During the late 1930s, as Donald Duck became an increasingly popular cartoon character, the Disney studio developed a special corps of artists known as the “Duck Men” animators with a particular knack for capturing Donald’s distinctive waddling movements and belligerent personality. As the making of Donald Duck cartoons became an established Disney franchise in its own right, the “Duck Men” were kept busy animating Donald’s latest adventures. A later generation of Disney fans, learning of this colorful appellation, eagerly began to apply it to other important individuals in Donald’s life: comics legend Carl Barks, inspirational voice talents Clarence Nash and Tony Anselmo, directors Jack King and Jack Hannah. All have been identified in later years as “Duck Men,” and with good reason. In the meantime, however, some of the artists in that original specialized animation unit have been overlooked.
One of those original artists was Fred Spencer. Today Spencer’s name is not exactly unknown, but he rarely receives the recognition he deserves as a shaping force in Donald’s imaginary life. Not only did Spencer animate Donald’s comical walk and mercurial changes of mood with the best of them, he actually gave the Duck a makeover, radically altering his appearance and crafting the character as we know him today. What Fred Moore was to Mickey Mouse, what Norm Ferguson was to Pluto, what Art Babbitt was to Goofy, Fred Spencer was to Donald Duck.
Spencer seems to have animated the little feathered troublemaker for the first time in late 1934–early 1935 for Mickey’s Service Station, the first of the Mickey-Donald-Goofy “trio” pictures. Mickey, Donald, and Goofy shared numerous group scenes in Service Station, and these were parceled out to a half-dozen animators. But it was Spencer who animated Donald’s solo actions: yanking at the car’s taillight, reducing its radiator to a pile of unraveled junk, and generally getting in the way and impeding progress. Spencer showed an immediate affinity for the character, and soon afterward he was assigned more Donald scenes. In the next “trio” picture, Mickey’s Fire Brigade, he animated the Duck’s axe-swinging pursuit of the little humanized flames. And in the all-star cartoon On Ice he contributed an extended performance: Donald’s mischievous practical joke on Pluto, his uproarious enjoyment of the dog’s discomfiture, and his sudden panic when a gust of wind swept him to the brink of a roaring waterfall.
By the time On Ice was released in September 1935, Spencer was an experienced Duck animator and had taken the initiative to suggest some changes in the character. In the mid-1930s the Disney animation staff was rapidly expanding, and as more and more artists began to animate the major characters, the studio issued model sheets and analyses to help maintain consistency. Late in 1935, Fred Spencer created both the new model sheets and the analysis of Donald Duck. Rather than simply codifying the Duck’s original design—as pleasing as it was—Spencer effected a major redesign, creating a character that was more appealing to the eye. In effect, he gave us the Donald Duck we still recognize today. Some of his design changes were made for practical reasons. “The eyes are not round as in previous pictures,” he explained. “They are more oval in shape and are kept to the side of the head. In this way more black can be used in the eyes for the expressions.”
Spencer created this guide while animating his Donald scenes in Orphans’ Picnic, and took the opportunity to put his own ideas into practice. The other artists followed his lead, and 1936 became the year in which Donald evolved, on the screen, into his permanent design. Some artists caught on to the changes more quickly than others—we can see variant versions of Donald’s design in a single picture, Alpine Climbers—but by the end of 1936, the Duck had assumed the form that would characterize him for the rest of his career.
It’s worth noting that Spencer, as an animator, was not confined to a single specialty. He had joined the Disney staff in 1930 and, as a junior animator, had worked on numerous Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony shorts. After his promotion to full animator, in addition to his Duck assignments, he animated extensive scenes in Mickey’s Parrot. When the studio tackled its first feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Spencer was part of the crew animating the dwarfs. His contributions here included, among other things, the key scenes of Dopey with the soap in the washing sequence, and several dwarfs’ performances on their homemade instruments, and Sneezy’s climactic sneeze, in “The Silly Song.” All in all, however, Spencer’s place in Disney history unquestionably rests on his work with Donald Duck.
Why is Fred Spencer relatively little remembered today? Almost certainly because his life and career came to a tragically premature end in 1938. I am indebted to historian Joe Campana for the details: on Friday, 11 November 1938, after attending an Armistice Day football game, Spencer was driving home with friends when he was killed in an auto accident. Had he lived, we can only speculate on further contributions he might have made to animation history. His work with Donald Duck would likely have continued, but he may also have branched out into other specialties. In any case, he would surely be more widely celebrated today.
Even as it is, Spencer left a remarkable legacy. And, as if to secure his place in history, he left us with one last opus before departing this life: a final virtuoso performance of Duck animation. Donald’s Penguin was released in August 1939, but production was actually complete by the autumn of 1938 — and both the draft and the exposure sheets confirm that Spencer animated more than half the footage of this picture singlehanded. The first uneasy exchanges between Donald and the title character, the penguin’s cunning waddling action and Donald’s imitation of it, the penguin’s discovery of, and predatory interest in, Donald’s goldfish, Donald’s belated realization that the tank’s goldfish population is decreasing—all of this is Spencer’s work. So is the entire closing sequence: Donald cornering the penguin with a shotgun, his grim determination, his gradual change of heart, and the surprising ending. In between these two bravura sequences are several passages by other “Duck men:” Johnny Cannon, Lee Morehouse, Paul Allen, and Don Towsley. All of them, to be sure, were undeniable talents in their own right. But if any further proof were needed of Fred Spencer’s importance as a Donald Duck animator—his technical mastery of the medium, and his feeling for nuances of the character’s personality — Donald’s Penguin provides an eloquent final statement.
Next Month: The Unlucky Duck