BOOTLEG FILES 494: “Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur” (1939 Warner Bros. cartoon short).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube and a number of online sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A staple of the public domain labels.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An expired copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Actually, it has been on an official Warner Bros. DVD release.
My original career path did not involve writing – I wanted to be an animator. That never happened because I was utterly awful as an artist. But my desire to become an animator was fueled by my childhood mania for cartoons – especially the classic Warner Bros. shorts.
When I was a kid, it was a joke in my house that every Warner Bros. cartoon was my favorite cartoon. And while I had a passion for nearly all of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies offerings that turned up on the TV screen, there was one cartoon that always left me cold: a 1939 item called “Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur.” Indeed, whenever that cartoon was broadcast, I usually switched to another station and then clicked back after 10 minutes to enjoy whatever other animated frolic was being served.
As an adult, I still find myself antsy whenever considering “Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur.” And looking at the cartoon again for this review, I can say with no degree of exaggeration that my childhood instincts were correct: in the vast collection of Warner Bros. animated releases, this was the relatively rare stinker.
“Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur” was the first time that Chuck Jones (then known as Charles M. Jones) was assigned to direct a cartoon featuring the Daffy Duck character; it was also the fifth cartoon that Jones helmed as a director. Clearly, Jones was trying to steer Daffy away from the manic, screwball, one-dimensional troublemaker of previous cartoons into a creation with a bit more personality. At the same time, this cartoon laid the groundwork for some of the shtick that would define (and burden) much of Jones’ later career output.
The cartoon opens with an intertitle that reads, “For no particular reason our story is laid in the ‘stone age’ – millions and billions and trillions of years ago – probably before any of you people were even born.” It is morning and Casper the Caveman emerges from his stone home. Casper yawns and stretches. When Casper starts to speak, he sounds vaguely like Jack Benny – although, quite frankly, he looks nothing like the beloved comic. Casper remarks aloud about his desire for breakfast. “Gee, am I hungry,” he says. “I could eat a saber-toothed tiger.” The caveman then frowns and looks at the camera, adding, “Well, anyway, half a one.” After some more stretching and yawning, he abruptly stops and sneers, “”Well this isn’t getting me breakfast.”
Casper whistles and calls for his pet Fido. Instead of dog, however, Fido is an Apatosaurus that acts like a dog – complete with its fondness for bones. Fido drops a large bone on Casper, causing him to be pinned to the ground. He pushes the bone away and angrily states, “Well, come on – I’m famished!” As Capser and Fido walk along, the caveman looks at the camera and announces, “Well, I’ll bet you’re cranky before breakfast, too.”
Casper’s breakfast is swimming in a lake: Daffy Duck. The caveman views his prey with mild gluttony. “Yum, yummy,” he says. “My favorite vegetable: duck!” Casper takes a rock, puts it in a slingshot, and fires it at Daffy.
Daffy reacts wildly to the flying rock: he races across the lake, then puts on a policeman’s hat and pretends to be a traffic cop. The rock stops in mid-flight as an unsuspecting swan swims by. When Daffy blows a whistle to proceed, the rock continues it flight, only to stop and then realize it was fooled. The rock turns around and continues to pursue Daffy. The resourceful duck escapes the lake and runs on the land. The rock barely misses Casper but knocks into Fido’s head. The dinosaur is dazed and confused by his concussion and briefly dances a balletic two-step before falling unconscious.
Casper is angry at Daffy’s behavior and exclaims to the camera, “Gosh, that duck acts like he’s crazy!” Daffy then pops out and announces, “That is correct! Absolutely 100% correct.” Daffy pulls the sling in the slingshot and snaps it into Casper’s face. Casper goes to dive into the lake after Daffy, but the duck pulls out a sign that reads “Positively no swimming.” Casper, who has halted in mid-air to read the sign, flies back to the ground and grumbles on how other cavemen are able to enjoy a swim while he cannot.
Fido then appears and Casper angrily yells at him, “Well what are you looking at? Don’t just stand there! Do something! Now go get him.” The dinosaur walks to the lake while Casper frowns at the audience and insults his pet by saying, “The big lummox.” The dinosaur sticks his head into the lake and emerges with his neck tied in a knot – but based on Fido’s smile, it is uncertain if Daffy knotted him up or if he did the trick himself. Casper continues to insult Fido and grumble about his pet’s inefficiency.
Daffy then paints a picture of himself against a large boulder while the soundtrack plays an instrumental version of “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.” Daffy admires his brushwork and tells the audience, “Not bad for a guy who’s never took a lesson in his life” Casper mistakes the painting for the real duck and tries to club it, but winds up getting a lethal bout of the shakes. Daffy mixes Casper a bromide to bring him back to normal, and then gives him a card that promises a “luscious” duck to be found a mere 200 yards away. Casper and Fido follow a series of comic billboards to discover this duck – a mega-monster that is actually an inflatable being pumped up by Daffy.
Daffy offers Casper a large knife to slay the massive duck. Casper takes the weapon and stabs the inflatable, causing it to explode. The cartoon ends in the skies – Fido, a halo around his head, rests on a cloud while playing a lyre. Above Fido are Daffy and Casper, both wearing halos and both horizontal on clouds. Daffy mutters, “You know, maybe that wasn’t such a hot idea after all.” Casper bitterly looks at the camera and says, “Good night, folks.”
If you haven’t laughed while reading this summary, you are not alone. No matter how many times I’ve watched this cartoon – umpteen reruns when I was a kid and more than few times as an adult – I never once cracked the faintest grin while viewing this. What went wrong? For starters, Casper was one of the least successful characters in the Warner Bros. canon. Although voice actor Jack Lescoulie did a satisfactory imitation of Jack Benny, the character failed to replicate the warmth and humor of the iconic radio comic. Instead, Casper came across as obnoxious – his impatience with Fido is shrill and his failure to outwit Daffy is a reflection of his weak strength and intellect. Fido is not particularly loveable – can an Apatosaurus be lovable? – and the injuries put upon him are borderline cruel rather than amusing.
As for Daffy, the film realigned him from the making mischief-maker of his earlier cartoons into a more conniving personality. But the comic downbeat ending, with Daffy lamenting his disastrous final prank, is something of a letdown. As for Jones’ direction, some of his trademarks – the use of handheld signs and billboards to spell out gags, the surplus of dialogue, the characters breaking the fourth wall – are used here, albeit in shaky presentations.
Nonetheless, “Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur” did little damage to any of the talent involved in its creation. Chuck Jones went on to the proverbial bigger and better, and his Termite Terrace team went along for the classic ride (minus Lescoulie, who did a Benny imitation for the 1940 cartoon “Malibu Beach Party” before enjoying a good career elsewhere).
“Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur” eventually slipped into the public domain, and during the early 1980s it was one of the most ubiquitous titles among the cheapo video labels that dumped VHS products into the bargain bins at supermarkets and discount stores around the country. The prints used for these released were mostly awful – faded 16mm prints, many of them clearly second generation dupes. Although the film was presented in a restored version in Volume 3 of the “Looney Tunes Golden Collection,” the crummy dupes are still floating around on DVD and on a number of online video sites.
Yeah, “Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur” was a relatively rare bomb from a mostly reliable animation empire. But, hey, we all make mistakes – no real harm done here.
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