Sunday, 5 July 2015

377. The Ducktators (1942)

Warner cartoon no. 376.
Release date: August 1, 1942.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Norm McCabe.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Various voices), John McLeish (Narrator) (?), Michael Maltese (Mussolini duck).
Story: Melvin Millar.
Animation: John Carey.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Political satire of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo ducks taking power over a barnyard.

George Orwell has been long attributed for his political satire by portraying Communist figures as animals in Animal Farm. Nevertheless, it's not the first time that the satire has been portrayed. This short predates Orwell's book by a couple of years, and satirical illustrations of political figures as animals go back to the 19th century in the infamous Punch magazine.

Norm McCabe, who is mostly remembered for directing cartoons which are considered taboo in today's standards, directs a standout piece of satire by visualising dictatorship into a barnyard concept. The caricatures, too, of the world's leading enemies are wonderfully exaggerated in their rightful place.

The opening sequence is a great hyperbole of how Hitler rises into dictatorship. The narrator establishes the scenario in a barnyard that "a seemingly unimportant event occurred which was destined to vitally affect the future of that little world?".

The opening gag of the father duck giving out cigars to his friends in celebrating of their expected duckling is somewhat dated, as it was a much more common tradition years ago. Upon the arrival of the wailing mother, the dark egg begins to hatch. Millar's witty dialogue, "What's this, a dark horse?", with "dark horse" being a metaphor of a candidate who unexpectedly succeeds. The egg hatches and unveils, revealing a Hitler-caricatured duck who does the Nazi salutes and shouts: "Sieg hiel!"

Melvin Millar takes advantage of creating some wit and humour in the dialogue in the sequences of the Hitler duck's rise to power. This is seen in the scene of the Hitler duck's charismatic speech. The purpose of the shot was for the ducktator to brainwash the public, whereas Melvin Millar takes liberties by poking fun. Here, Millar blends in the Westernised lingo as well as the German-speaking language, oblivious to most audiences.

This is heard between the lines, where he mentions "You dope", as well as a subtle reference to the lyrics "My momma done told me", from the song Blues in the Night. Perhaps a tad nonsense, but the nonsense of it all adds to Hitler's dictatorship.

More fun is poked at Nazis during the salute sequence. The Hitler duck has gained popularity and leadership, and the scene features his recruited followers. One by one, each dog salutes "Sieg hiel". An oddity appears where a black duck shouts in a Rochester accent, "Sieg hiel, boy, I'm from South Germany."

The gag is ironic in many ways: as though the short's subject is considered controversial today, so would the gag alone. Not only does the short poke fun at the Allies' enemies, but also from their own country, at the Deep South. In my opinion, it's a funny little gag, not only for its delivery , but also for contradicting the Nazi's policy, due to their detesting of black people. Not only is the ducktator's power influencing the barnyard, but even the weathervanes, too. Millar's pun on the sickly duck, "I'm a sick hieler, too" works on so many levels.

McCabe's competence as a director continues to grow, and a lot of technical achievements he pulls off in animated cartoons, is sadly overlooked. In a montage sequence of the duck soldiers marching, he appears to pay homage to unusual animation angles and staging, which was heavily experimented by his old colleague Frank Tashlin.

This notably appears in the shots featuring the marching duck's silhouettes, and the closeup shots of the duck's feet goose-stepping. The mud effects are very impressive.

McCabe's timing also works for the better. The sequence of the Mussolini goose and a group of general ducks signing a peace treaty is a direct reference to the lies Hitler made from the aftermath of signing treaties.

The scene of the Hitler duck shredding the treaty in a "Treaty Tearer-Upper", is a likely reference to the 'Treaty of Versailles' which was signed in 1919 by the Weimar Republic after the First World War, which Hitler reportedly tore up. After signing and shredding the treaty, he goes into a violent rampage with the other generals in the room, resulting in an appealing and comically timed tornadoed drybrush effect.

 On the other hand, Norm McCabe also captures the spirit of Tex Avery's personal sense of humour, too - with some gags borrowed from his Warner cartoons. One scene that strikes Avery's humour is the Father Time sequence, proceeding right after the birth of Hitler.

The narrator moves the narrative forward by saying, "And so time pass", and at that moment Father Time zips through the scene rapidly.

This leads to the narrator breaking out of character and shouting, "Hey, bud, not so fast." Father Time replies, "Oh, alright,  but time does fly, don't it, Johnny?". The reference of "Johnny" being lifted from Old Timer in Fibber McGee and Molly.

A gag which is a direct lift-off from an earlier Tex Avery gag is "The Management" card, seen during the Mussolini duck's introduction. The Mussolini goose, voiced by story artist Mike Maltese, supports the Hitler duck's cause: "He's a smart fellow with brains, huh? Like me." At this moment, a title card enters the scene, making an apology to the "nice ducks and geese", which is a fitting gag.

The short also features some excellent satire on Tojo, who appears later in the short. Like in the short, Japan eventually became Allies with Germany and Italy. In the opening scene, the Tojo duck has a picket sign of the old "rising sun" Japanese flag  on a plunger attached to his rear end, and sings alternate lyrics to The Japanese Sandman which is well parodied by Millar. The gag is that Tojo claims what is supposedly a piece of land in a lake with his picket reading, "Japanese Mandate Land". The "land" rises, revealing to be the shell of a tortoise.

The tortoise retialiates, resulting in a chase scene of the tortoise smashing the Tojo duck with the picket. As politically incorrect the sequence may be, Mel Blanc's Japanese dialect is always a delight to listen to. Midway through the chase, the Tojo duck halts the chase showing the badge reading "I Am Chinese", though it doesn't help when beneath the sign it reads "Made in Japan". It's a great little sequence is which somewhat identical to a Daffy Duck strategy. The turtle scoffs at the duck's claim, responding back sarcastically, "Yeah, and I'm mock turtle soup", as he continues to chase him. The sarcastic comment adds to the touch as the scene draws to a close.

A sense of satire and patriotism can be seen during the sequence of the peace dove who woes at any hope of peace. The dove cries poetically and remorsefully, "Oh, what has come to so erase? All thoughts of peace, from off this place?  Have they forgot, 'tis love that's bright and naught is gained by show of night." Mel Blanc portrays a rather convincing poetic dove. Not only does the delivery work, but you feel there is a sense of hope from the general public and the crew on the short that desire peace from their enemies. The peace dove appears once more, late in the cartoon sobbing over the slim chance for world peace. At this point, the dove enters into the fray, as he attempts to halt the marching dictators marching through the barnyard. As the dictators ignore the possibilities of peace, metaphorically the peace dove gets stampeded by them.

Determined to gain world peace, the peace dove is reduced to violence as he storms over towards the dictators. This leads into some funny pieces of action, like the dove stretching Hitler's moustache, and socking him in the eyes. Some American patriotism can be heard slightly as the "Gestinko Gestapo" get pounded by the roosters, with one shouting: "Give them one for Pearl Harbour".

Inventive gags of the Nazi ducks landing one by one in a pedal bin, adds to the charm of the fight scenes. Patriotism continues to play a part in the action scenes, as the U.S. bond mascot springs from the poster and goes into a shooting spree - shooting after the ducktators.

Norm McCabe's timing comes into excellent use during the barrel scene. A barrel zips around the barnyard, with a hand poking out; whacking Nazi ducks with a mallet. The Tojo duck enters the scene, nosily looking inside the barrel: "Peekaboo, Fritz". He gets smacked by the mallet, and up comes a Jerry Colonna caricatured bunny, who remarks: "Busy little bee, aren't I?". In many versions, that was how the short originally ended.

And so, as the cartoon draws to a patriotic close, as the scene dissolves to the peace dove sitting on an armchair, reminiscing the tale with pride to his younger children. Millar uses rhyming couplets for the dove's closing lines, as he sits there with a pipe, remembering: "I hate war, but once begun - well, I just didn't choose to run so I can point with pride and say - there's three that didn't get away." The camera PANS towards the the three ducktators with their battered heads mounted on the walls. And so, ending on a propaganda note: the scene ends on a with a U.S. bond stamp poster, to create awareness and encouragement for the U.S. public.

The Ducktators remains quite possibly McCabe's strongest cartoon he directed. He nails every piece of political satire down to a tee, and for anyone that studies or has some extensive knowledge in World War II history, the parody is timeless. The concept of the political satire, with political figures playing as ducks and geese works wonderfully as a cartoon plot. Mel Blanc's use of vocal caricature on the ducktators (primarily Hitler and Tojo) are wonderfully exaggerated, and appealing; a rare gift you'll find little of nowadays. Although McCabe shows some inspiration from other directors like Tashlin and Avery (well, everyone was inspired by him); he has certainly proved he is a capable director, as well as a foundation of the wonderful Warner Bros. legacy.

Rating: 4.5/5.


  1. I'd sure love to know who did the layouts on this cartoon. My guess is Dick Thomas was the background artist.
    McLeish's voice work for Warners was always very good.

    1. Yopw, I agree.

      Especially, "Dover Boys"!


  2. Warners should release a DVD of McCabe's cartoons - all in B & W and in release order.