The first thing that must be acknowledged is that these figures are not mere mortals, and would in fact inspire a mix of awe and terror if they were encountered in the real world, over and above the “talking animal” thing. In his very first cartoon (Porky’s Duck Hunt, 1937), Daffy Duck walks on water. Long before Duck Amuck (1953), he repeatedly flouted the confines of cinema and storytelling, summoning at will a twin, either from his reflection or from behind some reeds (Daffy Duck & Egghead, 1938). Meanwhile, Goofy’s resistance to pain is well understood, but perhaps nowhere is his power starker than in No Sail (1945), in which he cheerily drinks saltwater and sustains multiple blows from a club (delivered by a furious Donald Duck, no less), without sprouting one bump.
In some sense, these characters are as strong or clumsy as each individual gag demands, and the creativity of those gags slowly dips over the decades. Through the 1950s, Daffy gets his bill shot off countless times, but by the 1960s, he’s just getting blown up by bombs and dynamite, with almost no ill effects. Still, something fundamental about cartoons can be found in these casual superpowers. If I were to name the kind of death I fear the most, it would undoubtedly be to burn alive in an oven — the excruciating pain combined with claustrophobia is as bad as it gets, in my opinion. I’ve thought about this more than a few times. But in a Looney Tunes short, a character thrown in an oven will simply start bathing in gravy (The Wise Quacking Duck, 1943, Along Came Daffy, 1947). How about dying of thirst in a desert? Like quicksand or shark attacks, this is something that the typical American audience can enjoy in cartoons knowing that it’s unlikely to happen to us in real life. And here comes Goofy again in Crazy with the Heat (1947), spending the last of his water ration trying to save a useless map before having it out with a soda fountain mirage, all without any noticeable concern for his fate. There’s an element of exploration in all this, working through anxieties and phobias in a safe environment.
Daffy encountered his share of desert scenarios, as well. Although the two characters worked at two very different studios, a number of parallels emerge over the years. Goofy and Daffy each star in a film noir/hard-boiled detective parody (How to Be a Detective and The Super Snooper, respectively, both 1952) in which they wear nearly identical outfits. Each has spontaneously become a matador (Daffy in Mexican Joyride, 1947, Goofy in For Whom the Bulls Toil, 1953). Sleepwalking through construction or work sites is another experience they share (Goofy in Clock Cleaners, 1937, Daffy in Skyscraper Caper, 1968), though in Goofy’s case it’s specifically a matter of getting hit on the head and dancing around in a daze. In a previous post I commented on Goofy’s transition to domestic bliss in the 1950s. Daffy actually got there first, albeit briefly, with a wife and ducklings in Wise Quacks (1939) and a trip to divorce court in The Henpecked Duck (1941). Then there’s the swashbuckling costume adventure, where Goofy surprisingly plays the leering villain (Ye Olden Days, 1933) while Daffy plays the hero (The Scarlet Pumpernickel, 1950). In a jarring development, there’s even a cartoon in which Goofy hunts ducks (Foul Hunting, 1947) — unsuccessfully, of course. Some rules are unbreakable.
As I suspected going in, Goofy’s film career is a bit less interesting than Daffy’s. After his early days as “Dippy Dawg,” he settled into a comfortable groove. He’s arguably at his best when part of an odd couple with Donald Duck. Even when Mickey tags along, these two tend to hog screen time, and rightly so. Their contrasting attitudes to frustration and offense are always amusing, but they share a certain enthusiasm for life, approaching every situation with a song on their lips. Something curious happens to Goofy when he finally becomes a solo star. It was a matter of necessity, really. Goofy’s voice, Pinto Colvig, left the Disney studio for a couple years to work with Dave and Max Fleischer. A replacement named George Johnson was brought in, but the cartoons of the early 40s feature little dialogue beyond the familiar, pre-recorded catchphrases. At the same time, the “how-to” series got started, which leaned heavily on narration. So although “Goofy” is the credited star, in the case of the team sport demonstrations, it’s impossible to say who, if anyone, is the “real” Goofy. They all look like him. This strange development coincided with the more traditional Goofy-and-Donald pairings, and continued into the early 50s, when Goofy started playing a father in certain cartoons, under yet another alias, “George Geef.”
The 1950s were a time of great changes in media, and unfortunately the Goofy cartoons couldn’t quite handle them, fizzling out in the middle of the decade. But the Warner Bros. cartoons persisted, even as television started to disrupt the whole rationale for theatrical short subjects. The familiar pattern is evident: from defiance to surrender. Daffy spoofed programs such as Dragnet and Superman, while falling under Bugs Bunny’s shadow in parodies of the nonfiction shows This Is Your Life, People Are Funny, and Person to Person. Seeing Bugs from Daffy’s point of view during this retrospective was an interesting exercise. His effortless cool is truly impressive, but at the same time it’s easy to share Daffy’s resentment of him. He commands adoration simply by entering a room, while Daffy works his tail feathers off and gets crickets. Daffy’s trajectory only continues downward from here, as he becomes a hapless foil for Speedy Gonzales. The first few cartoons in that series are interesting as class-conscious morality tales. But exhaustion quickly sets in, not only with the whole premise — How to explain a duck fighting a mouse? Is he simply a frustrated homeowner? a mercenary? Is he drunk on secondhand catnip and thinks he’s really a cat? (A Taste of Catnip, 1966) — but most definitely with its execution as well. By the end of the decade, this once-great animation studio was using television-quality style and Hanna-Barbera sound effects. The end was inevitable.
But there was a lot of fun to be had along the way. This months-long retrospective was a great experience, a brief history of American animation at its most inventive. Selecting favorites from the 220 total cartoons I watched is tricky, not only because so many of them blend together in my mind, but because a fair number of acknowledged classics have been familiar to me since my childhood. If I watched something repeatedly at a tender age, judging it objectively might very well be impossible. On the other hand, it’s actually easier to see the greatness of Duck Amuck or Robin Hood Daffy (1958) when they’re viewed in between more forgettable fare. So I’ll still recommend Daffy cartoons like Daffy Duck & Egghead, Daffy Duck in Hollywood (1938), You Ought to Be in Pictures (1940), Yankee Doodle Daffy (1943), Book Revue (1946), The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946), Rabbit Seasoning (1952), Show Biz Bugs (1957), and The Abominable Snow Rabbit (1961), and Goofy cartoons like Moving Day (1936), Clock Cleaners, Mickey’s Trailer (1938), Double Dribble (1946), and Father’s Week-end (1953). In addition to these, here are some favorites that I believe I saw for the first time this year: Touchdown Mickey (Goofy, 1932), How to Play Baseball (Goofy, 1942), No Sail (Goofy), A Knight for a Day (Goofy, 1946), The Scarlet Pumpernickel (Daffy), Rocket Squad (Daffy, 1956), and Fiesta Fiasco (Daffy, 1967). So, in the championship match of Goofy vs. Daffy, the score is Daffy 14, Goofy 9, if this paragraph is any judge. What a classic bout it was. As a great man once said, that’s all, folks.