The Clutching Foot Courage The Cowardly Dog

the clutching foot courage the cowardly dog

This episode of Courage seems to be a parody of an episode of a TV serial from the 1930s based on a novel by Arthur Reeve. It is called “The Clutching Handand is about a detective named Craig Kennedy. This serialised original includes the following elements:

  • A get rich quick scheme
  • Assuming a false identity
  • Criminals

The original is slow and pretty boring for a modern audience, but the creators of Courage The Cowardly Dog have created a masterful mishmash of the above elements and made a brand new story for children using the basic formula they have already established for themselves combined with broad strokes from Arthur Reeve.

Children’s stories often feature oversized (or undersized) characters/elements. We have that here, too, with Eustace’s massive festering foot which literally swallows him up.

This is the most difficult to watch episode so far in terms of gross out humour. Despite the cartoon depiction, the foot — and especially Muriel’s home remedies for the foot — really make my skin crawl.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE CLUTCHING FOOT”

Much use is made of The Rule of Three in Storytelling. “The Clutching Foot” is basically a spoof of a heist movie, so includes the classic scenes from those. There is a pyrrhic victory for Courage as he sacrifices his health and wellbeing to save the day.

SHORTCOMING

It’s very clear by now that Courage’s needs and shortcomings never change. He is a dog who is charged with the task of saving his home and family.

A lot of the Courage stories happen at night, under the ominous cover of purple darkness.
A lot of the Courage stories happen at night, under the ominous cover of purple darkness.

This would get old after a while, except the humans Courage lives with have different shortcomings and needs depending on the episode. Here, Eustace is foiled by his refusal to see a doctor when his foot festers.

festering-foot

DESIRE

Eustace does not want to see a doctor — he wants to have a nap and wake up and find his foot all better. He lets Muriel try out her home remedies (three of them):

  1. Cactus
  2. Pinching crabs
  3. Green slime

cactus

pinching-crabs

green-slime

OPPONENT

Unfortunately for him, his foot completely takes over while he’s sleeping, and swallows him right up. This is basically an intruder in the house — the massive foot might as well be a monster who has come in through the window or a ghoul. The function is the same, but is a bit more like a psychological suspense story in that the monster is Eustace himself — it’s a part of him. The nasty part of himself is the very thing that will consume him in the end.

And it does. Quite literally.

eustace-wakes-up

close-up-of-eustaces-horrified-face

eustace-gets-swallowed-up

The gangster persona is a masterful touch for a foot opponent because the big toe can be the Don and the little toes can back up everything he says. The size of the toes equal the hierarchy in a typical gang.

back-up-guys

PLAN

With Eustace stuck inside it unable to speak, the foot itself comes up with a plan. This is a gangster foot, and speaks in a parody of gangsters from American film in the early part of the 20th century. The foot is going to use Muriel as bait, “Do what I say or the fat lady gets it,” and will force Courage to carry out heists for it.

foot-looks-at-map

Courage, of course, will do what he needs to in order to save Muriel (and Eustace by default.)

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle sequence involves Courage

  1. Driving the getaway car
  2. Breaking into a bank and robbing the place. (He fails because although money showers down it’s all torn and singed from an explosion.)
  3. Holding up a train.

Courage is trying to appease the bad foot while also saving his family and not breaking the law. He manages to save the train from being robbed by eating a banana and throwing the skin onto the ground. At first I wondered if this was going to derail the train, but in fact it made the foot slip, sending the train far into the distance.

Once again we have a modification of the woman tied to railway tracks (we’ve seen it in an earlier episode with a toy train inside the house). Muriel screams as the foot holds her down. Courage risks his own life by standing in front of an oncoming train.

Stories in which likeable characters are forced to hold up a bank are popular in fiction. We have Thelma in Thelma and Louise, for instance. More recently we have an episode of Season Three of Black Mirror, “Shut Up And Dance”, in which a teenage boy and another reluctant man are forced to rob a bank or risk having their online activities emailed to everyone they know.

scene from Shut Up And Dance, Black Mirror
scene from Shut Up And Dance, Black Mirror

I wonder if these stories are popular because we’ve all wondered if we could pull off a bank heist. It’s a task that looks easy if only you can manage your emotions.

driving-the-getaway-car
The big toe delivers orders from the back seat. Courage mutters that he wishes he’d learnt to drive a stick. This is funny because we assume he never learnt to drive an auto, either, being a dog.
bank
As usual for this show, the target building is plonked in isolation in the middle of Nowhere. (Though you can find absolutely anything in this town.)
courage-breaks-into-bank
Breaking Bad has elements of a heist spoof, too. Inspired by movies themselves, Walt and Jessie get themselves into strife (and out again) after dropping their highly distinctive beanies. (All robbers need beanies.)
inside-tunnel
Crawling through tunnels with torches. Isn’t that what all good bank robbers do?
safe
All good heist scenes require a big safe.
basement
We wonder why Courage has pulled out a cold drink. He’s going to throw the ice cubes into the magma to try and cool it down. “I don’t know why I thought that would work!” he exclaims to the audience. Meanwhile, we wonder why he didn’t just pull ice cubes from his pocket if he has access to anything at all!

ANAGNORISIS

When the computer tells him that dog slobber can save the day, Courage is basically learning that the only one capable of saving everyone is himself. He must make the ultimate sacrifice. This is a pyrrhic victory. He must lick the foot.

licking-the-foot
Another excellent thing about feet is that they are ticklish. Courage partly defeats the opponent with mouth microbes but also by making them laugh hysterically until they retreat. Eustace reappears.

NEW SITUATION

We see Courage in the bathroom brushing, gargling and flossing to get the disgusting taste of festering foot out of his mouth.

We end with a circular story when Courage discovers the fungus has transferred to his own tongue. The first we know of this is that the gangster voice echoes out from deep inside him. Next we see his mouth open:

gangster-tongue

King Ramses’ Curse Courage The Cowardly Dog:

In the “King Ramses’ Curse” episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog we have three plagues — since storytelling loves The Rule Of Three — and the plagues comprise a mixture of ancient and comically modern curses.

This horror comedy for children takes inspiration from ancient holy texts such as found in the Bible and in the Quran.

In the Bible we have The Ten Biblical Plagues, also known as The Plagues of Egypt.

In the Quran there is also mention of a plague and it’s pretty similar except it happens all at once.

king-ramses-curse
Ramses II ruled as pharaoh, or king, of ancient Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BC, the second longest reign in Egyptian history. He was the third king of the 19th dynasty, during the New Kingdom. Ramses, also spelled Ramesses or Rameses, was a highly popular ruler, and under him Egypt enjoyed great prosperity.

STORY STRUCTURE OF KING RAMSES’ CURSE

 

SHORTCOMING

Muriel and Eustace are obliviously going on with their lives inside their house in the middle of Nowhere.

For the first time I notice the Bagges have a moose head on the wall. This will be used later as a sort of indoor fountain, when water gushes out of its mouth.
For the first time I notice the Bagges have a moose head on the wall. This will be used later as a sort of indoor fountain, when water gushes out of its mouth.

Courage sees a crime happening right outside his window but is unable to stop Eustace from getting himself involved.

To go back a bit, this episode opens with the story of the baddies. Two creatures (cats? mice?) have stolen an ancient engraved stone tablet. In a scene out of a heist movie a helicopter (or something similar) is on their trail. There’s an ominous black trail following them. We later realise this is a swarm of locusts.

thieves-in-the-car

In a scene out of (and possibly inspired by) Fargo (1996) the creatures bury the stone near the side of the road. They’re being terrorised by this thing following them and will come back for it later.

thieves-bury-the-treasure

pan shot of the Bagges' house
pan shot of the Bagges’ house

The camera pans to reveal that all this has happened, quite literally, outside Eustace and Muriel’s house.

We never hear from these criminals again. They are a classic case of a McGuffin in storytelling. They exist only to get the story going and then they disappear.

DESIRE

Courage wants to know what’s going on outside his front window. In typical pet dog fashion, he takes great interest in whatever’s going on outside while his owners go about their own day obliviously.

courage-looking-outside

digs-up-the-tablet

Eustace wants to be rich. Not because his needs are particularly great, but because he likes the power that goes along with it.

 

OPPONENT

We have already seen the supernatural opponent — it appeared first as a curlicued shadow across the bonnet of the thieves’ car.

We see it more fully after Eustace decides to keep the tablet for himself.

supernatural-opponent

The much weaker and more more comical opponent here is Eustace.

eustace-dismisses-the-dog
Eustace refuses to believe the tablet is anything other than rubbish.
courage-transmogrifies
Even when Courage transmogrifies into a mummy, Eustace is not even looking.

PLAN

Courage has seen the thieves bury something so he brings it inside to show Muriel and Eustace. He also knows that there’s something fishy and scary about the tablet because etchings keep disappearing from it. A screenshot serves to foreshadow what’s going to happen in the episode, though the viewer doesn’t really have time to examine them.

courage-with-the-tablet

It just so happens that on the TV there is a million dollar reward for the return of this ancient stone. Eustace plans to hand it in, collect his reward and buy garden chairs.

Another character turns up. In the Courage stories we often end up meeting the characters who have first appeared on TV. This man is here to collect donations for some archeological society. Donations of a million dollars mean a free tote bag. It wasn’t necessary for the plot for this guy to turn up but it fleshes out the story by adding another opportunity for interaction and also a good gag about charity culture. The other thing that happens when a character off the Bagges’ TV turns up in real life: The line between TV and reality is blurred, or perhaps it is demolished, in a metafictive sense. The audience is very aware that this is a story.

tv-guy

archeologist

tote-bag

BIG STRUGGLE

If Eustace won’t give the tablet back (and we know he won’t), the supernatural being will initiate three plagues.

  1. The house fills up with water. (A flood.) Courage saves the day by swimming from the attic to the basement and pulling out the plug. (The house has comically been turned into a bathtub.)
  2. The house fills with muzak. Again Courage saves everyone by finding the gramophone and smashing it with his baseball bat.
  3. A plague of locusts heads straight for the house. There’s no way Courage can stop this one.

flood

pulling-out-the-plug

muzak

courage-smashes-gramophone

After a big struggle scene in which Eustace is swinging Courage around,  Courage returns the tablet to the supernatural being outside. Eustace does this, but when he thinks everything is over, and the being has run ‘out of ammo’ having used up his three plagues, he retrieves it. This time the locusts return and eat up half the house leaving it — as baddies often do throughout the series — in a completely unliveable state.

courage-trying-to-get-the-tablet

Meanwhile, another big struggle scene is going on in the kitchen. I assume Muriel is going on a baking frenzy as a way of coping with stress. Both Muriel and the kitchen and also the house get more and more frazzled/destroyed as the montage goes on. Muriel’s signature weapon is her rolling pin, so the oversized rolling pin is a symbol of big struggle.

Notice, too, that she is frying fish. I’m guessing this is a Christian symbol.

The view is through the removal of the so-called ‘fourth wall’. We don’t normally see Muriel’s kitchen from this point of view.

baking-frenzy

muriel-in-the-kitchen

muriel-pot-boiling-over

ANAGNORISIS

There is no helping Eustace, whose plans for new garden chairs have moved on to include spark plugs and other material goods.

eustace-clutches-tablet

NEW SITUATION

We have a wonderful high angle shot of the house, which is now a bomb site.

house-destroyed

Eustace — being his usual avaricious self — has refused to hand over the tablet and is now entombed somewhere in Egypt. Muriel wonders where he’s got to.

eustace-inside-the-tomb

close-up

The Duck Brothers Courage The Cowardly Dog

“The Duck Brothers” episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog features opponents who are revealed to be not really bad, which makes for a comical big struggle scene. The big struggle scene is noteworthy for including a wide variety of small big struggles.

the duck brothers

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE DUCK BROTHERS”

SHORTCOMING

Courage is unable to convince Eustace when Muriel is in danger because of his lowly status as an anxious dog.

DESIRE

He wants to save Muriel.

OPPONENT

alien-space-ship

The opponents in this story come in the form of an alien spaceship, later revealed to be alien duck brothers who — though this part is never explained in the story — have abducted Muriel (and then Eustace) by mistake. They seem to speak in some approximation of an Irish accent. There would be several reasons for this:

  • Irish accents have comedic value
  • There’s a history of gangster/crime films featuring Irish brothers. E.g. The Boondock Saints (1999), which would have been in theatres when this episode of Courage first aired.
  • During the mid 20th century Irish families tended to have very large families.

The duck brothers are constantly arguing like children. The gag is that one or both of them keeps laying eggs, which is unmanly and emasculating. (Side note: If sexism weren’t a real thing this wouldn’t be a joke that people even understand — the brothers are lowering their status as manly ducks by doing something usually only performed by their mothers and sisters.)

The chef looks like he would be an opponent. He is hairy and wears a singlet and wields a giant knife. But he is revealed later to be just a regular guy with a reasonable temperament.

fake-enemy

PLAN

As ever, Courage’s first move is to tell an adult, whichever of the adults happens to be unafflicted by the bad thing. This is a necessary step in children’s stories. When a child is in great danger and still does not tell any adults in their life, there has to be a reason for this already established. Perhaps the adults are terrible people, for instance. (And even then… We know Eustace is not going to believe Courage’s story that Muriel’s been abducted by aliens.) At the very least the author needs some lampshading — usually in the form of a conversation: “Mom and Dad will never believe this!”

One point about horror stories for adults in which a child character tells the responsible adult something and the adult doesn’t believe them: Don’t try to write it straight. The following is from someone who reads a lot of story submissions in the horror genre:

MOMMY, THERE’S A MONSTER IN MY CLOSET

Children are a bunch of goddamn idiots. This is a fact. So it makes sense that, in fiction, whenever a kid complains to their parents about a monster in the closet, the parent laughs at how dumb they are and sends them back to bed. (Sidenote: if any of my hypothetical kids ever came to me with a monster problem, I would be so excited, like, you have no idea, it’d be a dream come true.) But in these stories, of course there’s really a monster in the closet, and of course it wants to eat the kid. Or, sometimes, it actually wants to eat the kid’s parents, and it convinces the kid to lure them into the closet. An alternative to this story would be instead of a monster in the closet, one of the kid’s toys is eeeevil. There are enough stories about children scared in their bedroom. Please write literally anything else, you unoriginal scumbag.

LitReactor

Eustace at least checks out the surroundings but — bad luck — the aliens aren't there right at that moment.
Eustace at least checks out the surroundings but — bad luck — the aliens aren’t there right at that moment.

Eustace rolls over and falls back to sleep, of course, so in true Courage fashion, who keeps a close eye on the action and jumps in whenever he sees an opportunity. First up, jumping onto the back of the ute.

BIG STRUGGLE

Muriel, controlled by a device on her head, drives to a compound reminiscent of something out of a SF movie. We see a gated compound in Interstellar, for instance, or in the Netflix series Stranger Things. In SF, these factory-like establishments behind guarded gates are most often found near smallish communities where the residents live on the poverty line.

establishing-shot
Establishing Shot: Duck Brothers
interstellar-house
The house in Interstellar is similar to the house in Courage The Cowardly Dog. As is the fact they live near a mysterious, gated compound. Of course, Interstellar was made many years after this episode of Courage.

True to form, the writers choose a typical childhood game for the big struggle sequence. This time it’s piggy in the middle, after Courage locates the duck brothers inside a compound and tries to wrestle their controller off them.

piggy-in-the-middle

This is the device that is controlling Muriel’s movements.

There is also a food fight, this time with the duck brothers using their eggs to throw at Courage. “Aren’t you glad for these now?” one brother asks accusingly.

duck-brothers-food-fight

Another big struggle comes about between Courage and himself. Once wrestling the remote controller off the duck brothers he is unable to work it.

muriel-walking-on-the-ceiling

Another concurrent part of the big struggle scene centres on Muriel and Eustace (who has been captured and controlled off-screen) dancing awkwardly as the ducks seem to be playing with them like kids play with remote controlled toys.

remote-controlled-dance

SELF-REVELATION

The duck brothers are not evil. They are just like Courage — only trying to get a loved one back.

Courage comes to the rescue, walking into the chef’s kitchen and taking back the duck.

“What am I supposed to cook now?” asks the burly chef.

“Strudel,” replies Courage in an uncharacteristically deep voice. (The whole episode is a parody of extreme masculinity.)

The chef thinks this is a great idea.

thug-chef

NEW SITUATION

next-morning
Next morning in Nowhere

The three duck brothers have been reunited. The audience is used to a complete set of three from a tradition of fairytales and The Rule Of Threes. When we find there are three brothers instead of two that makes perfect sense to us and feels complete.

three-duck-brothers

three-eggs
The brothers continue to bicker about eggs and masculinity, and we can assume they always will.

Back at home, Courage and Muriel are putting the alien duck brothers’ device to excellent use. They are using it on Eustace — who turned up earlier at the compound wearing it — to get them breakfast in bed.

eustace-breakfast-in-bed

In a Refrigerator Moment, we realise there is a gated compound in Nowhere, housing a chef who — for some strange reason — has alien specimens lining the walls and who likes to cook duck but who will settle for strudel. (Hitchcock coined both ‘McGuffin’ and ‘Refrigerator Logic’. He was a man who really understood story.)

 

The Rule Of Three In Storytelling

The rule of three in storytelling has several uses. The first works like this:

  • One tells us what the risk is.
  • Two confirms what wrong behaviour is.
  • At three, we know the rules, and so can appreciate what the smart third person is doing differently, to break the un- successful pattern and win.

If that folk tale was about just one pig who built a house of bricks in the first place, and the wolf couldn’t get in no matter how he huffed and puffed, where would the story be? Conflict, but no drama, just stalemate. Success for the pig, but no suspense. Anticlimax. No story.

Refer to: Picturebook Study: The Three Little Pigs

the-story-of-the-three-little-pigs

Three is suspense, pattern, and contrast, all in one nifty little technique as old as storytelling.

It’s the scientific technique of the variable, with third time lucky.

From Anson Dibell’s book on writing called Plot:

If somebody fails twice, in similar circumstances, there’s going to be more tension and drama when they try the third time because we’ve already seen them fail and know it can happen. We know what doesn’t work, we know the situation; now we’re focusing on what they’re doing differently this time. We’re aware of the pattern, the apparent rules, and are concentrating on the one thing that changes.

Instead of two repetitions, you can use the Rule of Three.

  • The first time the bell coincides with the painful electric shock, you’re too busy being shocked to notice.
  • The second time, you think uneasily that maybe it wasn’t a coincidence.
  • The third time, you’ve started jumping before the bell is even done ringing.

If you want your reader interested and involved in the scene before it’s fully begun to happen, there’s nothing like a triple set- up to get things rolling. It gives added drama. It directs the read- er’s attention where you want it directed. And it makes the scene’s meaning clear in a way it could not have been in isolation.

Choose and control the variable with care, keep the situations visibly comparable so the reader will be aware of the bell/ shock pairing and be anticipating the outcome, and all three scenes will gain in impact and effectiveness.

The second use is far more simple. Show a character doing something three times and we will assume they keep on going until the end.

An example of this occurs in Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig. Eugenia, the arch nemesis, plants pansies all around her house. Mercy makes a hole in the hedge and eats three pansies. Then the chapter ends. We deduce that she eats far more than three pansies. If left to her own devices, she will eat all of the pansies.

For an example of The Rule Of Three in a popular movie, see this article about Star Trek: First Contact.

ALSO PERTINENT

The most important thing I [Nora Ephron] learned from Lee [a chef] was something I call the Rule of Four. Most people serve three things for dinner — some sort of meat, some sort of starch, and some sort of vegetable — but Lee always served four. And the fourth thing was always unexpected, like those crab apples. A casserole of lima beans and pears cooked for hours with brown sugar and molasses. Peaches with cayenne pepper. Sliced tomatoes with honey. Biscuits. Savory bread pudding. Spoon bread. Whatever it was, that fourth thing seemed to have an almost magical effect on the eating process. You never got tired of the food because there was always another taste on the plate to match it and contradict it.

Nora Ephron, from I Feel Bad About My Neck
Knock Three Times by Marion St John Webb illustrated by Margaret Tarrant