Monday, April 29, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 31, "Much Ado About Scrooge"

The first season of DuckTales has now settled into what, in production terms, could be called its "middle period" -- and a fecund one it will prove to be.  "Home Sweet Homer" touches off a skein of 10 episodes that all (with one arguable exception) have reasonable arguments to rank among the series' best.  It's as if accomplishing the monumental task of completing "Treasure of the Golden Suns" served as a goad to maintain a similarly high standard of quality in the half-hour episodes.

Interestingly, a fair number of the eps in this remarkable run give Scrooge, if not exactly a second-banana role, then certainly a somewhat less central role than we have heretofore been accustomed to seeing him fill.  As I noted in my discussion of "Homer," Scrooge may have talked a good heroic game in that ep, but it was the Nephews who did most of the heavy lifting.  Now comes an episode with a highly misleading title, even granted that writers Karen Willson and Chris Weber were straining mightily to come up with a Shakespearean angle when they crafted it.  It would be very difficult to argue that Scrooge is the center of attention here -- not with one of the most indelibly memorable one-shot characters of the series primed and ready to grab center stage.  Indeed, Filler Brushbill the super-salesman takes up so much of the oxygen that I've always wondered whether another character, one much more familiar to Carl Barks fans, might originally have been slated for this starring turn.  But more on that anon, as a writer of cod-Shakespeare might put it.

For what is, at its core, yet another globe-crossing treasure-hunt story, "Much Ado About Scrooge" takes its own sweet time to get up to speed, as the audience luxuriates in a no-holds-barred battle of wits between the ever-persistent Brushbill and the determined-to-resist Scrooge.  A few of the gags here could probably have been omitted in favor of the characters spending more time on the "haunted" isle of Great Written, but, in all fairness, Willson and Weber aren't simply marking time waiting for Scrooge, HD&L, and Duckworth to give in and the main plot to kick into gear.  They plant an important character-relationship seed, quickly establishing that Louie, heavily in hock to Brushbill though he might be, has a sneaking admiration for the salesman.  When Huey and Dewey arrive in the midst of the standoff and Louie tells his brothers about Brushbill's arrival, the green-clad Nephew's "But Unca Scrooge isn't gonna let him in!" sounds decidedly wistful.  In the scene below, Louie looks almost dazed, as if Brushbill is exerting some sort of weird, Svengali-like power over him.  (Good thing Filler isn't really that sleazy, eh?)  I honestly hadn't taken full notice of these foreshadowing moments until my more recent viewings of the episode.  

Scrooge's ultimate surrender to Brushbill's blandishments could be considered a belated version of the old miser being "hoist by his own canard."  (At least, it would if a dogfaced character weren't involved.)  In the Tony Strobl-drawn comic-book tale "The Kitchy-Kaw Diamond" (DONALD DUCK #40, March 1955), Scrooge uses "Gabby Smoothtalker the super-hypnotic salesman" to get Donald hopelessly in debt, thereby forcing the destitute duck to perform an unpleasant task for him.  Since Brushbill causes Scrooge to "blunk-out" (for what should be obvious reasons, I prefer that description to Greg's "lose control of his bodily functions") just before the latter caves in, I suppose that it's at least possible that Willson and Weber were aware of the Strobl story.  In all honesty, though, it's not likely.  Despite the somewhat contrived manner in which Brushbill is used to get the "original editions" of William Drakespeare into Scrooge's hands, the salesman is far more than a simple gimmick to put a larger plot in motion.

Perhaps I'm not taking into account the full effects of inflation over the past 25 years, but it seems to me that original editions of Drakespeare "owned by 'The Bird' himself" would be worth rather more than a portion of $444,448.04 (the amount that Scrooge is obliged to shell out for all of his purchases -- and remember, that's counting the glow-in-the-dark socks).  This is especially true in view of the fact that entire volumes of the "original editions" seem to be taken up by single plays, as Scrooge notes when he picks up the bulky copy of Romeo and Julieweb.  Were the Drakespeare originals considerably longer than the versions that survived, only to be brutally slashed at some point, on the order of von Stroheim's Greed?  I'll go along with Scrooge's later line that acquiring these tumescent tomes for that relatively piddling amount of money was "cheap at twice the price." 

Emphasis on "complete."

With the Ducks' discovery of Drakespeare's note and subsequent dash for Great Written, we begin to glimpse the outlines of the original form that this story might have taken.  Specifically, the manner in which Brushbill learns of the existence of Drakespeare's lost play seems suspiciously similar to the implausible manner in which Gladstone Gander gets wind of Donald and HD&L's impending mission to recover Scrooge's lost documents in Carl Barks' "Secret of Hondorica" (DONALD DUCK #46, March 1956).  Granted, Scrooge and the boys aren't obliged to memorize the information on Drakespeare's note, as Donald and HD&L did for the map...

... but Gladstone's discovery of the map and the wind blowing Drakespeare's note onto Brushbill's beak seem to be "two pains in a pod":

This, combined with Brushbill's somewhat obnoxious personality (created, in very large part, by Charlie Adler's voice work) and quasi-mystical salesmanship abilities, has always inclined me in the direction of the opinion that Willson and Weber may have originally written "Much Ado" as some sort of vehicle for Gladstone.  (Heck, "Secret of Hondorica" itself might have given rise to an excellent DT adaptation, perhaps with Launchpad taking Donald's place.)  I have no way of knowing at this point whether my theory is correct, though I once had a chance to find out.  (No, really...  on one of my trips to the San Diego Comic-Con, I was briefly on an elevator with Chris Weber.  I still wonder why I didn't hazard the question at that time.)  In any event, it's not hard to visualize a version of this story in which Brushbill's siege of McDuck Mansion is replaced by a sequence introducing the audience to the power of Gladstone's luck, and Gladstone subsequently getting the chance to race Scrooge and the boys to find the lost play.  If such truly were the case, then evidently it was felt that Gladstone needed to be introduced in a somewhat more formal and less "plot-heavy" manner, as he ultimately was in the comparatively stripped-down "Dime Enough for Luck." 

At this point, GeoX raises a very significant question about the logic behind Scrooge's mad rush to secure the play:

There's a bit early on where one of the kids objects to this quest: "But Uncle Scrooge, Drakespeare said that last play wasn't very good!" To which Scrooge replies: "Who cares? It's still worth millions just because he wrote it!" I'm pretty sure we're supposed to view Scrooge as engaging in ethically shady profiteering here, but for rather obvious reasons, this is a very stupid idea.

Granted that Geo is far more familiar with matters literary than I am, this line of reasoning (by which I mean, casting Scrooge in a somewhat negative light for his interest in profiting from the play) isn't truly that far-fetched.  I mean, people really do try to pull stunts like this all the time.  Why else would anyone suddenly dig out a moldy manuscript by Woody Guthrie and try to recast the left-wing icon as a major novelist.  (Let's face it, if this thing had been any good at all, it would certainly have been published ages ago.)  Then, there's the once-burgeoning market for Carl Barks... well, "scribbles," I'll call them.  There's nothing at all wrong with owning original art, but there's art, and then there's faint scratches on tissue paper that miraculously avoided the trash can.  I can't help but look a little askance at those who tried to peddle the latter as "Barks art."

The set-up on Great Written Island is... well, strange.  We never do get an explanation as to why Drakespeare didn't want outsiders "sneaking, peeking, or exploring" around the place.  At some point, wouldn't such obsessive secrecy have hurt his reputation as "the greatest writer ever"?  (I don't know -- is J.D. Salinger still considered to be a major novelist?)  With Brushbill and the Ducks ultimately teaming up in a cooperative manner to explore the island, I suspect that the unfriendliness of the "Great Written Players" was an attempt by Willson and Weber to create some conflict and tension where none really existed.  Simply having the gang stroll through the woods to Drakespeare's castle without encountering any obstacles would have made for some rather dull visuals.

For my money, the highlight of the Ducks' pre-castle sojourn on Great Written comes in the very first scene -- the boat wreck.  This very atmospheric moment is memorably punctuated by the sight of Louie being swept away by the waves.  Fittingly, Brushbill saves Louie from harm by peddling brushes and such to the Weird Sisters from... er, Macbeak.  (The title Macduck, of course, is already taken, though the gang doesn't know that yet.)

In the ensuing "bonding scene" at the campfire, we once again note Louie's strange connection to Brushbill.  Having almost spilled the beans to Filler after the note blew out of Scrooge's limo back in Duckburg (and, incidentally, shouldn't Scrooge have gotten a little more bent out of shape about the loss of that note?  Wouldn't IT be worth a fair chunk of change in the literary-collectibles market, too?), Louie completes the job here when he accidentally reveals Scrooge's agreement with Brushbill's theory about the "value" of the terrible play.  I swear, my Svengali theory is starting to look better and better.  I do wish that we knew more about WHY Louie, in particular, seems so attuned to Brushbill.  For crying out loud, Louie even expresses interest in becoming a door-to-door salesman himself someday!  Given that (1) the boys will presumably inherit Scrooge's riches at some point and (2) Louie, like his bros, is considerably brighter than the average duckling, you'll forgive me if this ambition sounds a bit laughable.  None of the previous research about the differences between the Nephews (cf. Dan Haley's seminal work back in the 80s) gives us any clue here.  I'm certainly open to suggestions.

The "Great Written Players" remind me a bit of the character Fanny Featherbrain from Barks' "Isle of Golden Geese."  Like her, they're isolated from the outside world and are complete anachronisms in both attitude and appearance -- "fairy tale" characters of sorts.  Watching them go through their play-acting paces, one might also be tempted to compare them to the Druids in "The Curse of Castle McDuck," except that their self-entrapment in cultural amber seems to be far more, well, pointless than anything the Druids displayed.  In driving out intruders from Castle McDuck in order to enact their rituals, the Druids were merely attempting to preserve what was, by then, a dying culture.  But the whole world is presumably filled with acting troupes performing the Drakespeare plays, so why have the "Players" refused to contact the outside world?  Given the real-world existence of all the modernized versions of Shakespeare's works, it would have been an interesting plot twist had the "Players" known about altered versions of the Drakespeare plays and actively tried to make a point about keeping true to the texts of the originals (maybe even the uncut, book-length ones!).  But, no, we're supposed to believe that these guys and their ancestors have simply been spinning their creative wheels for some 400 years, to no apparent purpose other than a slavish devotion to Drakespeare's puzzling last request.  I didn't mind this angle so much when I first watched "Much Ado," because I was so impressed by the episode's ambiance (not to mention Willson and Weber's admirable resistance of the temptation to spoon-feed the audience and explicitly identify the different Shakespearean characters that the "Players" were playing).  But now, it does seem a lot more like a "myth-busting" episode of Star Trek, as GeoX noted.  For this reason alone, I probably wouldn't be able to give the episode full marks were I reviewing and rating it anew today.

The concluding business is admittedly a bit overcooked -- how convenient that the lightning storm broke out just when Brushbill decided to "go rogue" and pilfer Macduck -- but it still works quite well for me, GeoX's point about "cheating the customers" notwithstanding.  It might have worked even more smoothly had the issue of Brushbill's honesty been raised at the very beginning of the episode, as opposed to suddenly popping up about halfway through.  Planting the notion early on that Filler, for all his annoying persistence, is an "honest man" at heart would have made his sudden switch to the "dark side" seem all the more dramatic.  Another pre-planted "seedling" does flower here, though, as Louie makes his memorable plea to the "better angels" of Brushbill's gaudily-clad nature.  BTW, I think that this scene could very easily have been pulled off with Gladstone as well, perhaps with Louie or whoever reminding the lucky gander that "trying to cheat people is a form of work!".

"Much Ado" is a not-quite-perfect-but-reasonably-close illustration of what distinguished DuckTales from other animated TV series of the era -- and continues to do so today.  The pieces may not all fit together snugly, but the script takes for granted the fact that the viewers possess a modicum of intelligence, the spooky atmospherics of Great Written make up for some of the gaps in logic, and some clever character business pops up when there's really no need for it to do so.  Bottom line: you don't have to "sell me" on the quality of this episode.


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"DuckBlurbs"

(Greg)  So we cut back to the rowboat as Scrooge asks Louie if he sees anything. And they are wearing life jackets (so they can be safe according to the LAW OF DORA) as Louie asks if fog counts and Scrooge blows him off. Then he panics as there are rocks coming. Louie panics as we get the FPS shot of a giant rock and the rowboat crashes into it and gets destroyed of course while the babyfaces fall into the sea. At least we now see a use for the life jackets this time around. We pan right to see Scrooge, Dewey and Huey pop up gurgling; but Louie seems to be missing. Scrooge uses the cane to get Huey and Dewey together. However; Louie gets caught in the rip tide and gets engulfed by a big wave. Scrooge yells for him and the rest of the ducks get swamped as well.

Actually, Louie may have been in more danger here than we were led to believe.  At some point between the boat crash and his arrival on shore, his life jacket slipped off!


(Greg)  Filler goes into his big ass doctor's bag and brings out the RIC FLAIR BROOMSTICK OF DOOM; and it has nylon bristles and used one with low mileage on them. He throws all the broom right at the witches just to annoy me some more. The witches take this well as Filler gives them cauldrons in small, medium, large and the Monster Size one. HOLY CRAP?! Did he skin Eleroo and his pouch or something?! HOW IN THE HELL DID HE KEEP THAT BIG ASS CAULDRON IN THAT DOCTOR'S BAG?!

I dunno; you'd have to consult an expert...



(Greg)  Scrooge and Dewey continue to comb the beach looking for Louie. And then they see: Julius Caesar and two Roman Guards?! Okay; this could be good. Julius cuts his promo (Lend me your ears) as I should point out that it wasn't Julius who spoke these words; I believe it was [Mark] Ant[h]ony or Brutus. It's been a long time since I read the original play; but I know it wasn't Caesar. Bad research there guys.

It was Mark Antony.  Even though I've always thought of and referred to the Will Ryan-voiced character in this episode as "the Caesar guy," you could just as easily think of him as Antony, I suppose.  He's never formally identified as Caesar.

(Greg)  Then we see the curtain flapping from behind as we clearly hear Filler cutting a Hamlet promo with a sales deal. That is the ultimate blasphemy! Scrooge is about to use the cane; but out comes Louie and Filler as Louie is giggling under his breath.

More evidence of Brushbill's sway over Louie, perchance?  The gag wasn't THAT funny.


Next:  Episode 32, "Top Duck."

3 comments:

Pan Miluś said...

This is one of my favorite episodes. I like the dynamic, the climax was a bit touching and all of the Shakespeare's refrences. Kid's won't propably get some but it was still well put together. I like that two of most popular Shakespeare's play's ("Hamlet" + "Romeo and Juliet") are only brifly refrence ("To buy or not to buy) so they can refrence plays like "Makbeth", "The Tempest"
,"A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Julius Cesar". Nice touches.


I personally asume that the final play ("McDuck") wasn't refrence to "Makbeth" as much a refrence to "Richard III" (you know, the A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" guy) since both plays are about a greedy king, hated by all who gets his comapance.


Now that you pointed it out I can see this episode working with Gladstone but I like the new character of Brushbill a lot.


However I'm with Scrooge on this one (well for the first 3/4 ad least). In real life if they would found a lost Shakespeare's play it would be worth a lot of money no matter if it's good or bad. It's still 500 years old and it's still writen by one of most historically sygnificant writers. I think Historical societies alone would pay a lot of cash for fiding it. And you can't say you cheated people when you sold it. It's still an actually Shakespeare play. If it sucks or not is a matter of opinion.


I remember something bizzare in the episode. Scrooge and two boys get thrown in the wather and in the next scene Scrooge talks to Brushbill on the page and thanks him for saveing them... Is it me or was there a deledet scene there?


Pan Miluś said...

"Top Duck" is next, eh? Great. Another good one.
Some funny stuff, even if Lunchapd main conflict could ben solve quickly if he didn't been so over-dramatic all the time.


I always asume that the Bealge Boys pilot cousin was ment to be Bankjob in the first draft but they change it for some strange reason. It's odd for them to introduce new Bealges when they already introduce a lot in previews episodes.



It's a shame Lunchpad family wasn't used more. I especially liked his sister. I think this show could use more dynamic recuring female characters.


Please adress those things ;)

Chris Barat said...

Pan,

"I personally asume that the final play ("McDuck") wasn't refrence to "Makbeth" as much a refrence to "Richard III" (you know, the A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" guy) since both plays are about a greedy king, hated by all who gets his comapance."

As I recall, Macbeth didn't start out as a ruler, so you may in fact be correct.

"I remember something bizzare in the episode. Scrooge and two boys get thrown in the wather and in the next scene Scrooge talks to Brushbill on the page and thanks him for saveing them... Is it me or was there a deledet scene there?"

I think that Scrooge was referring to a previous scene in which Brushbill DID help Scrooge, Huey, and Dewey out of the water... the scene featuring the boat crash. Scrooge really didn't have time to thank Brushbill at that moment because he was concerned with finding Louie. The campfire scene was the first scene in which all the Ducks had a chance to be together for some length of time.

Chris