The Donald Duck Story

Walt Disney Productions are celebrating Donald Duck’s 50th anniversary this year (1984). Chris Pearson looks at Donald’s long and eventful career.

(Mickey Mouse is) so much of an institution that we’re limited in what we can do with him. If we have Mickey kicking someone in the pants, we get a million letters from mothers telling us that we’re giving their kids wrong ideas. Mickey must always be sweet, always lovable. What can you do with such a leading man?

When Walt Disney created the most popular cartoon character in the world, he had just lost his first successful creation, a Felix—like character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to his ex-producer Charles Mintz who, despite the fact that all the previous silent Oswald shorts were directed by Disney, had full rights to the character by way of a contractual agreement made several years before. No sooner had he lost the character (plus practically everyone who had worked for him on the series), than he and his head animator Ub Iwerks set to work on designing a new character, one with all the personality traits and characteristics of Oswald (the black-body-with-white-mask design was popular during that era), but with a new, far more original addition; the addition of sound. The first sound release to feature Mickey Mouse (as the character was named) opened to enthusiastic response at Grauman’s Chinese theatre on July 29th, 1928, and Disney was soon to be established as the single greatest influence upon animation the world has ever known. But the choice of a happy-go-lucky character like Mickey as the first cartoon character to sweep the world rapidly proved to be an unfort¬unate one for, as the popularity of Mickey Mouse grew, so did the criticism for the character’s lack of morals: no longer could Mickey use a crane to haul Minnie Mouse in the air by her knickers (in STEAMBOAT WILLIE) or twist a dachshund like a rubber band and use it as a means for powering the propeller of an aeroplane (in PLANE CRAZY). Columnist Terry Ramsaye reported in the MOTION PICTURE HERALD of February 28, 1931:

Mickey Mouse, the artistic offspring of Walt Disney, has fallen afoul of the censors in a big way, largely because of his amazing success. Papas and Mamas, especially Mamas, have spoken vigorously to censor boards and elsewhere about what a devilish, naughty little mouse Mickey turned out to be. Now we find that Mickey is not to drink, smoke, or tease the stock in the barnyard. Mickey has been spanked. It is the old, old story. If nobody knows you, you can do anything, and if everybody knows you, you can’t do anything – except what every one approves, which is very little of anything. It has happened often enough among the human stars of the screen and now it gets even the little fellow in black and white who is no thicker than a pencil mark and exists solely in a state of mind.

Disney’s animators were unhappy with working with a character such as Mickey, and felt that not only did his bland personality provide little scope for gag innovation, but his anatomical differences when compared with the other stars in Disney’s stable also provided problems. After all, as animator Ward Kimball so aptly said, “who ever heard of a four—foot tall mouse?” Animators and gag men soon discovered, however, that Mickey worked best when either placed in un¬likely situations (the south seas, a deserted Robinson Cruesoe-esque island, his own fantasy dream world), or put up against other unlike characters. Thus a whole menagerie of supporting cartoon animals was created, including Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar, Mickey’s pet dog Pluto and the inimitable Goofy, many of whom became equally as successful as Mickey in their own right, and branched off into series of their own. One such character also became a star in his own right, going on to become Disney’s second most popular creation and one of the most endearing and exciting cartoon characters ever to appear in a short subject. His name was Donald Duck and in 1935, Walt explained how he first debuted with Mickey in an interview with Dana Burnett for the PICTORIAL REVIEW:

Mickey and his gang had been asked to broadcast on one of the N.B.C. programmes. It meant a lot of extra work for the Mouse, but he decided to oblige. Well, Mickey was up there at the mike doing his stuff, when this duck came along and butted in. The duck had learned a piece and wanted to recite it. He kept crowding up to the mike and trying to recite ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb. Well, you know how Mickey is. Always ready to give a guy a break. But he was afraid that Donald would spoil his broadcast, so he shoved him away, and the duck kept coming back and squawking “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into the mike…

After his initial appearance as “Donald Duck” in ORPHAN’S BENEFIT, the film Disney was referring to, Donald was well on his way to becoming a smash hit, in many ways duplicating the response to Mickey Mouse and eventually toppling his throne as the most well—known cartoon of the screen. What is interesting to note, however, is that Donald did not spawn from an original animator’s idea, he was in fact based on a voice, and became the very first cartoon creation to ever be formed that way. Nowadays, of course, all cartoon characters are created in this manner: the voice comes first; the character is designed last. But unlike tele¬vision creations of this era, Donald was never intended to be created in this manner, in fact he was never intended to be created at all. His character was inspired by a milkman with a talent for imitating animals, and formed purely by chance when Walt tuned in to the radio one afternoon and heard Clarence Nash’s unlikely rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.


Legend has it that Donald Duck came into being one stormy night in March – on a Friday the Thirteenth to be exact. It is said that he flew into a window at the Disney studios disguised as a mud puddle and completely disrupted a story meeting with his belligerent, “Do ya wanna fight?”

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