Of Ducks, Donald and Daffy

Tucked into the bottom of a fascinating Wall Street Journal article by Susan Bernofsky, we find this gem:

“Even Frankfurt School philosopher Max Horkheimer admitted to enjoying reading Donald Duck comics before bed.”

It’s part of an interesting little piece on Donald Duck in Germany. Apparently, through long-term licensing, the Duck thrives in Allemagne. He’s pretty much off the radar screen in his native land, but he’s enjoyed a long ex-pat life in Germany where Disney allows translators a remarkable degree of freedom when rendering Donald auf Deutsch. And so, for German readers, Donald is an erudite bird, familiar (in a fallible way) with Schiller and Goethe and the rest of the canon.

All of which reminds me of something I thought worth putting on the record. I have the sneaking suspicion that  Louis de Funès, the great French comic, stole his whole shtick from another duck, Daffy. De Funès made dozens of films between 1945 and his death in 1983. They’re hardly known in the U.S., but still very popular in the Francophone world. A few of them (La Folie des Grandeurs is a good start) are available on Netflix.

Like Daffy, De Funès’s character is pure id, and like Daffy, he has a tendency to complicate the means by which he achieves his desires. He sees the social world through Rube Goldberg glasses, but always in the service of almost childlike appetites. In the end, he is self-defeating, unmasked and ridiculous (it helps that De Funès was about 5 and a half feet tall and bald) . We always felt sorry for Daffy, but I don’t know that we ever loved him. De Funès is lovable, perhaps because his voraciousness is so large and primitive and infantile. He never becomes a true villain because he is us, or a part of us, dimly remembered from when we were three years old and unselfconsciously selfish.

He is, in a way, a tragic figure. Just as some people go through life with physical limitations that bring them often into grief, the archetypal De Funès character is philosophically handicapped: He can concoct elaborate schemes, but he can’t see one step ahead in the causal chain of events. The world is forever surprising him. It’s failure to conform to his wishes, his plans and his appetites is always a scandal.

Daffy had a bit of this too. After eating a hot chili in a Mexican restaurant, Bugs hands him a shot of tequila. And wham! To the Moon! Poor Daffy never sees it coming.

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