Thursday, July 10, 2014

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 87, "The Big Flub"

DuckTales' first-season "Launchpad Trilogy" -- "Hero for Hire," "Top Duck," and "Where No Duck Has Gone Before" -- are keystone episodes firmly establishing the character of Launchpad McQuack and his place in the wider world.  It's a little more difficult to identify similar touchstones for Fenton Crackshell, and not simply because of his Gizmoduck alter ego.  In stark contrast to the relatively uncomplicated Launchpad, Fenton has so many external and internal influences operating upon him that their effects must, of necessity, be spread over multiple episodes.  This is especially true of Fenton's relationships with his mother and his girlfriend Gandra Dee.  That being said, it's hard not to argue that "The Big Flub" and the immediately subsequent "A Case of Mistaken Secret Identity" have some particularly pointed things to say about Fenton's drive for status and success and his somewhat uneasy relationship with his superhero persona.  Our sympathies in these two episodes are pointed in diametrically opposite directions -- against Fenton in "Flub" (at least after the success of "Pep," aka "Flubble Gum," causes his ego and presumption to swell as dramatically as one of those helium-infused bubbles), with him in "Identity" -- and yet, the situations into which Fenton lands in both cases seem to be entirely natural consequences of his character.  That's when you know you've crafted a character that will (or, should I say, ought to) last.

If there is a direct analogy between "The Big Flub" and any one particular Launchpad-focused episode, it's probably to "Hero for Hire."  To be sure, Fenton doesn't "strike out on his own" as did LP, preferring instead to work within the McDuck Enterprises corporate structure and develop marketing ideas to impress his boss.  Even his self-important, riding-high reference to "the future of Crackshell-McDuck Enterprises" indicates that he wants to stay within Scrooge's orbit; he simply wants a (much) bigger piece of the action.  Like Launchpad, however, Fenton's untethered actions only serve to get him into trouble... but, unlike the duped LP, Fenton has no real excuse for creating the mess, since he decided to market "Pep" without heeding Gyro's direct warning that the stuff hadn't been fully tested.  Fenton's plight is exacerbated by the fact that multitudes (480,000, if you go by the number of refund envelopes that Fenton is obliged to stuff at ep's end) of Duckburgians are directly affected by his mistake.  Indeed, as GeoX observes, we never get to see how the "dilemma of the drifting denizens" is resolved.  It had to have been, of course, since (1) HD&L, Gyro, and Fenton are among those affected and (2) one can't imagine the victims of "Pep" standing for wearing weighted shoes the rest of their lives.  (Since "Pep" is a McDuck Enterprises product, just imagine what legal trouble the latter fact might cause for Scrooge.)  In the spirit of normalcy, we presumably have to assume that the helium either wore off or was ultimately excreted through various means, both fair and foul.

The curtain-raising "pop-up parade," in which Fenton harasses the early-rising Scrooge about the job opening for "Vice President of New Products," is obviously meant to invoke memories of that fateful original interview in "Liquid Assets."  The difference this time around is that Fenton's persistence is, quite frankly, a lot creepier.  Asking for a raise in "Dough Ray Me" was powder-puff material by contrast.  At a time when most normal employees (including those who don't have ready access to a super-suit) would probably be more concerned with solidifying their shaky positions and proving that they can handle the jobs that they already possess, Fenton, driven on by his go-getting demons, is reaching for more, more, MORE, and he's willing to go to logic-defying, Pinkie Pie-style lengths to achieve his goal.  The repeated "pop-up gags" certainly do their job in hammering home how desperate Fenton is to climb the corporate ladder, but they also establish an unfortunate precedent for the remainder of the episode: The script never uses one example or one gag of a certain type when several will do.  This does tend to interfere a bit with the ep's pacing, a fact that Greg seemed to pick up on in his review.

The Nephews' "pep talk" convinces Fenton to provide tangible evidence of his product-peddling potential to Scrooge.  Given Ken Koonce and David Weimers' predilection for movie references, the idea of the fake TV commercials for the nonexistent "Pep" was very likely drawn from the Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedy Lover Come Back (1961), the major difference being that Fenton, unlike Hudson's unscrupulous ad-exec character Jerry Webster, is not acting with malice aforethought when he puts Gandra Dee through her cheesecake-y paces.  As with Webster, however, an accidental airing of the ads obliges Fenton to come up with a real version of his fake product.



The parallels to Lover Come Back continue as Fenton and Scrooge enlist the "local goofy scientist" -- Gyro Gearloose -- to develop "Pep."  "Pep," like Jerry Webster's "Vip," turns out to be a seemingly innocuous product with a sting in its tail, in the form of potent side effects.  In the case of Lover Come Back, it was alcoholic candy, under the influence of which Hudson and Day got married, among other mirth-inducing things.  "Flubble Gum," by contrast, turns out to be a chewing substance that gives Duckburgians "a lift" in more ways than one.  Essentially blameless up until this point, Fenton commits the pivotal sin when he blows off Gyro's pleas not to market the unperfected ungulant.  This is yet another example of Fenton's occasional eagerness to ignore "the devil in the details" (namely, the nuts and bolts of achieving success in a position) in favor of a breezy surface self-confidence which is only occasionally warranted.

Just as we previously saw a sequence of scenes in which the residents of Duckburg display their excitement over "Pep" -- in the process, discomfiting Fenton no end -- so we now, at the start of Act Two, get another series of glimpses of "Pep" literally taking Duckburg by storm.  Again, I don't doubt that some of this material could have been trimmed a bit in favor of constructing a somewhat more coherent Act Three.  Greg suggests that we ought to have gotten some scenes of "Fenton demonstrating the gum to the denizens," but, in all honesty, what's there to demonstrate?  Perhaps Koonce and Weimers could have broken Fenton's metamorphosis from humble employee into arrogant, would-be partner into several phases, with Fenton first angling for more perks and then developing the swelled head.  GeoX argues that Scrooge rewarding Fenton with "a percentage of the 'Pep' profits" (a fact that is never explicitly spelled out in the script, I don't believe) is out of character for the old miser, but one might respond that the way in which Scrooge rewards the upper-level executives in his company might be different from the manner in which the Fentons, Mrs. Featherbies/Quackfasters, and Clerklys are compensated.

Um, wouldn't you expect the lightest contestant to win the "Pep" Challenge?

Fenton's move to the elegantly apportioned "tri-level trailer" might, if one squints hard enough, be considered a somewhat twisted effort to "remain true to his roots" while enjoying some of the finer things in life.  If that was the intention, then either the lesson apparently didn't "take," or Fenton forgot the original aim; in the very next scene after he's marveling over the Crackshells' new caviar-and-champagne lifestyle, he's literally wallowing in said lifestyle, a sure sign that the crash-and-burn is headed his way.

Greg is spot on in fingering Act Three as the moment when this hitherto-pristine (if you ignore the occasional jackhammering of gags) effort starts to weaken a bit.  It's as if K&W, like the floating victims of "Pep," weren't quite sure how to "pull the balloon down" and get everything back to normal.  We start with yet another cascade of gags showing the "perculating" (Chuck McCann's Walter Kronduck's pronunciation, not mine) "Pep" crisis.  None of the gags are particularly witty in and of themselves.  I originally thought that the reference to "Dutch Elm disease" (to wit: a dog-"walking" Duckburgian banging his head into an inconvenient tree) was kind of clever, but the bark has rubbed off of that one over the years (see what I did there?).  Nowadays, I'm more inclined to chuckle at the reference to "stewardesses... taking off before their planes."  When did "stewardess" fall out of fashion in favor of the gender-neutral "flight attendant," I wonder?  We can now officially say that it was post-1989.

Fenton, whose facial expressions and reactions have been a highlight throughout, delivers another couple of examples of memorable mugging when Scrooge finds him chugging "Pepto Dismal" in the medicine cabinet.  If this were one of Carl Barks' DONALD DUCK "mastery stories," this would be the moment when Donald would be heading for the hills, Timbuktu, or some location in between.  Give Fenton a little credit here: He may be hiding in fear of an angry populace, but he hasn't left the scene of his unwitting crimes.  I'd like to think that some sense of responsibility to his mother and Gandra kept him from vamoosing.

Having indulged in a bit of "Pep" himself (which I can understand... but what about Gyro?  After warning Fenton about possible side effects, wouldn't the inventor have steered clear of using "Flubble Gum" altogether?), the skulking, disguised Fenton soon finds himself up in the air sans super-suit aid, from which inadvantageous position he still somehow, some way manages to send an Air Mail (hyuck! hyuck!) letter to his "M'Ma."  Curiously, unlike the rest of the floating denizens, Fenton's trip doesn't seem to have an apogee, as he drifts "right into a flight path" and tumbles into a cloud.  (No, GeoX, I don't think that he ever "pop[ped] out of existence" during this sequence; he merely vanished into the cloud before popping back out.)  This is strictly a matter of plot convenience, as it makes Scrooge and Mrs. Crackshell's use of the "Pep"-powered "lead balloon" to float the Gizmosuit up to Fenton seem more... well, I suppose that "dramatic" would be an overcooked description, now, wouldn't it?

Given that this is the first time that we have seen Scrooge and Mrs. Crackshell interact since their touching quasi-relationship in "Blue Collar Scrooge," their bout of cooperation here is almost professional in its matter-of-factness (at least until the "Flubbabubble" -- I wonder how many times Kathleen Freeman had to try before getting that correct -- pops and the duo are forced to bail from the plummeting propane palace).  The gag involving Scrooge insisting on Mrs.C. paying the postage due may be annoying to Greg and others, but it's a clever callback to those one-page Barks "cheapness" gags, not to mention the gags that kicked off "Treasure of the Golden Suns."  Some of the ensuing palaver is amusing in an existential sort of way ("Do you have a bicycle pump?" "Who doesn't?"), and full marks go to Koonce and Weimers for that out-of-nowhere parody of Scrooge's "Worry Room," in the form of Fenton's "Lazy Susan Worry Rut" (I see the Lazy Susan, but no rut, a gaffe I'm willing to ignore).  Leave it to K&W, who have never been known for their fidelity to Barksian precedent, to come up with something that even Barks never appeared to consider... a rather surprising omission on Barks' part, when you come to think about it.  Given the number of times that Barks drew the frustrated or outwitted Beagle Boys walking in a group circle, you would think that he might have hit upon the notion of giving the Beagles their own "Worry Room" at some point in time.

 
We get another unexpected piece of Barksiana after the trailer begins to fall to Earth.  Mrs. Crackshell's wail, "WAAAK! We're falling like a lead balloon!" marks the first time that that trademark ejaculation has been consciously used in DuckTales.  (I add the "consciously" because one of the Nephews' several "snoring routines" includes "Wak"s.)  The appearance of the exclamation itself isn't nearly as surprising as the identity of the character that delivers the historic honk.  We get a little bit of midair palaver that makes one nostalgic for the epic free-fall sequence in "Working for Scales," a vintage Gizmoduck screwup, and then it's time for the repentant Fenton to pay... er, refund... the "Pep"pers.  Given that her role as the spokeswoman for "Pep" exposed her to widespread public humiliation, Gandra's passive acceptance of Fenton's apology here is arguably more remarkable than her forgiveness of Fenton's well-meaning forwardness in "Metal Attraction."  Perhaps she was unaware at this point that it was Fenton's carelessness that caused all the trouble, reasoning instead that Fenton "can't have known" about the side effects and that she had overreacted in blowing him off.  For Fenton's sake, I hope that she never learns the whole truth.

I don't mean to pick at "The Big Flub"'s flaws too terribly much; though it could have been a bit stronger with a slightly tighter narrative, this is a first-class effort.  It isn't K&W's fault that "A Case of Mistaken Secret Identity," the series' other seminal Fenton-focused production, will turn out to be even better.

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Bumper #22: "Lion Tamer"
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"DuckBlurbs" 

(GeoX) "And to think, your class voted you most likely to become homeless!"

It's not often that one can flag DuckTales for indulging in a gag in bad taste, but this counts as one, or at least I think so.  I don't find homelessness to be any sort of laughing matter.  At least it's a one-liner, as opposed to the drawn-out "ironic parody" of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in "Down and Out in Duckburg."  Same goes for the bum who asks Fenton to "spare some 'Pep'" during the "anticipation builds in Duckburg" sequence.

(GeoX) HDL got Scrooge to buy them a bike "once [they] convinced him it's cheaper than having Duckworth drive [them] to school for thirteen years." Thirteen years! That would mean that they're currently five, contra the assertion in "Bubbeo and Juliet" that they're entering fifth grade. And ya know, when a Fenton episode and a Bubba episode contradict each other, I don't have to think too hard about which one I'm going with... Also, you'd think an allegedly-shrewd businessman like Scrooge would realize that when they're teenagers they're not gonna be able to ride the same bike they did when they were kindergarteners.

It could be that HD&L have had the bike for a while and that they're referring to a conversation with Scrooge that took place several years ago.  As for using a different bike when they get older, it's easy to imagine Scrooge insisting that, instead of getting a new bike every so often, they retrofit the one that they already have.  We do run into something of a dilemma, though, when we remember that Duckworth was seen driving the "fifth-grade" HD&L, along with Webby and Bubba, to school at the start of "Bubbeo and Juliet."  Um, I guess the bike was in the process of being retrofitted at that point, and the lads needed a temporary lift...?
(Greg)  So we go to Scroogenount Studios and...wait a second? How did Fenton manage to get IN the studio? And he's already started shooting a commercial with Gandra Dee? Already?

Considering that Fenton was able to get Scrooge's money to be dumped into the lake in "Liquid Assets" after just having been hired, getting the use of a stage at Scrooge McDuck (not "Scroogenount") Studios must have been cake for him.  Since the original McDuck Studios was turned into a museum at the end of "Where No Duck Has Gone Before," Scrooge must have purchased or built another studio in the interim.

(Greg) So we head back to Scrooge's office as he's reading a piece of paper and in comes Fenton with a bow and arrow; and a target on his green shirt as he throws down the weapons and begs for Scrooge to kill him. Seriously; Fenton literally wants Scrooge to put him out of his misery. I betcha that scene wouldn't pass muster today.

I'm not so sure.  The scene, and Fenton's reactions, are played so over the top that the bit might have been allowed to slip by.  The fact that the bow and arrow are never actually aimed at anything (not even the ceiling, as with the blunderbuss that was axed from "Liquid Assets") would help in that regard.
(Greg) So we head to Gyro's lab as Scrooge and Fenton walk in... as they look around and they notice Gyro on the table being measured by Light Bulb.

We later see Helper helping to stabilize the platform on which Gyro is sleeping.  Nice to see that Helper actually had something to... you know, help with... in his final animated appearance.

(Greg) The real scoop is the next scene as we are on Oprah. Yes; the Duckberg version of Oprah; starring Oprah Webfeet.

The interesting thing about Oprah Webfeet (or Opal Windbag, if you go by Darkwing Duck -- the real Oprah probably would not want to) is the simple fact that she's basically a human with a bird's beak.  Geralduck Rivera in "A Case of Mistaken Secret Identity" will have the same kind of quasi-human design.  I'm not a big fan of this sort of character design, at least as it relates to DuckTales, in which the classic Barksian designs of dogfaces, duckfaces, and pigfaces have generally held sway.  By the time Lawrence Loudmouth appears in "The Masked Mallard," we'll be back to a more traditional, broadly-caricatured version of a real-world figure.

(Greg) The nephews claim that they have had [no 'Pep'] since the afternoon. And Scrooge believes them without a second thought as he goes over to the conveniently placed phone and dials for Gyro Gearloose as we go to the split screen of Gyro waking up and answering the phone. 

This scene, and the later split-screen of Fenton and Gandra talking on the phone, may also have been inspired by Lover Come Back, which, like its predecessor Pillow Talk (1959), made considerable use of the technical gimmick.




Next: Episode 88, "A Case of Mistaken Secret Identity."

2 comments:

Pan MiluĊ› said...

I love how Gyro stands dramticaly in the TV set door on end of one of the acts ;)

Anonymous said...

This is my favourite Fenton Crackshell (and M'Ma) episode outside the Super Ducktales five parter.

Actually the number of PEP customers was much larger than 480,000. Fenton has already been at apologizing for awhile, and had "only" 480,000 left.