Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Disney Canon Detour: Donald Duck Shorts

Whenever someone mentions the word 'Disney', most of us in the western world immediately think of Mickey Mouse. Mickey is not only the official mascot, but also by far the biggest, most famous character in the Disney ouvre. But what if I told you there is a far away land, way up north in which the biggest cartoon character of all-time, who by the way enjoys from a popularity far greater than the one Mickey has in the rest of the world, is actually Donald Duck. 

That is largely the case in Scandinavia. Nobody's bigger than Donald in Sweden, Denmark, Norway or Finland. Donald Duck comic-books and strips were first published in nordic languages in the 1930s and the character soon became a huge sensation. He is not only far more famous and easily identifiable by nordic people than Mickey, but people in Scandinavia have a long tradition of writing 'Donald Duck' in their election ballots as a protest vote that some analist estimate he has received as many votes as to be the ninth biggest political organization in Sweden. 

He is also pretty big in Germany, where Donald Duck comics are also very popular. Having attended a German school, I have read a couple of these comic compilations. I didn't completely understand these books because of my not being german, but I can corroborate Wikipedia's information that the Donald of these books is not as inarticulate and temperamental as his screen persona, but rather intelectual, even philosophical. 

The American Donald Duck comics are also very important not only for the character's popularity, but for comic-book history. Carl Banks, considered one of the greatest comic-book writers for his work with the character, was the writer for Donald comics for a long time, starting in 1942. He expanded Donald's adventures and world, introducing such characters as Scrooge McDuck, the Beagle Boys and Gyro Gearloose; all of whom would become essential parts of the Duck mythology and you might remember from the wonderful 1980s animated series 'Ducktales'. 
But in order to explore Donald's career in classic Disney shorts, we'll have to go back to his beginnings. 

Donald's first appearance was in the Silly Symphony short 'The Wise Little Hen' (1934).  The director then featured him in a small role in a Mickey Mouse short called 'Orphan's Benefit'. Audiences seemed to be responding to the character, so he starting popping up in different shorts until he was pretty much appearing regularly Mickey Mouse shorts. The short above is called 'The Band Concert' (1935) and is probably the most famous of these early Donald appearances. His role in this short is basically to wreck havoc while Mickey and his band try to perform. We can see Donald's characteristic temperamental performance in such scenes as the one with the bee. The short itself is also very good, it has some pretty funny sight gags and is regarded as one of the best Disney short subjects. 

After that, Donald got a makeover that gave him the look we all know him for nowadays and was soon given his own solo shorts. He was also paired up with Mickey and Goofy in a series of hilarious cartoons I talked about in the Mickey post. But most importantly, it was around this time that he started to get more popular than the Mouse, to the point where he was paired with Goofy without the presence of Mickey. Such was the case in 'No Sail', in which Donald and Goofy get stranded at sea.

It's no surprise to me that Donald became such a popular character so quickly. After all, he has a very well-defined and relatable personality. While someone like Mickey was initially a funny mischievous character, he was toned down and turned into just a nice guy when he was adopted as the studio's official mascot. Donald, on the other hand is a character that has a really hard time trying to achieve what he wants and instead of reacting to his adversities with creativity and a smile, he has a very hot temper. It's easy to relate to Donald's frustration and it ends up being somewhat cathartic to laugh at his misadventures. Many of Donald's later shorts employed this very structure, having Donald be harassed by different outside sources; be it his nephews, the aracuan bird, or, as is the case in this short, Chip n' Dale.

It may have been his relatable quality that made Donald such a popular character for propaganda shorts during the War. During this time, Disney made a bunch of short films to boost moral and support the war effort. Donald starred in a series of films in which he enlisted the U.S. Army and was sent off into a mission to a Japanese air base. The most well-remembered of the war shorts also starred Donald. In the controversial and Oscar-winning 'Der Fueherer's Face', Donald is presented as a citizen being oppressed by the nazi government, having to work long hours making bombs and hailing Hitler over all things. At the end of the short, it is revealed it was only a nightmare, but watching the beloved Duck in Nazi uniform still feels incredibly odd, especially so many years later at a time when Disney is slowly becoming the biggest company in the world (buying 'Star Wars' and whatnot).   

At the end of the day, even in America, Mickey might be the most popular character, but people will tend to prefer Donald. Be it for the simplicity and familiarity of his behavior or just because his personality makes him an inherently funnier character, Donald will always remain one of the greatest creations of the Disney company.

Next Time: The official Canon will be back on Sunday December 2nd. Mark the date, because things are just starting to get interesting. That day we'll cover 'Cinderella', which just had a blue ray release, but after that some of the most beloved Disney classics (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians) are coming. 

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