History, Legacy & Showmanship

Laying a (Cinematic) Egg: Remembering “Howard the Duck” on its 30th Anniversary

October 31, 2016 - 12:01 am   |   by
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“It’s hard to tell who the movie is for. It’s too childish for adults and too provocative and snarky for kids.” — Film historian/author Caseen Gaines

The History, Legacy & Showmanship column here at The Digital Bits typically celebrates popular and significant motion pictures and TV series. Periodically, though, we will look back at unpopular or maligned productions to examine if the passage of time warrants a reevaluation. So with this in mind, The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective for Howard the Duck on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.

Howard the Duck, based upon the 1970s Marvel comic book series, starred Lea Thompson (Back to the Future, All the Right Moves), Tim Robbins (Bull Durham, The Shawshank Redemption) and Jeffrey Jones (Amadeus, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and featured a talking, cigar-chomping duck from another planet that is zapped across the galaxy to Cleveland where he meets a musician who attempts to help him return home.  [Read on here...]

Howard the Duck posterThe infamous feature film was directed by Willard Huyck (Best Defense), executive produced by George Lucas (Star Wars) and written by Huyck and Gloria Katz who (with Lucas) also wrote the screenplays for American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Radioland Murders. Howard the Duck was a high profile failure upon its release and spearheaded an uncharacteristically poor and unmemorable year for Lucas and his company, Lucasfilm Ltd. Both of his productions, Labyrinth and Howard the Duck, which were released only five weeks apart from one another, performed dismally at the box office with each failing to recoup its enormous cost. (The year 1986 also saw the termination of Marvel’s original Star Wars comic series and the cancelation of the animated Droids and Ewoks television series. And Howard the Duck snapped Industrial Light & Magic’s six-year streak of Visual Effects Oscars. About the only bright spots for Lucas that year were the home-video release of Return of the Jedi, cable television premiere of The Empire Strikes Back and premiere of Captain EO at Disneyland.)

The Bits’ retrospective on Howard the Duck features passages from vintage film reviews, a listing of the movie’s “showcase” presentations, a compilation of box office data that places the movie’s performance in context, and an interview segment with a group of authors, historians and film industry analysts.

So, was Howard the Duck justifiably blasted by critics? Did Howard the Duck understandably bomb at the box office? Does Howard the Duck deserve to be reevaluated several decades later? Well, you decide….

 

HOWARD NUMBER$

  • 0 = Number of weeks nation’s top-grossing movie
  • 3 = Rank among top-earning movies during opening weekend
  • 4 = Number of Golden Raspberry (“Razzie”) awards
  • 5 = Number of months between theatrical release and home video release
  • 8 = Number of Golden Raspberry (“Razzie”) nominations
  • 20 = Rank among top-earning movies of 1986 (summer season)
  • 28 = Number of 70mm prints
  • 43 = Rank among top box-office rentals of 1986 (calendar year)
  • 53 = Rank among top-grossing movies of 1986 (legacy)
  • 1,554 = Number of opening-week engagements
  • $34.98 = Suggested retail price of initial home video release (LaserDisc)
  • $79.95 = Suggested retail price of initial home video release (VHS and Beta)
  • $3,262 = Opening-weekend per-screen average
  • $5.1 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross
  • $9.8 million = Box-office rental (domestic)
  • $11.2 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
  • $16.3 million = Box-office gross (domestic)
  • $21.6 million = Box-office rental (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • $21.7 million = Box-office gross (international)
  • $34.5 million = Production cost
  • $35.9 million = Box-office gross (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • $38.0 million = Box-office gross (worldwide)
  • $47.8 million = Box-office gross (international, adjusted for inflation)
  • $76.0 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $83.7 million = Box-office gross (worldwide, adjusted for inflation)

Lea Thompson in Howard the Duck 

A SAMPLING OF MOVIE REVIEWER QUOTES

“After the movie was released everybody said that it was insane to make a movie about a duck from outer space. But, I don’t know, I think it would have been possible for Howard to maybe have worked if only they had started with a funny, likable duck in a comedy. Instead they made a grim, worried duck in a special effects adventure. And then they filled the soundtrack with bittersweet and even downbeat music to be sure that we didn’t get to feeling too good. What a miscalculation!” — Roger Ebert, Siskel & Ebert & the Movies

“Donald, Huey, Louie, Dewey, and even Daffy can rest easy; Howard is no threat to the duck pecking order on this planet. And that’s no wise quack…. Cartoon characters frequently make good cartoon films; this one didn’t. Howard the Duck has plenty of cheek, but no tongue to put in it.” — Dick Wolff, The Seattle Times

“A hopeless mess. A gargantuan production which produces a gargantuan headache.” — Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide

“The second half of the movie is devoted to truly magnificent visual tricks, created by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic company and equal to anything in that director’s Star Wars.” — Caryn James, The New York Times

“Daffy Duck will be pleased to hear he didn’t miss any career opportunities when he wasn’t chosen to star in Howard the Duck, although producers certainly could have benefited from his talents.” — Jane Galbraith, Variety

“Jeffrey Jones, who played the unlucky scientist, made a deep impression as the emperor in Amadeus. Since then, he has fallen on tough times. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, he had the year’s most humiliating role as a crazed principal willing to go to any lengths to catch Ferris in the act of playing hooky. His role in Howard the Duck requires him to do a massive amount of eye rolling as the Dark Overlord takes control of his body. You feel sorry for Jones, going through undignified screechings and contortions. His predicament makes you wonder if acting is a suitable profession for a grown man.” — Scott Cain, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Lucas’ redoubtable Industrial Light and Magic Co. was behind all this sturm und drang, so you can believe that it is the very top-of-the-line magic, but did this summer, or this year, or this decade, for that matter, need one more impeccably turned-out giant monster — tentacled, suction-cupped or chest-bursting? The sickening, rolling-over-and-over crash of this many more cars? One more threat of a nuclear-powered meltdown? The imagination of the opening is a hint of what the movie might have been: a view of our world that made kids consider it from another angle — as well as a spoof of the superhero. But what are all the pleasant duck effects in the face of any of this numbing waste? In this respect, the movie’s PG rating is a joke. And the movie itself is a pretty base canard.” — Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times

“The most inventive creature to hit the screen since E.T. A good-natured adventure with a terrific cast and nifty special effects.” — Tom Green, USA Today

“Willard Huyck, the director, and Gloria Katz, the producer, collaborated on the screenplay, as they did on American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Their touch is not as sure this time. There’s good stuff around the edges of the film — all that word play and all those visual gags demand that you pay attention lest you miss something even in the slow scenes. But at the center, no magic.” — Bill Cosford, The Miami Herald

“Has George Lucas lost his way? He’s specializing in black holes this summer. The master of the Skywalker Ranch, godfather of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, was apparently also the godfather to the new film Howard the Duck, written by his colleagues Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, produced by Katz and directed by Huyck. What I’d like to know is when did any of them think this witless and overblown fantasy was worthy of such time and expense?” — David Foil, (Baton Rouge) State Times

“The cinematography is crisp and lush as one might expect from a Lucas production, but director Willard Huyck has his hands so full trying to convince people the dwarf in the duck suit is real that he has little time for subtleties that might have made Howard take flight.” — Paul Johnson, (Little Rock) Arkansas Gazette

“As a mild-mannered scientist possessed by a demon from outer space, Jeffrey Jones is amazing. H-bomb explosions in his eyes, a ghastly critter unreeling from his mouth, his chassis outlined in electricity, Jones’s performance makes the picture worth seeing.” — Catharine Rambeau, Detroit Free Press

“A lot of things get blown up in this movie — or crashed, or smashed, or sometimes atomized. For sheer destructiveness, the film calls to mind Steven Spielberg’s legendary failure 1941, though Howard the Duck displays little of the malicious joy or stylistic grace that Spielberg showed off when he was smashing his toys. But the destructiveness of Howard the Duck springs from simple desperation. In the absence of anything resembling structure, character, point of view or sense of purpose, there is no place else for this empty project to go.” — Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune

“Put the blame on Huyck and Katz. To be sure, they’re credited with the screenplay for American Graffiti. But, lest we forget, they are also responsible for French Postcards, the film about American college kids in Europe that succeeded only in giving small movies a bad name. They are also responsible for the script of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the Raiders sequel that succeeded only in giving big movies a bad name. With Howard, they have the triple crown: They’ve succeeded in giving medium-size movies a bad name.” — Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Howard the Duck is about as cute as Earl the Dead Cat. He is a symbol of the general lack of charm of this picture. What we end up with, after a rambling first half, is a fairly interesting adventure story about monsters from outer space, with a really intriguing performance by Jeffrey Jones as a sleazy, fire-breathing ’overlord.’ The last 20 minutes or so, when Lucas and director Willard Huyck pull out all the stops with bizarre special effects, are OK, but not good or original enough to save a movie that, on the whole, is mediocre and lacking in the one thing we thought Lucas had — imagination.” — Harper Barnes, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Howard the Duck is a movie for bored 9-year-olds who have run out of ways to pester their mother until school resumes. Once kids see this movie, they’ll be anxious to get back to those algebra books, which may seem more lively than this plastic space toy devised by George Lucas with his left hand as if he, too, was trying to kill time and didn’t have an idea in his head…. Howard the Duck has one major moment of wonder: Who, you wonder, was it made for? It’s too silly for young teenagers, too hip for pre-teens, too dorky for older teens and too scary for tots.” — Gerald Nachman, San Francisco Chronicle

“Will Hollywood never relax its fanatical diet of action fantasies? There must be other human beings who would like a better balance of movies about people whose problems can’t be solved with massive weaponry.” — Ed Blank, The Pittsburgh Press

“Quite frankly, the whole thing gave me a headache. Howard himself is supposed to be a cynical but charming fowl, but he’s mostly foul, a feathered costume devoid of personality.” — Roxanne T. Mueller, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer

Howard the Duck is an example of Hollywood gone loony. For whom has this lavish but boring picture intended as a major summer entertainment been made? If it’s for children, it’s in atrocious taste and steeped in so much special effects violence that parents might think twice about taking an impressionable youngster. If it’s meant as a comic strip for teen-agers or young adults, the script insults the intelligence. Senior citizens straying in might just want to take aspirin. Howard the Duck is a presentation of George Lucas, which makes the mess all the more astonishing. Lucas, as the world knows, is a king of special effects. But is merely piling on effects enough anymore?” — William Wolf, Gannett News Service

“Lucas might consider getting the old team to work on something with Indiana or Jedi in the title. Howard is reputed to have cost $52 million to produce. To make such an investment pay off, the film would have to perform like Top Gun or The Karate Kid II. It may, in fact, perform more like Return to Oz. Whatever Howard the Duck cost, it looks expensive. It is a virtual catalog of special effects, a stunning demo reel for Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic effects studio. What it lacks is a coherent story, a dependable hero and a convincing title character.” — Ted Mahar, The (Portland) Oregonian

Howard the Duck may be the most highly publicized, widely anticipated movie of the summer — but this special effects extravaganza is a major letdown. Oh sure, there are some interesting elements here, some funny ideas and a lot of in-jokes for movie buffs, and I’m the guy who usually likes off-kilter comedies… Buckaroo Banzai included. But Howard the Duck is so self-conscious, so frenzied, so overloaded with special effects and duck puns that it winds up just being loud and obnoxious.” — Christopher Hicks, (Salt Lake City) Deseret News

“Mr. Lucas knows how to spend money, and he can produce a few dazzling sequences, but imagine his impotence if he were forced to make a movie about articulate people.” — David Brooks, The Washington Times

“While it would not be fair to say that Howard the Duck is a turkey, it’s nonetheless true that this live-action adventure comedy about a feathered, web-footed visitor from outer space is not well done. In fact, this duck is half-baked.” — James Verniere, The Boston Herald

“Once — and only once — is there any real magic. It occurs in the movie’s first 10 minutes when we see Howard in his cosmopolitan apartment on Duck World, just before he’s snatched by a cross-dimensional laser. Here the puns and parodies come thick and fast — a TV commercial in which athletic fowl in football uniforms shill feather fungus salve, copies of Rolling Egg and Playduck magazine (complete with centerfold), posters for the movies Splashdance and My Little Chickadee starring Mae Nest and W.C. Fowls. This is the sort of deadpan playfulness that should have dominated the entire movie. So we breathe a sigh of regret when, to save the world at film’s end, Howard is forced to destroy his only means of returning home. A sequel set entirely on Duck World would have been far more welcome than Howard’s tiresome antics in the back alleys of Cleveland.” — Henry Mietkiewicz, Toronto Star

Howard the Duck

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Howard the Duck

THE 70MM ENGAGEMENTS

On occasion, event and prestige movies (and instances to appease a filmmaker’s ego) are given a deluxe release in addition to a standard release. This section of the article includes a reference/historical listing of the first-run 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo premium-format presentations of Howard the Duck in the United States and Canada. These were arguably the best theaters in which to see Howard the Duck and the only way to faithfully hear the movie’s discrete multichannel audio mix. Only about two percent of the film’s print run were in the 70mm format, which are more time- and labor-intensive to manufacture and cost several times that of conventional 35mm prints. Of the 200+ new movies released during 1986, Howard was among only two from Universal Studios and sixteen for the entire industry to have 70mm prints prepared for selected engagements.

For the release of Howard the Duck, Universal employed the services of Lucasfilm’s TAP (Theater Alignment Program) to evaluate and approve the theaters selected to book a 70mm print. As well, the movie was booked into as many THX-certified venues as possible.

The film’s 70mm prints were blown up from spherical 35mm photography and were pillarboxed at approximately 1.85:1. The noise-reduction and signal-processing format for the prints was Dolby “A,” and the soundtrack was Format 42 (three discrete screen channels + one discrete surround channel + “baby boom” low-frequency enhancement).

Trailers for An American Tail and Brighton Beach Memoirs were sent out with the Howard the Duck prints and which the distributor recommended be screened with the presentation.

The listing includes those 70mm engagements that commenced August 1st, 1986. Not listed are any second run or international engagements, nor does the listing include any of the movie’s thousands of standard 35mm engagements. The duration of the engagements, measured in weeks, has been included in parenthesis.

So, which North American theaters screened the 70mm version of Howard the Duck, and, more importantly, did it help the movie’s box-office prospects? (Note the relatively brief duration of most of the engagements.)

70mm

 

BRITISH COLUMBIA

  • Vancouver — Cineplex Odeon’s Oakridge Centre Triplex (6 weeks) [THX]

CALIFORNIA

  • Corte Madera — Marin’s Cinema (3)
  • Costa Mesa — Edwards’ Town Center 4-plex (2)
  • Los Angeles — Mann’s Village (2) [THX]
  • Los Angeles — Pacific’s Cinerama Dome (3)
  • San Diego — Mann’s Cinema 21 (2)
  • San Francisco — Blumenfeld’s Regency I (5*)
  • San Jose — Syufy’s Century 21 (3)


Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz & George LucasCOLORADO

  • Denver — Mann’s Century 21 (2) [THX]

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

  • Washington — Circle’s Uptown (2)

ILLINOIS

  • Calumet City — Plitt’s River Oaks 8-plex (2)
  • Chicago — Plitt’s Esquire (2)
  • Schaumburg — Plitt’s Woodfield 9-plex (2)
  • Skokie — M&R’s Old Orchard 4-plex (3)

KANSAS

  • Overland Park — Dickinson’s Glenwood 4-plex (2)

MASSACHUSETS

  • Boston — USA’s Charles Triplex (2) 

NEW YORK

  • New York — Loews’ 34th Street Showplace Triplex (2)
  • New York — Loews’ 84th Street 6-plex (2)
  • New York — Loews’ Astor Plaza (3)
  • New York — Loews’ New York Twin (2)

OHIO

  • Cleveland Heights — National’s Severance Center 8-plex (2) [THX]

ONTARIO

  • Toronto — Cineplex Odeon’s Hyland Twin (4)

PENNSYLVANIA

  • Philadelphia — SamEric’s Sam’s Place Twin (3)

QUEBEC

  • Montreal — Cineplex Odeon’s Alexis Nihon Plaza Triplex (5)

TEXAS

  • Dallas — General Cinema’s Northpark West Twin (4)
  • Houston — General Cinema’s Meyerland Plaza Triplex (4)

UTAH

  • Salt Lake City — Plitt’s Trolley Corners Triplex (2)

VIRGINIA

  • Springfield — General Cinema’s Springfield Mall 6-plex (3) [THX]

 

*The final week of the San Francisco run was double-billed with Back to the Future.

70mm Howard the Duck

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THE Q&A

Caseen Gaines is the author of Howard the Duck: The Oral History, published by decider.com earlier this year. He is a high school English teacher and co-founder of the Hackensack Theatre Company. His books include We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy (2015, Plume), A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic (2013, ECW Press) and Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon (2011, ECW Press).

Caseen Gaines

Scott Mendelson is a box office analyst and film critic for Forbes magazine. He has also written for Film Threat, The Huffington Post and Salon.

Scott Mendelson

John Wilson is the co-founder of the Golden Raspberry (“Razzie”) Awards and author of The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood’s Worst (2005, Grand Central). Says Wilson: “The Razzies, which people often misunderstand, actually come from a place of loving a well-made movie. We consider ourselves more of a banana peel on the floor than a slap in the face. We’re not saying, ’How dare you.’ We’re saying, ’Look at what you had to work with — credentials, opportunity and money — and look at what you came up with.’”

John Wilson

The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way should Howard the Duck be remembered on its 30th anniversary?

Caseen Gaines: Howard the Duck is a reminder that sometimes a great team can come together to make a flawed product. There are some elements of the movie that stand out as being pretty enjoyable, like Lea Thompson’s performance and Thomas Dolby’s great songs, but all of those things are clouded in the confusion that is the overall movie. It’s still hard to believe that Howard was the first Marvel comic character to hit the big screen.

Scott Mendelson: Well, in its own way, it was a clear example of a preordained blockbuster that wasn’t.

John Wilson: It is a touchstone of what happens when Hollywood does everything wrong. All these years later almost nobody is going to defend that movie. I know that it’s being claimed that it has achieved some kind of cultural status, but I’m not aware that it has ever been reevaluated from when it got only a 15 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and co-won the Razzie for Worst Picture. It won the Worst Screenplay award and was nominated for multiple other Razzie awards. And then a few years later it was one of the nominees for our Worst Picture of the Decade award. I think part of the problem the film had is that it came along at a point when if they had waited just a couple more years, they could’ve done something with CGI for the duck, but instead they had someone in a not very convincing duck costume… and it just did not work.

Howard the Duck film elementCoate: Can you describe what it was like seeing Howard the Duck for the first time?

Gaines: I can’t remember the first time, but I’m certain it was on a VHS tape that had been recorded on HBO. There was a period of time in my life when I watched the movie daily; I’m not exaggerating. As a kid, you don’t have any sense of whether or not a movie was critically or commercially successful. You just sort of enjoy it if you find it fun. That was my experience with Howard the Duck. The movie was kind of adult, yet sort of kid-friendly, and I think I found a lot of the duck puns really funny at the time. It probably did more to inform my sense of humor than I’d like to admit.

Mendelson: I saw it on VHS as a rental after it left theaters. I was six or seven years old (depending on when it dropped on video), and I enjoyed it in that way that kids of a certain age enjoy everything. I thought Howard was an amusing character, I thought Lea Thompson’s rocker character was “hot,” and I liked that it seemed just violent/scary enough to make me feel like I was getting away with something.

Wilson: I remember being shocked to note it was only 110 minutes. It felt like it was 110 years. I just remember it being really slow and all of the jokes fell flat. I don’t remember anything about the movie that actually worked including the fact that although at this point the character of Howard the Duck may have been a cultural touchstone, I don’t think the public had any idea what the hell Howard the Duck was when they made the movie. It wasn’t really clear what audience they were trying to reach when they spent all that money making the film. And the clip that we chose to show at that year’s Razzie awards ceremony was the bedroom scene between Lea Thompson and the duck, which wasn’t funny, wasn’t romantic, and was kind of creepy.

Coate: Howard the Duck went over budget, had terrible buzz, and ultimately tanked at the box office. What do you think went wrong?

Gaines: Very little went right on Howard. I’ll zero in on two elements that sunk the film. The script was pretty cheesy but, more importantly, struck a very odd tone. It’s hard to tell who the movie is for, which is a phrase I know the screenwriters hated hearing at the time, but it’s true. It’s too childish for adults and too provocative and snarky for kids. That makes it very hard to find an audience. Additionally, I don’t know if Howard was ever a believable character — and it seemed like the film knew it. Some characters in the movie think he’s a guy in a duck costume, others think he’s an actual anthropomorphic duck. There’s a lack of coherence to the entire project.

Mendelson: Well, the movie is far too risqué for kids, with a certain upfront eroticism/sexuality (never mind bestiality) that would be out of place in all but the most R-rated dramas today. It also has a rather terrifying monster in its action finale. Now you can argue whether those things would have been a problem (or a draw) to kids, but it’s parents that buy the ticket to a so-called kids movie. And parents didn’t bite. And since the movie isn’t as kid-friendly as perhaps hoped, and it certainly wasn’t something that would appeal to adults (this was back when there were plenty of “adult” movies in the multiplex), the film ended up with a relative demographic of none.

Wilson: I don’t really remember anything in the movie that was compelling, involving or emotionally resonant. I sat there watching it with my jaw hanging open wondering, why did they do this? What were they thinking??? It’s also significant this was 1986 before you would get instant word-of-mouth trashing on the Internet. For something to have bad buzz thirty years ago before it was released the buzz has to have been pretty stinky. I think what shocked everybody is that this was George Lucas and comic book material which generally speaking even that long ago was successful. You had reputable actors and reputable writers. Huyck was nominated for the Razzie for Worst Director… which he lost to Prince. I don’t think anybody was going to beat Prince doing Under the Cherry Moon that year! There are a handful of Razzie movies that I will occasionally go back and watch because they’re funny bad. Howard the Duck is not one of those. This is pretty excruciating, and I think everyone involved was embarrassed, and if it were up to them we would not be recalling that this is the 30th anniversary of Howard the Duck.

Howard the Duck

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Howard the Duck (Blu-ray Disc)Coate: Is it surprising that Howard the Duck failed to connect with moviegoers considering George Lucas’s level of success and with Lea Thompson coming off a memorable role in the extremely popular Back to the Future?

Gaines: As I alluded to before, a lot of very successful and talented people worked on the movie, but the end result wasn’t very good. Given the end product, I’m not surprised the movie failed to hit. There’s no denying that the box office returns were disappointing for all involved, but I think that had to do more with the fact that critics loved to hate it. The movie isn’t very good, but it wasn’t really deserving of all the hazing they received by the press.

Mendelson: No, because Lucas’s post-Star Wars movies (save Indy) weren’t terribly successful. Even Labyrinth was something of a bomb in the same year as Howard. And while Thompson was a familiar face, she wasn’t a “get butts into the seats” movie star.

Wilson: I’m not sure that Lea Thompson was that big of a deal. Yes, she had just played the mom in Back to the Future, but when people think of that movie they tend to think of Michael Fox and Christopher Lloyd. I think part of the problem was that it was George Lucas, and at that point he had at least as impressive a box office track record as Steven Spielberg. This was the first chink in his armor… prior to the three Star Wars prequels. And he seems to have been at least the financial giant behind the movie. Huyck and Katz had worked with him on his first huge success, American Graffiti — and they were Oscar nominees for that — so it’s not like the people who worked on it had no credentials. Looking at the cast and credit list you would have expected at least a competent film. I would argue this wasn’t even a competent film.

Coate: What did you think of the performances of the leads?

Gaines: I’m a big fan of Lea Thompson and am fortunate enough to have met her a few times and chatted her up a bit about her work. She mentioned to me that she thinks she did her hardest work to date in Howard the Duck because she was singing, dancing, jumping around in a mini skirt, and helping to make the audience believe this duck was real. To that end, I think her performance is great…. Tim Robbins’s role in the film is a bit all over the place, but I still love to watch it. He’s such a serious actor in so many of his movies, so we get to see a different side of him here…. Jeffrey Jones does a great job in Howard, by my count. The problem with the film really isn’t in too many of the performances.

Mendelson: I think all of the acting is fine, frankly. The amusing thing is that Tim Robbins is a lot more comfortable here than he was in Green Lantern, a 2011 comic book superhero movie that is actually shockingly similar to Howard the Duck in terms of plot and structure. I don’t think anyone puts this at the top of their achievement reel, but I think they all nailed the tone and served the movie, for better or worse.

Wilson: I think it’s significant that Lea Thompson was not nominated for a Razzie. Tim Robbins was, and obviously he went on to do much better things. And Jeffrey Jones basically was just doing what he had already done in five previous films and would then do in ten more.

Coate: Where do you think Howard ranks among George Lucas’s body of work?

Gaines: George Lucas wasn’t really intimately involved in the filmmaking of Howard the Duck, so I’m a bit reluctant to answer the question on that front. It became kind of fun for the critics to blame him for the movie’s failure and, if we’re being fair, Universal did heavily promote his involvement with the movie, which probably set up unattainable expectations. Let’s just say, I think we can all agree that Howard is no Star Wars.

Mendelson: Well, again, save for the Indiana Jones stuff, most of what Lucas tried after Return of the Jedi struck out, which is partially why he ended up returning to Star Wars. Willow is fine, as is Tucker, while I’m actually partial to Red Tails. But given the choice between watching Howard the Duck and Radioland Murders or More American Graffiti, I’ll take Howard the Duck for its sheer gonzo entertainment value. It’s not remotely a good movie, and I kinda knew that when I was a kid, but it’s not boring.

Howard the Duck comic bookCoate: Considering how incredibly successful and popular comic-book-themed movies are today, do you think maybe Howard was simply produced at the wrong time? Should it be remade?

Gaines: I have pretty strong feelings on this. If you read my oral history of Howard the Duck, you’ll see there were lots of technical aspirations for this film that were just too expensive to realize at the time. There were also lots of problems with Howard’s suit, in terms of making it look believable to an audience. When you look at the sardonic tone of a movie like Deadpool, it’s not that different from the tone of the original Howard comics. Were the movie remade today, I think it would have a better chance of succeeding, but I don’t know if it could ever shake the reputation of the 1986 film.

Mendelson: I think the issue was more with the final product than the concept. Sure, stuff like Howard the Duck would be taken more seriously today than in the 1980s, but the same movie, with a bigger budget and what-have-you, would likely face similar obstacles. I severely doubt a Disney-produced Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is going to have, as its centerpiece relationship, a human female and an anthropomorphic duck flirting with each other like they are Natalie Portman and Jean Reno in The Professional. No, I don’t think it should be remade, because I don’t think every remotely familiar property should be arbitrarily brought back to life.

Wilson: One of my favorite Hollywood quotes is from the director I most admire, Billy Wilder, the man who did Sunset Boulevard and Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. He once said, “They should stop remaking the movies they already did right and remake the ones they screwed up.” That argument would certainly apply to Howard the Duck. I would guess no one would want to remake it given its track record, but it might be an interesting challenge.

Coate: What is the legacy of Howard the Duck?

Gaines: Howard the Duck was the first Marvel movie, in a broad sense. There wasn’t the Marvel Entertainment brand that exists now, so it’s kind of a different thing, but the point is still valid. The movie was among the first gigs for Holly Robinson Peete and Tim Robbins. So many of the people that worked on that film went on to great success. That’s something that can never be taken away from its legacy. For as flawed as the film is, it’s sort of a technical achievement in a lot of ways. In that regard, I don’t know if it gets the credit it deserves. I’m not saying it’s great, but I have seen many films that are worse. I guess some bad movies are just forgettable while others live on in infamy forever.

Mendelson: In a normal, less nostalgia-obsessed world, I would argue it would have vanished into the ethers of time along with any number of “blockbusters that weren’t.” Offhand, I’d argue that it is an infamous example of a film that looked on paper like a huge hit, but where the studio/filmmakers/etc. just didn’t deliver a good movie to justify the “Wait, it’s about a talking duck?” premise. Oh well, it has its weird retro appeal, but its fate is mostly earned.

Wilson: I think the biggest lesson is that there is no such thing as a sure thing in Hollywood. Especially in the case of Howard the Duck, you had every credential, every opportunity, and a boatload of money… and look at what you came up with!

Coate: Thank you — Caseen, Scott and John — for participating and sharing your thoughts about Howard the Duck on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.

Howard the Duck 

SOURCES/REFERENCES

Primary references for this project included promotional material published in numerous daily newspapers archived digitally and/or on microfilm plus articles published in film industry trade publications Boxoffice, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety.

Jeffrey Jones in Howard the Duck 

SELECTED IMAGES

Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd., Universal Pictures, Universal Studios Home Entertainment. 70mm presentation logo art designed by Bobby Henderson. Home-video cover-art collage by Cliff Stephenson. Howard the Duck: The Oral History illustration by Jaclyn Kessel; photos Everett Collection.

Howard the Duck on set 

SPECIAL THANKS

Claude Ayakawa , Laura Baas, Don Beelik, Rachel Bernstein, Herbert Born, Raymond Caple, Andrew Crews, Caseen Gaines, Thomas Hauerslev, Mike Heenan, Bobby Henderson, Sarah Kenyon, Bill Kretzel, Mark Lensenmayer, Monty Marin, Scott Mendelson, Tim O’Neill, Ayana Reed, Tim Spindle, Cliff Stephenson, J. Thomas, Brian Walters, John Wilson, Vince Young, and to all of the librarians who helped with the research for this project, and to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library and Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study.

All figures and data included in this article pertain to the United States and Canada except where stated otherwise.

– Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link.

howard homevid

 

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