Donald Duck in Close-Up #9
In an earlier entry in this series, I made reference to the research that David Gerstein and I have been conducting into the life, times, and screen career of Donald Duck. While preparing an upcoming in-depth book about Donald, we’ve made a number of fascinating discoveries, some of which undercut the history that we’ve all learned over the years. It’s well known that Donald’s first appearance on the screen was in the Silly Symphony The Wise Little Hen (1934), and that he didn’t make a return appearance until a couple of months later in the Mickey Mouse short Orphans’ Benefit.
All of that is true. But as I mentioned in that previous column, studio documents reveal that the Disney story department started work in November 1933 on an outline titled “The Surprise Party,” slightly before they tackled The Wise Little Hen. The “Surprise Party” outline underwent a long evolutionary process, and finally emerged in its finished form as Orphans’ Benefit. In other words, Orphans’ Benefit was technically Donald’s second film to be produced and released—but the evidence suggests that the studio originally planned it as his first film.
That’s an important distinction because it was Orphans’ Benefit that introduced Donald’s famous temper, the trait that would come to define him, more than any other, for at least the first ten years of his screen life. When the audience of little orphan mice discovered the Duck’s irascible nature, they seized on it and taunted him until he exploded in a full-blown tantrum. It would be the first of many. As he matured, and the Disney writers and animators continued to explore his character, additional personality traits would be revealed—but that volatile temper would remain a key element of his nature, never far below the surface.
Moreover, the early story work on the cartoon that would become Orphans’ Benefit made such an impression on the participants that some of them did remember it as Donald’s first appearance. One of those people was Walt himself. Two decades later, introducing Donald on television, Walt described Orphans’ Benefit as the Duck’s debut film. Generations of fans ever since have gently “corrected” Walt, pointing out that The Wise Little Hen had actually come first, but I think his statement is revealing. It suggests just how memorable those early story meetings must have been, as the artists and writers set out to build a character around Clarence Nash’s talking-duck voice. Regardless of the release dates of the two films, it was during those early meetings on “The Surprise Party” that a character began to take shape. For Walt and his collaborators, immersed in the creative process, those meetings were the defining moment when Donald Duck was born.
As if to underline the primacy of Orphans’ Benefit, it was later singled out in a curious way. In the late 1930s, circumstances led Walt to consider the possibility of reissuing some of his earlier cartoons. His comments, recorded in conference, are fascinating in hindsight; he’s tempted to release the films to theaters again, but he’s ruthlessly critical of his studio’s earlier work. Viewing a 1929 cartoon from the perspective of 1939, he seems excruciatingly embarrassed at the animation and technical details. The answer was to remake the cartoons—not simply to revisit the same story lines, but to produce exact scene-for-scene duplicates of those early shorts, identical in every way except for character design and visual details.
Several earlier Disney pictures were considered as candidates for this treatment, but only one was completed: Orphans’ Benefit, reworked and released in August 1941. This second Orphans’ Benefit is in Technicolor, and “updates” the design of the characters to reflect their 1941 appearances, but is otherwise such an exact remake that it reuses the soundtrack of the 1934 original! The resulting pair of films makes for a fascinating side-by-side comparison. We have every reason to believe that Walt and his colleagues, from the standpoint of 1941, considered the second version an improvement on the first.
However, we also have reason to believe that Walt and Roy both had second thoughts about these slavishly exact remakes before the first one had progressed very far. Orphans’ Benefit was completed and submitted for copyright in the spring of 1941, and at that point Roy contacted Reg Armour at RKO Radio, the studio that distributed the Disney films. In the interest of total transparency, Roy explained, almost apologetically, that this was not exactly a “new” cartoon. He later wrote to Walt: “I told him … that we didn’t want to deliver it under any false pretenses—we were going to deliver it for the price it cost to redo it.” But Armour was unfazed: “Reg said he remembered the picture and thought it was a good one, and thought there were a number of others that could be done this way, too. He thought that nothing should be said about it unless capital is made of the fact that it was the first Donald Duck.”
As interesting as this story is, it comes with an unfortunate side effect. Thanks to the production papers kept on file by the Disney artists—and scrupulously preserved today by the Walt Disney Archives and the company’s Animation Research Library—the historian can compile detailed credit lists for most of the Disney cartoons from the early ’30s on. Orphans’ Benefit is one exception. The artists retained those papers not for the benefit of historians who would come along eighty years later, but for their own use. Accordingly, when director Riley Thomson set out to overhaul Orphans’ Benefit, he relied on the drafts and exposure sheets from the 1934 production—and by the time the new version was finished, all the surviving papers for both versions were jumbled together in the same file. As a result, despite the best efforts of the Archives and the ARL, it’s no longer possible to document complete, definitive animation credits for either version of Orphans’ Benefit.
However, we can reconstruct some key details. In the 1934 original, the long adagio dance number with Goofy, Clarabelle, and Horace Horsecollar is animated by the great Norm Ferguson. Les Clark, already a veteran and later one of Disney’s Nine Old Men, animates Clara Cluck’s operatic performance—a noteworthy credit, for he would come to specialize in the character. Clara Cluck never did become a major member of the Disney cartoon stable, but she did make a number of return appearances, and Clark was always the go-to artist for her scenes. But the star performance here is that of Dick Lundy, assisted by junior artist Dick Williams, who contributes Donald Duck’s scenes—both his literary recitals and his mighty burst of fury. Donald’s hopping, fist-swinging action created a sensation within the studio and in theatrical showings of the cartoon. It cemented Lundy’s already secure status in the Disney animation hierarchy, and established Donald’s explosive temper for all time.
For the 1941 remake, Riley Thomson worked mostly with a crew of junior artists. Surviving papers suggest that Mickey’s scenes were redrawn primarily by Sam Cobean, Bob McCrea, and Art Elliott. Chester Cobb worked over Norm Ferguson’s animation of the adagio dance, and Les Clark’s original Clara Cluck pencil animation apparently was simply reused intact. And Donald Duck’s star-making performance? For those scenes, Thomson had the services of Johnny Cannon, who had long since established himself as one of the studio’s “Duck men.” Cannon retained Dick Lundy’s original action, but completely reworked Donald’s design so that he would be recognizable as the Donald Duck that audiences had come to know by 1941. Today we have the luxury of two alternative versions—the fresh, vivid 1934 original and the polished 1941 remake—of the performance which, in the eyes of Walt Disney himself, introduced Donald Duck to the world.
Thanks to Michael Ruocco for creating this comparison video:
Thanks to our friend Devon Baxter, who has supplied scans of two background paintings (one of them paired with a cel) from the original version of Orphans’ Benefit. These paintings are stamped with a space for the animation credit, and so help to certify the animation credits for two additional scenes in the film. The first is the opening LS showing the orphans marching into the theater (the last time we see them doing anything in an orderly, obedient way!). This crowd scene, a cycle with plenty of repeats, is identified as having been animated by animation legend Earl Hurd, who had just joined the Disney staff in April 1934, and who would soon transition to the story department. (See John Canemaker’s great book Paper Dreams, pp. 109–114.)
The other scene is sc 3, another crowd scene and presumably a far more difficult one (because the action is so wildly varied), showing the orphans settling into a box and preparing to wreak their mischief. This was animated by Jack Kinney, still in the early years of what would be a distinguished Disney career of his own. This is an extremely useful addition to the credits that could be compiled from archival sources. Thank you, Devon!
Next Month: The Haunted Duck