The Other Disney Cartoons
May 25, 2020 posted by JB Kaufman

Donald the Educator

The cover from Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories No. 25 (October 1942)

Donald Duck in Close-Up #5

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.

A LOOK magazine spread from June 1944 (click to enlarge)

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.

Released July 8th 1956 by Buena Vista
MPAA certificate 18107

Director: Nick Nichols
Music: Franklyn Marks
Story: Jack Kinney, Bill Berg
Layout: Lance Nolley, Ernie Nordli
Backgrounds: Anthony Rizzo
Animation: Jerry Hathcock (J.J. Fate introduces himself and Duck; Duck’s scenes in traffic
[with Combs]; Duck reads; Fate’s first two scenes before chart; Duck tries to nail up picture and falls off chair; Duck blows himself up with pipe; Fate scrambles across throw rug; Duck’s first fall with fishbowl; Duck’s slow-motion landing with fishbowl; Fate follows Duck and Duck’s accidents in bathroom; Duck’s accidents with oven, stove, and cleaning fluid while Fate continues lecture; Duck climbs stairs with armload of junk; Fate just before railing accident, Duck on floor with railing; Fate in closing scene)
• Earl Combs (Duck’s scenes in traffic [with Hathcock]; Duck’s first landing on floor with
fishbowl; Duck hits overstuffed chair and springs out; Duck crashes through railing and Fate looks down after him)
•George Nicholas (Duck on street dodges piano and truck, chased by kid on bike, slides
into yard; Duck’s slow-motion fall with fishbowl and down stairs; Duck’s second fall down stairs, enters with TV set and gets yanked down again)
•Volus Jones (Fate’s third scene before chart; Fate’s illustrated lecture on Duck while Duck blows up toaster)
•Bob Bemiller (Duck’s fourth, fifth, and sixth falls down stairs; Duck fixes stairs, plugs, and throw rug [with Solomon])
• Ed Solomon (Duck flies around straightening up room; Duck fixes stairs, plugs, and throw rug [with Bemiller]; Duck enters gate of dynamite plant; explosions in closing scene)
Efx animation: Jack Buckley (animated main title; litter in house, overloaded ashtrays, iron burns through board);
Dan MacManus (smoke from chimneys in opening scene)
Assistant director: Bill Gunderson
Unit secretary: Carolyn Erickson

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?


  • The October 1942 cover was redrawn for the back cover of Air Pirates Funnies #2.

  • Donald’s educational cartoons remind me of the corporate training films of John Cleese, who likewise exploited the comedic potential of negative examples to reinforce learning. As Cleese put it: “People learn nothing when they’re asleep, and very little when they’re bored.”

  • I remember one called “Stress and Strain” which was screened at my school when I was a child, and focused on the harmful effects of stress on the human psyche. My memory is that Donald Duck was in this one. It was a Disney production, that much I remember for sure. When Donald’s (it may have been an everyman character, but my memory is it was Donald) stresses piled up, he became ill and had to be rushed to the hospital.

    Another film was “Steel and America” in which Donald demonstrated the process of making steel. He was costumed similarly to his attire in “Mickey and the Beanstalk.”

    The old standby “Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land” is something of a misnomer. The film actually isn’t about mathematics at all. It’s about the application of mathematical principles to other disciplines such as billiards or music. But at no time is Donald actually instructed in the solving of problems, even simple arithmetic, such as multiplication or division or fractions. As a teacher, I would find it useful to come across a Disney production that actually delved into how to solve math problems, which is the task daily faced by students in math classes. Imagine how proficient students could become at long division or algebra with Donald Duck as their guide.

    Schoolchildren in the 60’s and 70’s were subjected to a barrage of so-called “educational films” most of which were yawners, to say the least. But a Disney production could always be counted on to liven up the proceedings.

    • There’s a 1968 ten minute Disney film UNDERSTANDING STRESS AND STRAIN that was commissioned by Upjohn Pharmaceuticals… no Donald in any version I have seen. Human ‘everyman’ and a younger ‘everyboy’. Not bad at all, it has songs by Mel Leven trying really hard to sound like the Sherman brothers.

    • I don’t recall feeling particularly educated by Mathmagicland…. it was more of an escape from having to do any actual work in math period that day. For fun, after the first viewing our teacher would run the entire thing backward through the projector. Before VCRs were common, it was novel for us to see things like that.

      I feel they did a particularly rotten job of explaining the golden ratio—to this day their placement of rectangles over art and objects looks rather arbitrary to me.

  • Donald in Mathemagic Land and Donald and The Wheel also had comic book one-shots based on them.

  • “Short-tempered, selfish, vengeful, mischievous”–let’s face it, Donald wasn’t the first teacher to possess those traits, nor the last.

  • I remember a one-reel Disney cartoon on dealing with a cold. It was in Spanish, and instead of any known Disney characters it starred a sort of Mexican everyman and a tiny professor. It was sponsored by Kleenex, prominently featured in the fadeout gag. It turned up in Spanish class. Wondering if there were many more sponsored films for foreign markets.

    I faintly recall “Ludwig’s Think Tank” from the Disney Channel (1985, according to the Internet). It was a compilation feature of Disney-produced educational films, ranging from theatrical releases to some that didn’t look like Disney studio product. Each introduced by a World of Color clip with Von Drake re-voiced. Was that ever released in any form of was it strictly for the channel?

    • I remember watching that. I enjoyed it, even though it was obviously a compilation with no new animation. My favorite part was “Scrooge McDuck and Money,” which was presented in its entirety. There was also one about Winnie-the-Pooh and the seasons, plus some non-Disney material. For what it was, it was well done!

    • I believe I still have a VHS recording of Ludwig’s Think Tank my mom made for me 35 years ago! It was what Wiegand said, mainly older footage with segments of Ludwig sprinkled throughout.

      Here’s what was presented on it, and where to watch it!
      Harold & His Amazing Green Plants (directed by Bob Kurtz):
      Scrooge McDuck & Money:
      Toot, Whistle, Plunk & Boom: (of course they played a pan & scan copy)
      Winnie The Pooh Discovers The Seasons:
      Comets: Time Capsules of The Solar System:
      Donald in Mathmagic Land:

      • Any chance on getting a copy of Ludwig’s Think Tank?

    • Yes, HOW TO CATCH A COLD was a great 1952 cartoon directed by Hamilton Luske and sponsored by Kleenex. Was circulated in American schools for years. There’s a neat square dance sequence adapted from the MIA Martins and the Coys segment from MAKE MINE MUSIC. Is of particular historic interest since many of the scientific ‘facts’ depicted in the film would be seen as discarded myths today.

    • I saw the Scrooge one on money when I was around kindergarten age – in the theater. It made sure I knew that circulation was important for the economy – cool little musical sequence on Circulation, as I recall.
      And I couldn’t stop laughing at one part of a Donald short we saw in school – where a litterbug is shown in slow motion, gradually wreaking havok as we all cracked up. I tried to recreate a few frames of it in an old notebook.
      Thank you for this thorough article!!

  • When I was in second grade the teach hauled out the 16mm and we watched a cartoon, where Donald Duck explained how to make steel from pig iron. I remember little or nothing from my Second grade, but I still remember how to make steel.

    • Cool! So like, if you were stranded on planet battling a Gorn, you could probably make a steel weapon if the right materials were laying around.

    • That was *Steel and America* (1965).

  • Will you, by any chance, do articles on the other educational Donald shorts (especially the 1965-1967 ones, which we haven’t heard much about)?

    I find it interesting that there were originally two more “How to Have an Accident” shorts in the works, but they were never completed. Any more information about them (like what they would be about and how far they got into development)?

  • I remember I disliked this one as a kid, but I couldn’t quite explain why. Something just seemed wrong about it. Maybe it was the didactic tone – I preferred when we could see Donald as an example of “what not to do” without being told outright. Also I wasn’t keen on the way Donald was presented as an “average citizen” who is exactly like the rest of us. He’s supposed to be an extreme case! The theme song went “Who gets stuck with all the bad luck? NO-ONE but Donald Duck” after all. There was also something different about the cartoon which made it feel out of place: emphasised by the fact that the version I saw (the non-widescreen version) used the standard opening credit sequence, making it look like a normal Donald Duck cartoon had been hijacked somehow.

    I did always like the character of JJ Fate though, and the idea of “blaming fate for your own carelessness.” Does anyone know who was responsible for the character’s design?

Leave a Reply to Jay Pennington Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *