Thursday, June 09, 2005

A Duck at 71

Donald Duck turns 71 today. He made his debut in a short called The Wise Little Hen on June 9th, 1934. I don't know about you, but Donald was always my favorite of the Disney stable of characters. I guess Goofy had his moments. Though I could never get over Goofy and Pluto both being dogs, even though Goofy lives in a house and wears clothes and goes on vacation and even competes in the Olympics while Pluto lives in the backyard behind Mickey's house and is naked save for a collar.

And let's face it...Warner Bros. cartoons kick Disney cartoons ass any day. I mean, how many Disney cartoon characters can you even name? (Remember, I mean the old cartoon shorts, not later TV shows and Darkwing Duck doesn't count, nor does Pocahontas or Thumper). They had all these bizarre extraneous figures, like Clarabell Cow, while every single WB character is classic and memorable. (Foghorn, I say, Foghorn Leghorn anyone?)

But back to's his big day.

Donald Duck cartoons are weird. I watched some recently on one of those Disney Treasures DVD collections. In one, Donald adopts an orphaned penguin. When the penguin eats his goldfish, Donald takes to chasing the small Arctic bird around with a shotgun for the rest of teh cartoon. He blows a hole in the wall, thinks he's killed the penguin, starts to cry and then...wait for it...the penguin reappears! A happy ending!

It was a different time, I guess. It's strange that Walt Disney personally approved stuff like that in the cartoons, cause we usually think of him as some kind of moral crusader on behalf of the family...but that came later. Back in '34, he was a guy trying to make a living doing cartoons who had some big ideas.

I think a lot of the oddness of these old shorts comes from the voice work. Rather than Mel Blanc doing all the voices, as in Warner cartoons, Disney had an eclectic cast of weirdos doing all kinds of strange, creepy voices. Donald himself was voiced by a guy Walt randomly saw performing silly voices named Clarence "Ducky" Nash.

One of the voices I always associate with Disney is a guy named Thurl Ravenscroft (seriously!) who died only a few weeks ago. He was Tony the Tiger, so trust me, you know this guy's voice. But he also sang the "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" song from Chuck Jones' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." And he's the guy singing the "Grim Grinning Ghosts" song in the "Haunted Mansion" ride at Disneyland. And I think he's in the "Country Bear Jamboree" as well, but don't quote me on that one.

Disney would find guys with strange voices like that for the background of his shorts, and it gives them a different feeling from the more talkative, witty, nasal sound of Blanc and Warner Bros.

But also the cartoons are just freaking weird. In another one I saw called "Modern Inventions," Donald goes to a museum of technical marvels and is constantly harangued and befuddled by the machines. One in particular is a strange butler robot that keeps taking Donald's hat (though he magically keeps producing more hats). It's not exactly funny, but it's far trippier than I remember Disney cartoons being. I guess as a kid, stuff like that sort of bounces off you.

Also, and friends will know that I've mentioned this before, as a kid I saw a Donald Duck cartoon that was so strange, it has stuck with me for life.

Donald and Daisy get into a fight. He leaves. While walking down the street, he's hit on the head by a flowerpot, turning him into a crooning romantic dreamboat. He goes and makes up with Daisy, and at first things are great, but soon enough he turns into an egomanaical jerk. Daisy misses the old spazzy Donald. But then at the end, he's hit on the head by a different flowerpot, and turns back into his old self. I think there might be more hitting-on-the-head-personality-changes in there as well, and I'm just forgetting about them. Give me a break...I was like 8.

I think something about the idea of head trauma shifting Donald's entire appearance and personality freaked me out. Or maybe because it's a light cartoon that gets so dark - he's confused, he's repeatedly abandoned by his duck girlfriend, and shit keeps nailing him on the head. Plus, he's Donald Duck, so he's becoming infuriated all the time. Just a weird, freaky cartoon that I'm not sure is appropriate for children. Oh well.


Cory said...

The old Disney shorts are surprisingly dark and very, very strange. Especially the Donald ones. Donald basically killed off Mickey, who of course had to be reborn as the Sorcerer's Apprentice to get back his throne. Mickey was actually really quirky and neurotic in the early 'toons, until they made him some sort of saint and stripped away his personality. This left the door wide open for Donald. One of my faves is 1935's The Band Concert, which features Mickey trying to lead a band while Donald ruins everything by playing an endless supply of flutes. Great stuff.

Lons' Dad said...

Are these old shorts material for a script. I think the Daisy - Donald one is especially adaptable considering all the trauma parallels in our current day lives.

Lons said...

No, I just rent random stuff from the video store every now and again, just to check it out. So I picked up one of these Disney shorts collections merely out of curiosity.

By the by, the flowerpot to the head-personality switch set-up was just used by John Waters in his film "Dirty Shame," that comes to DVD on Tuesday. Look for a review in the next few days.