by Brandie Ashe
In 1935, a brash young animator named Tex Avery presented himself to Leon Schlesinger at Warner Bros., talking up his resume as a fledgling director and somehow convincing the producer to give him his own small production unit on the Warner lot. Schlesinger stuck him in a ratty bungalow that was quickly (and, unfortunately, quite appropriately) nicknamed “Termite Terrace,” and gave him an initial crew of four enthusiastic animators: Virgil Ross, Sid Sutherland, Chuck Jones, and Bob Clampett. As unlikely as it may have seemed at the time, cartoon legends would soon be borne out of that pest-ridden shack.
Avery’s crew worked primarily on the Looney Tunes series, and in his first cartoon for Warner Bros., 1935’s Gold Diggers of ’49, Avery cemented not only his own rising star, but that of a new character, Porky Pig. The stuttering porker had premiered six months earlier in the Friz Freleng-directed Merrie Melodies short I Haven’t Got a Hat, and Avery’s toon marked only Porky’s second-ever appearance. Porky would go on to reign as the most popular character in the Warner Bros. stable for almost two years, until Avery introduced an antagonist for him–a loopy, insane, and incredibly daffy duck. Animated by Clampett and first appearing in 1937’s Porky’s Duck Hunt, the out-of-control Daffy became an instant star, bouncing across the screen yelling his signature, “Hoo hoo!” as he drove his costars batty.
The pig-and-duck duo was an effective one, and they appeared together in numerous cartoons throughout the following decade, their interactions eventually morphing from antagonistic to an actual partnership—though an unequal one, by most measures. By the 1950s, Porky had been downgraded to the role of sidekick in many of his appearances, while Daffy’s maniacal tendencies had given way to a more calculating sense of self-interest, largely under the guidance of Chuck Jones, who had long since moved into the director’s chair in the wake of Avery’s exit to MGM. Under Jones’ supervision, Daffy’s loose screws were tightened, and he became less zany and more of a self-proclaimed “greedy slob” seeking fame and fortune at the expense of anyone and everyone who might be in his way. This more evolved Daffy—in a manner of speaking—found his main foe in Warner’s marquee star, Bugs Bunny, as he sought to usurp Bugs as the “rightful” head of the cartoon kingdom. But matching wits against the wily hare never quite worked out the way Daffy planned, as Daffy learned in 1953, which saw the release of two of his most memorable cartoons of all time: the mind-bending meta exercise in cartoon madness Duck Amuck, and the conclusion of the fabled “Hunting Trilogy,” Duck! Rabbit, Duck!.
1953 also saw Daffy, along with his clever, “eager young space cadet” Porky, embark upon a trip into a fantastical future in Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century. An ingenious, side-splitting parody of the popular Buck Rogers series of film/television/radio serials/comic strips/novellas, Duck Dodgers presented Daffy with perhaps the best showcase for his hilariously egotistical persona, as he battles Marvin the Martian to stake a claim to the far-off Planet X in the name of the Earth. Planet X, by the by, is immensely vital to the future of our planet because, as the Secretary of the Stratosphere, Dr. I.Q. Hi, informs Dodgers, “[t]he world’s supply of Illudium Phosdex, the shaving cream atom, is alarmingly low,” and God forbid our Earth males go about with beard burn.
From the start, Jones and his crew set up a truly wondrous feast for the eyes. The colorful background designs, laid out by the ever-talented Maurice Noble, imagine a future with the typical flying cars and ray guns (those seemingly inspired directly by Buck Rogers, though these Acme-branded versions don’t exactly work the way they should, to uproarious effect). But they also include some cleverly atypical touches that, as Jones recalls in his book Chuck Amuck, are a hallmark of Noble’s particular brand of genius: “Maurice was largely responsible for the grand opening sequences of this film, plus ideas such as the enormous scanning eye, the vaporizers, and the wonderfully exact rocket.” (Sidebar: do the vaporizers remind anyone else of the transporters in Star Trek?) The character designs also feed into the whimsical futuristic feel—based on this animated short, we can safely assume that everyone in the 24 1/2th century must wear some kind of ridiculous headpiece in order to function in that modern society (and yet, Daffy still doesn’t have to wear pants in public. Cartoon fashion logic).
All jokes aside, the battle between Daffy and Marvin for supremacy and control over Planet X seems to echo the geopolitical atmosphere of the 1950s. Now, whether this was deliberate on the parts of Jones and scriptwriter Michael Maltese is, of course, up for debate. But examining the undercurrents of the cartoon, Marvin represents Mars, the red planet; in terms of Cold War-era politics, he is representative of Communist Russia and the threat that the “Reds” represent. Daffy represents the Earth, here essentially/metaphorically claimed in the name of the United States (isn’t that just so like us?), representative of democracy. But—if we’re being honest—both antagonists are solely representative of purely colonial interests (because, as Dr. Hi indicates at the beginning of the cartoon, we’re only interested in Planet X as a mining operation, and we can only assume that Mars is merely interested in expanding its territory as well). The mounting war between Daffy and Marvin, ending in a bout of mutually assured destruction at the push of a single lever, serves as a grim reminder of the potential devastation that advanced weaponry can wreak upon the landscape. Science! It’s a blessed marvel that could possibly end us all!
Or maybe it’s all just a happy coincidence for us overanalytical types.
Regardless, watching the cartoon while keeping in mind the context of the time period in which it was made, it’s hard to deny that there could be a deeper meaning behind the hilarious yet absurd escalation of the conflict between man (duck and pig?) and Martian. In that context, Duck Dodgers is steeped in the slightest sense of paranoia, an unrelieved tension that underlies even the funniest moments of the cartoon. As Daffy loses his cool and screams, “That’s the last straw! Now I use my secret weapon!” you maybe can’t help but wonder how many “secret weapons” there really are in the world, and how close they’ve come to being used over the years—how close this world has come to demise born out of fear or anger or loathing, especially during that highly uncertain Cold War era. Seeing Daffy crowing over the end result of his hotheadedness—laying claim to his remaining square foot of planetary space—is both hysterical and worrisome, in a strange sense. Yes, it’s utterly absurd, but is this what we are headed for, the cartoon seems to ask?
In the 1994 ranking of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time, Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century was selected as the fourth-greatest cartoon ever created (it’s one of two Daffy Duck-starring toons in the top five; the other, also directed by Chuck Jones, is the greatDuck Amuck, at #2). Duck Dodgers reappeared in a 1980 cartoon sequel, Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24 1/2th Century (a short that features what is perhaps an even more nihilistic ending than the original cartoon), and the character was even revived in a self-named cartoon series that ran briefly from 2003-2005. All this to say, there’s something undeniably appealing about Daffy’s embodiment of Duck Dodgers, considering the characterization has stuck around for more than sixty years now. Maybe it’s the character’s unflagging bravado in the face of certain danger. Perhaps it’s his indefatigable ego, played so effectively for laughs. Or it could just be that the science fiction elements of the character allow it to remain somewhat fresher than other versions of the Daffy character, because while the past is fixed and stagnant, the unknown future is forever fluid and changing to fit our expectations, and therefore so, too, is the great Duck Dodgers.