Since the dawn of synchronized sound, music has been considered vital to the success of most animated cartoons. Just look at the iconic series names—Silly Symphonies, Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies. (In order of series beginning—Disney got there first.) One of the classic running gags is “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” being used, on any number of instruments, to trigger an explosion. Mickey has conducted at least twice; Bugs and Elmer have conducted as well. Several of the characters have played concerts. Most of them sing. And so it is perhaps not surprising that, when the two great animated ducks of the two great animation studios at last came head to head, it would be while playing pianos.
It’s a short clip. Most of the scene, indeed, is a confrontation between Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) and Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). They are at the Ink and Paint Club, an obvious reference to venues like the Cotton Club; in this case, it is completely staffed by Toons but for humans only. When Eddie arrives, the entertainment is a piano duet between Donald and Daffy Ducks. They are playing the Second Hungarian Rhapsody, by Liszt. It is already chaos at the beginning of the scene; it ends with Donald’s shooting Daffy with a cannon.
The film is set in 1947. This was before the suburban era of Donald; this was before the avaricious version of Daffy. Frankly, Daffy’s best cartoons were a few years in the future at this point, though he had been an established star for about a decade. He was still daffy at the time. “Duck Amuck” and “Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century” would not work with this particular interpretation. Meanwhile, Donald was in a whopping nine cartoons that year, including “Mickey and the Beanstalk” and “Chip an’ Dale.” In the former, he attempts to kill Mickey with an ax; in the latter, he lights Chip ‘n’ Dale’s home on fire.
Look, Daffy has never been above a little light homicide. At least one version of the abovementioned “Endearing Young Charms” gag is Daffy trying to kill Bugs, although this movie is set before their rivalry really began, in the days when Daffy was much more likely to star opposite Porky Pig. On the other hand, even in the ’40s, it’s not surprising that it’s Donald who chooses to up the stakes to artillery. Daffy was always rather more inclined toward death at a distance, whereas Donald is clearly gloating at the idea of Daffy’s demise; he’s literally got devil horns and is rubbing his hands together in glee.
Frankly, this movie is set before Warners cartoons really got good. Chuck Jones was apparently annoyed that they used a Clampett version of Daffy in the movie instead of his own, but his iconic version of the little black duck is too late for it. His problem was that he apparently personally disliked Bob Clampett, which is fair enough, I suppose. But the real issue to me is that the Clampett version of Daffy isn’t as funny. I mean, there’s an amusing bit at the piano where Daffy suddenly has the floppy hair of perhaps a Leonard Bernstein. (I feel there’s someone else it’s specifically supposed to be channeling, and I’m drawing a blank.) That’s cute. But mostly, it’s a duck banging away at a piano.
Famously, Warners permitted the use of their two biggest stars on the proviso that they got the exact same amount of screen time as Mickey and Donald, which is presumably why the duet exists. Later, Bugs and Mickey appear together. Any number of prequels have been discussed, mostly set during World War II, but I’m a bit curious to see a later version if for no other reason than so that we can see later versions of the ducks. You wouldn’t get a wacky piano concert from them. But imagine the Odd Couple-style sitcom of the pair as roommates.