Short-tempered, selfish, vengeful, mischievous—let’s face it, Donald Duck is anything but a model citizen. And yet, beginning in the 1940s, he found himself cast in the role of an educator. How did this happen?
Paradoxically, Donald was well suited to this responsible position because of the very traits that made him such an anti-role model. I’ve written elsewhere about the part Donald played in Saludos Amigos and the other Latin-themed Disney films during World War II. The films were made to strengthen friendly relations between the U.S. and our neighbors in Mexico and South America, and Donald’s role as a North American tourist—well-meaning but clumsy, awkward, and prone to embarrassing gaffes—invariably placed his new Latin American friends in a doubly flattering light. In scenes of slapstick comedy, he was invariably the butt of the gags.
Similarly, in public-service films like The New Spirit (1942), Donald made an ideal spokesman precisely because he was not a naturally conscientious citizen. Grumbling, resentful, he was persuaded only grudgingly to listen to the narrator’s message about the importance of fulfilling his civic duty. And when the film’s message did persuade him, his conversion carried extra weight and became more convincing and effective.
And then there were the educational films. Here again, Donald led by negative example. Introducing him as a less-than-enthusiastic student himself, then showing him gradually won over by the subject at hand, was an effective way to illustrate the importance or the interest of the topic. Or, if the filmmakers’ task was to demonstrate the proper way to do something, Donald could be counted on to do it the wrong way—invariably suffering the consequences, and reinforcing the point.
In general, Disney’s educational films have received relatively little attention. It’s well known that the studio ramped up its educational efforts during World War II, producing health and educational pictures to be distributed on 16mm in South America. That was only the beginning; Walt himself was developing an increasing interest in educational-film production, an interest that would blossom in unexpected ways in the 1940s. My colleague Didier Ghez has been researching this phase of Disney history and has made some exciting discoveries, to be published soon. One byproduct of this educational initiative was a series of pictorial spreads, published in LOOK Magazine during 1943–44. Here some of Disney’s educational topics were presented to the public by an unlikely spokesman: none other than Donald Duck. Not all of the corresponding films featured the Duck—indeed, some of the films were never even completed—but, in any case, he took on the responsibility of conveying some arcane topics, and made them palatable to the general public.
One of those LOOK spreads led to some unintended consequences of its own. Late in July 1943, Donald was introduced in the magazine’s pages to “the Useful Mr. Electron and an Amazing Science: Electronics.” The written copy promised a forthcoming Disney film on electronics, and the illustrations suggested that Donald would be the audience’s guide to the subject. The studio was promptly bombarded with requests for information about the new film. In fact Disney was at work on a film about electronics—not a theatrical Donald Duck short, but a series of training films for the Army! The pictures were being produced in cooperation with Minneapolis-Honeywell, and one of the Honeywell executives was alarmed when he saw the LOOK layout, fearing that it violated the company’s secrecy clause with the Army and called unwanted attention to the project. A red-faced Ben Sharpsteen was obliged to write a letter of apology to the executive, explaining how the oversight had occurred, and promising no further incidents.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Donald Duck really came into his own as a spokesman for the studio’s educational efforts. His theatrical cartoons were gradually being phased out, but Disney had other roles for him to fill. Many of us have grown up on classroom showings of Donald in Mathmagic Land, Donald and the Wheel, and other productions in which Donald, the non-student, was led into new discoveries and brought the audience along with him. These films conveyed information, couched in entertaining packages, and left a lasting impression on viewers. It’s important to remember that these films, too, were theatrical cartoons—released to theaters in 35mm, before being transferred to 16mm and circulated for classroom use.
How to Have an Accident in the Home is a delightful example of these efforts. As the opening titles suggest, this was part of a planned series of safety films. Veteran story man Roy Williams worked on the project in 1953–54, laying plans for at least four “How to Have an Accident” films. This first one started production in February 1954, and after two years of work it was ready for release to theaters.
How to Have an Accident in the Home is fascinating on several levels, starting with its use of CinemaScope. The widescreen process was still a new phenomenon in the mid-1950s when this film started production, and the Disney studio had released only a few CinemaScope cartoons. Along with the other attendant challenges, director Charles “Nick” Nichols and his layout artists—knowing in advance that this film was destined for school rental programs when its theatrical run was finished—were obliged to plan their scenes for maximum use of the widescreen vista, and so that they could be repurposed in “flat” versions for the 16mm edition. Studio production records indicate that Nichols and his team fussed endlessly over details, reshuffling the continuity of the film more than once to make its points more effectively.
A glance at the credits above will reveal a mix of veteran animators with some relative newcomers. The great majority of the film’s animation is in the hands of Jerry Hathcock, a former effects artist who had transitioned to character animation by the end of World War II and had become a regular in the Nichols unit.
Although the second “Accident” film was initially developed at the same time as the first, it was delayed in production and would not reach the screen until 1959. How to Have an Accident at Work pictured the Duck as a factory worker, every bit as accident-prone on the job as he had been in his own home. (Perhaps to coordinate with that planned second cartoon, Nichols and his team ended this first one with the scene of Donald seeking refuge at work. The factory-gate scene was added at the last minute, one of the last adjustments made before completion of How to Have an Accident in the Home.) Two further “Accident” films, initially planned at the same time as the first two, were never completed at all. If the studio does decide to produce them at some future date, we can be sure that Donald Duck—true to form—will learn his lessons the hard way.
Next Month: When’s Your Birthday?