Friday, May 31, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 37, "Catch as Cash Can, Part Two: A Whale of a Bad Time"

Before we start, let's pause for a momentary look back.  I got quite a number of challenges to my assessment of "A Drain on the Economy," mostly concerning the believability of Scrooge's mental meltdown.  I'm happy to concede the point that there were several other significant instances in which Scrooge showed similar vulnerability, including one that DuckTales would later mold into one of the series' better Barks adaptations.  Dan Neyer fingered "The Menehune Mystery" as another example of Scrooge going "nutsoid," but Scrooge's panic attacks there, IMHO, don't quite rise to the level of the "round-the-bendedness" he displays in "Drain" and "Tralla La."  My reaction to Scrooge's behavior in "Drain" was probably partly due to the amount of exposure that I had had to Barks' UNCLE $CROOGE stories at the time I first watched the episode.  I simply hadn't SEEN that many $CROOGE stories at that point.  Moreover, I still feel that something a bit more than a Beagle Boy raid, however massive, would be required in order to tip Scrooge completely over the edge.  The deluge of panhandlers, tax collectors, etc. in "Tralla La" -- which seemed even more overwhelming when depicted in animated form -- I could buy as a believable trigger, but not an occurrence that Scrooge should more or less be used to by now.

There seems to be little debate about the high quality of "A Whale of a Bad Time."  The episode overcomes a bit of a stuttering start to deliver a highly effective mix of comedy and suspense.  Donald gets one of his few chances to feature in an episode in which he is not being victimized or manipulated by outside forces, and, by and large, he makes the most of it.  In his first substantial series role, Admiral Grimitz manages the tricky feat of seeming funny while eschewing the somewhat forced "kablooey!"-centered humor that would be overstressed in future Navy-focused eps.  More impressively, he actually comes across as at least a semi-competent commander; in no other episode will the cry "The Navy to the rescue!" engender such a feeling of reassurance.  One-shot villain Dr. Horatio Bluebottle encapsulates the virtues of the ep in miniature, being both a giggling jokester and a legitimate threat to the well-being of our heroes and half of Scrooge's fortune; in that respect, he's an interesting dogface precursor of Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers' Professor Norton Nimnul.  Then, of course, there's that little spot of bother involving a "sea monster" and "ice cream."

The "shipping money disguised as ice cream" business that dominates the opening minutes really does require a substantial suspension of disbelief (which includes a suspension of the idea that HD&L really should have gotten extremely suspicious of the entire setup from the start).  Between the expenses he incurred during the course of "A Drain on the Economy" and the amount of money required to build the fake factory, hire grouchy guards, and outfit robot-driven trucks, Scrooge must have employed the "Bill Me Later" gambit to the absolute hilt in order to avoid fatally falling behind Glomgold in the money-weighing contest. 

Perhaps it was the sultry weather, but the Nephews seem awfully cranky early on; even their voices seem a bit higher-pitched than normal.  The air conditioning must not have been repaired by the time the boys returned home, as Mrs. Beakly harshly tells the boys not to bother Scrooge and Webby suddenly turns into a whiny little greedy-guts.  The latter may be the single most pointless one-off character quirk of the series; it is never referenced again outside of the dining-table and breakfast-nook scenes in this episode and doesn't seem to serve any larger purpose.  Anthony Adams, who wrote this episode's teleplay, wrote a number of other eps involving Webby ("Lost Crown of Genghis Khan," "The Curse of Castle McDuck," "Maid of the Myth") and didn't refer to this character trait in any of them.  Why did he feel the need to toss it in here?  And why didn't Magon, Zaslove, and Talkington call him on it and ask him to cycle Webby back to something resembling her normal personality in these scenes?

Unlike Webby, HD&L get a quick opportunity to atone for their earlier splenetic spasms when the "ice cream" trucks decide to take a night detour right past the McDuck Mansion.  (If I were Scrooge, I'd probably have chosen a more landmark-shy route.)  The boys perform their subsequent detective duties quite admirably, though their method of entry into one of the trucks would probably not pass BS&P muster today.  This is as close as the lads will ever get to sky-surfing a la Kit Cloudkicker.  The "reveal" of Scrooge as the money-moving mastermind is also well done, though Louie appears to have lost his neck somewhere along the way.  The "Transparent-Necked" Scrooge in kaboom! DUCKTALES #3 at least had something connecting his noggin to his shoulders!

"Keep your heads up, lads... those of you who can, that is."

The kitchen breakfast nook makes its first appearance in... well, in THAT scene, and will become a familiar gathering place over time, in such episodes as "Till Nephews Do Us Part" and "Scrooge's Last Adventure."  Along with the front gate and Scrooge's home office (the one with the rolltop desk), the nook will become one of the signature features of McDuck Mansion, one that I actually wish could have been carried over into future comic-book stories.  Aside from being cozier than the dining-room setting, the nook makes sense in context, as it probably cost much less than the table, chairs, and other paraphernalia in the dining room.  Scrooge would probably want me to add that, since it is closer to the kitchen, the nook allows the McDuck household to save on gas and electricity used in preparing food, since the food comes to the table hotter to begin with.

The nook has one additional advantage in the context of this episode: it provides a more informal, and hence more appropriate, setting for you-know-what than the formal dining area would have.  Rave on, McDuck!  And don't fret about breaking any of the good china.



And there's your most famous scene of the series right there.  I don't know which is more improbable: Scrooge's head-bouncing or his ability to pull a tablecloth out from under Huey and Louie's legs without knocking them over.  

Oddly enough, Scrooge's fit proves to be the turning point of "Whale" in terms of quality.  Everything hereafter is first-rate, though one or two logical hiccups still intrude.  GeoX points out a clear contradiction in that Scrooge denies the existence of sea monsters after having encountered the "seaweed monster" in "Bermuda Triangle Tangle" (I'm willing to give Scrooge a pass on "Home Sweet Homer" because Scrooge may have rationalized away the reality of that time-trip in some manner by now).  The gaffe is actually worse than GeoX described, as the Nephews also appear to have forgotten about their previous monster-meeting moments.  I suspect a lack of communication between Adams and the other writers on this matter.  As for the slightly phony appearance of Bluebottle's "S.S. Moby," I rather doubt that the Ducks had the luxury of examining it thoroughly during that initial encounter, seeing as how they were being shaken nearly to death and all.  Still, it would have been nice had the rivets, seams, and doors been a tad more inconspicuous.  My guess is that it was feared that an overly realistic Orca attacking the Ducks at the commercial break would have seemed too frightening, and thus the visual evidence of fakery was added.  If the intent was to make the scene more reassuring, then the gambit failed; this remains one of the more intense action sequences of the series, intervening commercial break notwithstanding.  As Scrooge might put it, there are additional such fireworks a-comin'.

Before the first pseduo-Orca encounter, we get a couple of equally fine sequences: Scrooge and HD&L's underwater exploration (in which they fittingly wear diving gear that may very well have been lifted from one of Barks' best seafaring stories) and the introduction of Donald and Admiral Grimitz.  The Ducks' use of a giant turtle to sneak up on the wrecked ship is one of those clever throwaway bits of Junior Woodchuck lore that the show honestly should have used more often (as opposed to showing us how fallible the Guidebook could sometimes be).  The encounters with the Navy guards pack more punch than all of the series' "Scrooge in jail" scenes combined.  Grimitz keeps the semi-serious beat going when he calmly refuses to rise to the bait of Scrooge's insults and threats.  This was the ideal situation in which to introduce what would become Grimitz' permanent voice, namely, Peter Cullen's riff on John Wayne (Cullen had used a more generic "authority figure" voice for the Admiral in "Home Sweet Homer").  I don't think that even Optimus Prime could have provided a better template for Grimitz' voice, mainly because Cullen was able to leaven the impression with a healthy hint of humor.  Unfortunately, later appearances by Grimitz failed to maintain the same balance of humor and seriousness in the character, opting for the "lunkheaded jingo" characterization.

This episode affords us our only real chance of the series to see Scrooge and Donald operating as a team, with no other characters present.  Happily, Adams seems to recognize the basic differences between the two while downplaying the "clumsiness" gags that clutter up many of Don's other DuckTales appearances.  The mere fact that Grimitz decides to entrust Donald with the task of keeping an eye on Scrooge (with surreptitious electronic assistance, of course) gives Don's role here a certain basic level of gravitas that the bumbling deckhand of other episodes simply can't conjure up.  Appropriately, Scrooge's attitude towards Donald is refreshingly free from extreme condescension; at worst, he seems mildly bemused by his nephew's actions and words.  The one glaring exception, of course, is the hoary "use your head" routine in which Donald smashes the sub's control panel.  I really think that Adams could have come up with a cleverer way than this to show Donald's... well, Donaldishness.  Also, I have to agree with Greg that Scrooge's reaction to Donald's threat to use what both Ducks believe to be the "self-destruct lever" seems too casual. (By contrast, Scrooge's reaction after he learns that the lever controls the dumping of his money is entirely in character.)  One must admit, however, that this is a pretty badass moment for Donald, and he's not even under the spell of an evil king at the time.

Concerning the not-so-good Dr. Bluebottle, I'll agree with GeoX on one point: Horatio does seem more like a Mickey Mouse villain than a Duck dastard, and not simply because he's the same size as Scrooge and Donald.  Along with Professor Nimnul, he reminds me a bit of Emil Eagle, Gyro Gearloose's evil rival, who later became a quasi-regular foe of Mickey and others in the comics. Both Bluebottle and Emil have permanent mad-ons because they feel unfairly put-upon by fate: Emil because he is jealous of Gyro (in addition to desiring the usual "power and money"), Bluebottle because his Navy work makes him ineligible for the "No-Bill Prize."  (The specific prize for which Horatio would be eligible is unclear; perhaps it's for "Research with a Sense of Hyyyumor.")  The implied conflict between "research for its own sake" and "research related to warfare" is intriguing, though Adams does nothing of substance with it, preferring instead to display such improbable features of the sub as a hose, a giant umbrella, and a missile-deflecting tennis racket.

The intensity ratchets up again when the Navy starts dropping the depth charges, and yet again when it seems to those on the surface that one of those charges has met its mark.  Thankfully, the overplayed bawling (which, in all honesty, is still much better than a number of the crying jags we had to endure in Kimba the White Lion) is kept to a relative minimum in the latter scene, with HD&L seeming to be more in shock than anything else.  Check out Dewey's facial expression, in particular; it's as if he's still processing the reality of what he believes the situation to be.

Scrooge's decision to jettison the money into the Marinara Trench doesn't bother me as much as it did GeoX.  It may not strike one as a typical "tougher than the toughies" moment, but for Scrooge to show that kind of faith in Gyro (or in his ability to compel Gyro to come up with a method of salvaging the money) required jumbo-sized cojones.  Even so, this sequence could probably have been written more artfully.  Bluebottle's comment that "a normal sub can't dive this deep" seems to have little to do with his subsequent claim that only he can raise the Orca; after all, he had little to do with the sub falling into the trench in the first place.  Adams might have been better advised to have set things up so that Bluebottle's claims were actually in the nature of a bluff and that Horatio was trying to preserve the status quo so as to fulfill his deal with Glomgold and get his reward.  The final showdown between Scrooge and Horatio would then have become a TRUE battle of wills.

"Whale" ends with a nice verbal lead-in into part three of the serial, and Donald even gets a medal that wasn't manufactured by the Nephews.  (I guess that Don had to give it back before the events of "All Ducks on Deck.")   Flawless it certainly isn't, but this whale-tale gets the job done: it is entertaining in and of itself, gives everyone involved something to do (even if it's somewhat out of character!), and, of course, gives us the one single DuckTales moment that will "live in infamy," techno-mixed or otherwise.

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"DuckBlurbs"

(Greg)  Apparently; there are 131 flavors of ice cream [at Scrooge's factory] which is BS since most ice cream factories churn out about half that in real life. 

Tell that to the folks in Merida, Venezuela.  This shop makes Scrooge, not to mention Baskin-Robbins, look like an unambitious piker.

(Greg)  We see various ice cream trucks in the background and one being driven as the nephews follow it out back. And then we see a pig security guard (voiced by Hal Smith) telling them to scram as the nephews try to introduce themselves as friends of Scrooge McDuck...  No dice as he blows them off and pushes them out because he doesn't care if they are Frosty's sister and that Scrooge left instructions for no one to be let in. Which includes nobodies like them.

Adams is more likely than most DuckTales writers to throw real-world references into his scripts, but, beginning with the shout-out to "Frosty the Snowman's sister," we get a positive torrent of them here: Jonah, Martina Navratilova, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi (or, as Bluebottle calls him, "Foimie"), Charlie Tuna, and any number of well-known magazines.  I guess he was trying to make the point that "Quackeria" (which appears to be Greg's own term for the Ducks' version of America) really and truly is just like our own world, apart from those annoying duckbills, pig snouts, and dog ears and noses.   

(Greg)  Grimtiz thanks [Donald] for his heroism and he'll award Donald with the silver star (which Disney Caption calls a silver tar. Seriously; what are these guys thinking?!) as Donald just blushes.

I think that you may have to blush next, Greg... Grimitz clearly says "silver tar" here.  I imagine that this was a simple play on words, referring to an actual military decoration and the fact that Donald is literally a "tar" (seaman).  Given Adams' predilections in the episode, I'm somewhat surprised that he didn't refer to the real Silver Star.  Then again, the real Navy may not have been amused.

Next: Episode 38, "Catch as Cash Can, Part Three:  Aqua Ducks."

4 comments:

Pan MiluĊ› said...

I wonder how popular navy was at the time they made this show

Chris Barat said...

Pan,

Well, those were the Reagan years, and military-themed TV shows and movies were quite popular at that time. The strange thing is that DT went in the opposite direction and tended to use Grimitz as a source of laughs.

Chris

Daniel J. Neyer said...

An excellent review of an excellent episode, Chris--although before moving on to add my comments, my law-student obsessiveness prompts me to make a few more arguments regarding Scrooge's reaction to the Beagle Boy raid in Drain on the Economy. I admit that the Menehune story furnishes a weak example of a Scrooge meltdown--but his total collapse in Only a Poor Old Man does bear definite similarities to his Drain breakdown. In most of Barks' 1950s stories, in fact, Scrooge tends to react with at least momentary panic to Beagle Boy attacks (see also the Round Money Bin and The Money Well); it's only in some 1960s stories (Unsafe Safe) that he seems to have settled into a more blase attitude towards the masked marauders. Personally, I'm of the opinion that the Beagle Boys should place high on the list of Scrooge's fears, and not be treated as a mere recurring nuisance as in many Rosa stories and European tales; there's a reason why they're called the TERRIBLE Beagle Boys in the classic Barks tales.

To return to Whale: the episode's pacing is excellent (as is the pace of the other episodes in the Cash quartet), and it furnishes some great visuals (the darkened harbor, the underwater wreck site, and the interior of the sub). I'm also one of those (like Greg) who considers the "Sea Monster Ate My Ice Cream" scene to be one of the funniest in the entire series. The repeated line is simultaneously so bizarre and so perfectly logical in context, and Scrooge's reaction, though extreme, is also hilarious; after all, this is the same duck whose employees nailed a pillow to the ceiling over his head before informing him of the mere loss of a gold shipment. Incidentally, when Scrooge grabs Mr. Wimpleman's collar before the tantrum, the animators seem to be reusing a little bit of work from Mickey's Christmas Carol; compare the scene with the one in Carol where Scrooge is browbeating the charity-collecting Mole.

You're right that this episode is Admiral Grimitz's best showing when it comes to competence; I especially like his calm handling of a raging Scrooge in the scene after the ducks' arrest at the wreck site. Grimitz was very funny in his later appearances (like the "toy boat" scene in Spies in their Eyes) but it would have been nice had he shown more flashes of Duke-like authority instead of becoming a higher-ranking version of Sgt. Carter (with Donald as Gomer Pyle).

I also agree about Bluebottle being another big plus in the episode's favor; unlike some of the show's one-shot villains, he's manages to be very funny while remaining a respectable threat. His voice is very good, and his design is excellent--making him look both stereotypically "scientific" and bristlingly aggressive. Byron Erickson's later creation Dexter Dingus in many ways came off as a younger edition of Bluebottle; they share genius, diminutive size, and an extremely bad temper. I have to wonder about Bluebottle's name, however; to me it suggest a fly, but he's clearly a dog--nor does the moniker sound particularly German. Seriously, though, the mad doctor is high on my list of Ducktales characters who should have been incorporated into comic books; I enjoy picturing the Beagle Boys (for example) collaborating with the fiery little nut and playing on his ego in order to obtain bin-busting gadgets. Bluebottle would have worked well in a Mickey story too, as you note--he and Pete would be just as entertaining a team as Dingus and Pete were in those Erickson stories.

Daniel J. Neyer said...

Should have mentioned in my previous comment that the story with the cushion nailed to the ceiling was Barks' "Strange Shipwrecks;" I mentioned it in my first version of the post, but forgot it when I had to redo the thing after I lost it by hitting the wrong Blogger button.