Wednesday, June 4, 2014

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 82, "Blue Collar Scrooge"

"Blue Collar Scrooge" is perhaps best classified as a "guilty pleasure" -- an episode in which the lapses in storytelling logic are buck-naked and blatantly obvious, but an episode which still manages to entertain.  OK, so Greg is right, it's no "The Old Man and the Sea Duck"; it's much more of a workmanlike, garden-variety amnesia story than a fanciful quasi-fable with spiritual overtones.  But its low-key sentiment -- and a surprisingly non-trivial amount of character development -- make it a pleasant enough viewing experience.

David Weimers, who co-wrote this episode with veteran sitcom scrivener Sam Locke, was, of course, partially responsible for a somewhat similar treatment of "Scrooge the ruthless businessman" in "Down and Out in Duckburg."  The question naturally arises as to whether the portrayal of Scrooge here is more negative than that one was.  I'm inclined to say no, not just because we are invited to feel sorry for the old miser after he loses his memory, but also because the idea of Scrooge's "bad behavior" is based on presumptions that are never formally justified.  The most important of these is the assumption that Scrooge's sale of his skateboard factory to the Overseas Competition Company will result in the factory workers losing their jobs.  Everyone from Fenton (whose performance here is criminally underrated) to the workers themselves take this outcome as a given; our own GeoX does the same in his review.  And yet... nowhere does Scrooge, OCC boss Mr. Trumpcard, or anyone else say that this is what is going to happen.  Sure, I can understand the characters jumping to that conclusion, but assuming that it inevitably "must" take place is simply not the same as Scrooge walking around Duckburg and insouciantly stiff-arming a trio of unfortunates in full view of the audience.

The "shitty" (to quote GeoX) conditions at Scrooge's factory are also more ambiguously depicted than they might seem at first glance.  Minimum-wage "cheap laborers" these folks might be, but let's not forget that they work for the same duck who pays his own relatives the fabled "thirty cents an hour" to assist him with treasure hunts.  Under the circs, the workers seem reasonably content, not becoming really militant until they think (again, with no real justification) they are going to be pink-slipped.  Perhaps this is merely a fatalistic acceptance of a world in which Scrooge-themed fast-food joints, cafes, and pizza parlors reflect the degree to which the McDuck empire dominates the local entrepreneurial scene, but you must admit that Scrooge's "exploitation" of his workers could have been portrayed in a far harsher manner than it actually was.  This takes some of the edge off of what could have been a far cruder exercise in capitalist-bashing (and probably would have been were this show being made today!).  Make no mistake, Scrooge is definitely walking on the "shady side of the street" here, but he came across much, much worse in "Down and Out."

The opening scenes, far from showing a completely antagonistic relationship between Scrooge and his employees, depict them as existing in amusingly synergistic relationship, with the skateboard workers knowing Scrooge's habits (of making surprise inspections, in this case) better than he himself does.  (I gather that Mrs. Featherby and Henryetta, her friend and contact at the plant, must be regular correspondents.)  Since Scrooge is a character who is, in many respects, "set in his ways," for the workers to be hip to Scrooge's quirks isn't so hard to believe.  Scrooge, in fact, is so convinced that his workers can't possibly be in the know that he blows off Fenton's direct report of manager Egert Beaver's confession.

In the first big logical "WTF" of the story, Scrooge appears to forget his previously announced desire to "lick" the overseas competition -- an attitude that surely jibes with his proud contention in "The Uncrashable Hindentanic" that he can mine success out of ANY business venture -- when he informs the shocked Fenton that he plans to sell the factory.  Fenton's immediate plea of concern for the factory workers is a watershed moment, the first time that he has ever expressed true empathy for someone who is not his own kin, and shouldn't be overlooked simply because Scrooge's lesson-learning consumes so much of the ep's oxygen.  The ensuing conflict between Fenton's feelings of solidarity with the workers and his loyalty to "Mr. McDuck," muddled though it may be by the ep's loosey-goosey logic, is probably the most slighted aspect of the story as a whole.

Scrooge's loss of memory comes about in the most contrived manner possible, but isn't it usually thus with most amnesia stories?  Scrooge's involuntary skateboard ride troubles me far less than the fact that the plunge into the water causes Scrooge to magically lose his glasses, hat, cane, AND spats at the same time.  Since the dunking apparently leaves him penniless as well, one has to assume that his wallet and/or money belt was also "spirited away."  It still seems somewhat unlikely that no one would recognize him -- that broadcloth coat, drenched and mottled though it might be, is still pretty distinctive -- but, in all other particulars, Scrooge couldn't have been more effectively "anonymized" if a computer glitch had swallowed his identity.

While his family tries ineffectively to search for him, the memoryless Scrooge (now speaking in Alan Young's natural, unaccented voice) wanders his way into an unlikely, yet endearing, quasi-relationship with Mrs. Crackshell, who, like her son, also displays some welcome personal growth here.  To be sure, Mrs. C. may have an ulterior motive in getting involved with "Pops"; her second and third questions to him make it crystal clear that, for all of her outward crustiness, she's been hoping to snag another man.  It's also hard to forget that her first reaction to Scrooge's "return to consciousness" is to bewail "what could have been" in a material sense.  But let's give her due credit; the woman who can barely tear herself away from her soaps to acknowledge her own son's presence is willing to open her metallic home to someone she believes to be a perfect stranger.  Can you imagine the rebarbative "M'Ma" of "Super DuckTales" acting in such a manner?  Didn't think so.  Ever so conveniently, Fenton never returns to the trailer during this romantic interlude, but he can perhaps be excused for staying away, since he is deeply involved in the search for Scrooge.

Fenton's decision to imitate Scrooge and complete the deal with Mr. Trumpcard opens the door to all manner of subsequent hilarity, thanks to Hamilton Camp's purposely overbaked Scottish accent (which gets funnier and funnier the more and more absorbed Fenton-Scrooge becomes in his role).  But beneath the silliness, there's a serious dynamic at play.  Fenton doesn't want the factory to be sold, but he also doesn't want to let his boss down, nor does he want the news of Scrooge's disappearance to cause a panic in the business world (funny -- I could have sworn that "Yuppy Ducks" clearly demonstrated that such massive economic maelstroms were nothing to fret about).  Fenton won't face a dilemma this serious until he is torn between revealing his secret identity to HD&L and obeying Scrooge's orders to keep it a secret in "A Case of Mistaken Secret Identity."  The skateboard strait is actually direr, because Fenton's battle in "Secret Identity" is strictly an internal one, whereas here, Fenton's decision will directly affect the lives of others.  The change in Fenton's attitude as he becomes more "Scrooge-like" is an effective way of depicting the "dark side" of Scrooge's business-mindedness without putting Scrooge himself under the spotlight.  It's not a big stretch to imagine a comic-book story in which Donald feels obligated to act as Fenton does here, which actually represents quite a compliment to Fenton as a character.

Having obtained a position at the skateboard plant -- and having been run through the usual gauntlet of "assembly-line agonies" that have been de rigueur in factory fables ever since Modern Times (1936) -- Scrooge is well-motivated to assume the Norma Rae role after the workers learn of the impending sale of the factory.  Unfortunately, the ep's wonky logic undercuts the impact of the action, as we are naturally led to wonder how striking would make a difference in this situation.  As daring as the strike scenario may seem at first glance, Weimers and Locke were actually playing it extremely safe.  Imagine how things would have played out had the angry workers decided, not to strike, but to sabotage the factory or even try to destroy it in some manner, in a sort of blue-collar version of Howard Roark's dynamiting of his "compromised" housing project in Ayn Rand's THE FOUNTAINHEAD.  At least that would have fully justified Fenton-Scrooge immediately calling for police assistance!

As to why Mr. Trumpcard suddenly shies away from making the deal when he learns of the strike... Actually, his reaction lends credence to the idea that the workers weren't necessarily fated to lose their jobs.  If the factory were going to be shut down anyway, then obviously Trumpcard wouldn't have cared about a strike one way or the other.  But a reluctance to close a deal in the face of a work stoppage suggests that he simply wanted to take over the factory and is unwilling to sign the agreement until that little unpleasantness is cleared up.  Clearly, Weimers and Locke wanted to make us sympathize the workers, and they probably figured that the best way to do that was to intimate that their jobs were on the line.  Unfortunately, the "facts on the (factory) floor" simply don't justify the latter conclusion.  In any event, Trumpcard's ultimate decision "to sign or not to sign" is irrelevant, because Fenton never signs the agreement himself... and, even if he had, the act would have carried as much weight as Fenton's unilateral "decision" to cut HD&L's allowances and Mrs. Beakley's salary.  That is to say, none.  Talk about spinning contrived drama out of "moonbeams and spider silk."

The obligatory "second knock on the noggin" restores Scrooge's memory, and the subsequent "who's who" debate between Scrooge and the by-now-clearly-delusional Fenton is the comedic highlight of the episode.  But, just as Fenton's funny mastery of a My Fair Lady-style tongue-twister obscured a serious point about his feelings of responsibility to his employer and to the wider world, so too is Fenton's final exposure and humiliation (triggered by the arrival of Mrs. Crackshell -- how did she know that he was at the factory in the first place?) leavened by an admirable show of character, in which he bravely admits that Scrooge would have every right to fire him for getting so carried away.  For a character whose primal drive is to achieve success in the business world, this is quite a remarkable statement; it's Fenton's version of Rainbow Dash's decision to leave the "Wonderbolts Academy" -- and thereby possibly lose her chance to achieve her dream of joining that fabled flying team -- over a point of honor.  Thankfully, Scrooge, recognizing that Fenton's exaggerated portrayal of his attitudes and mannerisms reflect how the outside world views him, is quick to realize that Fenton actually did him a favor. 

The concluding intimation that the relationship between Scrooge and Mrs. Crackshell may "have webs" after the episode is finished is cute and all, but I'd like to think that both of them correctly realized that they come from two different worlds.  Besides, Scrooge probably has some unfond memories of how his old flame Goldie reacted to another extracurricular romance and doesn't want to tempt fate again.

So... a sloppy effort, but a fun one.




Bumper #17: "Climbers"





(GeoX) Scrooge is going to sell his skateboard factory to the overseas competition, which is, hilariously, actually called "The Overseas Competition Corporation." But he slips on a skateboard and bashes his head and--as I am led to believe generally happens when people get concussions--loses his memory. "What IS my name?" he wonders. "Who am I? And why am I talking in this funny accent?" Okay okay, I know it's just a joke, but it always bears repeating: everyone has an accent; you don't notice your own or those of people who sound like you because for you that's the default, but it is there nonetheless.

True enough, but the indirect reference to Alan Young's Scottish accent -- which, it should be remembered, did not originate with DuckTales or even Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983), but dates all the way back to Young's turn as Filby in The Time Machine (1960) -- is simply too enjoyable to let a small matter like logic get in the way.  I've often wondered whether Young motivated the creation of this ep by asking for a chance to use his more familiar "Wilbur Post" (Mr. Ed) voice. 

(GeoX)  Scrooge calls off the sale...and dictates a modest improvement in working conditions. Characterwise, it's appropriate that he makes things better, but not too much better. 

Agreed.  It's kind of the equivalent of showing "generosity" by raising Donald and HD&L's salaries from thirty cents an hour to fifty cents an hour. 

(GeoX) It's funny that Fenton has no idea what sort of accent Scrooge has, trying on French and German before getting it right (in an abbreviated "My Fair Lady" spoof). 

This is the correct order of accents; Greg had it backwards.  As for Fenton-Scrooge's Scottish... effort, it may have had a precedent; Hamilton Camp voiced a Scottish-accented character named Greensleeves in the esoteric, George Lucas-produced animated film Twice Upon a Time (1983).  Alas, I can't seem to find a clip of Camp's voice work in that production, so I have no way of comparing it to what Fenton delivered here. 

(Greg)  Anyhow; Scrooge and the gang leave for the skateboard factory (clearly shown with a sign of Donald Duck on a skateboard. Don't ask me why).

Well, if that IS supposed to be Donald, then he's certainly not wearing his usual gear.  I'm inclined to think that it's just a generic Duck illo.

(Greg) We head inside as a beaver fury called Mr. Beaver (LAME-O!) want[s] his employees to actually do what Scrooge wants them to do.

Here's another character who would seem more at home in a TaleSpin episode... especially since the Beaver Boys of "Once Upon a Dime" were normal-sized beavers who just happened to be sentient.

(Greg) So we head back to the mansion and into the hallways as the nephews are “testing out” the Sidewalk City Slicker behind Scrooge's back who is in his office (which seems to change room in each and every episode I might add) as he is making a house of dollar bills for his amusement.

This may have been a reference to Carl Barks' cover to UNCLE $CROOGE #13 (March-May 1956).  Granted, the medium of construction is different in the two cases, but, in "Metal Attraction" and "Beaglemania," both of which were produced very soon after this episode, far more obvious references to U$ gag covers were made.  This may very well have been where the brief trend started.

(Greg) So we scene cut to Scrooge walking on the sidewalks of Duckb[u]rg as Captain Jack from "Down & Out in Duckb[u]rg" arrives and before Scrooge can speak; Jack throws him a quarter and calls him a bum before walking out. 

I'd like to think that this was a veiled reference to that other "Scrooge the ruthless businessman" epic, but it was almost certainly just coincidence.

(Greg) Scrooge is pissed off as he walks to a phone booth and uses a quarter since he's going to give Scrooge a piece of his mind. So we head to Scrooge's office and Duckworth is answering the phone. How hilarious that Scrooge cannot remember anything; and yet he can remember the phone number to the mansion of all places. Logic break #1 for the episode nearly six minutes in. 

Given that Scrooge's pay phone doesn't have a dial, perhaps he didn't need to remember the number; he could simply have called the operator and asked to be put through to the Mansion.
(Greg) So Fenton wants them to search high and low, Mrs. Beakly far and wide and Fenton here and there... Scene changer as everyone returns inside as Duckworth asks for Mr. McDuck and of course they cannot find them... Gizmo Duck's tire is flatten[ed] since he found a nail.

Of course, HD&L should now clearly recognize that Fenton is Gizmoduck, since Fenton departed on the search and Gizmo returned FROM the search.  Or not.  I'm beginning to be convinced that no clear directive regarding the extent to which characters other than Scrooge knew about Fenton's secret identity was ever given to the writers.

(Greg) Scrooge proclaims that he would put aside his hatred for Scrooge for [Mrs. Crackshell] and Ma is excited as the patrons watch some soccer (which even Scrooge calls a football game; which is a big no-no in American cartoons by the way Alan Young and logic break #2 for the episode since he's supposed to sound American and not have the Scottish accent) and Scrooge is tired of it.

Since one of the pizzeria patrons (voiced by Hamilton Camp) is clearly heard to shout, "Go team go, hit 'em again," I suspect that the animators may have misunderstood that the TV was supposed to show an American football game, opting to show the international version of "football" instead.

(Greg) Scrooge is pissed and grabs the glasses and top hat which shows the plunger which in any other universe would prove that [Fenton]'s not Scrooge. 

Yeah, about that plunger... Funny how it seems to shrink in length anytime it needs to be short enough for Fenton to wear the top hat without the hat slipping down over his eyes.

Next: Episode 83, "Metal Attraction."


Pan MiluĊ› said...

Im with Geox on the acent joke it's funny but it's super odd at the same time...

Anonymous said...

Re: Mrs. Crackshell at the factory

I believe that she was paying a visit to Scrooge, and only ran into Fenton by mistake.

How many times have Amnesia stories been done on T.V.? I suppose only Mrs. Crackshell knows for sure!

Joe Torcivia said...

“How many times have Amnesia stories been done on T.V.?”

I used to know, but I forgot!