Duck Amuck (1953)

Director: Chuck Jones

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It takes all kinds to make a movie. From actors great and small to sound and lighting technicians, set decorators, make-up artists, and writers—all held together by the producer and director—movie-making is one of the most interdependent endeavors around. Yet, it is not the only one, as the horrors of interdependency shown in 1953’s Duck Amuck make it one of the most universal and subversive films ever made. Despite its reflexive look at the world of animated filmmaking and its use of catchphrases of its time (“What a way to run a railroad!” and “Oh brother, I’m a buzz boy!”), there isn’t a soul alive who can’t relate in some way to the sometimes cruel and unrepentant ways Big Brother takes over our lives and makes a holy hash of our plans and assumptions.

Daffy Duck is the star of the Warner Bros. cartoon Duck Amuck, which starts slyly as a tale of the Three Musketeers—you know, all for one and one for all? Ready to work on a thrilling adventure film, Daffy finds that he has entered the Twilight Zone instead. He finds himself parrying and thrusting onto a blank background. Like a performer awakening a sleeping stagehand, he calls for some scenery to be painted behind him. Alas, instead of 17th century France, he gets a farm.

Daffy is what I’d call the solid citizen persona of his creator, Chuck Jones. He knows and has internalized all the rules of his universe. If the scene suddenly changes to a barnyard, he runs off and reappears wearing overalls and carrying a hoe. If he suddenly notices an igloo on the back 40, he exchanges his hoe for some ski poles. If he is confronted with palm trees and ocean, he grabs a lava lava from wardrobe and plays the ukelele with outsized enthusiasm. When he’s tortured by this tyrannical and capricious behavior, he looks for fault in himself, muttering aloud that he’s sure he has complied with his employment contract and hasn’t he kept his figure in tip-top shape? In other words, he’s an actor, though unlike what that label implies, he really reacts to changing circumstances with little complaint, the better to preserve his precarious existence.

Indeed there can be no more precarious existence than being a cartoon character, relying on an artist to provide his body and environment and, in this case, Mel Blanc, to produce his voice—or a sound engineer when the fellow in charge decides to substitute some strange sounds for Daffy’s vocal protests. The humiliations continue when Daffy gets redrawn as a daisy-headed platypus, but what can he do? He can’t even quit if his creator decides to cast him in a movie he doesn’t enjoy, like Duck Amuck.

Jones may not have had it top of mind, but his godlike manipulations of poor little Daffy bear a striking resemblance to the petty torments of the office environment hilariously chronicled in such films as Office Space (1999) and Office Killer (1997). The 1950s were the heyday of the Organization Man, with Daffy perfectly channeling the conformist worker in companies that often operated on the whims of their founders or charismatic leaders. Jones may have been glancing in the direction of the Disney empire and its straitjacket of innocence, imagining what his uncontrolled id could do to the likes of Alice in Wonderland or Wendy Darling. He rebelled against the use of a dynamic filmmaking technique for doing what parents could any night of the week—read their kids a story. Jones sought to free their imaginations with the gleeful anarchy of his many superb animated shorts.

In the end, Chuck owns up to being a very naughty boy. “Ain’t I a stinker?” his cartoon surrogate says. Without a doubt, thank goodness!

Watch Duck Amuck here on Vimeo.

  • Lee Price spoke:
    11th/09/2012 to 9:34 am

    It must be Duck Amuck week! It made the list I posted yesterday (how could it miss?) and I just wrote a paragraph about it last night for tomorrow’s blog entry. I always liked the suggestion (forget who made it) that Duck Amuck is Chuck Jones’ Book of Job. Thanks for the great writeup!

    250 Great Animated Shorts: The List

  • Kirk spoke:
    11th/09/2012 to 10:02 am

    My favorite Chuck Jones cartoon, and favorite cartoon, period. As many, many others have pointed out, even when his voice goes, his very physicality goes, it’s Daffy’s personality that stays constant.

    Duck Amuck as a allegory of the working world? I hadn’t thought of that before, but, yeah, you’re right. I can certainly relate.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/09/2012 to 10:24 am

    Lee – Brilliant!!! I must spend some time with your list and entries, of course. Always worth it. Of course, the Book of Job comes to mind, but in a much more lighthearted way, and with fewer outs. Daffy will never be able to win back his creator’s favor, so he’s really stuck.

    Kirk – I think we can look at Duck Amuck as an allegory for just about any situation over which we have no control. We can look at politics, natural disasters. It’s all “we plan, God laughs.” It’s life, the whole divine comedy.

  • Donna spoke:
    11th/09/2012 to 12:44 pm

    I <3 Chuck Jones!

  • Vanwall spoke:
    13th/09/2012 to 12:20 am

    Daffy was always my fave of the Looneys. A much more interesting duck than Donald, IMHO.

  • Roderick spoke:
    13th/09/2012 to 12:22 am

    Daffy Duck for President!

  • James Russell spoke:
    13th/09/2012 to 2:13 am

    Simply one of the finest moments in American cinema, in any form or from any period.

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