Friday, November 16, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 18, "Horse Scents"

It's one thing for a DuckTales episode to be inspired by tropes from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Richard Merwin certainly was when he constructed the plots of episodes like "Ducks of the West" and "Back Out in the Outback" as homages to Scooby-DooIt's entirely another for a DT ep to respire BECAUSE of an actual Hanna-Barbera EPISODE PLOT.  Such is the case with "Horse Scents," in which the late Earl Kress, an H-B authority of long standing, boldly swiped in a manner that no other DT writer had, or ever would, "swope" before.  His inspiration: an episode of Top Cat entitled "The $1,000,000 Derby," first broadcast in the Fall of 1961.  (Of course, I wasn't around to see this ep during its original run, nor did I watch Top Cat enough in syndication to ever run across it.  Joe Torcivia originally drew my attention to it.)

Kress correctly recognized that the plot of the Top Cat episode couldn't be translated directly into a DuckTales context; TC and his gang, after all, merely use the racehorse Arabelle as part of one of their standard con jobs.  The original material that Kress erects on this framework, however, runs the gamut of quality from passable to putrid.  Webby sustains a refreshing amount of attitude throughout (as opposed to her one brief moment of asperity during "Take Me Out of the Ballgame"), and her relationship with the hammy, weather-beaten "photo horse" Milady makes for plenty of cute, and sometimes even touching, moments.  The roles played by the rest of the Ducks, however, don't amount to much, and the ep's various conflicts, both established (Scrooge and Flintheart Glomgold's tussle to see whose horse can win the Kenducky Derby) and newly created (the bloviating evil oat salesman [thanks, GeoX!] Bull Weevil and his weasel henchmen vs. Milady's elderly owner Mr. Merrywether, Webby, HD&L, Milady, and, well, just about anyone else who gets in their way), generally fall flat despite numerous loud and raucous efforts to make us care about them.  Overly exaggerated gags, logical difficulties, and a "big race" finish that actually underperforms the same scene in "The $1,000,000 Derby" help make for an episode that does have its share of decent moments -- most of which involve Webby and Milady -- but ultimately falters in the stretch.

This is one of the more conventionally cartoony episodes of DuckTales' first season.  To start with the obvious, we're presented with a heavily anthropomorphized animal character in Milady, to whom voice actress Susan Blu manages to give quite a bit of personality despite the handicap of not being able to use a "real" voice.  (Hal Smith, by contrast, was permitted to do occasional "true" vocalizations for Arabelle during the course of "The $1,000,000 Derby".) 

Webby's "way with animals," one of her best-remembered character traits, is stretched to the utmost in this episode by a creature that doesn't serve as a mere passive receptor for Webby's attentions, but instead actively responds to Webby's efforts to sympathize with and bond with her.  To her credit, Webby rises to the occasion, turning in one of her best and most spirited performances of the series.  It takes a lot to convince Webby to physically fight back against bad guys who are bothering her friends, but, by childishly tormenting Milady and the sympathetic Mr. Merrywether, Glomgold's weasel henchmen let loose the seldom-seen Wrath of Vanderquack:

After Milady has shown her paces for the first time in escaping Bull Weevil, Webby atypically boasts to Mr. Merrywether that she "knew [all] the time" that Milady had the potential for speed.  Webby then turns to a somewhat more familiar approach and turns on the charm offensive when she convinces Scrooge to allow Milady in the Derby.  (I wonder whether Alan Young was flashing back to those bygone days on the set of Mr. Ed when he performed this scene.)

By the time of the big race, Webby has clearly established a bond with Milady that goes well beyond the standard "making friends with an animal" trope.  In a surprisingly affecting scene, Milady cries when Webby gives her a bouquet of flowers before post time, and then the horse wordlessly helps Webby "gear up" and mount her.  That's a moment of "true friendship" that would not be out of place in a classic live-action horse movie.  Milady's "joyful heel-click" before entering the starting gate is also a nice touch; it's meant to get laughs (from both the Derby crowd and the viewer) and does so, but it also deftly shows how delighted Milady is to get this once-in-an-equine's-life opportunity to strut her stuff with a new pal in tow.

The Webby-Milady scenes are so good that they almost make you forget a painfully obvious logical loophole: Who the heck signed off on Webby serving as Milady's jockey in the first place?!  Kress' authorial inconsistency on this non-trivial matter is maddening: Mrs. Beakley faints dead away the first time that Webby rides Milady, but then seems to have no problem whatsoever with Webby riding Milady in training runs or in the race; Scrooge evinces no reaction (apart from disgust over the snail-slow performance) during Milady's trial run, nor during the rest of training, yet is suddenly SHOCKED AND APPALLED when he sees Webby preparing to ride Milady in the Derby.

I think that Kress' familiarity with Hanna-Barbera-style approaches to storytelling may have tripped him up here.  Webby's improbable assumption of the jockey role here is not unlike the appearance of a protean H-B character like Huckleberry Hound in whatever role suited him for a particular episode.  Why, even the more "realistic" Fred Flintstone got to drive in the Indianrockolis 500 under the pseudonym of "Goggles Paisano" (wearing his usual clothes, no less) simply because of his ability to survive driving on the freeway.  I think it is fair to say, however, that DuckTales characters like Webby are not as adaptable to the "fit 'em into a plot slot" approach as the classic H-B stars.

Speaking of channeling the spirit of Hanna-Barbera...

When I watch this bit nowadays, I immediately flash back to this bizarrely out-of-place gag from Carl Barks' "The Golden Christmas Tree":

Improbable routines like this wouldn't become commonplace in a Duck-context until Quack Pack, and we all know how well that turned out.

Other logical issues abrade one's enjoyment of "Horse Scents," both small (Mrs. Beakley conveniently bringing a bugle with her to Louisville, Kenducky in the first place) and great (the handling of the "photo finish" climax).  The latter is particularly irritating because the animators clearly messed up what should have been an easily executed scene.  In "The $1,000,000 Derby," Arabelle truly is neck and neck with other horses in the home stretch, so it makes sense for the gravelly-voiced track announcer (Hal Smith again -- did he get "that creepy deja vu feeling" in the recording booth, I wonder?) to declare that a "photo finish" is imminent.  In "Scents," by contrast, Milady is clearly ahead of both Cash Register and Make-a-Buck near the finish line, so why would the announcer call a "photo finish" in that context?  Wait, it gets worse.  The other horses have passed the finish line by the time Milady gets into her photo-pose...

... but that's certainly not the impression that we get when the judge displays the photograph:

Yeah, Greg, the "tie decision" is annoying -- I'd much rather have seen Scrooge and Cash Register make Flinty pay for his chicanery -- but I'd say that the animators blowing their big moment of the ep counts as more of a debit.

There are other elements to dislike here -- an annoyingly over-the-top villain in Bull Weevil, some bickering between Scrooge and Glomgold that is pretty juvenile even for them -- but I'm certainly not willing to say that "Scents" is among the worst DuckTales episodes.  Instead, I think, it illustrates some of the dangers involved in lifting an entire plot from another source.  If you're going to handle the "big picture" in such a mercenary fashion, then you'd better make very sure that you pay attention to the surrounding detail work.





(GeoX) In the end, Milady doesn't win, because HD&L realize that if she did, the evil oat-salesman would get the money, so they get her to stop by making her think her picture's going to be taken. This makes the evil oat-salesman (I won't deny it: I do enjoy writing out "evil oat-salesman") angry, and so he doesn't want her anymore. Which makes no sense, because he never wanted her as a racing horse in the first place; she was just meant to do farm work.   

I'd be willing to give Bull some of the benefit of the doubt here.  There's no indication that he would want to race Milady after the Derby; he simply can't stand the sight of her after she costs him the grand prize.  That being said, Bull may have missed a real opportunity to strut his sinister stuff here. If he really were the nasty piece of work that his girth, Snidely Whiplash-like appearance, and bellowing voice proclaim him to be, then I should think that he'd jump at the chance to work Milady to death.

(GeoX)  I am always amused by the idea of one's domestic animals being "good" or "evil" to match their owners, as Scrooge's and Flintheart's horses are here. Like Battle Cat and Panthor from He-Man.   

Well, Make-a-Buck certainly gives the impression of being an "evil" horse, but you can't honestly say that Cash Register matches Scrooge's personality.  Note how passively CR accepts being kidnapped by Flinty's weasel henchmen and how his ultimate escape is entirely due to luck (the broken hitch on the truck).  One would expect a horse "matched" with Scrooge, that famed "toughest of the toughies," to go to much more trouble to fight for his freedom.

(Greg)  Flint has entered his horse called Make A Buck (of course) and he'll win the big bucks so he can become the richest duck in the world. How is winning a horse race going to make Flintheart that much MONEY, MONEY, YEAH, YEAH to become the richest duck in the world? At least wait until Cash As Catch Can [sic] when you can REALLY make the big bucks. Otherwise; this is merely a bragging rights plot line in who can be the biggest dick in the world. And I think Flint would win it hands down.

No doubt he would, but remember that it's long been established that Scrooge and Flinty are thisclose when it comes to the comparative sizes of their fortunes.  Even the proceeds from a single horse race might in fact be enough to push Flinty in front.

(Greg)  By the way; Shifty is voiced by the late Johnny Haymer (who passed away in 1989)...

At least in part.  Shifty's voice, well, shifts on several occasions during the episode.  When he and his sniveling pal mock Mr. Merrywether, he sounds a lot like Hal Smith.  During the kidnapping sequence, his voice suddenly drops a bit.  Perhaps Haymer was only available for a portion of the recording session?

(Greg) Webby notices a drum banging and she notices a horse walking around as the nephews turn around and Dewey swears in DUBBED ANIME STYLE (swell) because he hasn't seen one all day. Umm; check your internal logic there Dewey: You saw two horses in a parade earlier. That is logic break #2 for the episode. 

Dewey was being sarcastic here, I think.  No, check that.  I KNOW.

(Greg)  So Bull checks the stables as Huey and Dewey are cleaning up Cash Register and Bull demands them to tell him where the horse is. The nephews goldbrick on him just to show Kit how it's done. Dewey reflects on a horse joke he heard as we cut to Louie, Milady and Webby on top of the wooden beam of the roof of the stable. Okay; that breaks all logic and reason right there folks... Bull heads inside and looks around. Considering the line of sight he's using, he should clearly SEE them and he does as the roof beam starts to break. Good; it's about damn time logic is being used around here. 

And then logic flees the scene once again as our Hayloft Gang apparently fall far enough FORWARD to fall directly onto Bull, who's standing at a fair horizontal distance away from them.  Check the geometry of the scene:

Since Bull doesn't move forward in the next scene before getting clobbered, Louie, Milady, and Webby would literally have had to fall AT AN ACUTE ANGLE in order to nail him.  To add insult to Bull's injury, we then get the cartoonified "hole in the floor" bit... and the log-cabin sequence follows soon thereafter.  Ugh.

(Greg) Bull has arrived and apparently quickly recovered from his injuries. How about that?! The nephews have to bail so [he doesn't] see them. Why? Bull is AFTER Milady; not the nephews. Why hide from him? It's not like Beakley and Merriweather aren't blowing the cover anyway. 

Well, how else was Bull going to be manipulated into yelling into that microphone?  More contrivance.  At least it gave HD&L something semi-useful to do in the ep.  (And if you think that Bull recovered quickly, Greg, note that his truck also got fixed with astonishing speed after it was wrecked.)

Next:  Episode 19, "The Curse of Castle McDuck."


Joe Torcivia said...


Not only did Earl Kress apparently wish to tribute Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, but he also borrowed that log cabin gag you seem to detest so much from the 1942 Chuck Jones cartoon “The Draft Horse”.

This hilarious WWII Era short involved an overly impulsive (“unbridled”, if you will) horse who gets caught up in the patriotic fever of the period, and wants to join the Army.

He rushes off to the draft board with such outlandish gusto that he leaves a trail of comic destruction in his wake – including the cabin formed from a speed-rammed pile of logs (with an era-appropriate “FHA” sign in front). Though the impact-creation of the cabin would be more CON-struction, than DE-struction!

I wish this horse had become a recurring character, as I feel he had the potential to carry at least a limited number of shorts. Private Snafu also gets a cameo in this one! “The Draft Horse”, for those who might wish to seek it out, appears on DVD in LOONEY TUNES GOLODEN COLLECTION Volume 6.

An old animation historian (“war horse”?) like Kress would surely have known of this – and slipped in a “Bonus Tribute” on us!

As for Donald and the “Golden Christmas Tree” gag… Well, ANYTHING’S possible with MAGIC!


Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Can I admit here that I like that gag from "The Golden Christmas Tree?" It's unusual for Barks, sure, but I feel like it's cleverly done, and I don't mind the occasional out-of-character story (cf also the Goldilocks ten-pager).

Joe Torcivia said...

I’m with Geo on the “Golden Christmas Tree” gag, as long as it’s the occasional GAG – and not the characters themselves – that are at odds with the established norm.

And, again… As they say: “It’s Magic!”

You can certainly argue that the witch herself does not belong in Barks’ world – and make a good case – but, then you’d also deprive us of “Trick or Treat” and the wonderful “Too Late for Christmas”.

I feel the “Think-Boxes / Hungry Wolf” story is far more out of established norms – and unsettling, to boot – than anything in “Golden Christmas Tree”.

Pan MiluĊ› said...

The episode also barrows from the Marx Brothers "Day at the races" movie with the story point of horse being afraid of some bad guy who wants him voice and so characters use the voice to make horse go faster...

Dan Neyer said...

Count me as a third fan of the Golden Christmas Tree gag; I saw that as the witch using her magic to annoy Donald further.

Pan beat me to the rest of my observation; "Horse Scents" does borrow from the Top Cat episode, but the TC outing had the horse stimulated by a bell--in "Day at the Races" it's the voice of Douglas Dumbrille as the nasty gambling boss that's used to spur the unlikely contender "Hi-Hat." Kress must have been familiar with that one; it's also possible that Top Cat swiped the notion of a horse that races only under certain stimuli from Day at the Races--they just disguised it a little more than Kress did (after all, we all know Hanna-Barbera wasn't exactly averse to "borrowing."

The ending of Horse Scents also borrows from the 1940s Disney cartoon "They're Off," a Goofy outing in which the favorite, Snap-Shot, loses the race when he stops to mug for the camera during a photo finish.