The Donald Duck Story

Mickey’s Christmas Carol. 1983. Walt Disney Productions.

Daisy Duck first entered Donald’s life in MR. DUCK STEPS OUT (1940) in which our hero’s courageous attempts to impress the love of his life are totally ruined once again by his nephews. Daisy was never a particularly interesting character, serving only as an object for Donald’s efforts much in the same way the machines of earlier entries encouraged Donald into fits of anxiety. Her character gradually worsened as the years wore on, as she developed a new voice which, up until this point has been squawks and squeaks the same as Donald (provided by Clarence Nash quacking in a higher octave). She became more human and less like her admirer, resulting in an alien feeling towards Donald which seemed to separate the two rather than bring them together. Daisy nevertheless continued to provide Donald’s story— writers and directors with inspiration for future cartoons, and throughout the years Donald even went so far as to steal money from his nephew’s piggy bank in order to impress Daisy (in DONALD’S CRIME). Perhaps the best cartoon to use the character of Daisy Duck was Jack King’s DONALD’S DILEMMA (1947), in which Donald’s personality is trans¬formed when a falling flowerpot hits him on the noggin, turning him into a romantic crooner, with a voice worthy of Crosby or Sinatra. As soon as he begins to sing, thousands swoon over his dulcet tones, turning him into an overnight success. Daisy’s problem arises when she finds that her boyfriend has absolutely no memory of her and refuses to speak to or even see her. In desperation she turns to her psychiatrist, who tells Daisy that now Donald and his voice belong to the world, asking her who she would prefer to have him: “the world – or you?”. Without hesitation she screams “ME! ME ME:” and rushes to the theatre where Donald is playing in order to attempt to revive his memory. Rushing up the cat walk of the theatre she launches another identical flowerpot on top of his head, restoring not only the Duck’s memory, but also his original voice, much to the scorn of the audience. Film historian Leonard Maltin has written:

Mickey’s Christmas Carol. 1983. Walt Disney Productions.

DONALD’S DILEMMA is a great cartoon, for many reasons. Foremost is the fact that it makes the characters and their situation real, even while reminding you that this is a cartoon. The audience actually becomes involved with Daisy’s predicament, and there are marvellous little touches to heighten the emotionalism (as when she is climbing to the catwalk near the end and almost loses her step). At the same time the cartoon is filled with hilarious visual exaggeration; when Daisy recalls that Donald gave here a cold, icy stare, a long icicle emits from his eyes, and as she waits for Donald at the stage door of the theatre, the seasons change and she is covered with snow. DONALD’S DILEMMA shows how much could be done within the framework of a ten-minute cartoon, using familiar characters; it is a gem.

One of the most dramatic influences towards Donald Duck’s career was the coming of World War Two, and upon America’s entry, Donald, like many contemporary cartoon stars entered the battlefield with a flourish. Besides appearing in regular theatrical shorts with war themes, like DONALD GETS DRAFTED and THE VANISHING PRIVATE (both 1942), the Duck also appeared in several government propaganda films, the most famous of which is probably THE NEW SPIRIT (1942), which was repackaged the following year as THE SPIRIT OF ‘43. According to several sources, the original decision by the Secretary of the Treasury was to make THE NEW SPIRIT a Mr. Taxpayer cartoon, who would obviously pay his taxes far more calmly than any Donald Duck would, but Walt insisted that for such a project to succeed, the lead role would have to be taken by a well known and established character; the public would flock to see a Donald Duck cartoon, but wouldn’t be so enthusiastic towards a Mr. Taxpayer short. After much argument the Secretary finally yielded and production went ahead on THE NEW SPIRIT.
THE NEW SPIRIT is a heavyweight piece of propaganda in which Donald is instructed by his radio and other implements about his home how he can help the war effort by paying his taxes in full and on time. After a little blundering with the methods of paying his taxes, Donald eventually manages to fill out the form correctly and rushes it to Washington, where-upon he sees his money literally being put to work in an awesome series factory and production scenes. film then continues to demonstrate Donald exactly how all this factory production will help win the war, as enemy aircraft, ships and weaponry are destroyed to the continual pattern of “Taxes to bury the Axis… Taxes to sink the Axis”, concluding with a dramatic rendition of “America” as the stars and stripes flag waves in the wind.

The film was an immediate success, reports showing that following the release of THE NEW SPIRIT, taxes had begun to come in more promptly than ever before.

The most famous of all the many wartime cartoons that proliferated the theatres however, was, undoubtedly, DE FUHRER’S FACE (1943), in which Donald dreams that he is being forced to endure the agonies of being a Nazi, saluting pictures of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito, working non—stop on an endless assembly line, and living a nightmarish existence in a land where everything is either swastika-shaped or resembles Adolph Hitler. This amazing cartoon was directed by one of Disney’s wildest directors, Jack Kinney, one of the key men responsible for reshaping the conventional Disney formula of sweetness and light into a more fast-paced, outrageous form of comedy. Under the influence of the Warner Brothers directors Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, Chuck Jones and Friz Freling, Kinney and other directors rapidly brought Donald and his fellow cartoon associates into the world of the comedy cartoon, strangely enough pitting their Duck against several seemingly cute cartoon animals, including chipmunks, bees, beetles and ants, who all combated against Donald’s innocent efforts to earn an honest living. The most durable of these supporting antagonists, and certainly the most endearing were the chipmunks, a mischievous pair wittily names CHIP N’ DALE (1947) in their first film, which was directed by Jack Hannah. The storylines of the shorts that followed were, as with most of Donald Duck’s subsidiary series, basically the same: Donald has in possession something which the  want but haven’t got, so in order to amend this, the little characters attempt to steal everything from the Duck, usually resulting in a victory for C n’ D and sheer frustration for poor old Donald. Since the storyline for every Chip n’ Dale cartoon follows this same premise, the shorts’ appeal lies in the personality of the characters, and the chipmunks provide a wonderfully funny foil for Donald’s enraged antics, pantomiming and ridiculing their pursuer along the way. The cheeky chipmunks lasted well into the l950s, much to Donald’s disgust, and in 1951 launched their own mini-series with CHICKEN IN THE ROUGH.

Donald made his last cinema appearance in 1967’s “special” featurette SCROOGE McDUCK AND MONEY which utilised some of the popular characters from the Carl Barks comic books, but, thanks to the ever-popular Disney television show, the discourteous Duck will continue to entertain for many years to come. Happy Birthday, Donald Duck, may you live to see many more.

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Printed in Animator’s newsletter Issue 9 (Summer 1984)