The Other Disney Cartoons
August 31, 2020 posted by JB Kaufman

Promoting ‘Fun and Fancy Free’

Donald Duck in Close-Up #8

The phenomenal sudden popularity of Donald Duck in the 1930s and ’40s carried with it a host of responsibilities. Donald was in demand, not only on the motion-picture screen, but in storybooks, in newspaper comic strips—and, increasingly throughout the 1940s, in “live” personal appearances. Odd though it may seem, this imaginary hand-drawn character found a congenial niche in live performances before audiences, on theater stages, in broadcast studios, and in smaller, informal settings.

This came about through the unique talents of the man who gave Donald his distinctive voice: Clarence Nash. Among my other projects, I’m pleased to say that I’ve been collaborating with Nash’s granddaughter, Margaret Barnes, on a biography of her grandfather. In the process I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the personal life of this extraordinary man. Nash is remembered today as the voice of Donald Duck, but in fact his repertoire included an uncanny range of bird and animal imitations, in addition to the talking duck. Nash was a born performer. Naturally outgoing and gregarious, he loved to travel and make new friends, and he relished the spontaneity of performing for an audience.

As early as 1938, promoters for the lecture circuits were approaching Nash with offers of live appearances, trading on his unique role as the voice of Donald Duck. Walt Disney reportedly resisted such engagements at first, feeling that the illusion of Donald’s screen character would be spoiled by the sight of a human performer producing that voice, but before long he had second thoughts. By early 1941 Nash was traveling on a modest personal-appearance tour, sponsored by the studio.

Later that year, America’s entry into World War II opened a new outlet for his live-performance skills. Equipped with a Donald Duck ventriloquist’s dummy, specially built by the studio’s Character Model department, Nash became a regular performer at bond rallies and other events in support of the war effort. Testimonial letters, and photos of laughing viewers, testify to the success of these performances. Donald and Clarence were a team that never failed to make a hit with an audience.

By the mid-1940s, Walt and Roy not only approved this unexpected studio asset, but decided to harness it to help promote Disney films in theaters. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was given its first formal theatrical reissue in 1944, and Disney and RKO, unsure how the film would fare at the box office in a second round of showings, mounted a tremendous promotional campaign to support it. Their activities included several companies of Disney talent who toured the theater circuits, appearing onstage, and one of those companies featured Nash and junior animator Dick Mitchell. Mitchell executed drawings of Disney characters while Nash and Donald entertained audiences with their informal banter. Nash actually did have a bona fide Snow White connection, having provided miscellaneous bird calls and other sounds for the feature—but it was as Donald’s voice that he was best known, and his stage show, and the accompanying advertising, focused on that role.

Once again audiences were delighted with his act, and subsequently Clarence and Donald became the go-to performers whenever the Disney studio launched a promotional campaign for a new theatrical release. So potent was their appeal that they were pressed into service for the openings of Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart, and other films that had nothing whatever to do with Donald Duck.

While in New York, Clarence Nash took a break from promoting “Fun and Fancy Free” to join Cliff Edwards in an unusual ABC radio broadcast titled “1960? Jiminy Cricket!” The program starred Donald Duck, Jiminy Cricket, and other Disney characters in a lighthearted but informative survey of how American life and resources might change by the far-distant date of 1960.
(Photo courtesy of Janet Klein – click to enlarge)

Fun and Fancy Free (1947) was a film that did feature Donald in a prominent role, and the Disney forces planned a promotional campaign that leaned heavily on Clarence and Donald for radio dates and personal appearances. As early as May 1947, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen—who was featured onscreen, along with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, in Fun and Fancy Free—hosted Donald on his popular radio program to help promote the forthcoming film. Later in the summer, as the opening dates approached, Disney sent Nash on a full-fledged promotional tour to the East Coast. He arrived in New York by train on 11 August and immediately plunged into a round of personal appearances. Most of these were guest-starring spots on network radio programs, leading off with The Fred Waring Show. Waring was an extremely popular bandleader and radio personality at the time—and, not coincidentally, had just recorded the music for “Trees,” a segment in the upcoming Disney feature Melody Time. In broadcast studios and at a trade screening of Fun and Fancy Free, Clarence and Donald continued to work their magic with audiences, whetting their appetites for the film’s release.

This August 1947 marathon was so extensive that it soon clashed with Nash’s primary responsibility at the Disney studio: recording Donald Duck’s voice for new cartoons! Ten days after his arrival in New York, Jack Hannah’s production unit notified the publicity department that a new Duck picture was being held up and could not proceed without bringing Nash back to the studio to record Donald’s dialogue. The studio interrupted Nash’s promotional activities and hastily arranged a round-trip flight so that he could be back on the lot on Wednesday the 27th to record Donald’s voice for the new cartoon. (The cartoon in question was The Greener Yard, which would not be completed and released until October 1949, more than two years later.) This duty discharged, Nash boarded his return flight late on Friday the 29th. By Saturday he was back in New York, ready to resume his one-man (and one-duck) promotional blitz for Fun and Fancy Free. Even after completing his New York itinerary, he returned to California in September by way of Chicago, stopping there for four days of local and network radio broadcasts.

The campaign came full circle, in a way, late in September when Clarence and Donald—accompanied, this time, by Walt Disney—made a return appearance on Edgar Bergen’s radio show. These Bergen connections were a natural promotional opportunity, not only because of Bergen’s own role in the film, but also because Bergen’s dummy, Charlie McCarthy, and Donald made effective foils on the radio. They had no scenes together in the film, but their volatile personalities made for entertaining verbal sparring matches in these broadcasts. Their “feud” continued in October, when Nash and Bergen performed before a live audience of children at a special “birthday party” for Mickey Mouse on the Disney studio lot.

This was not the end of Nash’s promotional efforts on behalf of Fun and Fancy Free. Once the film began to open in theaters in the autumn of 1947, he embarked on another theatrical tour through the Midwest, similar to his earlier tour for the Snow White reissue. More of these tours would follow in later years, as he helped to promote the opening of Cinderella in 1950 and, in fact, another Snow White reissue in 1952. And even apart from these movie-related appearances, Clarence and Donald took on yet another role in the early 1950s as spokesmen for food products. Whenever a regional licensee introduced a new line of Donald Duck Orange Juice or Donald Duck Bread, Clarence and Donald would dutifully appear at local stores, schools, and theaters to help launch the new brand.

Throughout these years, of course, Donald continued to maintain a loyal following on the screen. But his unflagging popularity also owed much to his direct contact with the public. A personal appearance or a radio broadcast by the one and only Donald Duck was an event, guaranteed to attract attention. And audiences were never disappointed. The performance invariably left a strong impression, thanks to Donald’s colorful personality—and thanks to the genial, outgoing man who did so much to help bring that personality to life.

A theatrical engagement of “Fun & Fancy Free” in Whittier California, 1947

Special Thanks for audio, images and additional facts in this post go to: David Gerstein, Didier Ghez, Janet Klein, Margaret Barnes and Jerry Beck.

Next Month: Orphans’ Benefit revisited!

16 Comments

  • Two things hit me from this article.

    1) The Whittier’s program comprises a double bill of Fun And Fancy Free (RKO) and Danger Street (Paramount), with
    featurettes Swiss Tease (Columbia) and Power Behind The Nation (Warner Brothers).
    That theater has a foot in every door.

    2) Voice tracks on a cartoon The Greener Yard which would not be released until 2 years later.
    Release delays are not uncommon for Live Action and animated feature films.
    But this is the first time I have heard a two year delay apply to a Disney cartoon which has past the development stage, and
    is in production.

    On the surface, there is nothing unusual about the cartoon or the studio credits.
    I notice however that voice actor Dink Trout died from cancer in 1950 – which may have affected his availability perhaps?

    So:

    I look forward to finding out the answer in either of your upcoming books;
    a) The Clarence Nash biography
    or
    b) Donald Duck the Ultimate History.

    Re the latter, as Liesl said as she left the party in The Sound Of Music:

    Yes ???

    • Thank you, Michael. My research is still ongoing, but it does appear that the production process for shorts had slowed down significantly by the end of the 1940s. By comparison with other 1949 short releases, the delay on “The Greener Yard” wasn’t really unusual.

  • THis is a beautiful way to commence a week. F&FF is one of the TRUE joys of Disney+!! Thank you for this incredible article!

    • Thank you, Wayne. Much appreciated!

  • I have three original press photos in my collection of Nash with Donald in military uniform at a New York dinner event that was used to raise bond money.

    • Thank you, David. Yes, that was the same Donald dummy that Nash used for other performances, but with a change of costume to show his support for the war effort.

  • This makes you wonder, why did the Whittier theater run a Color Rhapsody that Bob Clampett consulted on and to which Stan Freberg contributed a voice? I guess it wasn’t customary for Disney to supply short subjects in support of their features in 1947. Maybe they wanted too steep a price for Disney shorts rentals?

    • Thank you, Mark. Yes, this was during the pre-Buena Vista years, and I don’t think Disney was yet supplying ready-made programs with a feature and one or more shorts. As Michael Kirby has commented above, the Whittier theater seems to have a wide-ranging choice of films from multiple studios. I’m sure Disney wouldn’t have minded if they had booked a Disney short instead! But you’re right, Disney shorts probably did command higher rentals than those of other studios.

  • Fine post again, JB. To answer the above comment from Michael Kirby, in the 1940s it was actually the norm for short cartoons to be voice recorded almost two years before release date. In my research I have located documents for short cartoons from Warner, MGM and Lantz, and in many cases the dialogue was pre-recorded at least 18 months before the final dubbing and subsequent release. (Sure wish I had found dialogue session dates for all the Disney shorts.)

    • Thank you for that info Keith.

      I had thought that with the amount of cartoons released each year, the process between voice recording and release would have been much faster.

      Using The Greener Yard as an example, in 1949 director Jack Hannah and chief duck animators Bill Justice, Volus Jones and Dan MacManus each worked on 6-8 titles of the years releases.

      So you would not expect the bottleneck to be in the actual production process.

      PS: Won’t dare ask your views of Julia Morris’s version of Perfect Match, Dexter.

  • In January of 1949, Nash was in Nashville with Disney (and Mickey), appearing on Wormwood Forest, a local children’s radio show.

    • Thank you, Galen! Good to know.

  • Years ago I read (sorry, don’t remember where) that Clarence Nash was fluent in German, and that he recorded the German dub for all the Donald Duck shorts. However, I just looked at the Wikipedia article about Nash, and it states: “To keep Donald’s voice consistent throughout the world, Nash voiced the character in all foreign languages the Disney shorts were translated to (with the aid of the phonetic alphabet).” Wikipedia gives no citation for this claim.

    There is an International Phonetic Alphabet, most often seen as a pronunciation key in dictionaries. Although it’s based largely on the Roman alphabet, there are some major differences, and learning to read blocks of text in IPA would be equivalent to mastering Cyrillic or Hangul — and all the more daunting when the text is in an unfamiliar language. So I wonder if Nash really used the phonetic alphabet, or simply had the dialogue written out in Roman letters as it would appear phonetically to an English-speaker, for example “bong swa” for “good evening” in French.

    In any case, this is a remarkable achievement. I’m not aware of any other voice actor who recorded the foreign language dub for a character he or she originally voiced in English.

    Two questions: (1) was Nash really fluent in German, and (2) in what other languages did he record Donald’s voice?

    • Thank you, Paul. Yes, there weren’t a lot of people who could duplicate that voice, so it was pretty much up to Nash to dub the foreign-language versions. The Disney studio’s dubbing policy was tentative at first until they got into the Good Neighbor program, at which point all their Good Neighbor films were scrupulously dubbed into Spanish and Portuguese for the Latin American market. For these versions, Nash recorded the Spanish and Portuguese dialogue phonetically. By the end of the war the studio had ramped up its dubbing activities considerably, and Nash dubbed Donald’s dialogue in French, Russian, Swedish, German, Italian, and probably some other languages as well. Regarding German: I don’t know that he was exactly fluent, but his mother was German-born and he had studied German in school as a boy. He took it up again during the war, so it’s safe to say that he was familiar with speaking the language.

  • I love this post, and I love Fun and Fancy Free. I’ve always wondered about the inexplicable presence of Gracie Allen pet duck on the Burns and Allen radio show, so I just looked it up on the imdb:

    “Nash also played Gracie Allen’s pet duck Herman on the “Burns and Allen Radio Show,” but because of contractual considerations with Disney, he wasn’t allowed to say any dialogue, only quack.”

    Anything to add or subtract? Burns and Allen was a very Walt-friendly show and did a whole segment working Snow White into the storyline, so I would assume Walt was okay with it under those conditions. They were also not a direct competitor like MGM cartoons, who used their own similar baby duck.

    • Thank you, Greg. Yes, IMDb is right about this one. When Burns and Allen first invited him to appear on the show as a guest, Nash had a long talk with Roy Disney about it. And, yes, the compromise was that he could do a duck’s voice on the show as long as it wasn’t a *talking* duck. He made such a hit in that guest appearance that the role became a continuing one. And that was only the beginning; I was surprised to discover that Nash had a thriving radio career in the 1940s, even apart from his Disney-related work.

Leave a Reply to Keith Scott Cancel reply

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