Donald Duck in Close-Up #3
The sudden, spontaneous popularity of Donald Duck in the mid-1930s was a blessing to the Disney studio in more ways than one. Mickey Mouse was still an international favorite, and would remain the Disney figurehead, but he had already been pigeonholed as a “nice guy.” Violent slapstick gags, a common staple of animated cartoons, were increasingly restricted in Mickey’s films. No such problem with Donald Duck!
Almost from the beginning the Duck had been established as an irritable, combative character, and therefore well suited to roughhouse comedy. Falls, chases, collisions with low-hanging branches, explosions, hockey pucks and other objects fired into his open mouth—whatever slapstick misfortunes the story department could dream up, Donald was fair game. He was dragged through a pond, slammed into walls, and crushed by falling rocks in The Fox Hunt; hanged by the neck in The Hockey Champ; chased by a whale in The Whalers and by a shark in Sea Scouts; plunged headfirst into a pail of milk in Old MacDonald Duck, yanked into a stamper and smashed into a “Duck ingot” in Donald’s Gold Mine; and audiences roared with laughter.
In line with this rough treatment, the Disney writers saddled Donald with another affliction: he was prone to bad luck. As early as 1935, Bill Cottrell suggested to Walt Disney that Donald’s “birthday” could be celebrated on Friday the 13th. For years Disney’s distributors had mounted an annual promotional campaign around Mickey Mouse’s “birthday,” arbitrarily selecting a random date during the autumn months. Now Cottrell suggested a similar campaign for Donald, tying his natal day to Friday the 13th—meaning, of course, that it would fall in a different month every year. “It sounds like a good crazy angle,” Roy Disney wrote in a memo, “and one which would fit Donald’s personality very well.” In March 1936, 84 years ago this month, Disney and United Artists staged a nationwide “party” for Donald on the traditionally unlucky day.That was only the beginning. As Donald’s adventures continued, the Disney writers found more opportunities to link him with the number 13. In his daily comic strip, Donald was sometimes depicted as an apartment dweller—living in apartment 13. He frequently was seen driving around town in a little roadster, and comics artist Al Taliaferro gave him license plate number 313. When the U.S. entered World War II, the Duck appeared onscreen in Donald Gets Drafted: his draft notice, shown in closeup, was order no. 13, and he dutifully reported to draft board number 13. In 1944 The Three Caballeros opened with a giant gift package sent to Donald by his Latin American friends “on his birthday, Friday the 13th.” A full ten years later, on “The Donald Duck Story” episode of the Disneyland TV program, Walt himself offered a slightly whimsical account of Donald’s career, with a tongue-in-cheek claim that the character had been created on Friday the 13th.
And Donald’s association with bad luck wasn’t just symbolic. I’ve written elsewhere about Mickey Mouse as the “heir apparent” of the American comedy tradition in the 1930s, but Donald inherited a different aspect of that tradition: the comedian as the butt of the gag, the eternal fall guy. Somehow his disagreeable nature created a kind of instant karma in which he brought on himself one calamity after another. As the Duck cartoons continued and became more sophisticated, his troubles went beyond slapstick mayhem and embraced misfortunes that were more subtle, but just as vexing. Several of the featured Disney characters appear in The Fox Hunt, but it’s Donald who thinks he’s trapped the fox in a hollow log, and ends the picture by reaching inside and pulling out a skunk instead. In Donald’s Off Day he heads out on a beautiful morning to play golf, only to see the sky erupt in a torrential downpour the instant he steps out the door. In several 1940s cartoons he asks nothing more than a night’s sleep, but is kept awake by a noisy clock, a dripping faucet, or some other nagging irritation that drives him into a squawking fury by reel’s end.
Disney comic-book legend Carl Barks picked up on this theme and offered his own twist on the idea in the late 1940s. Barks introduced a new character, Donald’s cousin Gladstone Gander, whose luck was so unbelievably good that Donald’s bad luck seemed even more outrageous by comparison. In one story after another, Gladstone enjoyed impossibly good fortune at Donald’s expense, while his hapless cousin took all the lumps. “Maybe Gladstone is right,” Donald moaned in one story. “He’ll always be lucky, and I’ll always be unlucky!”
The climax—or nadir—of Donald’s relationship with bad luck can probably be found in the theatrical short Donald’s Lucky Day. By the time this cartoon was produced in the late 1930s, audiences were familiar enough with the Duck and his world to know that the title could be taken ironically. Sure enough, the story is set on Friday the 13th, and the film’s action—animated by a full complement of the studio’s top “Duck men”—rings a series of exquisitely tuned variations on the theme of Donald’s misfortune.
Like many of the classic Duck films of this period, Donald’s Lucky Day speaks for itself. What is not apparent today is the special care with which the film was released to theaters. Donald’s Lucky Day was produced during 1937–38, and was ready for release by the end of May 1938. But it was made to order for a Friday the 13th release date, and the 13th would not fall on a Friday until the following January.
Disney actually withheld the short from release for more than seven months! As the designated release date approached, Disney mounted a special promotional campaign, including tie-in gags in the daily Donald Duck comic strip. The strip’s writer and artist, Bob Karp and Al Taliaferro respectively, frequently coordinated their gags with the studio’s current film offerings. Here, during the first week of January 1939—the week before Donald’s Lucky Day would be released to theaters—the newspaper strip presented a full week of gags involving jinxes or superstitions. One installment actually featured an appearance by the black cat from the film, and the same cat later became a recurring character in the strip, invariably signaling some fresh disaster for Donald.
The Duck’s permanently unlucky status has persisted throughout the years, and is still with him today. When the studio introduced a new theme song to underscore the opening titles of his cartoons, the line “Who gets stuck with all the bad luck?” was only a rhetorical question. Donald’s fans already knew the answer.
Next Month: Postwar Donald