Donald Duck in Close-Up #12
As I’ve mentioned in earlier installments of this column, David Gerstein and I have been working for some time on a forthcoming major publication on Donald Duck. This has been a blessing, not least because it has afforded the opportunity for a deeper-than-ever research dive into Donald’s screen and comics career—an opportunity for a Disney nerd to pursue endless details of individual films and comic strips to his heart’s content. But along with all those countless ground-level details, the overall process has given rise to some more general thoughts on Donald Duck himself and his place in Disney and pop-culture history. I hope Cartoon Research readers won’t object if I wind up this series by indulging in some of those broader reflections—and, possibly, will consider offering some of their own.
Walt and company doubtless hoped that all their characters would find favor with audiences, but the popular response to Donald’s first appearances was far out of the ordinary. Practically overnight, the Duck was a phenomenon. This brought out a key facet of Walt Disney’s genius: the ability to seize an unexpected, serendipitous event and run with it, giving it the appearance of a strategy that had been carefully planned all along. Noting the public’s appetite for his cranky new antihero, Walt wasted no time: Donald soon began to appear in Disney comic strips and storybooks. His rise to prominence on the movie screen was particularly notable. Introduced as a supporting character in 1934, Donald was headlining in his own starring series within three years.
(And, in fact, he might have attained this career milestone even earlier if not for contractual obligations. Disney’s early distribution contracts called for specific quantities of Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons, a rigid guideline that didn’t allow for new variations. Irrepressible Donald refused to be constrained by such regulations, and was seen in 1936–37 starring in several shorts that were “Mickey Mouse” cartoons in name only. Finally Disney’s new distribution contract with RKO, taking effect in 1937, allowed a new flexibility that made possible an official Donald Duck starring series, and the Duck was off and waddling.)Once launched on his stellar trajectory, Donald was unstoppable. It has often been observed that Donald’s star power threatened to eclipse that of Mickey Mouse, and in fact he did ultimately star in a far greater number of films than Mickey did, despite the latter’s six-year head start. This brings an obvious question to mind. Mickey’s own rise to fame in 1928–1930 had been equally remarkable, and his success had produced a flood of imitations. Within a year or two, nearly every other cartoon studio had introduced its own character or characters in frank imitation of Mickey. Some of the imitations were more blatant than others; our friend Steve Stanchfield has recently shared one of the more brazen ripoffs here on Cartoon Research. As historically fascinating as some of these appropriations were, they didn’t last long, and the genuine Mickey Mouse asserted his preeminence over the pretenders from other studios. But this chapter in Mickey’s success story begs the question: Donald Duck enjoyed a spectacular success story of his own in the mid-1930s; why weren’t there a legion of Donald imitations?
It wasn’t for lack of effort. Those other cartoon studios remained alert to the latest Disney innovations, and soon after Donald’s debut, some of them began to take notice. In October 1934, a scant two months after Orphans’ Benefit, Warner Bros. released Shake Your Powder Puff, a Merrie Melodie directed by Friz Freleng, which included a trio of singing ducks in sailor suits, looking very much like Donald’s then-current model. But apart from such superficial costuming similarities, Donald quickly proved inimitable. Ducks continued to turn up in other studios’ cartoons, but the producers implicitly acknowledged the impossibility of trying to duplicate Donald’s personality or voice. Fleischer’s Chicken a la King (1936) featured a seductive Mae West duck, and her boyfriend, a bold desert bandit duck, both of whom spoke in funny “duck” voices but came nowhere near Clarence Nash’s distinctive Donald voice.
By far the most successful rival cartoon duck of these years was, of course, Warners’ Daffy Duck—who, again, looked, sounded, and acted nothing like Donald. Daffy came along in 1937, just about the time Donald was moving into his starring series, and quickly established a well-defined persona of his own. Or, rather, a range of different personae. It’s been observed more than once that the various Schlesinger/Warner directors each applied their own styles and ideas to this character: a Tex Avery Daffy Duck could never be mistaken for a Bob McKimson Daffy Duck, and neither was anything like a Chuck Jones Daffy Duck.
This raises another obvious question: did Donald also have multiple personalities? I would argue that, to a certain extent, he did. Disney directors famously had less autonomy than those at the Schlesinger studio, since all were subject to Walt’s own ideas and control; but the three most prominent Disney directors of the 1930s—Wilfred Jackson, Dave Hand, and Ben Sharpsteen—had already demonstrated that a good director could inject his own voice into a Disney cartoon. Over the next two decades, the studio’s Donald Duck unit put that theory to the test. During that time the vast majority of Donald’s films were directed by one of two Jacks: Jack King, who took command of the series in 1938, and Jack Hannah, who stepped into King’s place in the mid-1940s.
Today Hannah enjoys a loyal fan base who cherish his scores of Duck cartoons. It was Hannah who developed two mischievous chipmunks, pesky rascals in earlier films, into Chip and Dale, full-fledged characters who might serve as ongoing foils for Donald. Hannah was fond of picturing Donald in pitched battles (and, invariably, losing battles) against the two chipmunks and other tiny adversaries. Hannah also supervised Donald’s forays into new technology: 3-D (Working for Peanuts) and television (“The Donald Duck Story,” the fourth episode in the premiere season of Disneyland, and other Duck-centric episodes).
But personally, I also have a soft spot for Jack King’s earlier efforts. We’ve observed in an earlier column that Donald’s famous temper did not entirely dominate his personality. King’s cartoons relied less on formulaic skirmishes and extracted rich comedy from other sides of Donald’s personality: his selfishness, his cowardice, his taste for mean-spirited mischief. During King’s tenure Donald tackled ambitious projects—a dog laundry, a window-cleaning business, an all-plastic airplane—inevitably with disastrous results. World War II also took place on King’s watch, and he directed Donald’s series of service comedies, revealing yet another facet of the Duck’s personality: the ordinary Joe, thrust into the armed forces alongside so many of his fellows and experiencing the drudgery of an American GI’s life. It’s also worth noting that King’s years at the helm coincided with what was, arguably, the peak of the studio’s luxurious visual style. In his cartoons, animation connoisseurs can savor the rich, full animation of Disney’s top “Duck men,” taking place before lovely watercolor backgrounds.
And of course, along with King and Hannah, other directors did sometimes contribute nuances of their own to Donald’s story. Among these were Dick Lundy, one of the aforementioned “Duck men,” who moved into the director’s chair for nine of Donald’s adventures, and Wilfred Jackson, one of the top Disney directors, who also paid an occasional visit to Donald’s world. Of particular note was the impact of Jack Kinney, who directed the classic, Academy Award-winning propaganda film Der Fuehrer’s Face. Elsewhere, Kinney’s influence steered Donald into the unlikely territory of film noir, as we’ve also noted in an earlier column.
And that’s just on the movie screen! It could be argued, and has been argued, that Donald was an entirely different duck in the comics. Here again, individual artists—Al Taliaferro in newspaper comic strips, and Carl Barks and others in comic books—have made their own contributions to Donald’s multifaceted identity. The estimable Michael Barrier has written at length on the complexities that Barks brought to Donald’s personality in his comics. “The ducks, Donald and the nephews, were by [the early 1950s] extraordinarily mutable characters,” Barrier writes, “the nature of their relationship, as Barks depicted it, shifting from month to month, sometimes radically.” Even apart from his relationship with his nephews, Donald displayed a wide range in his personality traits. Within a single comics story he might engineer a harmful practical joke against a rival, then experience an attack of conscience—morphing from vindictive glee to repentant compassion in the space of a few comic panels.
But, as Barrier also points out, these seeming contradictions actually strengthened the overall integrity of Donald’s character: “Donald in Barks’s stories is variously brave and foolish, generous and spiteful, childish and mature. … His mutations thus make him more real, not less, because they make him more like us: like Barks’s Donald, we retain some core of identity through what may be tremendous changes in everything about us and around us.”
As in the comics, one might argue, so in the movies and in Donald’s larger universe. In the long view of his career, Donald Duck is a mass of paradoxical oppositions: the pugnacious agitator who panics and flees at the first sign of real danger; the lazy pessimist who dares to dream of bigger and better things, only to have his hopes dashed once again; the foul-tempered misanthrope who becomes an effective diplomatic ambassador in Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. And yet, somehow, all these contradictory impulses are absorbed within a character who is unmistakably Donald Duck—an instantly recognizable individual, never for a moment to be mistaken for Daffy Duck or any of his other contemporary cartoon ducks. It’s this rich, endlessly entertaining persona that brings us back to spend time with him again and again—a familiar, relatable friend, a duck for the ages.