Is there anything on earth that 1987 isn't the anniversary of? Rolling Stone and "Donahue" are each 20, "Meet the Press" and "Howdy Doody" are each 40 ("Meet the Press" looks it, though you can't say Howdy do). In the crush of commemorative celebrations, one significant milestone has been flagrantly overlooked.
Yes, this year, fellow Americans and citizens of the world (reverent silence, please), marks the 50th anniversary (hold on to your hats now) of the one and only (are the ceremonial trumpets ready?) . . . DAFFY DUCK!
Daffy who? Daffy Duck, that's who; how many Daffys do you know? He's only the wackiest, craziest, funniest darn duck in the history of Hollywood (which is itself 100 years old this year, or so they say). Disney's Donald is one year older, and more genuinely beloved, but Warner Bros.' Daffy has always been several leagues hilariouser.
Having starred in 126 animated films, Daffy is now poised for his 127th: "The Duxorcist," the first new "Looney Tunes" theatrical short in more than 20 years. It will be playing in some theaters nationwide starting next week.
While it's gratifying to see the great black duck on the big fat screen again, "Duxorcist" is by no stretch up to the standards of the classic cartoons. Spoofing "The Exorcist" and "Ghostbusters" isn't very timely, and much of the action takes place within a single room. "Duxorcist" was made by young admirers of the raving maniacs who produced the original cartoons at Warner Bros. in the '30s, '40s and '50s.
Those cartoons are still accessible on TV (where they are often heavily censored for violence) and in uncut, pristine form on such stupendously funny Warner Home Video releases as "Daffy Duck: The Nuttiness Continues" and "A Salute to Chuck Jones."
The saluted Mr. Jones, who directed Daffy in some of his most important roles (particularly "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century") says from Los Angeles he's sorry no big observance of Daffy's birthday has been planned. CBS is airing a rerun of "Daffy Duck's Thanks-for-Giving" at 8:30 tonight on Channel 9, but that's just a coincidence. Besides, the actual birthday fell on a date in March or April; historians differ on the specifics.
"A duck doesn't get to be 50 every day," says Jones, "although ducks have been known to live in the wild for 20 years." Daffy has definitely lived in the wild. Jones, just about to leave for Zagreb, Yugoslavia, to receive a lifetime achievement award for his animation, describes Daffy as a fellow who "rushes in and fears to tread at the same time."
Daffy's quack was always worse than his bite. In the Jones gem "Duck Amuck," Daffy does battle with no less omniscient a foe than the (unseen) cartoonist himself. The cartoonist keeps switching backgrounds and props on the duck (a parachute becomes an anvil in midfall) and at one point erases all of Daffy but his head, prompting the Duck to quote a Ronald Reagan line from "Kings Row": "Well, where's the rest of me?"
Moments later there are two Daffys on the screen and the real one, infuriated, sputters at his clone, "Listen, Bud, if you wasn't me, I'd smack you right in the puss!"
"Daffy was really a yuppie before there were yuppies," Jones says. "He wants the best of everything and will stop at nothing to get it. He's always been an upwardly mobile duck. He's becoming the most popular of the characters and I suspect that's because, in the Reagan era, people recognize more of themselves in him than ever. He wants a little more than his share."
Hith conthumption wath conthpicuous.
Yes, he talked funny. Those rascally scoundrels and scoundrelly rascals at Termite Terrace -- their name for the cartoonists' building on the Warner lot -- were not above putting caricatures of studio bosses into the cartoons. Daffy's liquid lisp was pattered after that of slushmouth Leon Schlesinger, head of the animation unit.
"He didn't realize it was him," Jones recalls. "When we showed him one of the first Daffy cartoons he said, 'Jeez, that's a funny picture; where'd you get that voice?' "
Bruce Goldstein, spokesman for Warner Bros. Cartoons Inc., recalls that when the late Tex Avery invented Daffy in 1937 (YES, FIFTY YEARS AGO), the character was in its fetal stage. He was a lot like Woody Woodpecker at first, bouncing off the walls shrieking "whoo whoo" and wreaking random havoc. "He's gone from being a psychotic to a classic paranoid," Goldstein says. And what a journey it has been.
"The Daffy of today is no longer the crazy Daffy," Jones says authoritatively.
Besmirched, battered and besotted, Daffy never did get much respect, rarely was able to save face (literally, since his detachable bill was known to fall off after an explosion) and persistently mangled his own lofty goals. In addition, he always found himself eclipsed at Warners by its big pampered star, Bugs Bunny, whom Daffy grew to detest.
In one cartoon, Bugs and Daffy are on the same vaudeville bill. Bugs does a simple soft-shoe routine that elicits a roaring ovation from the crowd. "I'll show 'em some real hoofin'," Daffy says, storming the stage with a frenzied, whirlwind terpsichorean tour de force. Panting, exhausted, he takes his bow. The crowd is so silent you can hear crickets chirping.
Mel Blanc, whose career with the Warner cartoons began about the same time as Daffy's, did the voices on "The Duxorcist," as he did for all 126 other Daffy cartoons and dozens more featuring the other Blanc-voiced stars. Says Goldstein, "Mel has been 10 of the most famous movie characters of all time."
The Warner cartoons represent American pop humor at its brashest -- impudent, wisecracky, relentlessly inventive. Daffy, it goes without saying (well, er, that is it could), has always been an integral, indefatigable and inimitable part of that. He has never tired of carping, complaining, or launching hysterical tirades, and yet we love him. Why? Because he is, was and will forever remain the underduck.
"Like Wile E. Coyote, Daffy is usually considered one of life's losers," says Jones sympathetically. "But his triumph is that he constantly continues his effort to win his points, no matter how futile that may be."
Attention must be paid. Attention must finally be paid to such a duck.