The Daffy Duck Mirror Thesis – 12 Days of Anime(tion)

Daffy Duck sees himself in the mirror

Daffy Duck is a Looney Tunes character first introduced in 1937 in “Porky’s Duck Hunt.” Since then he has become one of the world’s most celebrated animated ducks. One of the reasons why Daffy Duck is celebrated is because he’s not just a funny duck, but he portrays human traits that make him recognizable to us.

Many people see changes in Daffy’s personality between the cartoons, with a notable change happening in the early 50’s Chuck Jones cartoons. However, I do not believe Jones changed Daffy more than any other director has. His cartoons treat Daffy as a twisted funhouse mirror of himself, but he is not the only director of Warner Bros cartoons to do this. Daffy Duck regularly showcases traits associated with whomever directs the cartoon he is in, yet keeps a core personality. I call this the “Daffy Duck Mirror Theory,” in which Daffy Duck acts like a mirror for the artists who work with him. This makes Daffy Duck a character with intense emotional depth and humanity. We shall now observe how the directors of the Warner Bros cartoons reflect themselves within the duck.

Daffy Duck in "Porky's Duck Hunt"

While I want to especially focus on Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, two fan favorite directors who reflect especially well within ducks, the right place to start would be with the prestigious inventor of Daffy Duck himself, Tex Avery. In 1937, he directed “Porky’s Duck Hunt” which is the first cartoon featuring Daffy. In this cartoon, we are introduced to a prankster who spends his time bothering Porky Pig, who is a hunter in this cartoon.

Already in his first cartoon we are introduced to a duck who reflects the gag-loving, energetic Tex Avery, a man who preferred to keep going rather than turn back. Avery would direct two more Daffy Duck cartoons, “Daffy Duck and Egghead” and “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.” The former is more or less a remake of the previous cartoon with more gags and a different hunter character. The latter, Tex Avery’s last Daffy cartoon and his only one not following a hunting theme, showcases Daffy not just as a prankster but a creative filmmaker. He starts out bothering a director for a film role (foreshadowing future cartoons), and eventually makes his own crazy movie with whatever film roll he comes across. 

Two of Tex Avery’s animators who worked with him on early Daffy Duck pictures would soon become directors themselves and head their own unit. These two are the previously mentioned Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones. Born in the fire of Daffy Duck, some of their earliest efforts would star this new character. However, both the directors’ ducks would need time to cook before they could unleash their full reflective potential.

Small Daffy Ducks in their Daffy Duck shaped aircraft in "What Price Porky?"

Bob Clampett’s first Daffy Duck cartoon was “What Price Porky,” a 1938 cartoon about an army of Daffy Ducks (led by General Quacko) leading an assault on Porky Pig’s hens for the glory of corn. A funny cartoon, but Daffy Duck isn’t as much a character as a collective entity of wacky ducks causing havoc, used merely as a tool for humor rather than a character. Daffy Duck’s role would change from cartoon to cartoon, shifting according to Clampett’s needs while evolving traits that would eventually become his Duck.

L'artiste Daffy Duck in "Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur"

Chuck Jones’s first cartoon starring Daffy Duck would be Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur, a 1939 epic color picture featuring Daffy Duck, a caveman, and a dinosaur. Chuck Jones, having worked with Tex Avery and Bob Clampett on a bunch of the earlier Daffy Duck cartoons, seems to be content with just continuing to use Daffy Duck as a mere tool for gags. At this point, Jones’s Daffy does not stand out as a mirror of himself.

We make a pit stop in 1940 to observe a different sort of Daffy Duck. Around this time Friz Freleng had come back from MGM. In 1937 (at the start of the Daffy revolution at Termite Terrace), director Friz Freleng left the studio for MGM, a choice he regretted so badly he returned in 1939. In 1940 he released “You Ought to Be in Pictures,” which is his first cartoon featuring Daffy Duck. This picture reflects Freleng’s experiences at the time, however he is not reflected through Daffy Duck. Daffy Duck instead serves as an antagonist who tricks Porky Pig into breaking his cartoon contract to seek work elsewhere.

Daffy Duck discussing his contract with a live-action Leon Schlesinger in "You Ought to be in Pictures"

While Daffy Duck does seemingly not serve as a mirror to Friz Freleng, Freleng introduced traits that would be long associated with Daffy Duck. The Duck in “You Ought to Be in Pictures” deceives Porky for his own gain and has strong ambitions of becoming the lead star. We will certainly come back to discuss these traits later.

Bob Clampett’s Daffy at this time was evolving into a particular character rather than just a vehicle for gags. While still a screwball duck, Daffy Duck gained human traits such as a dislike of responsibility (“Wise Quacks,” “The Henpecked Duck”) and is firmly established as a carefree prankster of a duck. As the forties go on, Clampett’s Daffy becomes an impulsive duck whose passion for heroes and pop culture often gets the best of him in cartoons such as “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery” and “Draftee Daffy.”

Daffy Duck pointing at himself in the mirror in "Draftee Daffy"

Daffy Duck’s impulsive actions, love for pop culture, and passionate, extreme acts reflects Bob Clampett, who is often said by people who knew him to act in a similar way. Bob Clampett would in the mid-forties leave the studio for various enterprises, including the popular puppetry television programme “Time for Beany,” a TV show enjoyed by geniuses such as Albert Einstein. His unit was taken over by Arthur Davis, who for three years would direct until the unit got shut down. His Daffy Duck is sadly not especially noteworthy, however one of his cartoons titled “What Makes Daffy Duck” is very relevant to this article, which tries to figure out what makes Daffy Duck.

In 1943, Frank Tashlin returned to the studio after leaving in the late 30’s. Immediately he got to work on some Daffy Duck cartoons. In “Porky Pig’s Feat,” “Scrap Happy Daffy,” and “Plane Daffy,” we are introduced to what seems to be a stock Daffy Duck; however this Daffy still reflects traits of his auteur. For example, in Bob Clampett’s war themed short “Draftee Daffy” we see a Daffy avoiding his responsibilities, while in Frank Tashlin’s short we see a Daffy Duck who is able to do what needs to be done.

Daffy Duck observing womens legs in "Plane Daffy"

In “Scrap Happy Daffy,” Daffy leads efforts to gather metal for the war, and “Plane Daffy” shows Daffy Duck as a carrier pigeon, dedicated to finishing his mission. This could reflect Frank Tashlin often moving on, doing what he can in order to achieve his dreams. Frank Tashlin’s Daffy also shares his director’s passion for womens’ legs.

Tashlin’s second tenure at the studio didn’t last long, and soon Robert McKimson took over his unit. Just like Frank Tashlin, he soon got to work making new Daffy Duck cartoons. McKimson’s Daffy, while long lasting (McKimson made cartoons featuring the duck for over two decades), seems to follow rules and ideas established by others. We often find Daffy Duck in various roles in very funny cartoons, but McKimson was a very practical director. He does not express himself too heavily through Daffy.

Chuck Jones as a director had an especially long rumination time. Jones in his first decade would explore animation, directing varied works. He would eventually be paired with writer Michael Maltese and layout artist Maurice Noble. After years of rumination Chuck Jones was ready to mature into the studio’s greatest director. Jones’s cartoons were some of the most polished of the 50’s, and this extended to Daffy Duck.

Daffy Duck in "Rabbit Fire"

Chuck Jones’s Daffy is arguably the most reflective of all Daffy Ducks, with the character on the surface changing drastically to reflect Jones. However Daffy Duck’s core from the past remains. Daffy Duck remains devious, deceptive, passionate and ambitious from previous efforts, yet Jones duck is a much more frustrated creature. In cartoons of the past, Daffy Duck faced situations that were usually advantageous to him. In the very least they didn’t completely break his carefree attitude.

Cartoons like “Duck Amuck” and “Rabbit Fire” presents Daffy in disadvantageous situations that he hadn’t really faced before. This causes a more frustrated duck, holding grudges towards Bugs Bunny and others, while keeping a high opinion of himself. This is similar to the often frustrated, infamously grudge-holding Chuck Jones, once called by Michael Barrier as one of two animation directors he knew to be a “Hollywood ego.” Chuck Jones Daffy Duck essentially is Chuck Jones as a duck. From this point on, Jones would direct many a Daffy Duck masterpiece.

While certain Looney Tunes fans are not fond of the changes Chuck Jones brought to the character, Jones’s Daffy really does reflect the qualities that has made Daffy Duck such an endearing character for years. Daffy Duck’s reflective nature connects us with the people who made these cartoons and makes him believable as life. He is a thinking creature, and I hope this article has properly expressed the feelings I have towards this successful character. This has been a simple look at what I think makes Daffy Duck a special character, and the focus has not been all-inclusive. While this article has been focused on the directors, there are many artists in front of this mirror. These brave artists may be discussed at another time. Goodbye folks.

Daffy Duck emerging from under a pile of paper from "The Scarlet Pumpernickel"

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