A Spluttering Duck Redux: Daffy, Unmellowed, Celebrates His 50th with His First Cartoon in Years

updated 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Insults have never rolled easily off Daffy Duck's back. Take the time in Rabbit Seasoning (1952) when Elmer Fudd pinned the poor featherbrain's beak back with a shotgun blast that Daffy had hoped would hit his nemesis, Bugs Bunny. (A thickening thight!) From the very beginning, that suave, cunning Bugs got star treatment and the classic line, "What's up, Doc?" while all Daffy got was a spluttering lisp and second banana-dom. (Abtholutely dethpicable!)Then last April, when Daffy turned 50, the great event was universally ignored. (What a revoltin' development that wath!)

Now, at last, Daffy's ruffled feathers are being smoothed. In belated honor of his 50 years in show business—and in order to qualify for this year's Academy Awards—Daffy's corporate parents at Warner Bros, have produced a brand-new seven-minute Daffy Duck cartoon, The Duxorcist. It is the first Daffy cartoon made for theatrical release since 1968, when the duck suffered his worst humiliation ever suspended animation.

Endowed with his old voice by Mel Blanc, now 79, and his old foibles, Daffy may still howl fowl. He is cast as a ghost buster so intent on his client, a curvaceous female duck, that he fails to see that she's possessed "He's too stupid for his own good," says Duxorcist co-creator Greg Ford, 38. "He's definitely not as clever as he thinks he is. He thinks he's worldly, and sometimes he succeeds despite himself. But nobody ever called Daffy bright."

For now, of course, Warners would settle for bankable. The Duxorcist was co-written and co-directed for $200,000 by Ford and Terry Lennon, 34, animation lovers who regard the art form with reverence. Unlike most Saturday morning cartoon fare, The Duxorcist's every panel was drawn and painted by hand without use of computers. The cartoon was also made in the U.S. (most are produced overseas), and it is being shown not on TV but on bigger-than-life-size movie screens, which is where Ford says it belongs. "They don't make shorts for theaters, which is too bad since that's the form where cartoon characters work best. They're at their most vital."

As a screenwriter, Ford says that he suffered the same intimidation as someone writing for Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy. "These characters to us are like temperamental stars," he argues. "It's as if Daffy would walk off the set and say, 'I refuse to say this line.' There are things the characters seem to want to do and things they refuse to do."

Daffy's long career began on April 17, 1937 in a cartoon short titled Porky's Duck Hunt, one of many created by a famed Warners' animation team that included Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. "I think Daffy was the favorite of the animators and directors," Ford says. "Porky was Warners' Mickey Mouse. He represented normalcy. It was a crazy world that Porky walked in, and one of the elements of that crazy world was this duck, Daffy." He was a secondary character "who made good. He appealed to a lot of people's worst instincts."

Blanc, who has created about 1,000 voices, worked his aural art for $15 a week during the 1930s. To the man who made the sounds for Porky Pig, Bugs, Sylvester and Tweety, Daffy's famous splutter came easily. "I was asked to create a voice for a crazy duck who had trouble talking because of the long beak he had and who hated Bugs Bunny because Bugs always got top billing."

By 1969, however, Daffy had been buried along with most cartoon production, short subjects and double features, victim of economics and changing audience tastes. Since then, Warners' once mighty animation department has become a studio stepchild, churning out TV commercials, occasional animated TV shows or classic cartoon compilations.

Most credit for Daffy's resurrection goes to Ford, a chain-smoking former programmer for New York's legendary Thalia movie revival theater. Hired by Warners to develop scripts for commercial and public service advertising animations, he worked on his obsession by moonlight. "I was writing potential scripts for Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck features for the last 10 years," he says. "Suddenly they took me up on this one."

Ford can thank Lennon, a Buffalo native who once worked as an assistant animator for Ralph (The Lord of the Rings) Bakshi and Daffy co-creator, Chuck Jones, then an independent cartoonist. Hired as an animation director by Warners, Lennon discovered a desperate plea from Ford jotted in the margin of a TV script: "Hey, if anyone is interested, there's a short subject I have." Recalls Ford: "Everyone saw it. Terry is the only one who noticed."

Steven Greene, 39, a Warners vice president, finally gave the go-ahead to the two cartoonophiles. "They dreamed the dream of working in animation," Greene says. "Other little kids want to grow up and be cowboys or firemen. These two wanted to be Warner Bros, cartoonists."

Now committed to at least one more Daffy cartoon—Night of the Living Duck is already on the drawing board—the studio will measure audience and exhibitor reaction to The Duxorcist when it goes into nationwide release early this year. Lennon and Ford, however, are confident that Daffy's comeback will fly. "We didn't make the Daffy Duck cartoon," says Ford. "We made a Daffy Duck cartoon. There will be others." Or, as Daffy himself might say, "Thath not all, folkth!"

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