Sunday, March 3, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 28, "Treasure of the Golden Suns, Part Five: Too Much of a Gold Thing"

And it literally "started from scratch"...

(No, really.  Right after the title disappears, and as we zoom in on the impatiently waiting El Capitan, the "old wheezer" scratches himself.  A clever and subtle reference to the "madness" to come.)

I think that we can safely say that the vast majority of DT fandom is pretty much of one mind about the high quality of this climactic chapter of "Treasure of the Golden Suns."  Back in September of 1987, who WASN'T imitating the gold-hungry Scrooge by the end and shouting, "More, more, I want to see MORE!"?  The visual gloss of and excitement level engendered by the episode haven't dated one bit, with memorable sequence succeeding memorable sequence and the whole kit (not Cloudkicker) and kaboodle (not Kitten) ramping up to a third act that completely blew away anything on offer from any animated series of the first 40 years of television.  The levels of sophistication of such later series curtain-lifters as "Last Son of Krypton" and "Awakening" -- and, yes, Greg, I'm willing to throw in "Plunder and Lightning," at least when considered as a single, sustained narrative -- may have been somewhat higher, and I enjoyed all of these (and others) to one extent or another, but, as they famously say about sex, there can be only one "first time."  When it came to TV animation, "Golden Suns," with "Gold Thing" as its gilt-edged centerpiece, was the ultimate "first time."

*Phew*  Cigarette, darling?
(Or should I also say, "Here we go again!"?)

As spine-shakingly original as "Gold Thing" was in an animated sense, I think that a case can be made that Jymn Magon, Bruce Talkington, and Mark Zaslove had a particular template in mind when crafting their climactic narrative... namely, Carl Barks' "The Seven Cities of Cibola."  In my discussion of "Wrongway in Ronguay," I agreed with GeoX's argument that the "treasure ship" that Scrooge and HD&L find in the Ronguayian wastes may have been inspired by Captain Ulloa's ship in the Barks adventure.  This got me to thinking, and other similarities between the two tales soon began to suggest themselves to me.  It's a little surprising that these didn't originally attract my attention back in 1987; Gladstone had, after all, reprinted the story in UNCLE $CROOGE #217 in February of that year, complete with one of Daan Jippes' fine covers.  I hadn't yet gotten the set of the CARL BARKS LIBRARY containing "Cibola," and I do remember reading over the "new" story multiple times.  For some reason, I didn't pick up on the parallels when I first watched "Golden Suns" in the two-hour format.  But when you consider that "Cibola" was included in that handy-dandy, putative DuckTales reference source, the Celestial Arts UNCLE $CROOGE collection... well, as I said, there just may be a case to be made here.

HR 


Aside from the blindingly obvious (the ultimate destruction of the treasure site and the Ducks' by-the-skin-of-the-teeth-they're-not-actually-supposed-to-have survival), where else can we see possible links between "Gold Thing" and "Cibola"?

(1)  The "conquistador connection."  Why El Capitan, anyway, as opposed to Le Colonel or der Admiral?  Who knows but that reading "Cibola" triggered the creation of an adversary with a direct link to the conquistadors who, unlike Captain Ulloa and his men, had managed to survive the centuries, thanks to his obsession with the legendary Treasure of the Golden Suns?  The physiological likelihood of such a thing happening is, of course, remote, but the psychological understanding of what drove the ruthless Spaniards is accurate enough.


(2)  The dramatic ways in which the final destination is first revealed to the reader/viewer.  In Barks' story, the Ducks' climb up the cleft leading to Cibola is followed by one of the artist's great splash panels (or polygons, if you want to get geometrically technical).

"Gold Thing," by contrast, obliges the Ducks to pass through a "gauntlet of light," rather than a dark niche, but we wind up getting a very similar "open reveal," albeit from a different (and, for my money, almost equally effective) vantage point.



(3)  The "mounting tension" built into the plots.  Barks takes a fair number of pages to get the Ducks (and, tagging along behind, the Beagle Boys) to Cibola, just as "Golden Suns" takes its sweet time giving Scrooge his crack at the "ultimate treasure."  Once there, the various treasures that the Ducks find get more and more impressive, though we more or less have to take Barks' word on this (the artist shows us a few small-panel shots of various impressive treasures and otherwise assures us in a sidebar that "each 'city' is richer than the one before").  "Gold Thing," with a TV screen to play with, is far freer to sightsee on the trip up the "pecuniary curve."   

(4)  The presence of the "ultimate booby trap."  Barks, of course, lets the Ducks (specifically, Huey) dope out the danger in time to avoid causing catastrophe and gives the cluelessly greedy Beagle Boys the "dishonor" of activating the trap instead.  In "Gold Thing," with Jymn et al. having committed to plugging the infamous "Scrooge gets gold fever" angle from the get-go, it's only logical that Scrooge and the equally lucre-addled HD&L wind up tripping the... big sun clock-gear... uh, thing.  I wonder: had Barks thought up the idea for "Cibola" about five years earlier, when Scrooge was a somewhat more villainous character, might he have been tempted to teach the old miser a similar "lesson"? 

(5)  Scrooge "losing control."  Well, he comes close in "Cibola," though he never quite tips over the edge.  But isn't dizziness one of the first symptoms of, um, fever?  The dollar signs popping from Scrooge's head are a familiar enough motif, but in how many other Barks treasure-hunt stories does he show that weird, glassy-eyed stare?  Are hiccups truly that far behind?  Thank goodness Huey was there to pour the alcohol down the drain, so to speak.

(6)  "Picture talk."  Both stories make use of rebus writing (translated by the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook in both cases) to push the plot along, though the message in "Gold Thing" is rather more important in terms of the Ducks' immediate physical well-being.  The logic of Barks' message is admittedly a lot firmer; assuming that the "dead duck" who wrote the "Gold Thing" rebus died fighting over the gold before he had a chance to trip the booby trap -- and he must have, since, well, the Valley is still intact -- then how would he have known the consequences of tripping said trap?  But it is easy to imagine the "Gold Thing" writers looking at the Barks panels below and drawing some visual inspiration from them, even if they simplified the actual execution.

The one great advantage that "Gold Thing" has over "Cibola" is its ability to literally "bust the boundaries" of traditional comic-book panels and make static visuals "real."  Granted, Barks came pretty damn close to managing this himself on paper, in a famous scene that had an equally powerful impact on pop culture (just ask George and Steven about it sometime).

  

"Gold Thing," however, has the artistic freedom to stack the Ducks up against peril after peril, starting with dangers that are more or less self-imposed by an increasingly demanding and desperate Scrooge...


... and then, once inside the Valley, using various improbable means to keep the pressure on...

 

... leading to the unforgettable scene at the end of act two which -- and I give GeoX full marks for recognizing this -- is unquestionably the psychological climax of the story.  Here is how Geo describes it:

And here, we see what I would call a genuinely great moment; certainly the best in the series so far: [El Capitan] overtakes [the Ducks] and lowers them into a pit of lava to do away with them; as they get to the bottom, it becomes clear that it's actually a pit of molten gold, and in Scrooge's ecstasy at this revelation, we see that the ultimate satisfaction of his lust would be to immolate himself therein. It's really just a momentary thing, but it is authentically frightening.   


I'd add to this the comment that Scrooge is so far gone with "gold fever" by this time that he mindlessly puts his frightened companions in peril at the start of act three by twirling the basket around like some sort of demented ballet dancer.  Even when Scrooge punctured the raft to get away from the caymans, you got the sense that he knew what he was doing (well, sort of) and didn't intend to see the other Ducks get hurt.  Here, he doesn't seem to give a damn about anything but the improbable natural resource boiling away a few feet below.  In completely neglecting the immediate welfare of the other Ducks, Scrooge really does seem to have gone "mad for gold" here, just like El Capitan.  It takes the jealous El Capitan's decision to pull the Ducks back up in order to keep them from "tainting his gold" to finally restore some tiny bit of lucidity to Scrooge, even though it is entirely focused on "getting rid of" the rival to his treasure.


As things literally begin to fall apart, Mrs. Beakley finally gets through to Scrooge by... reminding him that he'll die if he doesn't think of saving his own tailfeathers first.  Unlike GeoX, I don't really see a problem here.  This restoration of the "life wish" to Scrooge seems a fitting response to the "death wish" that he displayed during the scene in the pit.  Once Scrooge decides that staying alive is the first priority, all else follows naturally: his ultimate compassion for the hopelessly insane El Capitan, his apology to Mrs. Beakley.  In other words, Scrooge was "back" well before the young Ducks "officially" welcomed him back.  (Incidentally, no explanation is ever given as to how the Nephews shook off their case of "gold fever."  Perhaps HD&L simply didn't have enough experience with treasure-hunting to be profoundly affected by the "disease" and thus found it easier to purge it from their systems.)

The final rescue sequence, of course, can hardly be faulted on any level, with Launchpad finally slipping out of his episode-long role of interstitial comedy relief and making the ultimate save -- and quite slickly, too.  (It probably helped that, by that time, there was no hard surface left in the Valley for him to crash into.)  The draft version of the script that I own, BTW, would have added to the degringolade by showing scenes of temple gargoyles spitting molten gold and melting away from the intense heat.  Apart from offending Gargoyles partisans, I don't think that this would have added much to the legitimate creepiness of the pre-pickup scenes that did make it to the screen.  These scenes were pretty darn chilling a quarter-century ago and retain their effectiveness today. 


Needless to say, I don't think that there was any way that DuckTales would have killed off El Capitan, especially given the dreadful options that were available for his demise.  There is something truly troubling, though, about El Cap's ultimate fate.  Just imagining him willingly scraping and scrabbling through that dirt and rubble for another few centuries gives me pause, try as Scrooge might to make his own comment on the matter sound a bit light.  El Cap had the "sheer willpower" to live this long already, so one can easily imagine him continuing this pseudo-existence for an indefinite period of time.  Images of the eternal trials and tribulations of some of the "damned" characters in Dante's Inferno immediately come to mind. 

As we prepare to fade out, one rather annoying false note clouds the sunset: Scrooge's claim that he can't be bothered to go on any more treasure hunts, since "there'll never be another prize this big again."  This was too obviously a contrived way to set up the final gag of Scrooge teasing the return of "gold fever."  As such, its logic is about as dubious as that of the whole notion of "gold fever" itself (which I'll address in "DuckBlurbs," in response to GeoX's comments on the issue).  As we all know, Scrooge will NEVER be too complacent, or too crotchety, or too miserly, or too... whatever, to take on a treasure hunt wherever it presents itself.  Indeed, such will be the theme of the remainder of the DuckTales series, just as it is in stories by Barks, Rosa, and other "Duck Masters."  It is the ability to bring the spirit of a Scrooge fortune-seeking adventure to life -- and to do so with style, grace, and visual splendor -- that gives "Golden Suns" its deservedly iconic status as a landmark in TV-animation history.


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"DuckBlurbs"

Look what I found!  An image of the original title card from the two-hour version of "Golden Suns."  It's a bit blurry, but still.  I had forgotten that the title lettering was colored gold (seems fitting, don't you think?).  A leading "The" also seems to be canonical.  I think I'll stick with "Treasure of the Golden Suns" anyway; it seems snappier and more dramatic, somehow.

(GeoX)  The episode creates a parallel between Scrooge's lust for gold and that of Sinister Foreigner (yeah, I know he has a name, but it pleases me to just refer to him as Sinister Foreigner all the time)--fairly sophisticated, you might think, but, well, not really; what this amounts to is that Mrs Beakley ceaselessly and melodramatically maunders about how Scrooge is in the throes of the TERRIBLE GOLD FEVER. Subtle it ain't. I thought the show might make a connection with "The Fabulous Philosopher's Stone" and suggest that he might turn into gold if he keeps this up, but it never goes there. Nor is it at all clear why this particular quest rather than any other should trigger this TERRIBLE GOLD FEVER. Hey, I admire the effort, but I have to say the execution is kind of on the lackluster side.

The original script actually hit the theme considerably harder, especially in the early stages of the episode.  For example, in the first scene on the plane where the scratching and snarling Scrooge has begun his initial descent into "madness," we were originally supposed to get the following highly disquieting exchange:


Mrs. Beakley: Mr. McDuck, can't we please take the children home before you continue this treasure hunt?
Scrooge:  NO!  (whacking a crate with his cane) I want that gold NOW!
Mrs. Beakley:  But it may be dangerous...
Scrooge (swinging his cane like a saber and cutting off Mrs. B. in mid-sentence):  That's too bad, Beakley!  I didn't ask any of you to come along, did I?  So you'll just have to take your chances!

There follows Huey's suddenly-far-more-significant comment, "I've never seen [Unca Scrooge] like this before!"  As harsh as Scrooge's words may sound, I'm somewhat sorry that they weren't included in the final version of the script.  They would have given extra gravitas to Mrs. Beakley's comment that "gold fever" "makes you itch for wealth so much, you forget what's important," and infused the relationship between Scrooge and his companions with that much more tension.  (Imagine the extra edge it would have given the cayman-escape scene, for example.)  If you're going to give Scrooge a contrived malady like "gold fever" at all, then you might as well extract the maximum amount of conflict and turmoil out of it.

I've come to think of "gold fever" as just another example of "80s cartoon ethics" influencing DuckTales in a tangential manner.  It is noteworthy that the series' concluding adventure, "The Golden Goose," which also involved a battle over an "ultimate treasure," used the same theme of Scrooge turning away from his preoccupation with wealth (i.e., trying to save the petrified HD&L by recovering the goose and returning it to its rightful owners) but didn't feel the need to explain Scrooge's gold-lust by appealing to some dubious affliction.  The Scrooge of "Goose" acted much more like the Scrooge of "Cibola": he came close to tipping over the edge when he started turning various objects in and around his Mansion to gold, but he never quite did so.  The Scrooge of "Gold Thing" didn't have to suffer from "gold fever" in order for the adventure to work.  These days, the addition of the theme seems like a bit of moralistic overkill that wasn't really required.
So where did Mrs. Beakley learn all about "gold fever"?  Short answer:  She was the only other adult present (El Capitan doesn't count, for obvious reasons).  Longer, "what-if-fier" answer: during one of her previous periods of presumably exotic employment (her years "in the service of Sir Ruddy Blighter," for all of you RICHIE RICH fans in the audience), she participated in some other treasure hunt and learned about the affliction first-hand.

(Greg)  We begin this one in a bay with a rowboat as El Captain is wheezing about gold again. He also has the telescope which is awesome in one sense; but it's fashioned in banana yellow. El Captain decides that Scrooge is at the Valley of the Golden Suns by now and that he'll just follow him and grab the treasure. And then he'll MURDER Scrooge with his Gedo-laced telescope complete with evil laughter. Ooooo....that would be deadly to both Scrooge's head and his fashion sense if that thing connects. Sadly; he whacked his hand on the miscue and he sells it like a madman. HAHA! Well; with him that is completely apporos.

Actually, El Capitan seems to miss his hand, which makes his reaction seem all the funnier (or crazier).  The original script contained a fairly large bit of additional pre-Valley business involving El Cap jumping up and down for joy when Scrooge's plane arrives, getting knocked into the drink, vowing revenge as a result, etc.  Even the small bits that we ultimately did get were trimmed out of the two-hour version: Who can forget E.C. suddenly appearing from OUT OF NOWHERE on the ancient pathway and following Scrooge and company?  I rather wish that the latter had been preserved in the long version of the story.  The more screen time El Capitan gets at the beginning of the episode, the more time we have to wonder (1) how on Earth he managed to pick up Scrooge's trail again in the first place, (2) why he doesn't seem capable of locating the Valley without Scrooge's assistance now that he's so close to it, especially given that he can literally "feel" the gold's presence.  You would think that after 400 years of searching, having gotten thisclose to his goal, El Cap would have been just a wee bit more proactive.


(Greg)  So we get another scene changer as Scrooge and company go through the jungle pushing red leaf trees in their wake. Huey asks Dewey about the strangeness of this road and Dewey answers that there is not a burger place in sight. Huey corrects him because why build a road if the valley is supposed to be a secret. UH OH! The nephews deduce that this pathway is a trap. NO?! REALLY?!

Nowadays, I can't watch this scene without immediately thinking of the first panel of Barks' "Gall of the Wild":

It's all in the delivery, I guess.  The Nephews of "Gold Thing" sound like regular kids, the HD&L of "Gall" like... well, their Quack Pack selves.

(Greg)  And so we get an awesome running sequence which ends with Beakly and the children getting to the ledge on the sides and then we see the awesome running sequence of Scrooge and El Captain from the opening sequence. Oh; and the temple crumbles into the molten gold of course. Scrooge and El Captain make the leap of faith and manage to grab onto the ledge as the gold bricks fall into the molten gold. 

Just so we can end on a really high note... Sing along, everybody!
  
What to do?  Just grab onto some... ledges!

Next:  Episode 29, "Duckman of Aquatraz."  

6 comments:

Comicbookrehab said...

After reading "king Scrooge The First", I'm convinced that El Capitan was inspired by the villain in that story. Why the change from a duck to dog-faced villian? I suppose it's to make him appear more mysterious, perhaps some obscure relation of the Beagle Boys, maybe?

Pan Miluś said...

I love when The Nostalgia Critic comment about the Gold Fever "I'm sorry but... Wasen';t That his character all the time? Are they seriously noticing NOW that Scrooge is greedy?"

Which is a good point. I think they could have Scrooge go insane in this episode without having some grotesque illnes. He just got mad with his welth-lust, that's it...

I wish I've seen the oryginal scripts. Your very lucky

Daniel J. Neyer said...

Good catch on the comparison to Seven Cities of Cibola; the whole climax with the booby-trapped valley has always made me think of that story as well. I also think Comicbookrehab has something with the comparison of El Capitan to King Khan Khan in King Scrooge the First.

Speaking of Cibola, I've never seen that Rosa cover/splash page before. I notice that it's Donald who's getting hit in the head by a falling rock; Rosa really does have something in for that poor duck.

Though I still have tend to regard Three Ducks of the Condor as the highlight of Golden Suns, I agree that Too Much of a Gold Thing is one of Ducktales' best episodes, and works beautifully as a grand finale to the pilot. El Capitan is one of the series' best guest-star villains, particularly because he takes himself absolutely seriously and never indulges in the tongue-in-cheek self-congratulation that marred (for me at least) other good one-shot heavies like the Phantom Blot ("I'm mean! Meeeean!") or Circe ("I love my work!").

However, I have to agree with GeoX for once; it would have been more dramatically appropriate for El Capitan to meet his end in the motlen gold (after all, Dr. Nogood in Double-O Duck met a similar fate, and Merlock was killed off in the Ducktales movie). You're probably right, however, that DTVA didn't want to feature anything that grim in their pilot show.

Your frame grabs, incidentally, remind me of how really sharp the animation was in Golden Suns, and in this climactic episode in particular--the lighting and movements during the sequence above the gold fountain is particularly impressive.

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris:

I think you’ve done a magnificent job with “Golden Suns”!

In order, I’d rate the parts: 5, 2, 3, 1, 4 – with 4 being last as it owes the least to Carl Barks and the most to the conventions of ‘80s TV animation.

Yes, let’s not forget that there may never have been as effective an animated madman as El Capitan - -certainly up to that point, when things were primarily cutesy, and toy-based. The only one I think even comes close is the German in the JONNY QUEST episode “Shadow of the Condor” (1964). Funny how “Condors” were a part of both.

Did you ever see the VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA episode “Fires of Death” (4th Season premiere)?

In it, Adm. Nelson tries to cap a dangerous volcano, while a centuries-old alchemist stirs-up said volcano to a powerful eruption that will free the “elixir-stones” that have kept him alive.

The pitiable final shot of the alchemist, in his final, futile and obsessive stagger around the volcano before it implodes (no longer able to comprehend the great danger that is about to claim him) is surely a pre-cursor of the final fate of El Capitan.

Joe.

Pan Miluś said...

Visualy it's a great episoe but story-wise just ok...

Ryan Wynns said...

Chris,

An utterly epic review, perfectly befitting an utterly epic episode! My view and enthusiasm for this episode is very much on the same page as yours.

Your outlining of the parallels with "Cibola" is eye-opening. Like you, I can't believe I never picked up on even a whiff of the similarities ... but unlike you, I probably never would've figured it out!

Maybe it's because the aesthetics are so different. There's parallel plot points, but they don't entail any matching "shot"-framing. (Which they could've done, even with the comic-versus-animation factors you pointed out.) And there's an awful lot of contrast between the desert and jungle settings, which I think might've been what threw me off the scent most of all.

When you first proposed your theory about the production crew using the Celestial Arts book as their primary Barks reference, I thought you were definitely on to something. This new analysis only emboldens your case.

quote: and, yes, Greg, I'm willing to throw in "Plunder and Lightning," at least when considered as a single, sustained narrative

As opposed to what? (A more episodic serial, à la "Golden Suns"?) I actually regard "Plunder and Lightning" just about as highly. I'm curious, Chris -- why are you only "willing" to include it in such company?

quote: but, as they famously say about sex, there can be only one "first time." When it came to TV animation, "Golden Suns," with "Gold Thing" as its gilt-edged centerpiece, was the ultimate "first time."

"Gold Thing", every time, has been vastly better than was my "first time"! (And gives some of the subsequent times a run for their money, even...) ;) :D

I've noticed the inconsistencies and questionable logic in the "gold fever" theme, too. But they've never detracted from my high admiration for and enjoyment of the episode.

Finally, Chris, I'm very intrigued to know where and how you got a copy of the original script and that still of the TV movie version title frame! ;) It's nice to see it, and the "The" is certainly noteworthy. (Speaking of which, I'm really looking forward to Gerstein transferring his old home VHS recording of the original broadcast, complete with commercials!) :)

-- Ryan