "1950s" sort of DuckTales adventure, for both good and ill, though the former hugely outweighs the latter.  Stereotypes and crystal-clear morals abound and are punched over with only a faint trace of irony.  A classic character who was a near-constant presence during the days when Dell Comics truly WERE "Good Comics" makes an unexpected appearance as the villain of the piece.  Even the pastime in which Donald's Nephews indulge -- one that, as GeoX correctly notes, sets up the main conflict of the episode in a somewhat contrived manner -- harkens back to the days of Ike and sock hops and clashes amusingly with other eps' depiction of HD&L as enamored of trips to video arcades (which are themselves pretty dated by now) and the like.

Our little Wayback Machine sojourn begins in the ep's very first scene, with the completely unanticipated return of Black Pete (writer Michael Keyes calls him "Sharky," but the Italian dub, among others, gives Mickey Mouse's indefatigable foe the proper ID).  Granted, this is a pretty "decaffeinated" version of the character, with voice actor Will Ryan clearly emphasizing Pete's comical aspects, as opposed to the sinister elements on display during Pete's superb "costume role" as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Mickey's Christmas Carol.  When Jim Cummings took over the role for Goof Troop, he continued "bringing the funny" but gave Pete a little more of a nasty, conniving edge.  "Sharky," by contrast, is completely believable when he confesses to having been "a failure as a crook," or when he digs through his version of Felix the Cat's Magic Bag to come up with a disguise to fool the natives of Banana Island.  But Ryan's take on Pete is immensely enjoyable and clearly presages future appearances (of which, alas, there were arguably too few).

Pete also loads up the nostalgia-laden ep's visual cues right off the bat by appearing in the sailor's outfit that he sported in numerous MICKEY MOUSE adventure tales of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, many of which were written by Carl Fallberg and drawn by Paul Murry.  Artists Mike Royer and Rick Hoover chose to include "Sailor Pete" as one of three iconic "images of Pete" displayed in the opening panel of Marv Wolfman's "What's Shakin'?" (Disney Comics MICKEY MOUSE ADVENTURES #13, June 1991).  (In case you're wondering, the other two are the "original version" of Pete from the era of "Steamboat Willie" [1928] and the intimidating, authoritarian Foreign Legionnaire Pete from "Mickey Mouse Joins the Foreign Legion" [1936].)  Did Royer and Hoover pull that image out of their joint consciousness all by themselves, or did a viewing of this episode jog their memories?

With the introduction of Pete's partner Yardarm, we go several steps beyond a "mere" sentimental journey.  The serrated-snouted sidekick serves as a stand-in of sorts for Scuttle, the lop-eared retainer who accompanied Pete in many of those MICKEY tales of the late Dell and early Gold Key eras.  Strangely enough, despite the close association of these characters with Fallberg and Murry, the closest comics analogy to Pete and Yardarm may have been "Parrot for Plunder," a 1974 story drawn by Bill Wright, in which Mickey, Minnie, and Captain Churchmouse race Pete and Scuttle to an island populated by natives... with giant pearls supposedly available for the taking.  Since I highly doubt that Keyes knew anything about this exquisitely obscure, never-reprinted Watergate-era epic, the coincidence is quite remarkable indeed.  

In 1987, we didn't have the "good sense" to be offended by the multi-colored, idol-venerating natives from whom Pete and Yardarm swipe the pearl in the lengthy, cleverly staged opening sequence.  But who cares -- these are classic, "garland-variety" natives from a 1950s adventure tale, who even look like they were designed by Paul Murry (especially the native chief voiced by Hal Smith), and it's hard not to get roped in by the sheer, unadulterated innocence displayed by these genial folks.  Nonetheless, it is a little troubling that Pete's cheesy native disguise fools the locals so easily.  You'd think that the appearance of any new figure on this remote island would stand out like the proverbial sore thumb... and Pete is a pretty darn massive "new figure."

In a sense, Scrooge's role in this episode is almost as passive and tangential as it was in "The Money Vanishes," at least in a psychological sense.  Granted, he does purchase the pearl from the disguised Pete, goes to the Explorers' Club to find out more about the bauble, goes in search of Webby when he discovers that the pearl is gone, and then pursues Pete and Yardarm to Banana Island, where the two have their climactic sunrise surfside grapple.  But the ep doesn't really seem to be ABOUT Scrooge; Pete, Yardarm, HD&L, and even Webby are the characters who attract our attention and get most of the really good spots.  We quickly get a sense of this when Webby uses her "google-eyed" phone to mimic Scrooge's reaming-out of the hapless Mr. Waddle.  It's almost as if Keyes is purposely allowing Webby to step on Scrooge's lines here.

I agree with GeoX that the frequent "pitching" of Webby as "much younger than HD&L" was probably a turn-off to some people.  In this episode, however, Keyes seems to have been more committed to this characterization than any other writer.  Perhaps it's the use of "kiddie props" to jackhammer the point home.  Along with using the toy phone, Webby rides a Big Wheel, rather than a bike, to Duckburg Park for the marbles competition.  The Wise Webbina(tm) who verbally schooled HD&L on several occasions during the "Rightful Owners" serial seems light-years removed from this portrayal.  Keyes seems to be as committed to the notion of Webby as an extremely young child as was Vic Lockman to the idea that Doofus had to be older than HD&L (and hence a higher-ranking Junior Woodchuck) simply because he was larger than them.  Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but, in the rest of Keyes' other scripts, Webby makes only one non-speaking, background appearance.

A trope of much hardier duration makes its first appearance in this ep -- HD&L's epochally messy room.  I can't recall Carl Barks ever doing anything with this, but DT really pushes it hard right from the get-go, when two of the boys dive into a giant pile of dirty clothes in an effort to locate the "Great Masher."  Just as Rescue Rangers Dale's and Quack Pack Donald's Hawaiian shirts were intended to show how "wild and crazy" these characters could be, I imagine that "The Room of Ruin" was an attempt to establish the Nephews' "regular kid" bona fides.  In truth, that shouldn't really be necessary, but, at least at this early stage of the series, the "everyday-guy" characterization of the boys is yet another pleasant reminder of the classic age of Duck comics.  The DuckTales HD&L ogle the studiously unhip "Great Masher"; the Quack Pack HD&L reserve such reverential reactions for "cave babes," extreme sports aces, and the like.  Thus do we progress.

While the boys' "regular-ness" is familiar to Duck fans, the episode's focus on Huey as a marbles champion is a departure.  It doesn't have the impact of Dewey's rebellion against the triplets' identical nature in "Duck in the Iron Mask," but it's nibbling at the edge of hitherto unexplored distinctions between the boys, just as Louie's friendship with salesman Filler Brushbill will do in "Much Ado About Scrooge."  If one is following the Dan Haley template, one might expect that Louie, the most "athletic" of the trio, would be the marbles whiz, but I'm certainly not complaining about the use of Huey in the role.  Heck, I'm not even bothered by the show-boaty way in which he acknowledges the cheers of the crowd at Duckburg Park.  After all, it's not as if his ego is sufficiently large that he would take advantage of an opportunity to control others and thereby take over the... uh, wait.

For my money, Huey earns his true stripes in this episode when he sacrifices the "Great Masher" and quite literally risks his life to prevent Scrooge's ship from being sunk by Pete and Yardarm's torpedo.  This remarkable display of courage is passed over with virtually no commentary as to its true nature, which seems like a serious oversight to me.  What was that about the DuckTales creative crew being reluctant to put the kids in danger?  The ice-slide in "Lost Crown of Genghis Khan" was a casual water slide compared to this.

Unfortunately, the sense of fun and innocence that successfully sustains the episode for most of its length betrays it (at least in part) at the climax.  The "true wisdom" vouchsafed to Pete and Scrooge could be seen coming from several parsecs away, and the chief's post-lecture invitation to "party" isn't nearly enough to lift the heavy hand.  Even before Pete and Scrooge undergo their melodramatic "road-to-Banana-Island" moment, we get to see such silly bits as the disguised Scrooge and HD&L moving their bush-cover into the water next to Pete, the marbles-flummoxed Yardarm literally blowing a hole in his own submarine, and Scrooge getting hit point-blank by gunfire and sustaining no lasting injuries at all, as if he were a "common Toon."  Taken as a whole, the scenario is sufficiently unserious that I'm almost willing to take GeoX up on his suggestion that Scrooge's enlightenment consist of "a more far-reaching vision -- something about the ultimate hollowness of the eternal pursuit of money."  In order for that to have seemed at least somewhat consistent with the rest of the episode, though, we would probably have had to make several earlier scenes a bit less light-hearted.  It's probably better that "Pearl" maintained its old-fashioned conceits right to the bitter end, even as they forced us into a somewhat less than satisfactory ending.

Keyes does tie the ep's remaining loose ends into a neat knot at the very end when Scrooge has his brainstorm to solve his cargo problem and help the Banana Islanders get rid of their surplus bananas.  Keyes was "in and out" as a DT writer, but Joe and I flagged "Pearl of Wisdom" as his best work of the series 25 years ago, and I think that the description still holds.





(GeoX)  Funny little scene where Duckworth coolly catches the urns that the ducklings have knocked off their pedestals.

I regard this as a very "Cadbury-esque" moment.  The Rich family's "perfect butler" couldn't have pulled it off with any more aplomb.  

(Greg)  Yardarm and Sharky enter the submarine as Yardarm wants to look for a buyer and Sharky has the perfect one in mind as one who never asks questions and never backs down from a deal.

This description of Scrooge doesn't ring right for some reason.  "Never asks questions"?  The guy who takes pride in "making it square" and has fifty quintillion booby traps around his Money Bin to prevent someone from sneaking up on him?  Does not compute.

(Greg)  Scrooge sees this as a way to increase his wealth infinitely. They have a jolly good laugh as Battmountan [sic] proclaims that it's only a legend. Scrooge wraps up the map as Battmountan [sic] thinks they are far too civilized to believe in such nonsense.

I'd think that it would have been far more likely for Battmounten to have taken this "legend" seriously, given that the Abominable Snowman... er, woman... turned out to be real.

(Greg)  HOLY CRAP?! I got to admit; [shooting the "Great Masher" at the torpedo] is a pretty dangerous thing to do for Huey. I've seen Kit do a lot of crazy things; but Huey is showing that he can do his fair share once in a while. How he turned into Quack Pack Huey; I'll never know.

Ask the "babes."  They probably know.

(Greg)  Scrooge and the nephews (wearing ski masks and looking like commandos. I see where the commando thing came from.) climb down on the raft and Scrooge states that he will be fine. 

Perhaps I should have included this as another example of a silly moment at the climaxSure, the Ducks' wearing of commando garb is "cool" and all that, but, given that Scrooge and HD&L subsequently hide behind foliage, the exact purpose of the camouflage escapes me.  At least it looks "cooler" than the gear HD&L and Webby wore in DuckTales: The Movie, or even the Rambo-style duds that the Quack Pack Nephews wore during "Feats of Clay."  Scrooge came well prepared for all contingencies, I'll give him that much.

Next:  Episode 10, "Master of the Djinni."


Joe Torcivia said...


As I‘ve said before, I like the fact that there was a “Vic Lockman episode” (“The Money Vanishes”) and a “Carl Fallberg and Paul Murry episode”.

And, given the atrocities heaped upon Barks classics such as “The Horseradish Story” (aka “Down and Out in Duckburg”), “Lost Crown”, and others, it almost seems as if DTVA paid greater respect to Lockman, Fallberg, and Murry than they did to Carl Barks.

Never thought of it that way, but… Yeah, it kinda WAS a fifties story. But, maybe that’s because we associate Fallberg and Murry WITH their glory days of the fifties.

Loved the look back at “What’s Shakin’” -- though I’m certain Pete’s sailor “past-photo” in the opening panel was a “Ghost of Comics Past” (as was the Foreign Legion outfit) and in no way influenced by this episode – which was ITSELF based upon those comics!


Pan Miluś said...

This epsiode makes me think of Paul Murry evey time I see it as well.
I don't think it's just the way Pete is drawn but there is just something about the plot that feels like his stories.

After all - Duck Comcis aren't just Carl Barks so paying a homage to other artists Is proper as well (in fact I think they should)

There is something about Pete that makes it ok whenever they try to use him as a good guy or a bad guy who reforms(which DuckTales did more then once) and this is one episode where the coudn't use any of the regular villians since they would have to reform at the end.

It's the same reason I think why they replace Beagle Boys with Beagle Babes in that one season two episode. The plot would only work if they would grown a bond with Webby and reform at the end (well almost reform) so obviously it would be akward if they would use Beagle Boys as the villians it that one as well.

Pan Miluś said...

BTW - I hate the continuity error when Petes enter (and leaves) Scrooge to make the deal with him but when we see them talking their in Scrooges office inside the Money Bin.


Pan Miluś said...

I'm not sure how long it will take for you to get to the episode "Horse Scents" but I hope you watched it back to back with Top Cat episode "1000,000 dolar derby". As much I like that episode it's a gigant rip-off of Top Cat epiosde - and I don't mean that in a way "it's a similar plot" I mean in a way entire gags are copy from that cartoon.

It also has some similarities to the Marx Brother movie but I guess it's more of a homage in that case...

Chris Barat said...


"There is something about Pete that makes it ok whenever they try to use him as a good guy or a bad guy who reforms (which DuckTales did more then once) and this is one episode where the coudn't use any of the regular villians since they would have to reform at the end."

Well, "Merit-Time Adventure" kind of confused the issue of whether Pete truly was on the side of the angels, but "Captain Pietro" of "Duck in the Iron Mask" definitely wasn't a goodie, nor was he given a chance to reform.

"I'm not sure how long it will take for you to get to the episode "Horse Scents" but I hope you watched it back to back with Top Cat episode "1000,000 dolar derby". As much I like that episode it's a gigant rip-off of Top Cat epiosde - and I don't mean that in a way "it's a similar plot" I mean in a way entire gags are copy from that cartoon."

Joe Torcivia recognized this immediately when he and I were working on the DUCKTALES INDEX!