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.

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"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."

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ducks for the Holidays: My "Festive Five"

GeoX's ongoing trilogy of Christmas Carol posts has prompted me to post my own list of the Top 5 Duck-related Christmas stories.  I previously posted this list on the Disney Comics forum, but left slot #5 open because I didn't want to be a "Scrooge."  This post will fill that small gap.

1.  "A Christmas for Shacktown" -- Big surprise, huh?  Manages to be sentimental, funny, cynical, and redemptive, all at the same time.

2.  "Letter to Santa" -- Very different in tone from "Shacktown," of course -- more biting, less sentimental -- but Barks is on his game throughout, starting with that magnificent opening splash panel (actually, splash PAGE):

3.  "Search for the Cuspidoria" -- My "sleeper story" on this list.  Remember that Disney direct-to-video special, Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas?  I was less than enamored of "Stuck on Christmas," the Duck contribution to that bauble, primarily because I didn't like the characterization of the Nephews.  Yeah, I realize that the short was trying to recapture the "rapscallion era" of the Donald shorts, but they really did come across as awful jerks, ultimate reformation notwithstanding.  "Cuspidoria" would have been a perfect replacement -- it's an imaginative riff on the idea of "holiday redemption," and you could even have slipped Launchpad into the cast as the one who flies (er, steers) the submarine.  Seeing Scrooge, HD&L, Donald, and LP in such a short would have been, as the man says, epic.

4.  "Tis the Season" -- This blows DONALD DUCK AND THE CHRISTMAS CAROL completely out of the water.  Mike Peraza's six-page, picture-book-style story -- actually, it's more a series of vignettes than a true "story" -- could be considered the Duck comics "universe"'s version of A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Its characterization of Scrooge may strike hardcore purists as somewhat inauthentic, but I prefer to think of this Scrooge as the DuckTales version of the character.  This seems logical in that Peraza was heavily involved in the production of the TV series. 

5.  "Donald Duck's Best Christmas" -- The pull of nostalgia definitely affects this choice.  Not because I was alive when the Firestone Tire people were distributing their holiday giveaway comic in December of 1945, but rather, because this eight-page Barks story was featured in a Gladstone reprint during the Christmas season of 1986.  In that first Gladstone year, the future of American Disney comics seemed sunny and limitless, and I was getting to read hitherto unseen Barks tales on a monthly basis.  This one definitely has its gooey aspects (the poor kids are suspiciously chipper, not at all like the sullen waifs on the first page of "Shacktown"), and Donald here is very much in "self-righteous asshole" mode, but I've always liked it a great deal.  Barks manages to balance sentiment and comedy quite well here.  Barks' first use of Grandma Duck gives the story some extra cachet, though the characterization of Grandma here is nothing like the one that Barks would ultimately fashion for the character.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 21, "Superdoo!"

We DuckTales dissectors appear to have reached another "split decision" in the course of assessing "Superdoo!"  This time, though, only one guy appears to be seated on the low end of the teeter-totter (not a bad metaphor to use when you recall the last scene in which this ep's featured player ever appeared).  Greg, you're definitely in the minority here, as Joe and I were both less than thrilled by this well-meaning but messily executed homage to Super Goof, while GeoX was not thrilled so much as chilled.  As DT's one episode focusing entirely on the doings of the Junior Woodchucks  -- granted, "Merit-Time Adventure" was heavily flavored with essence de marmotte, but Scrooge's activities got just as much attention -- this represented a golden opportunity for the series to delve deeply into the workings and traditions of the organization in a Barksian, if not a Rosa-crucian, manner.  Instead, we get a series of insults, "snide remarks," and attempts at one-upmanship that literally makes every protagonist except troop leader Launchpad (well, and the squirrel who winds up in possession of the superpower-dispensing alien crystal) look very bad indeed.  The undeniable sincerity of writer Michael Keyes' intentions gets lost in the shuffle.

To answer the obvious question first: Yes, I definitely do think that someone involved in the creative process here was consciously thinking of Super Goof.  The idea of a klutz or otherwise unlikely individual becoming a superhero is certainly not new -- you can probably trace it all the way back to here -- but Doofus' superhero garb is a dead giveaway.  Can we possibly consider the use of long underwear by Goofy, Doofus, AND Ma Hunkel as establishing a definitive visual shorthand for "Yeah, it's kinda absurd that this person is playing hero, but let's go with it anyway"?



Doofus' duds may be similar to those of his predecessors, but his deportment is definitely not.  Keyes may have been able to salvage this ep and explain Doofus' descent into duplicitous dickishness (OK, I'll dispense with the constant use of the D-words) by taking a cue from Huey's comment that the alien crystal "sure has changed" the Nephews' pal -- namely, by originally depicting the crystal as literally BEING an agent of negative change. Specifically, if it had been established early in the episode that the "diamond doughnut" had the ability to directly alter Doofus' personality for the worse -- that is, that the negative side effect of becoming all-powerful by using the crystal was that he would alienate everyone around him -- then we would have had more empathy for the suddenly friendless Doofus' sad plight.  Moreover, Doofus' ultimate decision to throw the crystal away despite its baleful influence would have been made to seem even more admirable than it actually was.  I'm not sure how this idea could have been planted -- perhaps the bumbling alien criminals (who would, of course, also have been affected by the crystal's powers) could have been fighting over possession of the crystal and then lost it in Earth's atmosphere -- but, as written here, Doofus' immediate change of personality is simply too abrupt to be convincing.  In the absence of any context, the Machiavellian leering that Doofus does when he's thinking about how to exploit his new powers comes completely out of left field.  Perhaps falling from the sky and crashing headfirst into that boulder really did have some lingering effects, after all.

  
Of course, HD&L don't exactly cover themselves with glory, either.  Keyes appears to have been somewhat confused regarding how badly the Nephews should have behaved before Doofus finds the crystal.  Bill and Webster (I don't know why Keyes went to the trouble of naming those characters if their names were never going to be spoken aloud) start out the episode as the real assholes, verbally mocking Doofus, while Dewey sounds sorry for Doofus when he comments that "everyone got a geology merit badge but him." This sounds a lot like a verbal version of the sort of camaraderie and mutual support that one would expect from "fellow Woodchucks," and HD&L in particular...

... but then, entering Camp Woodchuck, the boys make with the fat jokes about their laggard pal.  Worse yet, they do it surreptitiously.  I suppose that these actions wouldn't technically count as "being a jerk TO Doofus," since HD&L don't mock him openly, but that just makes the boys' uncharitable attitude seem worse.

Having now seen all the Woodchucks exhibit contempt for Doofus, the audience can perhaps be excused for not particularly minding the be-crystalled Doofus' insufferably cocky behavior as he bags merit badge after merit badge.  Had Keyes made the Nephews more sympathetic to Doofus and established that Doofus was not entirely in control of his own actions due to the baleful influence of the crystal, Doofus' mocking Huey's attempts to start a fire, and Louie's plaintive comment "So why aren't we happier for him?", would have been much more effective moments.  We would have felt some sympathy for both Doofus and HD&L.  Instead, it's tit-for-tat jerkishness, and I agree with GeoX that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.


I don't want to take anything away from Doofus' ultimate decision to ditch the "diamond doughnut" and make up with his friends.  It's certainly the single most emotionally powerful moment of his career, just as "Hero for Hire" is arguably his finest overall performance.  However, I definitely would have avoided Doofus' pratfall in the final campfire scene...

... because it completely negates the effectiveness of the previous scene, in which Doofus trapped the timberwolves using his own wits, and simply reinforces GeoX's idea that the true moral of the story is "know your place."  Or, "once a klutz, always a klutz."  I imagine that Keyes thought he was being clever here by ending the episode with a pratfall, just as he had started it with Launchpad and all the other Woodchucks tripping over the outcropping.  If so, then the notion... well, backfired.

I don't normally hold with the use of aliens as corny as these fellows, but their bungling is definitely one of the more enjoyable things about "Superdoo!".  I wonder whether Keyes consciously tried to make them "less than ept" in order to play them off against the infamously fallible Doofus.   Probably not, but the goofy gags and the Yoda-speak (however inconsistently written) definitely lend some much-needed levity to the proceedings.

On a (literally) higher plane, I also greatly enjoy the sequence during which Doofus takes his "nighttime journey" and discovers his new powers.  As Greg notes, one scene in particular was most definitely inspired by a certain Steven Spielberg movie...

... but the episode creates its own brand of magic when Doofus wakes up to what he thinks is a dream and later flies gleefully through the night sky.  Ron Jones' musical accompaniment here adds effectively to the sense of wonder and enchantment.



Had the interpersonal conflicts been handled more adroitly, "Superdoo!" would probably be remembered much more fondly than it is.  As it happened, it would take a couple of years and a completely different medium before Doofus would get a starring role in a really first-rate adventure -- and, in that case, he WAS under the evil influence of mind control.  Better late than never, I suppose.

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"DuckBlurbs"

(GeoX) "One more, and I become the all-time Woodchuck merit-badge champion!" So…the current all-time record is nine? The "excessive Woodchuck awards" business was present in the pilot, but now it appears to have been jettisoned.

Boy, has it ever.  The merit-badge-related activities of the Junior Woodchucks, as presented here, are surprisingly -- and disappointingly -- simplistic.  One could possibly imagine "Superdoo!" as taking place before the events of "Merit-Time Adventure" -- perhaps the self-confidence that Doofus gained from trapping the timberwolves spurred him on to become a competent merit-badge winner and a challenge to the Nephews in that area -- but, since HD&L won a bucketload of medals immediately upon joining the JWs in "Don't Give Up the Ship," watching them struggle to make pottery, weave baskets, and even build a fire looks decidedly strange.  (It looked even stranger when this episode was originally broadcast after "Treasure of the Golden Suns.") 

(Greg)  Then [Doofus] gets the MIMI JOKE ZONE PLAN as he runs into the cabin and rips a red sash from the wall and goes to the CHEST OF DEMONS to find some boots and under suit. He's going to have a disguise see and then he runs out and does this silly fanfare sounds. He then runs into the outhouse and opens the door and goes inside. He changes and shakes the outhouse a bit before coming out disguised as a super hero. He wears his woodchuck hat over his eyes and I see the problem here: The glasses he wears give him away as well as the body mass.

Not to mention the Junior Woodchuck cap itself.  If the plot of "Send in the Clones" relied on "Cartoon Duck Syndrome" in order to work, then Doofus' secret identity depends upon it in the same way that a drunk "depends" upon a lamp post.  Or something like that.  The "funny fanfare" is definitely good for a chuckle, though.

(Greg)  So we head to the river as the aliens cool their asses off in the river (EWWWWWW!) as purple alien wants a new plan and then notices it right in front of him as there is a dam right behind the camp. Now this proves that Mr. Woodchuck has lost his mind. Who in their right mind would place a camp right in front of a dam?!

All the better for the Woodchucks to display their survival skills when the dam bursts, I suppose.  BTW, there are some soundtrack glitches hereabouts; Purple Alien speaks with Green Alien's voice when he says "New plan we need," and Dewey subsequently calls Huey "Louie." 

Next:  Episode 22, "Hotel Strangeduck."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Book Review: WALT DISNEY'S DONALD DUCK, VOLUME 2: A CHRISTMAS FOR SHACKTOWN by Carl Barks (Fantagraphics Press, 2012)

"The Christmas story in comics defined" -- not my words, but those of "Friend of N&V" and longtime confidant Joe Torcivia -- fittingly leads off this holiday-season release of the second DONALD DUCK volume in Fantagraphics' CARL BARKS LIBRARY series.  The stories in this collection were all produced during the early 1950s, at a time when Carl Barks' second marriage had disintegrated and he was trying to put his life back together.  Normally, I'm not a big believer in the theory that "hardship invariably breeds great art," but Barks' personal problems really did seem to spur him on to produce some of his finest work during this period.  For sure, he was at, or very close to, his artistic peak while laboring on the full-length adventures, ten-page stories, and gag pages assembled between these covers.

Barks produced a number of other good Christmas stories during his career, but "A Christmas for Shacktown" gets the "golden candy cane" as the best.  Contrary to R. Fiore's claim in the Story Notes section, however, I don't believe that it is an entirely typical reflection of Barks' rather jaundiced view of the Christmas holiday.  The previous "Letter to Santa" and "You Can't Guess!" were focused on gift-giving, rivalries, fights between pieces of heavy machinery, and other strictly non-sentimental aspects of Christmas.  "Shacktown," by contrast, smacks us right between the eyes in that very first splash panel with its scene of a guilt-ridden HD&L walking through a Shacktown filled with sad-eyed waifs, and all the comical twists and turns that the story takes thereafter take place in the sad shadow of those dilapidated houses.  You might argue that Barks tries to make the Shacktown waifs too winsome and thereby slips in some cynicism through the back door, but I'm willing to take his overall sincerity at face value.  How can I not, when the agnostic cartoonist provides us with one of the more amazing images of his career as a "throwaway" side-panel:

SHOCK!  HORROR!  WHY WASN'T THIS CENSORED?!
HAS THE ACLU BEEN NOTIFIED?! 

Scrooge does "balance" the sentimentality of "Shacktown" just a bit by presenting an Uncle Scrooge who harkens back to the bad old days of "The Magic Hourglass," in general attitude, at least.  But true to the essentially heartwarming nature of the story, Scrooge gets his comeuppance for being so reluctant to help with the Shacktown party, and in the most dramatic manner imaginable.  As in the conclusion of "The Big Bin on Killmotor Hill," the story that introduces Scrooge's Money Bin, we are left to wonder just how Scrooge's affairs will ever again "be as they were."  As if to make up for hanging Scrooge out to dry in these stories, "Spending Money" and "Statuesque Spendthrifts" present, in turn, a McDuck empire that literally controls the entire economy and a Scrooge who merely has to dip into his "petty cash" fund to brush aside a would-be challenger to his title of World's Richest Man.  Thank God for the development of tunneling machinery that doesn't jiggle... I guess.

If "Shacktown" is among Barks' best-loved tales, then "The Golden Helmet" and "The Gilded Man" are two of his most technically perfect ones.  The Inducks rankings currently list "Helmet" as #2 among all Disney comic-book stories, and I'm certainly not going to argue the general point, but I would argue that the ending of "The Gilded Man" is handled about as deftly as the ending of any comic-book story ever done, in any genre.  The manner in which Barks twines together his two main plot threads seems simple enough in retrospect, but, if you're reading the story for the first time -- or even if you haven't read it for a while and have forgotten some of the details -- you'll be amazed at how completely the denouement takes you by surprise.

My "sleeper story" in this collection is the ten-pager "Rocket Wing Saves the Day" from WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #139.  It's wonderfully drawn, and it's refreshing to read a story in which Donald and HD&L connive against one another but neither has to end up paying a real price (as compared to, say, those "New Year's Resolutions" stories in which having to do the dishes for a month is made to seem like getting sent to the Black Hole of Calcutta).  It's also amusing, in a slightly creepy sort of way, to watch HD&L put so much effort into training a non-anthropomorphized bird.  There are some plot holes in the story that bother me -- isn't it convenient that HD&L start playing choo-choo just when the whistle-loving Rocket Wing is flying by?  How can Dewey (or Huey, if you go by cap color in the subsequent panel) possibly SEE that tiny dropped note on top of the fish cannery building?  And what kind of guardian sends his charges out to cut seed potatoes, of all things, in order to get them out of his hair? -- but this is one of those Barks stories that has just always "worked" for me.  In truth, virtually all of the stories in this collection "work" for virtually everyone, which is why this volume is #3 on Fantagraphics' BARKS LIBRARY release schedule.

Book Review: THE STORY OF AIN'T by David Skinner (Harper Collins, 2012)

These days, we are inundated with so many sources of information (many of which are decidedly unreliable, but there you go) that it's difficult to believe that the release of a new "repository of knowledge" could engender intense controversy.  Fifty years ago, things were very different, as we learn in David Skinner's entertaining book about the violent (in an intellectual sense, anyway) reaction to the release of WEBSTER'S THIRD INTERNATIONAL UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY in 1961.  Public intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald and Jacques Barzun regarded the descriptivist tome, which broke dramatically with Webster's prescriptivist tradition of clearly separating "standard" and "nonstandard" language usages, as a harbinger of the end of civilization, or at least an American "high culture" that seemed to be imperiled by the development of "middlebrow" taste during the years before and after World War II.  While fully recognizing the overblown nature of many of these complaints, Skinner also admits that WEBSTER'S THIRD editor Philip Gove and his cohorts at Merriam-Webster badly mishandled the transition to the new methodology by failing to do a proper job of explaining why and how it had been done.  This PR bungling allowed the media of the day to jump on such trumped-up claims as the contention that WEBSTER'S THIRD had "officially" sanctioned the use of ain't, when in fact the truth was more complicated.

I first learned of this controversy while reading Henry Hitchings' book THE LANGUAGE WARS, which does a good job of describing the whole descriptivist-vs.-prescriptivist argument for the layperson.  Interestingly, no such caterwauling as that which greeted WEBSTER'S THIRD was heard when THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY, which took a decidedly prescriptivist approach to describing the history and usage of words, was published in Britain.  One possible reason why the WEBSTER'S outcry was much greater was that editor Gove also decided to eliminate a good deal of encyclopedic material that had previously been included in the dictionary.  No longer having a single place to go to find lists of battles, names of famous characters in literature, etc. must have been quite disappointing for some people, and WEBSTER'S THIRD new approach to defining words (Gove preferred single-sentence definitions, which led to some gruesomely worded descriptions of such everyday words as air and door) must only have added to the sense of disorientation.

Skinner necessarily has to backtrack quite a long way in order to tell this story in full, but he manages to describe the development of linguistics as a tool for understanding American English, the history of the "English Language Arts" movement, the dramatic increase in American English's vocabulary during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and the lives and careers of the principal figures in this cerebral scrap without confusing the reader.  The closest thing to a true throughline in the tale is the story of Dwight Macdonald, an "impassioned aginner" who started his career as a radical in the 30s, maintained an idiosyncratically adversarial stance towards American culture throughout his life, yet still wound up delivering a diatribe against WEBSTER'S THIRD that would probably please Judge Antonin Scalia today.  In Macdonald's notorious essay attacking the dictionary, one can detect a fair amount of snobbery, an uneasy feeling that culture had become too accessible to (and, as a result, had been cheapened by) the American middle class.  Nowadays, the tastes of 50s America seem like those of a classic "golden age" to many of us, but a lot of eggheads (there's a 50s-ism for you) sneered at the masses' preferences.  The elite's disdain for WEBSTER'S THIRD as supposedly sanctioning slang phrases and colloquialisms as being every bit as legitimate as formal platform speech was heartfelt, but basically misguided.  Still, their fulminations make for entertaining reading.  In what other capacity would you ever see THE NEW YORK TIMES engage in Red-baiting (by once referring to the offending dictionary as "WEBSTER'S THIRD (Bolshevik) INTERNATIONAL")?  If you are interested in language and/or like to read about intellectuals making even bigger fools of themselves than is normally the case, then THE STORY OF AIN'T will be a pleasant read.

Monday, December 17, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 20, "Send in the Clones"... plus a VERY Belated RIP Joan Gerber

I'm finally "out the other end of the tunnel," final-exam-wise, and am free to do a DT RETRO for the first time in several weeks.  There will be a special addendum to this edition, however.  I had heard rumors last year that Joan Gerber (Mrs. Beakley, Glittering Goldie, the "original" Webra Walters) had died, but I was never able to get an absolute confirmation of the fact.  (Some sources still haven't; Wikipedia's entry for Ms. Gerber, for example, still does not list her death date.)  Now, however, I have confirmed from multiple sources that Ms. Gerber did indeed pass away last August 22.  After Hal Smith, Hamilton Camp, and Kathleen Freeman, she's the fourth principal cast member of DuckTales to have died.  I'll pay a tribute to her following "DuckBlurbs."

Even at this late date, it's possible to engage in reasonable speculation as to why certain DuckTales episodes were chosen for broadcast in the series' all-important first week of syndication (September 21-25, 1987).  "Sphinx for the Memories" probably made the cut to reassure nervous viewers (those who hadn't watched "Treasure of the Golden Suns," anyway) that Donald would have some sort of role to play.  "Armstrong" and "Robot Robbers" had an explicit continuity link (with Scrooge angrily referencing Gyro's near-disastrous creation of Armstrong when he gets a load of the titular automatons in the latter ep), and it therefore made sense to broadcast them reasonably close to one another in time order.  In my post about "Armstrong," I suggested that WDTVA chose to spotlight that episode in the first place in order to showcase its outstanding animation.  "Where No Duck Has Gone Before" placed an homage to Star Trek in a Duck-context -- certainly, a slam-dunk choice to grab folks' attention.  And then, there's "Send in the Clones," which got the honor of leading off that first week.  How come?

1.  It's a first-rate introduction to Magica De Spell for newbies, and a fine "initial animated experience" with the character for viewers who are already familiar with her.

2.  Its semi-farcical, mistaken-identity-focused, slammed-door-filled approach provides a nice contrast to the more-or-less "classic" treasure-hunting subject matter of "Golden Suns," giving viewers a hint as to the vast range of thematic approaches that DuckTales would ultimately spread before the camera.   

3.  The setting of the healthy majority of the episode inside McDuck Mansion provides a similar contrast to the extensive globe-trotting seen in "Golden Suns."  Indeed, given how little we saw of Scrooge's "home life" in Carl Barks' stories -- truth be told, it was hard to tell if Scrooge even HAD a "home life" most of the time -- "Clones" provides an early indication that the world of what Pete Fernbaugh termed "The Domestic McDuck" will get a good deal of attention during the series.

4.  Despite occasionally shaky figure drawing, the animation is excellent, even flashily flamboyant at times. The animation definitely gets across the idea that the characters are delighted to be starring in a syndicated strip series.  Why, they're positively jumping with joy!






Seriously, did someone involved with this episode take inspiration from Van Halen?


Given all of the frenetic activity (vertical and otherwise) that's to follow, it's not surprising that Magica De Spell comes off as what GeoX accurately terms "entertainingly flamboyantly maniacal" in the opening scene of "Clones."  It is, however, something of a departure from Barks' treatment of the character in the 1960s.  The typical Barks Magica story concluded with a frustrated Magica pitching an hysterical fit, but she generally spent most of the rest of the story acting as a reasonably cool customer.  (One notable exception is "For Old Dime's Sake," in which she works herself up into a lather as she summons various natural phenomena to attack Scrooge's Money Bin.  By that time, with several unsuccessful Dime-glomming schemes already under her garter [and no doubt galling her skin], she could perhaps be excused for working out some of her resentment right off the bat.) In "Clones," by contrast, she's "on" from the off, as if to drill into our brains for all time the importance that she attaches to Scrooge's Old #1 Dime and the uses to which she plans to put it once she gets her hands on it.  It's not exactly subtle, but it's effective.

As I noted in my commentary on "Magica's Magic Mirror," Magica's adoption of a Russian (or, if you prefer, "European") accent is a small price to pay for the privilege of getting June Foray into the voice cast.  The ditching of the "Italian connection" is also made easier to accept due to the fact that the "Mount Vesuvius" that serves as Magica's base here is clearly NOT the "Mount Vesuvius" on the shores of the Gulf of Naples.  For one thing, it's an isolated island in the middle of a large body of water, as we see in the climactic "backfiring spell" scene.  For another... well, I doubt very much that the Italian government would approve of Magica's "remodeling" of the mountain's summit to suit her purposes.  I suppose we'll just have to count the DuckTales Vesuvius as being a different construct altogether.  At least now, it would make sense for airlines to have "flights to Vesuvius" (as opposed to Naples or some other nearby location).  The idea of "flights" to a natural phenomenon (a potentially dangerous one, yet!) never did seem right to me in Magica stories, but now, one would almost HAVE to fly in order to get to Magica's stronghold.  Strangely, though, in the later "Raiders of the Lost Harp," we see a mailman drive his van right up to Magica's mailbox.  Right hand, left hand...

We also have a bit of a problem regarding Magica's ultimate plans for Old #1.  The "melting" and "amulet" aspects are preserved, but... "taking over the world" with the help of the coveted coin?  Perhaps Magica should have specifically referred to "taking over the financial world"?  I agree with GeoX; this additional motivation simply seems like overkill.  I do, however, think that I understand why Magica claims that she will only turn Poe back into her brother once she's created her amulet.  In the spirit of "pour encourager les autres," I rather think that she's holding out on restoring Poe to his normal self until he, er, "cooperates" and helps her get the dime.  (BTW, if we're going to pull DT's chain for giving Magica a Russian accent, then shouldn't we jump on the series with just as much force for not giving Poe an accent AT ALL?)

If Magica's demeanor, home base, and dime-tactics are rather different here than what a Barks purist might expect, then Scrooge's preoccupation with his public image is just as unexpected.  Despite the perceptible "softening" of his character in the end, Scrooge still had his moments of public asperity in "Golden Suns," reaming out a whistling employee and tossing solicitors out of his office for fun, to take just a few examples.  Even when he acceded to the interview at the candy factory at the end of "Don't Give Up the Ship," he spoke in bland business platitudes and was initially baffled by the TV reporter's question about his family.  In "Clones," however, he opens his mansion to Webra Walters specifically to allow her to do a story on his family.  The Scrooge who howled about having his picture printed in JOLT magazine in "North of the Yukon" would not be amused.  Of course, Scrooge's desire to exploit the interview in an attempt to project a "positive image" makes the clone-caused confusion (and Scrooge's panicked reactions to it) all the funnier.  It must be said, however, that this is purely a DuckTales scenario; it's hard to imagine it occurring in a typical Barks tale.  The same holds true with the episode's heavy reliance on what Greg terms "Cartoon Duck Syndrome."  In order to keep the plot from vaporizing before our eyes, everyone must overlook the Beagle-Nephews' obviously faked voices, Webra must be suspicious enough of the goings-on to create humorous tension between herself and Scrooge but not sufficiently suspicious to blow the whistle on the whole deal, Magica and the Beagles must be unable to hear Huey and Mrs. Beakley's loud voices in Magica's lair, and so forth.  If a hard-core Barks fan missed "Golden Suns" and started his or her DT-watching with this ep, then for him or her to have had a condescending reaction to the "non-Barksian" aspects of the plot would not have been a major surprise.  "Golden Suns" watchers, however, would quickly have recognized a continuation of the "kinder, gentler" Scrooge and the somewhat more "relaxed" TV-animation logic of the pilot adventure.

The Magica/Beagles crossover here is intriguing, but not a whole lot is done to take advantage of the contrast in these characters' villainous styles. No sooner has Magica gotten the Beagles out of the slammer than the clone-scheme is underway and subtle characterization is put aside (partially because the characters are playing the roles of other characters a good deal of the time).  The scene in which the Beagles pridefully sneer at Magica's request that they go after a "measly dime" is the closest that the ep gets to playing with the contrast in any meaningful way.

"Clones" does rather better with another character-based notion -- that of giving one of the Nephews a starring role.  Well, perhaps it would be better to call the role a "semi-starring" one.  Huey's assumption of "extra duties" here is nothing like Dewey's discontent-fueled driving of the key subplot in "Duck in the Iron Mask".  Basically, he just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is forced to accompany Bigtime, Babyface, and Magica back to Vesuvius.  I would like to think that, had Dewey or Louie been put in the same position, they would have handled it equally well.  Even so, one has to be impressed with the way in which Huey handled his prodigious workload in the final third of this episode: busting knots, climbing the cliff under extreme duress, being forced to play matador and dodge a dragon, flinging dangerous magical chemicals around Magica's lair, and, of course, executing that eye-popping "vertical leap from a standing start" just before Magica grabs him.  It's only fair to add that, when HD&L excitedly relate their "Quacker-Snatcher" theory to Webra, it's Huey who takes the main lead in doing so.  It's almost as if he were able to anticipate what was ahead for him.


Pete Fernbaugh's review of "Clones" includes an excellent discussion of the "domestic" aspects of this episode -- in particular, its emphasis on the importance of family and how that emphasis helped to mellow Scrooge's character for the TV audience.  I think that this episode's climax struck just about the right note in how it handled the choice that Scrooge must make between Old #1 and Huey.  Scrooge's decision to give Old #1 to Magica in order to get Huey back simply seems "right" in context, especially after the events of "Golden Suns" served to cement the bonds of loyalty between Scrooge and his family members (in particular, the boys).  If Scrooge's determination to reclaim Castle McDuck in "The Curse of Castle McDuck" was backwards-looking, focusing on the importance of the past, then his apparent surrender of Old #1 here indicates a willingness to sacrifice for the future -- specifically, for one of his putative heirs.  The fact that Scrooge winds up outfoxing Magica (with the help of a tremendous slice of luck -- that juggling act with the dimes after Huey broke free from the Beagles and disrupted the trade certainly wasn't in his original plan) makes him seem both compassionate and clever -- a nice combination of Barks' "smarter than the smarties" miser and the "nicer than he used to be" Scrooge of the TV series.

"Send in the Clones" gets its non-trivial job done in a fun and enjoyable way.  It immediately grabs the viewer's attention, introduces a major villain, brings forth plenty of chuckles, and firmly establishes the series' credibility when it comes to producing self-contained 22-minute adventures.
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"DuckBlurbs"
 
(GeoX)  ...[T]here's an incredibly weird ending: the ducks and the reporter fly away from Vesuvius in a helicopter; Magica is swearing revenge in the distance, to which they all simultaneously shrug their shoulders and declare: "she gets so carried away!" Is it a parody of hokey, self-conscious endings like that, or is it the thing itself? And is it supposed to be some sort of punchline? It looks like it's meant to be a one-liner of some sort, but it's not, I dunno, funny, or meaningful, or anything. A strange and infelicitous way to close the show out.

As a commenter pointed out on your blog, Geo, this was merely the climax to a running gag.  To be sure, one can debate about how good the gag was, but at least they tried to pay it off in a big way, with all of the good-guy characters pitching in to help punch it across.  (It's funny how they all automatically knew to say the line at the same time, however.)

(Greg) [Magica] throws more dust into the fire and notice the middle of the pentagram: There is a circle around it; but if you look closely; you can see the shape of a pentagon around it (thus proving that this is a pentagram). Disney would NEVER get away with this ever again even if they sell a DVD set which contains Ducktales episodes with that symbol.

Ah yes, the pentagram!  You get an even better view of the layout when raven-Magica does her power-swoop during the magical battle...


To be perfectly honest, I never paid much attention to the presence of this figure, and I doubt that even the most hypersensitive anti-occultist did so at the time.  Magica is a magical villainess, so it isn't surprising that her lair would feature some contentious symbolism.  The problem with a later banned episode like Darkwing Duck's "Hot Spells" was that it took what was already a more controversial idea (the use of magic-wielder Morgana as a protagonist -- or reformed villainess, if you want to get technical about it) and then upped the ante with references to the Devil, Hell, and the imperiling of souls.  I don't like the idea of any Disney Afternoon episode being banned, but the contrast between these two very different reactions to "occult material" is quite understandable.

(Greg)  Mrs. Beakly proclaims to Scrooge not to worry because this will be perfect. Scrooge changes the mirror on Mrs. Beakly and leaves as Beakly didn't like that one. Then we get logic break #2 as she was in clear sight of seeing the mirror with the Beagle Boys image on it looking for items. She turns around and orders them to go upstairs which stops the Beagle Nephews from stealing. 

Actually, I think that she's looking past the mirror and therefore can't see the Beagles inside it.  Either that, or she is standing at such an angle that she can see figures moving on the surface of the mirror (which prompts her to order the Beagle-Nephews to go and change clothes) but can't make out who the figures are.



Incidentally, why should Magica's clone-spell have the flaw that "mirrors will reveal [disguised characters'] real identity"?  Shouldn't that little detail have been fixed by Magica some time ago?  Or hasn't Magica reached the relevant page of SORCERY FOR DUMMIES yet?

(Greg)  Burger Nephew hugs Webby's Quackerpatch doll (Aw! Burger is sweeter than the real nephews combined in Webby's eyes now and thus making them heel and Burger babyface by proxy.) and Big Time Nephew grabs onto it blowing him off and then we get the tug-o-war on the doll and it gets racked as Webby protests this outrage...

Every time that I see Webby's Quacky Patch doll, I start to search for some kind of meta-comment on marketing.  Is the tug of war here some sort of unspoken criticism of how consumers fight one another for the "hot marketing sensation of the season"?  Probably not, but the thought itself is more imaginative than anything Charles Schulz came up with for Tapioca Pudding.

(Greg)  So we head back to Magica's Satan 666 Jet of Death (Now there is something Don Karnage should have stolen; just to be cool)...

Considering that Barks' Magica usually seemed content to travel to and from Duckburg on garden-variety airplanes, the DT Magica has a most impressive fleet of airborne vehicles.  The "Satan 666 Jet of Death" here and the claw-footed helicopter in "Raiders of the Lost Harp" should each have been used more than once.  Unfortunately, they weren't.  Indeed, in Magica's final appearance in the second season's "The Unbreakable Bin," she goes "transportationally old-school" and rides a broom.  The diverse array of transportation options seems all of a piece with the "flashier" and "splashier" aspects of the DT Magica's persona.

 
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Joan Gerber

Greg had some comments in his "Clones" review about Joan Gerber's frequently "wooden" performances as Mrs. Beakley.  I definitely got that impression on more than one occasion, and Joan's Mae West impression for Glittering Goldie also had its overly studied aspects (though they were more understandable for a voice that was more highly stylized to begin with).  I wonder whether Joan's prior voice work had conditioned her to employ such an approach.  Certainly, her first major voice-acting job encouraged stylized performances, since the "animation" (if you could call it that) was about as stiff and minimal as can be imagined:


Later, as "The Story Lady" -- think a radio version of Jay Ward's Fractured Fairy Tales, in a highly compressed format --  Joan read "fairy tales with a twist" in a purposefully modulated voice:


By the time of Wait Till Your Father Gets Home in 1973, the pattern was well-established.  As Irma Boyle, Joan gave a solid -- but also fairly stolid -- performance, one reflected quite well in the opening theme song:


All things considered, I think that Joan did the best work of her career for DuckTales.  Mrs. Beakley was a very likable character, and I think it's fair to say that a number of Duck fans, irrespective of their general feelings about the series, latched onto Joan's Mae West-ish interpretation of Glittering Goldie and gladly accepted it as canonical.  It simply seemed that a conniving dance-hall girl "in the days of the great Klondike gold rush" OUGHT to sound like that.  The fact that the Mae West impression made Goldie seem more like a sexpot didn't hurt either.  Who knows, it might even have made an impression on Don Rosa.  Not a bad legacy to leave, Ms. Gerber.


Next:  Episode 21, "Superdoo!".