Sunday, December 30, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 22, "Hotel Strangeduck"

At first blush, it seems remarkable that "Hotel Strangeduck" should occupy this position in the DuckTales production pipeline.  There's a certain level of tentativeness in the episode -- patchy plot line, slow pace, inconsistent voice acting -- that, quite frankly, shouldn't be on display at this point in the series.  Adding to the retrograde feel, writer Richard Merwin, possessor of the most piebald track record of any regularly employed DT scrivener, chooses this "(supposedly) haunted castle/hotel" epic to be the first of what will turn out to be three attempts by him to tribute Scooby-Doo in a DT script.  (In case you're wondering... yes, Merwin did write for one of the many Scooby permutation series, back in the early 1980s.) While Merwin does manage to create a decent amount of spooky atmosphere, his confused manner of storytelling, plus a few true logical howlers, ultimately prevent the episode from rising above "thoroughly mediocre" status.

It's certainly possible that Merwin consulted Carl Barks' "The Old Castle's Secret" while preparing this episode.  The similarity between Strangeduck's "invisigable paint" and the "chemical spray" used by Diamond Dick in "Secret" is more than enough to suggest such a connection.  Actually, it might have been better had Merwin bitten the bullet and gone for a full adaptation of "Secret" here, since I'd argue that the bits of animated business that were most likely influenced by "Secret" were carried off more effectively than were the equivalent scenes in the Barks tale.  For example, many of the shots of the skeletal "ghost of Sir Quackly McDuck" in "Secret" were quite atmospheric...

... but Barks certainly never gave his readers anything quite so dramatic as this:

Frustratingly, the scenes in Professor Ludwing von Strangeduck's "well-known secret laboratory" (huh?) marked the only times that we saw the appearance of the "ghost" accompanied by the shadow of the bones.  The "Scrooge-strangling scene" strongly suggests that adding a few more such sightings would have given "Hotel Strangeduck" an extra edge that it sorely needed.

HD&L's exploration of the graveyard near the castle is also prominently featured in "Secret":

While the boys' diligent detective work here stands in impressive contrast to the exaggerated "Shag-and-Scoob" reactions of the DT Nephews as they search for Strangeduck's tomb...

... it must be admitted that the dark, windy conditions under which the DT HD&L are operating are more conducive to a genuine feeling of fright.  Unfortunately, any sense of true peril or serious consequences arising from the existence of "Strangeduck's ghost" have already been badly compromised by Merwin's decision to frame the "ghost story" within the somewhat risible "larger narrative" of Scrooge bringing his family and servants to run a hotel in the middle of Swansylvanian nowhere.  Per contra GeoX, I think it is entirely plausible that Scrooge, faced with the refusal of others to launch this business venture, might decide to get the enterprise off the ground himself in order to show that success is possible.  I simply don't think that this "money-making idea" is as plausible, or as solid a basis for a half-hour episode, as Barks' simple notion of Scrooge searching for a hidden treasure on family land or recently-acquired property. 

In the first two segments of the episode, Merwin can't seem to make up his mind as to whether he wants to set up a straight Scooby-Doo mystery or mix the mystery with a parody of Grand Hotel.  The plot develops in sections, lurching from incident to incident, and doesn't really begin to gel until HD&L begin their "investigation" into the possible fate of Strangeduck.  Even then, Merwin makes a terrible misstep when HD&L note the "fact" that "Benzino [Gasolini] is never around when the ghost is."  In so doing, the boys conveniently forget that Benzino was present when the ghost "axed" Scrooge and company to leave at the end of Act 1 and the start of Act 2.  Even a simple Scooby-Doo mystery isn't going to work if the "red herring" is neither red nor a herring to begin with.

I think that it is quite telling that Merwin uses the "ice machine" exchange between Benzino and the Duchess of Swansylvania not once but twice.  I'm well aware that standard Scooby-Doo practice dictates that several plausible villains be on the scene and be given air time, but the sound of spinning wheels is plainly audible here, as Merwin desperately tries to fill air time while waiting for the real detective work to begin.  Besides, we already know that the Duchess is searching for something in the castle, and Benzino hasn't given us any reason to suspect him.  So these exchanges, while amusing, are much ado about absolutely nothing.  At least Benzino could have lived up to his (presumed) reputation and tried to seduce the Duchess, or something.

If the handling of the Duchess and Benzino is less than adept, then that of Ludwing von Strangeduck himself is simply risible.  Incredibly, we never do find out why Ludwing spent the episode sneaking around in a ghost costume, not even when the characters have the obligatory "exchanging of notes" in Strangeduck's lab at the end.  Among other things, the masquerade calls into question the identity of the "ghost" that had originally caused Scrooge's employees to refuse to work at the castle.  Was it Strangeduck's assistant Bernardo, whom Strangeduck admits had a tendency to "snoop around" in search of Strangeduck's book of formulas?  Or was it Ludwing himself, burnishing his credentials as a "weirdo"? Or both?  I can't even think of a Scooby-Doo episode in which a "false clue" was planted in so ham-handed a fashion.  What could Merwin possibly have been thinking here?  (To be completely fair, Scottie's "fake death" in "The Old Castle's Secret" was also pretty contrived, though nowhere close to being AS contrived as is Strangeduck's play-acting here.) 



"Hallo... I chust couldn't remember vhen Halloween fell
this year, so I figured, vhy take chances?"

What makes all of Merwin's badly-reasoned false trails and content-free "clues" so infuriating is that the episode features a more-than-respectable number of genuinely arresting scenes, leaving us to wonder what might have been had Merwin arranged his thoughts more coherently.  The "batter-dipped bandit" scene involving Mrs. Beakley, Webby, and the "ghost" in the kitchen makes excellent use of the "invisibility" idea to provide a truly scary image:

Likewise, the "flying books" scene, though brief, is appropriately atmospheric, though one really has to wonder how the "ghost" could possibly have managed to arrange it.  He would have had to have rigged up quite a few "invisagable" wires -- an engineering feat equivalent to Scrooge, HD&L, and Webby's setting of the traps for the hound and the Druids in Castle McDuck.

Best of all, of course, is the dramatic "mid-air grappling" that climaxes Scrooge's final battle with the "ghost" at the entrance to the castle. The animators are generally on their game throughout this episode, but here, they really outdo themselves.  It's also nice to see Scrooge get to climax an adventure with a no-holds-barred physical battle.

Before this memorable scene, however, we get another "How is he DOING that?" moment, in which the "ghost" appears to be fighting on several distinctly separate fronts at once.  Go ahead, try to picture in your mind's eye what kind of demented game of Twister the "ghost" would have to be playing in order to pull this off.

Between this feat, the "flying books," and the manipulation of the ax at the end of Act 1 (in which the "ghost" supposedly "floated" the ax from above the mantelpiece to a spot hovering above the table), it's quite astonishing that the "ghost" turns out to be a large, overweight, and apparently not overly bright dogsbody for a loony professor.  Bernardo missed his calling; he really should have considered vaudeville.

In light of how poorly "Hotel Strangeduck" is organized, I'm actually quite surprised that Merwin was given additional opportunities to write for the series.  Heck, the "powers that were" even gave him enough rope (or lasso) to hang himself with a second ill-conceived Scooby-Doo parody, "Ducks of the West."  Things got better, though; Merwin's third Scooby riff, "Back Out in the Outback," was easily the most successful of the trio, and he also gave us a legitimate classic with the Launchpad-focused "Top Duck."  So patience ultimately paid off, I suppose.  In the case of "Strangeduck," however, I think it's fair to say that Merwin, Scooby-Doo fan though he might have been, never got close to unraveling the Old Castle's real secret -- namely, good storytelling.

Sorry, Richard -- even the "traditional fade-out laugh" gambit isn't going to salvage this one.

.

.

.

"DuckBlurbs"

(GeoX) This episode was okay, but I can't help thinking that it was a bit of a missed opportunity--it could easily have been a lot more atmospheric/suspenseful. Instead, there's a lot of really un-spooky ghosting around that, in light of the ending, is rather more implausible than that in the story it's riffing off of. Also, there's a guest at the hotel, Italian Stereotype Man, who serves no apparent purpose (unless a funny accent counts as a "purpose"). Perhaps without that narrative dead-end, there would have been more time and opportunity to really explore the ins and outs of the castle.

Sorry to say, I don't think that Merwin had a clear idea as to how best to exploit the episode's potential for spooky atmospherics.  As for Benzino, well, for some unknown reason, Merwin must have thought that he had a potential "keeper" character on his hands here, since the "Italian playhog" and "champion race-car driver"/"air ace" (depending on source) would play an even larger role in "Top Duck."  Still, it would be something of a stretch to claim that Benzino contributed anything truly meaningful to this episode.



(GeoX) The other guest is "The Duchess of Swansylvania;" funniest part of the episode is when she signs in with a huge, hyper-ornate signature. Okay, maybe you have to see it.

Just as funny, IMHO, is the notion that "hotel tip policy" includes the proviso that you have to tip the desk clerk when you sign in.  Have any of you who've stayed in a hotel -- even a really fancy one -- ever done that?



(Greg) Benzino signs the guestbook with great difficulty and then spins the turn table as Scrooge reads his name. So his last name is based on crude oil. Why is it that Gasolini can use an Italian accent; but not Magica who uses the slightly more offensive Russian accent?

The combination of exaggerated Italian accent and exaggerated Italian persona would probably create whatever offense is to be generated by this character.  Magica, by contrast, could probably have pulled off an Italian accent quite nicely if it had not been too over-the-top.  DT chose not to go that route, but, instead, to stick with the tried-and-true "Natasha" voice.


(Greg)  So we head inside a room as Mrs. Beakly and Webby (in the same outfit Beakly is wearing minus the size and plus the pink visor, natch) prepare the room and Beakly is complaining about her back...  Webby then gleefully answers the immortal question of why Scrooge talks her into these things: It's all about the raise see. Russi does a better job in acting Mrs. Beakly then Joan Gerber does with the real character! 

I wouldn't go as far as that.  Russi, however, does seem to sound a bit more like Minnie Mouse in this scene than she normally does with Webby.


(Greg)  So we head inside at the dinner table as Scrooge, the nephews, Swans, and Benzino are seated. Duckworth is standing in the background in the left of course as the nephews proclaim that there is a lot of strange stuff happening around here... Scrooge waves it off because there are no such things as ghosts. This is the same guy who faces Magica Despell on a regular basis for goodness sakes!

Good point!  Scrooge's level of toleration for extraordinary phenomena does seem to fluctuate from episode to episode -- sometimes (as here) even within the same episode.  Not for him the stubborn consistency of Kimba or Dr. Temperance Brennan on this topic. 


(Greg) So we cut back to the door [of Strangeduck's lab] as the Nephews wonder how they are going to open it again. They go to the door as it opens and the Nephews hide behind the wall as the ghost comes out and looks around while clearly seeing them; but does nothing but walk away like a skeleton. Bad form there Richard.

Actually, it's rather difficult to make out whether the "ghost" can see the boys or not.

(Greg) So we head inside Swans' bedroom (Wasn't she supposed to stay NEAR the door?) as Swans is sleeping in her bed under the pink covers with the Rebecca sleeping patch glasses from Balooest of Bluebloods. Now all we need is bronze cupids firing arrows and this episode will be complete.

Either the Duchess has a very short attention span (somehow, I don't find that to be all that far-fetched), or Scrooge and HD&L were in the bowels of the castle for a MUCH longer time than Merwin suggested on screen.

Next: Episode 23, "Launchpad's Civil War."

6 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

With the cast of regular and guest characters (and the potential for gags and memorable interactions of every kind) this episode had, it SHOULD have been Barks’ “Old Castle’s Secret” via “The Uncrashable Hindentanic”… but it wasn’t. And that (Alas!) is due to the apparent difference in skill between Ken Koonce and David Wiemers vs. Richard Merwin.

To be fair to Merwin, perhaps he was undermined by the Disney production machine. Better writers than he have fallen victim to that -- both during the process, and sometimes even years after the fact. Conversely, I lay the blame for the grossly mischaracterized “Ducks of the West” entirely at Merwin’s feet! Though, even there, Disney allowed that atrocity to go to air! Ultimately, given the sampling, I cannot regard Merwin as a particularly good writer – even with “Top Duck” to his credit.

That said, wouldn’t you love to know what K&W would have done with the same basic plot and setup of “Hotel Strangeduck”?

Daniel J. Neyer said...

I'd have to agree with most of the criticisms of Strangeduck--the slow pacing and the plot holes really pull it down. If it wasn't for Top Duck, I'd really get the idea that Merwin didn't know HOW to write anything other than Scooby-Doo imitations.

The episode does have one of my favorite Duckworth moments, though--when he faces up to the "ghost" despite being obviously scared, while claiming that only hotel personnel can use the drawbridge. Duckworth only occasionally gets a chance to shine (best example being Duckworth's Revolt), but I feel that he's the original-to-Ducktales character with the most potential after Launchpad. I was pleased when William Van Horn used him in Snore Losers and allowed him to bounce dryly sarcastic remarks off of Scrooge; I see Duckworth as a fussy but extremely upright type, who can unbend enough to play Rochester to Scrooge's Jack Benny when the old tightwad is being particularly eccentric.

Pan MiluĊ› said...

Yhe, but the episode is super creepy and that's good enough for me...:)

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

Yes, "Hotel Strangeduck", unlike "Ducks of the West", at least had reasonably good characterizations of the main protagonists. The trouble was that those characterizations weren't put to any useful purpose.

Chris

Chris Barat said...

Dan,

Duckworth IS in good form here. The helmet-polishing scene and the "former weirdo" line are good moments, too.

Chris

Mark Lungo said...

One things that's mystified me about this episode, and Duck Tales in general: Several episodes introduce an invention that could change the world (as Scrooge points out here), but is rarely or never seen after its first appearance. I'm thinking not only of the invisibility spray, but of the "time tub" from "Time Teasers".