Demolishing the Fourth Wall
By Steve Herte
Demolishing the Fourth Wall
By Steve Herte
Duck Amuck (WB, 1953) – Director: Charles M. Jones. Writer: Michael Maltese (story). Animation: Philip DeGuard (background), Ken Harris (animator), Maurice Noble (layout), Lloyd Vaughan (animator), & Ben Washam (animator). Music: Carl Stalling. Voices: Mel Blanc. Released on February 28, 1953. Color, 7 minutes.
From 1946 to 1958, Warner Brothers made some of the best and most remembered (and quoted, if I may add) cartoons in the history of animation. In the forefront was the dynamic duo of directors, Isadore “Friz” Freleng and Charles M. “Chuck” Jones. Most notably, it was Jones who contributed most to the art of animation. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck have him to thank for the characterizations we know today, and in the process he made some of today’s best-loved and most innovative cartoons.
In 1953, he created Duck Amuck, a cartoon that not only totally demolishes the fourth wall, but also asks “Just who is Daffy Duck?”
The short proved so popular with critics that in 1994 it was voted #2 on a list of the 50 greatest cartoons of all time by members in the animation field, second only to the remarkable 1956 short What’s Opera, Doc? (also by Jones). In 1999, the film was deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The cartoon opens in a conventional manner; the titles, in an Old English font, suggest Robin Hood or other swashbuckling characters. The heroic opening music by Carl Stalling reinforces this notion. A medieval setting appears with a castle in the background. Daffy Duck bursts onto the scene brandishing a sword saying, “Stand back, Musketeers! Let them sample my blade!” Daffy continues to charge forward to discover the scenery has disappeared and he’s now on a blank background. Confused, he lowers his sword, and almost embarrassed, he leaves the scene, later sticking his head out and reminding the animator about the empty whiteness: “Hey, whoever’s in charge here, the scenery … Where’s the scenery?”
A farm scene is hastily drawn and Daffy reappears in Musketeer costume, repeating his opening line, until he looks behind him. “OK, have it your way,” he says as he walks offstage. He reappears in overalls and a straw hat, singing, “Daffy Duck, he had a farm…” right onto a snow scene, “and on this farm he had an … igloo?”
He turns to the unseen animator, “Would it be too much to ask if we make up our minds?” Suddenly, on skis he sings “Dashing through the snow” into a Hawaiian jungle set. Quickly changing into a flowered sarong and strumming a ukulele, he switches to “Farewell to thee, farewell to thee.” And the scenery goes blank again.
There is no better way to get Daffy’s goat, as he is by now totally flustered. “Buster, it may come as a complete surprise to you to find that this is an animated cartoon. And that in animated cartoons they have scenery…“ But before Daffy can finish his sentence, a giant pencil comes into the scene and erases him. “All right, where am I?” he growls.
He is quickly drawn as a cowboy with a guitar, but as he tries to play the guitar, there is no sound. He holds up a sign asking for sound and gets every sound but the right one. Even when he tries to remonstrate, all he gets are auto horns, barnyard squawks, and the sound of a kookaburra.
By now he’s red-eyed angry, and throws a tantrum. All we hear is the end of the tantrum “...and I’ve never been so humiliated in all my life!”Embarrassed at what has been done, he looks at the animator, asking him to get organized and repeating his demand for some scenery. The animator answers by pencil-sketching a simple black and white cityscape. “That’s dandy. Ho, ho. That’s rich, I’ll say. Now how about some color, stupid?” But instead it’s Daffy that is painted in bright patterns. “Hey! Not me, you slop artist!”
Once again he’s erased, except for his beak. “Well, where’s the rest of me?” he asks. He’s redrawn as a flipper-footed quadruped with a purple daisy around his head and a yellow flag flying from his upright tail. On the flag are a screw and a baseball, signifying ‘screwball.” “That’s strange, all of sudden I don’t quite feel like myself,” he says. The artist draws a mirror and Daffy sees himself. He screams. “EEEK! You know better than that!”
Another erasure and redrawing shows Daffy as a sailor and he’s pleased; he says he’s always wanted to do a sea epic, until the background drawing sets him over water and he sinks. He swims to a deserted island in the distance. Demanding a close-up, he finds the frame shrinks around him. “This is a close-up? A close-up, you jerk! A close-up!” Then the opposite, the camera zooms in until all we see are his eyes.
As he walks away, he mutters, “Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin.” (A line Jones and Maltese picked up from Ben Washam. It was one of his favorite sayings.) Daffy walks into a background of neutral green. He tries to reason with his tormentor, suggesting letting bygones be bygones, when the frame suddenly begins sagging in from the top. Daffy futilely tries to prop it up with a stick provided by the animator, but it breaks (“Brother, what a way to run a railroad!”), and the frame keeps sagging until Daffy eventually shreds it in a loud tantrum.
“All right! Let’s get this picture started!” Suddenly, the end title card comes into view. “No, No!” Daffy shrieks as he pushes the card out of the frame. Dismissing the artist (he thinks), “You go your way and I’ll go my way,” he apologizes to the audience and tries to entertain them with a tap dance when the scene rolls up and his bottom half is on top and his top half is on bottom. He winds up arguing with himself. “Listen brother, if you wasn’t me, I’d smack you in the puss!” “Don’t let that stop you, Jack!” But as he swings at this twin the animator erases the twin and Daffy’s punch goes wild into empty space, landing him on his butt.
Daffy is now redrawn as a pilot in a plane, “Oh brother, I’m a 'Buzz Boy,'” he exclaims as he flies the plane. But the animator quickly draws a mountain and we hear the crash of the plane, which is gone except for the canopy. Daffy bails out and deploys his parachute, which is erased and replaced with an anvil, and Daffy quickly crashes.
In a daze, he’s next seen hammering the anvil and quoting the “Village Smithy” when the animator replaces the anvil with a blockbuster bomb, which explodes.
Now, burnt, blackened and beyond rage and frustration Daffy demands to see his tormentor. “Enough is enough. Who’s responsible for this … this! I demand you show yourself! Who are you, hmm?” A door is drawn in front of him and a pencil shuts the door. The frame pulls back to reveal that the artist is none other than Bugs Bunny, who looks at us, and snickers, “Ain’t I a stinker?”
We have mentioned that Duck Amuck, breaks (an understatement) the fourth wall. Other critics have mentioned that as well. But this act is hardly revolutionary, for cartoons have shattered the fourth wall since the late 1930s. Tex Avery was the first, with I Love to Singa (1936), when the policeman giving the report on the radio about the missing young owlet answers his mother after she asks her husband if the police have found him yet. In Avery’s Thugs with Dirty Mugs (1939), a patron viewing the cartoon in the audience gets up to inform the police about the plans of Killer and his gang.
In Bob Clampett’s Falling Hare (1943), the plummeting sabotaged plane stops seconds before hitting the ground. The gremlin responsible tells us “Sorry, folks, but we ran out of gas.” To which Bugs adds, “Yeah, you know how it is with these 'A' cards,” pointing with his carrot to the card in the plane’s window, a reference to gas rationing. And in Clampett’s The Big Snooze (1946), Elmer Fudd tears up his contract and quits, tired of being made a fool of by Bugs Bunny. After a Bugs-induced nightmare, not only does Elmer (in drag) turn to the audience with “Has this ever happened to any of you girls?” but he returns to the studio and pieces his contract back together, saying, “Oh, Mr. Warner. I’m back.”
But in Duck Amuck there is no fourth wall. The entire cartoon is a confrontation between its star – Daffy Duck – and the unseen animator who is foiling his every move, later revealed to us as Bugs Bunny. The only remnant of the wall left standing is visibility. Daffy cannot see the cause of his frustration and has no idea who it is.
What is revolutionary about the genius of Chuck Jones is actually more evolutionary. He is the catalyst that allows the character of Daffy Duck to ascend the cartoon development scale. When Avery first created Daffy in Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937), the character was totally loony and out of control, serving as a foil for the likes of Porky Pig and Egghead (early Elmer Fudd).
As the years wore on, Daffy began to headline cartoons, but was still a loose cannon and prone to surreal wackiness. After the war, Robert McKimson and Chuck Jones began to work on the character, giving him a sense of savvy to counteract his explosive tendencies. But whereas the character of Bugs Bunny was dominated by reason, Daffy’s emotions controlled him: he was vainglorious, staunch in his assumptions (even when usually proven wrong), mercurial, and quick to erupt. Given the chance to do the right thing, as in Tom, Turk, and Daffy (Jones, 1944), it only lasts until he realizes that in doing the wrong thing, there’s something more in it for him. He agrees to hide Tom Turkey from hunter Porky until Porky mentions all the Thanksgiving goodies Daffy would miss out on if Porky didn’t kill Tom. After a short wrestle with his conscience, Daffy is only too glad to reveal Tom’s location. But things backfire when Tom places his tail feathers on Daffy, gobbles loudly, causing Porky to mistake Daffy for a turkey.
When teamed with Porky in Drip-Along Daffy (Jones, 1951), Duck Dodgers in the 24½ Century (Jones, 1953), and Deduce, You Say (Jones, 1956), Daffy is the arrogant Know-It-All hero-type and Porky is his comic-relief assistant. While Daffy blusters and strides boldly into inextricable traps, Porky quietly saves the day. When up against Bugs Bunny in Rabbit Fire (Jones, 1951), Rabbit Seasoning (Jones, 1952), and Duck! Rabbit, Duck! (Jones, 1953), Daffy is again a slave of his emotions, arguing to have Bugs killed by Elmer. But he’s the one who always gets shot, as Bugs traps Daffy in his own verbiage. In Freleng’s Show-Biz Bugs (1958), Daffy’s ego and his jealousy of his co-star leads him to perform a dangerous trick that finally wins the audience applause. But when Bugs tells him he’s a hit and that they want him to do it again, Daffy replies that he can only do it once as he ascends to Heaven.
Remarkably though, in Duck Amuck Daffy is not the instigator (for once, if ever). He’s the victim. He’s the one trying to bring reason into an unreasonable situation, and try as he might, he never gets through to his tormentor. He even questions what he might have done to deserve such treatment. As he’s being depicted as a screwball, he says to himself, “Goodness knows, it isn’t as if I haven’t lived up to my contract, Goodness knows. And Goodness knows it isn’t as if I haven’t kept myself trim, Goodness knows. I ... I’ve done that.” But he still keeps to whatever script he’s given because he wants to be the good employee (and star of the cartoon, for once). It’s only at the end that Daffy totally loses it and demands to see who it is.
The true magic of Jones shows in the unmistakable personalities of his characters no matter what their appearance, environment, or even their voice. According to Jones, the ending, showing Bugs as the animator, is for comedic purposes only. He’s asking the audience to identify Daffy Duck. Would they still recognize him if the artist changed something about him? What if he didn’t live in the woods, or didn’t live anywhere in particular? What if he had no voice, or no face? In fact, what if he wasn’t even a duck anymore? It doesn’t matter. Whatever happens, even if he’s totally erased, Daffy is Daffy. (“All right, where am I?”) If Bugs is for comedic purposes only, then we ask, is there a real life figure he’s allegorically symbolizing? Who would be so conniving as to deliberately misunderstand everything Daffy requests? The simple answer is Edward Selzer, the unit’s producer.
After Leon Schlesinger sold his studio to Warner Brothers in 1944, the studio assigned Selzer to head the department. In his delightful autobiography, Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist, Jones painted a grim portrait of Selzer, depicting him as beyond difficult, boorish, and totally without an understanding of or talent for animation. His inept managerial style was more like the man beating the drum for the slave rowers on a galley. His obtuse Judge, Jury and Hangman attitude nearly caused Freleng to quit when he poo-pooed the pairing of Sylvester and Tweety. (Tweetie Pie, the first cartoon to co-star the two, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1947.) Thank goodness that difference of opinion was resolved.
In a way, Selzer’s humorless lack of instinct was a boon for animation directors. Whatever he disapproved of would no doubt turn out to be a hilarious hit. For instance, Selzer thought that camels and bullfighting weren’t funny!” Hence, Freleng’s Sahara Hare (1955) with Yosemite Sam and a dim-witted camel, and Jones’ and Mike Maltese’s Bully for Bugs (1953) – one of the funniest Bugs Bunny cartoons. Selzer proved a dependable source for doing exactly the opposite and the clever directors cashed in on it.
One of his own quotes sums up his genius level for being wrong: One, upon entering a room and seeing his animators standing around a storyboard laughing, he asked aloud, “What in the Hell does all this laughter have to do with the making of animated cartoons?” In Duck Amuck Selzer is represented by Bugs as the interfering supervisor. The poor beset Daffy is Jones himself. He knows his own worth as an employee makes him immune to change or deletion. Jones once said, “We all want to be Bugs Bunny, but most of us are Daffy Duck.”
In 1955, Jones created Rabbit Rampage recasting Bugs Bunny as the harassed victim and Elmer Fudd as the manipulator. It was not nearly as funny. It didn’t work. Bugs is cool, savvy and doesn’t get flustered. Bugs finally gets even, but only does when backed into a corner. Elmer’s last line, “Well, anyway, I finally got even with that scwewy wabbit!” may satisfy him but not the cartoon viewers. It’s about as believable as Daffy decking Nasty Canasta with one punch.