Thursday, August 8, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 47, "Down and Out in Duckburg"

I've been given the medical "green light" to resume normal blogging activities -- and, like the old swamp dweller in "Sweet Duck of Youth," I've got a lot of catching up to do.  Unlike him, I'm not planning on delaying a reentry into the worldly fray by taking a trip to Tahiti.  It will, however, take a while to clean up all those loose ends, so please be patient with me.

It's crystal clear now that my stated ambition to get through season one of DuckTales by the end of the Summer was laughably overoptimistic.  My new goal is to finish the initial set of 65 eps by the end of the Fall semester.  This estimate is based on my maintaining a one-ep-per-week posting schedule once school begins in the last week of August, which I should be able to do.  I've already written my infamous "notes" and clipped the images for the two episodes immediately following "Down and Out in Duckburg," so I should be able to pop those out in short order before the "time-vise" really begins to bite down on me.

While I certainly respect Greg's stated desire to interpret DuckTales' Carl Barks adaptations independent of any acquaintance with the original stories, "Down and Out" is arguably the textbook case of how familiarity with a Barks tale -- in this case, the early $CROOGE adventure "Trouble from Long Ago" (FOUR COLOR #495, September 1953), more popularly known as "The Horseradish Story" -- is absolutely ESSENTIAL in order to fairly assess the TV version of the story.  Ken Koonce and David Weimers turn what was, in its original incarnation, a pretty straightforward "race against time" story into an unwieldy combination of a now-dated media parody and a none-too-subtle morality play in which a hard-hearted Scrooge is pauperized and made to learn the meaning of the "Golden Rule." This might have played better had it been produced during the Obama era, in which the mere possession of wealth is all too often taken as prima facie evidence of questionable character.  In light of the manner in which Scrooge's character had been developed during the course of the series, though, it seemed at the time like a tremendous step backwards into the mindset of far inferior "moralizing" cartoons of the 80s.

Taking the ep at face value, Greg described it as "awesome and depressing at the same time."  The thing is, even if one is not familiar with "Trouble from Long Ago," the K&W version of the story has more than enough of its own share of problems.  Logical lapses and inappropriate slapstick abound, and even the draftsmanship lets the ep down in several instances.  Most frustrating of all is the fact that "Trouble from Long Ago" presented Scrooge with a real "moral dilemma" that was far more believable than any of the chump-change-chiseling in which he indulged on screen.  Had K&W showed more faith in the simple power of the Barks narrative, they could have had their "moral moment" and some legitimately exciting undersea action as well.  It was all right there, laid out for them in the persistently perused pages of UNCLE $CROOGE McDUCK: HIS LIFE AND TIMES.  Given such a beautiful canvas to copy, why settle for primary colors and finger-painting?  

K&W's opening gambit of Scrooge sowing discontent and confusion amongst a trio of "regular Duckburgian folks" immediately brings to mind the opening scenes of "Don't Give Up the Ship."  The Scrooge featured at the start of "Treasure of the Golden Suns" was purportedly an isolated, grumpy guy who hadn't yet softened up and returned to an "active lifestyle" with the Nephews.  I'd argue, though, that the supposedly more "civilized" Scrooge who raises Mr. O'Flannel's rent, avoids giving boat-repair money to Captain Jack, and dodges donating to Salvation Mary comes across as a far more questionable, if not downright sinister, character.  These three one-shot characters were obviously created to put a "human face" on the monetary misery that Scrooge causes others (never mind that the "real" Scrooge would probably have dealt with these folks through intermediaries), and the twisted logic that Scrooge employs during these confrontations (especially the one with Jack) winds up seeming more like a personal insult than the standard "sorry, it's just business" behavior in which you might expect a mogul to indulge.

Just so we fully realize how eminently despicable Scrooge is supposed to be here, we soon learn that Scrooge's favorite TV show is... Lifestyles of the Filthy Rich.  Moreover, Scrooge is going to be a special guest on an upcoming episode.  This is highly problematic, to say the least.  If anything, Scrooge has traditionally resented any prying into his personal life; in Barks' "North of the Yukon," to take just one example, he had to be arm-twisted into giving an interview and his picture to a magazine (and was subsequently proven prescient when the unwanted media exposure caused him some major difficulties).  Nor has Scrooge ever expressed any interest in how any other rich person lives, except insofar as it directly infringes upon his personal space and/or property values (e.g., his resentment of the lottery-winning Blurfs' nouveau riche crudeness in "Bubbeo and Juliet").  K&W must have found the temptation to satirize Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (and, by extension, the self-indulgence of the boom-time 80s) too much to resist.  Never mind that the Scrooge I know and love would probably have run screaming from any intrusion by anyone remotely resembling "Robin Lurch." 


The substitution of the free-spending Fritter O'Way for Barks' Chisel McSue is, of course, another sledgehammer blow to our collective moral sense (Hey, this guy is the exact opposite of the chintzy-cheap Scrooge!  How ironic is it that HE'S claiming Scrooge's fortune??).  While K&W at least try to give Barks his due by basing Fritter's claim on Scrooge's riches on a long-ago delivery disaster, they don't seem to realize that their version of the story's antagonist makes far less logical sense.  Because of the stipulation (not used by K&W) that McSue can't take possession of Scrooge's money for 30 days -- strangely enough, McSue's ancestor also seems to forget about this, demanding the unfortunate Seafoam McDuck's gold teeth immediately after the sinking of the Golden Goose -- McSue has a vested interest in Scrooge not spending any money in the interim.  This is most clearly seen when McSue learns of Scrooge's attempt to salvage the horseradish:

By contrast, with Fritter gleefully spending money right and left as Scrooge festers in his "palatial underpass" and later goes on a desperate search for the marbles, it is clear that Scrooge is going to take a major financial hit even if he does manage to deliver the lost cargo.  Why, he might even cede the title of "world's richest duck" to Glomgold as a consequence.  The later "Yuppy Ducks" got slammed big-time for the whole idea of HD&L's deals getting cancelled and Scrooge not losing a penny of his fortune as a result.  It seems to me that "Down and Out" is equally vulnerable to criticism for failing to follow through on the consequences of Fritter's many (supposedly) legitimate deals.

What's the matter, Scrooge?  Feeling a bit low today?

I still have no clue as to why K&W saw fit to change the shipment of horseradish to a barrel of marbles.  Were they afraid that viewers wouldn't know what horseradish is?  (Talk about showing contempt for your audience...)  Did they want the freedom to employ the tiresome "He's lost his marbles!" pun at any time they chose?  My guess is that, during their radical simplification (and that's a kind way of putting it) of the original salvage sequence, in which the "power" of horseradish played a key role in helping the Ducks locate the Golden Goose, K&W realized that they simply didn't need such a "complicated" McGuffin and jettisoned it.  Besides, shortening the salvage action would free up more time for the middle-game parody of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous around which the entire adaptation was presumably built.

The use of marbles is actually only a mild irritant compared to the clumsy manner in which K&W handle the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Golden Goose.  Barks makes it very clear that McSue's ancestor set up poor Seafoam for a fall...

... whereas Diddle O'Way's entire "plot" against Seafoam McDuck rested on the assumption that the Golden Goose was fated to sink.  That's on the order of planning to pay for your child's education by investing in "sure-to-be-valuable-someday" comic books.  Bag those suckers and hope for the best, that's the surefire way to proceed!

There's a reason why several of his fingers are crossed.

I'm going to have Diddle pick my Powerball numbers next time.

Frankly, it's somewhat surprising that Scrooge and his family hung around McDuck Mansion and "worked for" Fritter as long as they did.  One would think that simple pride, if nothing else, would have driven them out to seek a solution to their dilemma almost immediately. What was to prevent them from asking their old friends Launchpad or Gyro to put them up... oh, that's right, the only characters who can possibly help Scrooge in this episode are the ones whom he dissed in the opening scenes.  That looks even sillier in retrospective than it did in 1987.  Scrooge needs a job, so his first application goes to... Mr. O'Flannel?  That has got to end well, right? 

After they (apparently) blow off the silly notion of calling upon legal assistance and experience the remarkably rapid deterioration of their collective raiment, it's time for the Ducks to get the ironic "Robin Lurch" treatment.  Actually, even if you don't remember Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, this dream sequence (BTW, GeoX, that clears up the question of "why would Robin Lurch still want to do this") features some decent gags, most of them courtesy of Duckworth.  "Ba-roke" and "This is the best cardboard money can't buy" still work for me, as does the brief scene in which Scrooge wrestles the Pluto-wannabe for the bone.  I will admit, however, that Greg has a point when he remarks that, the longer this business goes on, the more depressing it gets.  (Even Robin Lurch appears to realize this; witness his reaction after he sees HD&L burning newspapers to keep warm.) Surely, Scrooge's subsequent spell of temporary insanity (there is no other word for it) leaves a bad taste in the beak, not least because it seems to undercut the whole notion of Scrooge personally learning a meaningful lesson from his spell of poverty.  As it stands, Scrooge doesn't really get the message until Duckworth challenges him to recover the marbles and Captain Jack shows him some unmerited kindness by lending the Ducks his leaky boat.


"Down and Out" might still have been salvaged (pun intended) had K&W maintained the adventurous, detection-oriented tone of the search for the horseradish in Barks' story.  No such luck.  After chucking the Ducks' detailed doping-out of the horseradish's location in favor of Captain Jack's dubious use of maritime charts to determine where "the ocean currents" must have dragged the wreck of the Golden Goose in the course of the past century, K&W abruptly decide that laughs have been lacking and turn the salvage operation into a series of goofy gags.  Needless to say, semi-comical sharks are involved and diving suits are overinflated along the way.  At least Mrs. Beakley gets one of her very rare moments to shine as a (sort of) action heroine.

Just as Scrooge and co. have succeeded in bagging the marbles, Fritter shows up on Scrooge's unrecognizable yacht (how'd Fritter get to the Cape of No Hope so fast?  At least Chisel McSue was already in Havana when he heard of Scrooge's "sitch" on the radio), and we seem to get back on track with Barks' original.  Seem, I said.  Here is where Barks gives his story an extra-cruel edge, depicting McSue as cold-blooded enough to follow up on his destruction of Scrooge's vessel (using a machine gun, mind you, rather than a "mere" blunderbuss) with an attempt to "silence" the henchman who has been helping him...

... and then giving Scrooge an opportunity to do exactly the same sort of thing after McSue falls out of his boat and is in danger of drowning:

So why couldn't THIS have been the "moral dilemma" that K&W used to test Scrooge's character? Kimba the White Lion faced challenges like this on a fairly regular basis (to take just one example, consider Kimba's reluctance to kill "The Gigantic Grasshopper"), so surely Scrooge was capable of handling a similar situation?  K&W did tease the notion of "going there," at least for a moment, but unfortunately, they had already sabotaged their opportunity to do so in any sort of effective manner.  The fact that Fritter had already taken over Scrooge's fortune pretty effectively neutralized any temptation on Scrooge's part to "let the rat drown."  Had Fritter refused to sign the delivery paper and Scrooge then followed through by refusing to take him on board the lifeboat -- an action that would have come across as far more cold-hearted than anything Scrooge did to Mr. O'Flannel et al.-- then, at least according to the terminally screwed-up Duckburg legal system, Fritter's fortune would probably have passed into legal limbo, as opposed to reverting back to Scrooge.  Thus we see the domino effect in action: decisions made early in the episode undercutting the effectiveness of later scenes.  


Of course, we have to conclude the episode with scenes of Scrooge making up for his past sins by showing generosity to all the folks he'd dissed earlier.  It doesn't appear to have occurred to K&W that they were undercutting their own parody of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous here by positing an entire episode of Lifestyle of the Filthy Rich centered around how generous a rich person could be to others.  (Or perhaps Rich and Famous actually DID this on occasion?  I never watched the show, so I can't be sure.)


"Down and Out" isn't a total loss, quite.  As I noted above, some of the Filthy non-Rich gags are OK, as are some of Fritter's more... um, inspired redecoration schemes.  This episode must also be regarded as one of Duckworth's more memorable performances.  In addition to the butler providing Robin Lurch with the memorable tour of the "palatial underpass," the byplay between Scrooge and his butler here is rivaled only by the Senor Wences-esque "closet gags" during "Nothing to Fear."  One's memory immediately leaps to the "You mean like..." "Yesss..." routine quoted by Greg, but I actually find the dialogue at the start of the episode, as Duckworth is ferrying Scrooge around Duckburg to sow financial tares, to be much funnier (not to mention much less preachy).  Then, too, Duckworth is the character who shakes Scrooge out of terminal decline by reminding him of his adventurous past and challenging him to retrieve the marbles.

It'd be difficult not to rank "Down and Out" at the bottom of the list of DuckTales' "full" (as opposed to semi-) adaptations of Barks stories.  Early episodes like "Micro Ducks from Outer Space" and "Earth Quack," while disappointing, at least tried to stick to the Barks template for the most part, even if their departures from "book" were generally found to be wanting.  Koonce and Wiemers commit a far more serious error: they fail to trust the template of "Trouble from Long Ago" and, in their insistence upon turning the story into a moral lesson, fatally compromise what was already a perfectly solid storyline that already contained a number of the thematic elements that they wanted to include.  The phrase "shooting yourself in the foot" comes to mind.

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"DuckBlurbs"

(GeoX) Has anyone ever actually been required to wash dishes to pay for a restaurant bill? Regardless, for some reason I find the trope far more hilarious than I think it really is. 

The classic example of this in comics is probably the early sequence in LI'L ABNER in which Abner, freshly arrived in New York, gets himself trapped in a vicious circle by going to a restaurant and eating a big meal without having the money to pay for it.  By the time he finishes his kitchen penance, he's hungry again, so he orders another big meal, and... you take it from there.

(Greg)  Scrooge wonders if that came out right as he catches himself...and then here comes the nastiest brown weasel with a black umbrella and green suit with tie; and black hat out of the closet! 

Actually, he's supposed to be a fox.  Of course, given the average level of craft displayed by the animators in this episode, it's easy to see how you could make such a mistake.

It's Polygonal Scrooge!

(Greg) He is Fritter O'Way who is voiced by Aron Kincaid (according to the USIMDB; so take that one with a grain of salt) who started on the television show This Is The Life in 1952; then Fall of Nineveh (which he wrote, directed and produced along with acted in it!), and as a beekeeper in The Wasp Woman. He went on to do mostly movies such as Spartacus, The Girls On The Beach, Ski Party, Beach Ball, Dr. Goldfoot & The Bikini Machine, The Ghost In The Invisible Bikini, The Secret Sharer, The Happiest Millionaire, and the New Wife. He didn't land much in terms of roles on television until he got into animation as The Iron Sheik in Rock'N'Wrestling in 1985. He then became Sky Lynx in Transformers and Killer Croc in Batman: The Animated Series.
Maybe Fritter should have thrown a big rock at Scrooge.  :-)  Kincaid passed away in 2011, BTW.  I recall having all sorts of trouble matching names and voices in this episode for much the same reason that I had trouble in "Sphinx for the Memories."  All those one-shotters.  

(Greg) So we head to the flashback as we go to the docks as we see the Golden Goose as Fritter explains that it's owned and sailed by his ancestor. We then see cargo being put into the hull as we see a duck with white shin guard and a sailor uniform which Fritter address as Seafoam McDuck. See Seafoam was charged with making a delivery for his ancestor Diddle O'Way (who happens to be like Fritter; only with a mustache and wearing brown and green striped pants). He is carrying a barrel that isn't so funny. Diddle (Aron Kincaid again through Fritter's narration) asks how much will it be to deliver the barrel of marbles to the Cape of No Hope. Seafoam proclaims that it's two schilling; or be gone. Diddle agrees; but he wants insurance so he gives him a paper and Seafoam signs it which is clearly the deed and then proclaims that they leave with the tide. However; we head to sea and it's stormy and the sails are tattered now. The ship sank and the marbles with it; but everyone was able to make it to the rowboats safely back to shore. So we head back to the docks as we see Seafoam explain to Diddle on the docks about the storm; but there are no excuses and according to the fine print; he now owns everything. Seafoam states that everything he owned went to sea; except for the golden pocket watch. Diddle wants that; but Seafoam runs away with it stage left. Diddle tries to get it; but gets MURDERED by the net filled with cargo and falls into the sea. I guess he died or something. 
Probably not, else how could Fritter have gotten the contract?  BTW, note how the size of the contract changes dramatically in the two scenes below.  I do give K&W credit for including a version of the Barks hypothesis that Scrooge used his "golden inheritance" (watch on TV, gold teeth in the comics) to set himself up as a prospector.  For sure, it's a heck of a lot more palatable than the manner in which the situation would later be presented in "Once Upon a Dime."

Next: Episode 48, "The Right Duck."

5 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

Glad to see you’re back, Chris!

After the infamous “Ducks of the West”, there was no greater… er, “Duck You!” to Carl Barks than this atrocity. In fact, I’d say it was MORE SO, because this was one of Barks’ OWN stories polluted and adulterated with unnecessary moralizing, and a repulsive parody/relic of an “eighties excess” that would, thankfully, pass before long. I didn’t like it THEN, and I’ve come to despise it now!

And, before anyone cites my own use of “Calisota Shore” in WDC&S # 720, please understand the vast difference in secreting sewage like “Robin Lurch” into a CLASSIC BARKS STORY, and the necessity of having to “write one’s self OUT of a corner” (for the American audience) that Romano Scarpa and the “offshoot” Disney Comics culture of Italy backed me into – by making all the characters “celebrities” – with “The Treasure of Marco Topo: Part Two”. …I’m still PROUD of that solution, BTW! It solved the unexpected problem, and caused no “permanent damage” to the characters in so doing!

K&W did lots of great things when writing their own original material, which makes this all the more disappointing!

Pan MiluĊ› said...

Oryginal McSue is like Barks most evil villian.

Scrooge saves his live and he pushesh his box back to the sea. How mean spirited you can get?

Chris Barat said...

Pan,

McSue definitely ranks high on the Nast-O-Meter... which made the decision NOT to use a more faithful version of the character extremely frustrating. O'Way had his good moments, but this should have been first and foremost an ADVENTURE with REAL DANGER involved.

Chris

Mark Lungo said...

1. I have mixed feelings about this episode. The premise of Scrooge becoming poor, and thereby learning to empathize with "the little people", is a good one. The fact that Carl Barks combined this concept with rip-roaring adventure sequences and a moral dilemma for Scrooge is icing on the cake. Unfortunately, Ken Koonce and David Weimers didn't have the right sensibilities to do the idea justice. Even at their best, they preferred slapstick comedy over characterization, and they seemed unable to fully commit to any of their stories or characters: "Why take any of this seriously? It's just a cartoon!" Unfortunately, K&W continued down the path of wackiness, both in their later Duck Tales episodes and their scripts for Rescue Rangers and Tale Spin, and their work suffered as a result.

2. I wonder how some of the other WDTVA writers might have handled this story. I'm sure that Jymn Magon, Mark Zaslove or Len Uhley would have done a better job than K&W. And Libby Hinson, who hadn't started writing for Disney yet, would have been ideal.

Chris Barat said...

Mark,

I, too, would have preferred writers with a somewhat more finely honed sense of characterization to work on this adaptation. It's not that K&W didn't understand character, it's that they typically went for laughs first and foremost without always stopping to think of what damage that might do to the storyline. The irony is that K&W also penned "Hero for Hire," which dialed back on the boffo yuks in favor of developing Launchpad's character and his relationship with Doofus -- and wound up a front-rank classic. You're right that K&W seemed to abandon this approach in later DT eps as well as the eps they did for future WDTVA series.

Chris