Harlow, Daffy and Ken Kesey’s Magic Trippers

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Bettmann / Corbis

Jean Harlow

Jones used to say that Bugs Bunny, the star of the Termite Terrace menagerie, was Chuck as he dreamed of being, and Daffy was Chuck as he was. Whereas Bugs, who began life as a bonkers bunny, soon became the coolest dude, master of every impending calamity, bluffing his rivals (Elmer Fudd or Porky Pig or Daffy) with the bravado of James Cagney and the savoir-faire of Cary Grant, Daffy was the splenetic loser, an Everyduck on who destiny falls like an anvil. His great luck was to be led through his misadventures by a group of superb animation auteurs: Tex Avery, who directed Daffy’s debut in Porky’s Duck Hunt; Bob Clampett, whose riotous extension of physical comedy and graphic distortion birthed some of the medium’s dizziest masterpieces; Friz Freleng, who wondrously emphasized the little black duck’s vaudeville pluck; and Jones, Daffy’s best friend, most elegant tormentor and prime apotheosizer.

Daffy fans—they are legion, learned and possessive—will quibble with the “Essential” claim of this pack. Where are Clampett’s Draftee Daffy, Freleng’s You Ought to Be in Pictures and Yankee Doodle Daffy, Jones’ immortal Rabbit Fire and Rabbit Seasoning? (Answer: on one of the dozens of other WB cartoon compilations. A biggie, Looney Tunes Platinum Collection Vol. 1, comes out in two weeks.)

(MORE: Richard Corliss’ Top 25 Animated Films)

But much of what’s here is choice, beginning with Porky’s Duck Hunt, animated by Clampett and Virgil Ross. Daffy shows up about five minutes into the eight-minute cartoon, identifies himself as “just a crazy darned old duck” and executes somersaults and cartwheels on the pond surface as if it were a skating rink. Early Daffy was a troublemaker with a touch of sadism; in Daffy Duck and Egghead he explains his mischief away by saying, “I’m not crazy, I just don’t give a darn.” In Clampett’s Book Revue, he does a spot-on imitation of Danny Kaye imitating a Russian singing “Nothing could be feener than to be in Caroleena in the Mahhhning” (a splendidly astute vocal parody by Mel Blanc). The collection then escorts Daffy out of the War years and into his more familiar postwar character, who begins every film with bravado and braggadocio (“I may be a craven little coward, but I’m a greedy craven little coward”) only to pratfall into ignominy that, deep down, he thinks he deserves (“Shoot me again, I enjoy it”).

The set boasts a fair number of unarguable classics—Frank Tashlin’s Plane Daffy, Clampett’s The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, Jones’ Duck Amuck, Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2th Century and Ali Baba Bunny—plus some much later Daffy Re-ducks cartoons (The Duxorcist, The Night of the Living Duck). There’s also a new, 20-minute profile whose title sums up how the great little black duck has endured nearly 65 years of hard-won defeat: “Ridicule Is the Burden of Genius.” And Daffy is, I still say, one of the comic geniuses of the last century or this one.

Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place

An acclaimed young West Coast novelist decided to drive cross-country to see the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. He took some along some friends and some drugs and, in the process, kinda sorta invented, or at least gave a tie-dyed face to, the psychedelic culture of the ’60s. From their exploits Tom Wolfe fashioned a best-selling nonfiction novel, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Paul McCartney was inspired to create the Beatles movie (and album) The Magical Mystery Tour.

The novelist was Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), the bus driver was Neal Cassady (immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road) and his friends called themselves the Merry Band of Pranksters. Along the route they met some of the most liberated minds of their generation: poet Allen Ginsberg, novelists Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone and Kerouac, Harvard LSD gurus Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. “We weren’t old enough to be beatniks,” said Kesey of his Pranksters, “and we weren’t young enough to be hippies.” They were a dozen or so adventurous white folks seeking what Kesey called “a cool place of the mind.”

How sweet, sad, silly and innocent they look today in Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s nonfiction road movie Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place (on Magnolia DVD). The indefatigable Gibney—he’s directed six full-length docs (including studies of Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Abramoff and Eliot Spitzer) since his 2008 Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side—and editor Ellwood had miles of faded but still lusciously colorful footage that the Pranksters had shot on their long strange trip. Fun when not instructively boring, as any two transcontinental bus rides might be, the movie summons other ’60s cinematic experiments by fellow travelers from other arts, like Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls and Norman Mailer’s Maidstone. All operated from the premise that a filmmaker is somebody with a movie camera and friends with a lot of spare time.

Hollywood would not have cast Kesey as a dopester high priest, or even a cool (or kool) dude. A football player and champion wrestler at the University of Oregon, Kesey married his sweetheart Faye from junior high and stayed with her until his death in 2001. (She and their son Zane served as consultants on the film.) “I’ve always been a fairly reliable, straight-up, middle-of-the-road citizen,” he said later, “that just happens to be an acid-head.”

On a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in the Creative Writing program at Stanford, Kesey began writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He also enrolled in a federal program at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Center in which patients were given LSD and their reactions recorded. “It’s like looking at a Rorschach test and seeing mashed testicles,” Kesey mused while under the influence. “Bats and eggs going into the strobe light… hexagons and pentagons and mummies.” (The full tape is a Magic Trip DVD extra.) At the time he didn’t know that the CIA had funded the experiment to determine if interrogation subjects—say, enemy soldiers—would spill their guts under LSD. It was like waterboarding plus mind-blowing. And it stoked sensations Kesey wanted to keep investigating and experiencing.

Having visited New York City for the 1963 opening of the stage version of Cuckoo’s Nest (starring Kirk Douglas, whose son Michael would eventually produce the 1975 movie), Kesey resolved to return the following year to see the World’s Fair. He bought a 1939 International Harvester school bus, had a friend paint over the orange-with-black-stripes shell with gaudy, groovy pastels and set out on his trip. Everyone on board got a nickname: Kesey was “Swashbuckler,” Cassady “Sir Speed Limit,” Jane Burton “Generally Famished,” Kathy Casamo “Stark Naked,” etc. In retrospective interviews, the participants memories differed. “It was like a troupe of minstrels and mimes,” says Casamo. “Their presence was very beautiful.” Burton, who bailed after the bus reached New York, recalled the tour as a frat party gone wild and wrong: “just a bunch of lunatics acting idiotic.”

Among the lunatic aspects: Cassady, the speed-demon motormouth, was chosen to pilot the bus and provide nonstop tour-guide commentary. (“We are actually fourth-dimensional beings in a third-dimensional body in a second-dimensional world.”) The group did drugs all along the way, and their psychedelic bus might have aroused more police suspicions had it not been the first one. Passing through Phoenix during the 1964 Presidential campaign, the Pranksters seemed to support Republican candidate Barry Goldwater by painting “A vote for Barry is a vote for fun” on the side of the bus. Passengers paired off in recombinant couples, and on a detour through Manitoba on the way back they took massive doses of RT-290, “the Rolls Royce of psychedelics.” Somehow they all survived, though in 1968 Cassady was found dead by railroad tracks in Mexico.

Back in California, Kesey said, “I wanted to be done with it. I wanted to get back to business. I had books to write, kids to raise. But it just wouldn’t die. People kept coming around.” His gang had put together a 30-hour filmed record of their trip. Shown on weekends at his home, then at more public venues, the movie become its own phenomenon, party and trip, especially with accompaniment by Kesey’s young musician friends, the Grateful Dead. By now the author was not just famous but notorious: busted for marijuana possession, he had to explain the head culture to the straight press. This impromptu apologia comes pretty close: “I feel like you only come to this movie once, and if you don’t get something rewarding out of every minute you’re sitting there, then you’ve blown your ticket.”

The Gibney-Ellwood doc might not offer quite that reward-per-minute ratio, but it’s worth catching as an invaluable artifact of a wild time long ago and—unless the Occupy Wall Streeters really do liberate America—far away.

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