On June 9, 1934, the Walt Disney animation studios released The Wise Little Hen, a Silly Symphony adapted from a classic fairy tale. As with most of the Silly Symphonies, the cartoon did not feature any of Disney’s stock recurring characters, such as the already-legendary Mickey Mouse. But one member of Hen’s supporting cast–a petulant, musical, sailor suit-clad duck–would soon rival Mickey as one of the greatest cartoon creations of all time.
The Wise Little Hen only gives us a glimmer of Donald’s personality; here, he is not so much the familiar hot-headed duck that we all know and love, but a lazy gadabout whose role is secondary to the hardworking hen. His design has not been perfected at this early stage, but is a little “off” from the Donald we are used to seeing. But there’s something immediately appealing about the character, and it comes from that gloriously odd voice. Donald Duck’s rise to fame was largely due to the brilliant vocal performance of Clarence Nash, an impressionist whose talents garnered the praise of Walt Disney and led to his casting in this cartoon. Nash’s inspired characterization of the foolish duck–a mix of quacking squawks and barely discernible words–made Donald stand out among his barnyard brethren in Hen. [Nash would go on to voice the character exclusively for more than five decades until his death in 1985. After Nash’s death, Tony Anselmo–who was trained by Nash himself–took over the role, and has played Donald ever since.]
But it wasn’t just the voice that made Donald memorable. In this first appearance, he is a somewhat benign supporting character, but when Disney animator Dick Lundy added a quick temper into the mix in the character’s next cartoon, Orphan’s Benefit (1934), a true star was born.
Benefit is technically a Mickey Mouse cartoon, but Donald is the highlight. His recitations of nursery rhymes–purely designed to promote Nash’s impeccable vocal delivery–are an absolute hoot, but it’s when he loses his patience with the rambunctious orphans that the fun really begins. “What’s the big idea?” he shouts, a line that he would return to, again and again, throughout his illustrious career. He starts mouthing off, bouncing up and down with his fists thrust forward, looking for a fight. As all his attempts to recite “Little Boy Blue” are thwarted, we see the slow burn–the tapping feet, the scowl, the angry quacking that reaches a crescendo of frustration until the children get the better of him. It’s a familiar trope to us now, Donald losing his temper like this, but that doesn’t make it any less amusing to watch.
Donald filled a necessary role at Disney, not only as a companion for Mickey Mouse, but as the embodiment of all that wasn’t precisely ideal. In the five-plus years since the release of Steamboat Willie, Walt Disney had made Mickey into a sort of paragon, the straight-man heroic type whose appeal could not be tarnished by bad behavior. Donald Duck, then, became the studio’s master of mischief. He was optimistic yet ill-tempered, sometimes a bully, and generally out for himself in a selfish manner that would be unbecoming to the storied Mickey. And Donald was all the more fun for his “bad” behavior.
[Note in the cartoon embedded above, 1949’s Donald’s Happy Birthday, that his birth date is listed as March 13th. However, Disney officially recognizes the June 9th debut of The Wise Little Hen as the character’s “true” birthday.]
After a few years as a recurring character in the Mickey shorts, Donald was given his own series in 1937, and the series garnered its first Academy Award nomination the following year. His popularity exploded, and his cartoons became even bigger draws than those of Mickey. In fact, Donald was so popular that he even went mainstream in 1939, playing a critical “supporting role” in the RKO screwball comedy Bachelor Mother. A few years later, the character made his official feature-length debut in Disney’s first two “package films” of the 1940s, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Donald’s groundbreaking 1943 anti-Nazi short Der Fuerher’s Face won the Oscar and became a textbook example of World War II-era propaganda. He even managed to make math fun, in the 1959 Oscar-nominated animated documentary Donald in Mathmagic Land.
Disney animators quickly realized that the duck worked best with an antagonist, and indeed, his adversaries were many. Over the course of his long-running series, he went up against a pair of trouble-making chipmunks, a hungry bear, and especially his own nephews, a trio of hellions whose antics inspired any number of tantrums over the years. Part of what makes the Donald cartoons so enjoyable is the constantly brewing conflict with others, which allows the baser aspects of Donald’s personality to shine. When he blows his top, you know that laughter is sure to follow.
Throughout the decades, Donald’s popularity has never truly wavered. Eighty years after his debut in theaters, Donald Duck remains one of the most beloved figures in the Disney canon, an enduring and endearing character who appeals to the not-so-civilized part of all of us. He may not have the “sweetest disposition,” as his theme song so hilariously tells us, but we love him all the more for his inability to control that hair-trigger temper amid all the frustrations of everyday life.
Happy birthday, Donald! Long may you rage.