The Donald Duck Story

        Category: # 9 Summer 1984 | Article posted on: February 5, 2010

Donald’s bombastic nature provided a welcome antidote to theatre audiences who up until then had only seen mindlessly cheerful characters like Mickey the Mouse, Flip the Frog and Bosko the Blackboy in happy-go-lucky situations. In such films as the all-time classic THE BAND CONCERT (1935) Donald would manage to steal the show time and time again as he continually interrupts bandmaster Mickey’s attempts to conduct “The William Tell Overture” with his never-ending fife renditions of “Turkey in the Straw”. And, no sooner would the irate Mickey snap Donald’s instrument than the determined Duck would cheerfully pull another identical one from up his sleeve or under his hat. Donald was the ever-victorious antagonist in this film, and was immediately likeable for his lack of inhibition, rather like the later creations of Bugs Bunny (Warner Brothers) and Woody Wood¬pecker (Walter Lantz). Donald continued his role as co-star to Mickey Mouse throughout the 1930s, during which time the animators, directors and story men were given the chance to develop his character and prepare him for the inevitable solo stardom that he was to encounter in the l94Os. Some of the most dist¬inctive Mickey Mouse cartoons with Donald during this period were a series of threesome pictures in which Mickey, Donald, and moronic hayseed Goofy were assigned a specific task such as cleaning a clock, disposing of ghosts or capturing a moose which they would deal with in their own separate ways before reuniting at the film’s conclusion. Mickey Mouse, who was still a major cartoon star at this time, acted as link man for Donald and Goofy’s comical set-pieces, with Goofy as the likeable, hardworking, yet totally incompetent idiot, and Donald as the impatient, short—tempered maniac whose enforced incompetence in the face of a crisis would inevitably bring about disaster (in MICKEY’S SERVICE STATION in 1935 he totally dismantles a customers car in search of an irritating squeak and in the 1937 CLOCK CLEANERS he matches wits with a spring that seemingly has a life of its own). Interesting and compulsive a creation though Donald Duck was, audiences and critics still seemed to be fond for Mickey Mouse, and such columnists as Richard Tobin expressed considerable concern about what may happen were Donald to have his own series:

Hollywood films from time to time have been played by character actors of such importance that the hero and heroine were put after the title and the character actors in the starring position… if Mr. Disney is wise (probably the surest bet in motion pictures), he will keep his famous duck exactly as he is, and not over¬burden him with plot or circumstance. Donald Duck has at this moment one of the great historical appeals which only the films can produce. We hope are never becomes a comic cartoon of his own (New York Herald Tribune January 12, 1936 “Rise of Donald Duck”).

All doubts were dismissed by the late thirties as Donald, firmly est¬ablished in his own starring series pitted his wits against animals and machines in an effort to preserve his own dignity and sanity, which, of course, he never did.

DONALD BECOMES A STAR AND GETS DRAFTED

The essence of practically every cartoon with Donald Duck in the title role seems to be that Donald is forever being beset by seemingly inferior yet non-surprisingly superior creatures or objects which seem to have gained a life of their own. In his efforts to quench these oncoming forces, Donald finds himself in ever surmounted peril and in his frustration throws tantrum upon tantrum resulting in nothing but further anxiety and irritation. In the hands of any other cartoon studio a character such as Donald Duck would ‘probably have died the death of exhaustion during at least his first three years; this is proved by existing attempts by contemporary animation studios to duplicate the character of Donald Duck. The critic who described the Duck merely as “personalised irritability” has but glossed over lightly the traits of Donald Duck. Many movie characters, both in animation and live-action, can be equally as lightly described as “personalised irritability”. One might just as well describe Laurel and Hardy as “personalised incompetence”. Just because we are discussing an animated cartoon, it does not mean to say that the characters and plot it involves are simple. Behind Donald
Duck there is a wide variety of personality traits, each of which represents a little of our own character, Donald can easily be said to be described as cantankerous, hammy, pugnacious, frustrated, malicious, choleric or any one of a million and one other familiar human traits. It is only the best animators who can realise this complexity and use their knowledge to build a more expressive and entertaining character, and it was only the best animators that Disney employed. This is obviously why similar characters like Max Fleischer’s Gabby (of the 1939 feature GULLIVER’S TRAVELS) have failed, the animator’s not having the required knowledge of their character beforehand.

During his first few years as a star, Donald was neatly fitted into Mickey cartoons (as neatly as a square peg in a round hole) as a comic relief (of sorts); providing endless counteractivity to the mouse’s heroic exploits. Up until 1937, when he was awarded his first solo appearance in a film entitled DONALD’S OSTRICH he was always the bridesmaid but never the bride’ (Donald would do all the work and Mickey would take all the bows). In many of his earlier films Donald was pitted against adversaries of a more mechanical nature, such as the clock tower spring in CLOCK CLEANERS (1937), the robots in MODERN INVENTIONS (1937), and the amusements in A GOOD TIME FOR A DIME (1941). Mechanical items were always a good foil for Donald’s ratings, who would first be enthralled by a machines gadgetry and design, but then would gain anger as (usually through his own fault) the machines began to backfire upon him, gaining a life of their own or, as with the mechanical goody—grabber in A GOOD TIME FOR A DIME, merely display the irritability of Murphy’s Law (that which can go wrong will go wrong). It was in these familiar situations that Donald was often his best, for we have all felt frustrations with machines and gadgets at some time or another, and can easily relate to the Duck’s problems. Such a situation was not enough to sustain a complete cartoon however and often plot was completely abandoned in favour of merely a series of escapades involving the perils of Donald. While many of these cartoons were very funny, they only barely survived as a cartoon in their own right and in future, this type of situation was best when included as a detraction from the plot (i.e.: on~ of those prolonged “gag” sequences Disney’s artists were so fond of: often well animated, these situations were often merely “animator’s exercises transferred to the screen).

The situation for Disney was clear: for Donald to be a truly entertaining screen character he would need to be supplied with a continuing number of new and equally as interesting supporting star, who would provide their lead with the inspired situations he needed and who would add to the cartoons s excitement. First to appear were Huey, Dewey and Louie, Donald’s three troublesome nephews whose only main objective was to create as much torment and aggravation for their uncle as possible. In their early years, the nephews’ were indistinguishable and obnoxious triplets whose manner was so alike that they even shared their dialogue with each other.

HUEY: We’re sorry…

DEWEY: . . .Unca…

LOUIE:…Donald

Charming a personality trait though this was, Disney’s animators felt that this tended to hinder the progress of stories, which was often hair-raisingly fast; a sharp contrast to the gentle SILLY SYMPHONIES of the thirties. As their personalities developed, however, one soon began to realise that no matter how many tricks the boys played on the Uncle Donald, they still found room for a great deal of affection for him, and vice-versa. Huey, Dewey and Louie brought Donald into the world of real life and responsibilities, leaving little room for the ignorant, idle creature that loafed throughout THE WISE LITTLE HEN. The Duck was now a family man, and was requested to accept family responsibilities; there was only one thing missing from his and his nephew’s little world, however, and that was a wife.

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

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