DONALD DUCK IN CLOSE UP #1
In the course of researching a major new book, my coauthor David Gerstein and I have been given an unprecedented opportunity to research anything and everything related to Donald Duck’s cartoon career. Our research has confirmed one thing we already knew: any facet of Disney history, no matter how interesting, reveals more and more fascinating details as we look at it more closely. Donald’s story is well known, but as we delve into it, we find new, unsuspected, and rich territory to explore.
One example is Donald’s origin story. Most Disney fans know the basic story of the Duck’s beginnings: Walt Disney heard a radio performer named Clarence Nash speaking in a strange, distinctive voice and was moved to hire him at the studio. In Walt’s imagination, Nash’s novelty voice suggested a talking duck, and the story crew went to work to build a character around that sound. The resulting duck was christened Donald. He made his screen debut in the Silly Symphony The Wise Little Hen, released in June 1934. Audiences were immediately taken with this unusual cartoon presence, and he was brought back as a supporting character in the Mickey Mouse series, quickly achieving a widespread popularity. Within two years he had become a leading player in his own right, threatening to eclipse Mickey himself.
All of this is true, as far as it goes. But there’s much more to the story! To begin with, Clarence Nash had more than one trick voice up his sleeve; he actually could perform convincing imitations of a wide assortment of animals and birds. He was recruited by the Disney studio in 1931 to do just that, and worked on a freelance basis for two years before being hired as a full-time employee. His first recorded work for Disney (no pun intended) was for The Bird Store, a Silly Symphony released in January 1932. Nash was one of the performers who provided the gallery of comic bird calls in that short, and subsequently he lent his talents to a variety of other Disney pictures before joining the staff late in 1933.
By that time, the Disney story department was busily at work designing a character to go with his special novelty voice. What would that character be? At this point I’m pleased to announce another of my projects: I’ve been assisting Nash’s granddaughter, Margaret Barnes, in writing a biography of Nash himself. It surprised me to learn that Nash had originally developed this now-famous voice in his youth, not to imitate a duck, but to imitate a crying baby goat! He had proceeded to amuse his friends by reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in the baby goat’s voice. This act became essentially a parlor trick for several years, and practice made Nash so proficient that ultimately he could perform his specialty professionally—both for live audiences, and as a radio performer. Walt, on hearing the voice, pictured the character as a duck rather than a goat; and Nash, being an agreeable sort (unlike Donald!), went along with that idea.
As the Disney story artists worked to develop this character, documents preserved in the Walt Disney Archives reveal that they were thinking of the duck as a little boy. Perhaps influenced by Nash’s conception of the goat as a baby goat, they pictured the duck in very young terms as well. A rudimentary character began to take shape, and the writers devised a story outline with a spot for him. The story was for a Mickey Mouse short, to be known as “The Surprise Party,” and would depict a party at which Mickey and other characters would perform musical numbers and other improvised acts. One of the guests at the party was the little duck, fussed over by a doting mother. “The little duck character will be dragged in by his mother,” said the outline, “and made to recite ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’”—preserving on film the specialty that Clarence Nash had been rehearsing for years.
I try to be very careful about using the word “first,” but “The Surprise Party” appears to be the first story outline that the Disney writers developed for the new duck character. It’s not difficult to picture the little fellow in this scenario, busily fretted over by his stage mother. This idea, in fact, may be the real origin of the Duck’s sailor suit; cute little outfits of this kind were a common affectation for overindulged children at the time. The story department continued to develop the “Surprise Party” outline, and it wasn’t until a week or two later that they circulated a separate outline for a version of the traditional children’s story “The Little Red Hen.” This second story, of course, would ultimately be completed and released as The Wise Little Hen, and would afford Donald his true screen debut—playing an “adult” character, more or less. (Readers of Cartoon Research are probably aware that Disney changed the title to avoid confusion with Ub Iwerks’ cartoon version of the same story, which retained the title The Little Red Hen and was released in February 1934.)
In the meantime, the Disney writers continued to work on “The Surprise Party.” By the time the film was completed and released in August 1934, it had been completely transformed. Now the private party became a theatrical performance, for an audience of rowdy little mice, and the film’s title was changed to Orphans’ Benefit. But Donald retained his spot in the program—and, as advertised, he did recite “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Further appearances followed soon after, and the idea of depicting Donald as a child was soon forgotten. But for any viewer of Orphans’ Benefit who has ever wondered why early Donald appears so short when standing onscreen next to Mickey Mouse in this film, that first story outline may provide one answer. And the notion of Donald as a little boy didn’t instantly disappear; vestiges of the idea continued to turn up for years afterward. As late as 1938, in Donald’s Better Self, he was pictured as a schoolboy, urged to go to school and simultaneously tempted to play hooky and go fishing instead.
NEXT MONTH: The Other “Duck Man”