A movie exec and a toon duck give a film critic offers he can’t refuse. 2,741 words. Illustration #1 by Thomas Wearing. Illustration #2 by Mark Fearing.
I had been waiting a long time for this. Freiburg Studios was not in the habit of letting film historians go rummaging through their archives. Of course, all their pre-war files had been donated to UCLA, but that was because the new corporate owners were clearing out material they had no use for. Their animation collection was another story, and everything related to it was treated as worth its weight in gold. Frankly, given their place in cartoon history, that would have been letting it go cheaply.
As a scholarly film critic who had a secure perch on a daily cable show, I had written several books that included chapters on some of Freiburg’s most notable films, including their musical spectaculars and their stylish film noir cycle of the late 1940s and 1950s. In fact, their head of the DVD division recently asked me to autograph the noir book. Usually the only feedback studios gave me on my film writing was when they misquoted me in their ads.
“When sales of 60-year-old titles start to spike, I want to know why," he said, explaining why. "It turns out your book brought a number of these old films back into the public eye. We even had to release some titles because we were getting so many requests for them.”
I was flattered, of course. The highest compliment you can pay a film critic is not that you agreed with him but that his words made you want to check out the movie for yourself. The exec, who went by the name Stan Foster III according to his business card emblazoned with the Freiburg Studios logo, invited me to lunch the following week. He had a proposition I found hard to ignore.
We met at one of the posher restaurants in Glendale, which allowed him to impress me with his expense account while minimizing the chances of our running into someone we know. After placing our orders and getting the pleasantries out of the way, Stan got down to business.
“George, what do you think of our cartoons?”
If I had to guess what the purpose of this lunch was, this wouldn’t have made even the top ten. “I assume you mean the classic Freiburg Brothers cartoons and not the schlock your television division is churning out these days?”
If I hoped to shock him with my bluntness I failed. He waved his hand, “Of course. We produce a lot of stuff for different audiences. I want to know if you grew up watching the cartoons Freiburg was turning out before either of us was born.”
I had. Any child who grew up in the ‘60s would have seen them over and over, just like Warner’s Bugs Bunny and Fleischer’s Betty Boop and Disney’s Mickey Mouse. The old cartoon shorts featured Delbert Duck and the other Freiburg characters and had been packaged and repackaged for various television timeslots in what passed for “children’s programming.”
I looked at Stan and smiled and said, “Nobody told me.”
I waited for his reaction.
“I knew you were the right man,” he said.
I had given him Delbert Duck’s famous catchphrase, offered up whenever he got caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to. All wide-eyed innocence, he would look at his accuser and deliver that line. I hoped I had gotten the inflection right, with the heavy emphasis on me.
Stan lowered his voice, “I want to make you an offer but this has to be strictly confidential. I know you’re a journalist, but I need to know you’re a gentleman.”
“Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” I said, mock offended.
“I’m serious. If you choose not to accept, no hard feelings. But I don’t want to read or hear about this while we’re searching around for second best.”
“We’re just two film buffs enjoying lunch. No news here.”
“Fine.” Stan visibly relaxed. “What would you say if I told you Freiburg was ready to release its entire animation library to the home market? Would you be interested if we started releasing our cartoons in packaged sets two or three times a year?”
“Is that what this lunch is about? You want to solicit my pre-order?”
“No, we want you to write the program notes for each set and maybe expand them for a companion volume. The notes would be work-for-hire, but we’d pay you a generous fee. The book, if it happens, would be a standard advance and royalty deal with our publishing division. In addition we’d provide you copies of all the cartoons and access to our archives. You would become the official historian of Freiburg Animation.”
I knew the money would be good. The only question is whether I’d be compromised by being on the Freiburg payroll. Stan continued.
“If we wanted boiler plate we could get any hack. We want someone with your love for and appreciation of the movies who can provide a context for these cartoons. Most of them speak for themselves, but some of them need help.”
Without saying as much, Stan seemed to imply that the dozen or so cartoons that had been kept under lock and key for decades might be made available if I could provide sufficient reason. This was no longer merely an opportunity. This was a challenge.
“When do we get started?”
From the 1930s to the start of the 1960s, most of the major studios had an animated short division. Teams of animators would work on different projects with the goal of turning out a new cartoon every couple of weeks to accompany the studio’s latest feature. Since it took half a month to go from idea to script to voice recording to design to animation to post production (including music and editing), there were always several cartoons in the pipeline. One of them was inevitably a Delbert Duck entry, since he was the studio’s signature character.
Delbert Duck had been created by Boz Drake, who remained the primary animator for the series’ entire run. A few pre-war cartoons were done by others but audiences sensed something was off even though he was still voiced by Harry Alper, who gave the legendary Mel Blanc a run for the title of the “man of a thousand voices.” A typical Delbert Duck adventure had him goofing off or fooling around near some forest pond where his nemesis, Wolfram J. Hunter, would show up intending to bag Delbert for dinner. There were other foes from time to time, but it was the eternal chase of the clumsy wolf after the deft duck that audiences came to love.
Inevitably there would be a scene where Wolfie (as Delbert tauntingly called him) would break down crying and insist he had to hunt Delbert because wolves had to go after prey. Delbert would look shocked and reply, “Well, nobody told me!” before dropping a giant mallet on him and scurrying away. It was a simple enough formula and Drake’s genius was in continually finding new and fresh ways to have this endless battle play out. They also ran for U.S. President against each other (Wolfie’s slogan was “Two Ducks In Every Pot”), they raced to see who would be the first toon on the moon, they even parodied Broadway musicals of the period (The Duck and I, My Fair Delbert). Such was their popularity that when the Freiburg logo came up on a cartoon and it was then revealed to be a new Delbert Duck adventure, audiences would burst into applause.
All good things come to an end and by the early 1960s, studios began shutting down their animation departments one by one as a matter of saving money. Moviegoers no longer needed cartoons with their feature films because the came free on their new television sets. Freiburg’s animation department was one of the last to go, and it was under strange circumstances. Drake had been working on a 20-to-30 minute featurette entitled The Devil And Delbert Duck, when the new corporate owners sent word that this would be the final Delbert Duck cartoon. Then the overlords made two startling discoveries. First, there was no trace whatsoever of the film, which was supposed to be nearing completion. Second, there was no trace of Drake. He had vanished and neither his ex-wife nor any of the other animators nor anyone else had a clue where he might be.
Now that I had complete access to the Freiburg animation archives, I would be free to find out what might have happened to Drake and his last film.
Naturally I wouldn’t be starting there. Stan’s marketing plan called for packages of 10 cartoons to be released several times a year under specific themes. The first was Delbert’s Greatest Hits followed by Delbert In Space and Delbert’s Musical Madness. In the third year of the project, at my insistence, we finally did Delbert Goes to War. By that point I was deeply immersed in all things Delbert.
True to his word Stan had gotten me complete access to the Freiburg archives and had new prints struck of every cartoon. One set was put aside for the video transfer while another set was at my disposal to run as often as I needed. The wartime entries were the trickiest because they were dated and also because they contained un-PC stereotypes.
I had to run Deutschland Delbert several times to make sure one of the Nazis had called the duck “ein Juden.” It took a bit of digging to find out if Harry Alper was Jewish – he was – and whether the reference was in the script – it wasn’t. Indeed, all the script said was, “Harry unleashes a stream of pseudo-German.” After several viewings I decided it was close enough to warrant mentioning in my notes. As for Delbert’s fate in Deutschland, he paused in midchase and faced the Nazis and said, “Well, nobody told me!” While Hitler and company tried to make sense of this, Delbert did a group slap, then jumped out the window and flew off to his next adventure.
More problematic was Delbert Meets Tojo which was filled with grotesque Japanese stereotypes and had Delbert stick chopsticks up Tojo’s nose. “That’s for Pearl Harbor, slant eyes,” said Delbert in the spring of 1942. I suggested it appear on the wartime DVD not as one of the regular toons but as an “extra.”
It was while going through the box of wartime scripts and related documents that I came across an unmarked reel of film. To find a reel mixed in with the files was highly unusual. At this point they were letting me rack up the films myself since the projectionist’s union had provided a waiver. I wasn’t sure what this reel was, so I threaded it into the projector. When the title came up, I couldn’t believe it.
It was Drake’s long lost The Devil And Delbert Duck. It hadn’t been found because it had been misfiled – or deliberately hidden – in a box of scripts from 20 years earlier. This was the legendary final Delbert Duck cartoon which, as far as anyone knew, had never been publicly shown. After the credits, it began not as a cartoon but as a live action film. There was a man hunched over a drawing board, sketching an image of Delbert in full squawk. The man paused and turned to face the camera. It was Boz Drake.
“They tell me they’re shutting down the animation department,” he began with his flat Midwestern voice. “I can’t let that happen. My marriage went bust. I have no children. Delbert is the only family I have. If they take him away from me I’ll be all alone in the world.”
A puff of smoke followed, whereupon Sid Freiburg, the head of the studio, appeared. Well, it looked like Sid Freiburg, except he had two horns atop his head and his skin had a reddish tinge. “I can make sure you and Delbert are never separated,” he said to Drake. I could almost smell the sulfurous smoke that seemed to blow across the screen. “Are you willing to make a deal?”
“I’ve got nothing to lose,” said Drake, extending his right hand. As Drake and the devil clasped hands, there was a flash, and the action shifted to animation. There was Delbert Duck and a cartoon devil, who was rolling up a document and putting it in his inside jacket pocket.
“Now you’ll always be together,” said Satan/Freiburg.
“Wait, I never said I wanted to be Delbert,” said that Midwestern voice, which was emerging from the cartoon duck.
The devil replied, “Well, nobody told me!”
Then with a cackling laugh, he disappeared in another puff of smoke.
This time I definitely smelled something and it was making me dizzy. Meanwhile Delbert was running around, stopped and looked at the camera.
“And now you know where I’ve been for the last fifty years.”
It seemed like he was addressing me. I decided to play along.
“And where is that, Delbert?”
“Stuck in an animated world, George.”
Now that I didn’t imagine. Delbert had just said my name. I rubbed my eyes and shook my head. I must have fallen asleep watching the cartoon.
“You’re not asleep, George. You’re in my world now.”
I looked around. I was no longer in the Freiburg screening room. I was in a cartoon forest that I had seen umpteen times before.
“This isn’t possible.”
“It is, George. And there’s no going back.”
“Is this some new 3D technology? Stan, are you out there? Is this a test?”
Delbert came over and grabbed me with his odd cartoon combination of wings that were also arms and hands. “This isn’t a test, George. It’s real. You wanted to know what happened to me and now you do. I made a deal with the devil.”
What kept me from losing it altogether was that Delbert’s voice wasn’t the wisecracking cartoon voice of Harry Alper. It was Boz Drake’s. “You’re Delbert Duck and Boz Drake? How can that be?” I asked.
“I don’t pretend to understand how it works, George, I just know that it does. I was given the opportunity to become my greatest creation, and I’ve spent the last half century living and reliving all our greatest adventures several times over. It was fun for a while, but eventually even the best cartoons and movies start to bore if they just keep endlessly repeating themselves. That’s where you come in.”
"I’ve been sucked into this to take your place so you can finally go on to your eternal reward? Is that it?”
Delbert laughed. “Really? That’s the best you can come up with? No wonder you’re a critic. You’re going to have to do better than that.”
“What are you talking about?”
“George, this is my eternal reward. I love being Delbert Duck. The problem is that I’m the only character in this world with free will. Everyone else is locked into whatever stories I wrote over the 25 or so years I created the cartoons.”
I was not expecting Delbert’s next move, which was to pick up a giant mallet that hadn’t been there a moment before and whack me on the head with it.
"Wake up, George. I don’t need you to be me. I need you to be you, only with the ability to do new and unexpected things.”
With that he picked up a mirror which, similarly, had not been there a moment before and pointed it at me. Instead of my own face, I saw the cartoon image of Wolfram J. Hunter. Before I could take it in,, Delbert tossed the mirror to me which I fumbled. It fell and shattered. “Wolfie, that’s seven years of bad luck.”
He picked up the mallet and struck me on the head again before running off and diving into a nearby pond. “Last one in is a rotten Wolfie!” he shouted.
Now I knew where I was. I was in a special circle of hell for film reviewers. I had seen all 176 Delbert Duck cartoons and I knew that Wolfie never won. I was going to spend eternity being the butt of endless gags without hope of escape. So if you’re watching this cartoon, turn it off now, before it’s too late. Really. Turn it off. You see, sooner or later, Delbert’s going to get bored with me, too.
Then he’ll move on to you.