Happy 75th Birthday, Donald Duck!

Happy 75th Birthday, Donald Duck!

It's hard to believe, but this week the perhaps not most famous, but truly most popular character in the Disney universe celebrated his 75th birthday. On June 9th, 1934, the Silly Symphony short “The Wise Little Hen” premiered, featuring one Donald Fauntleroy Duck, resplendent in his trademark sailor jacket and cap.

Donald Duck's debut in the 1934 "Silly Symphony" short “The Wise Little Hen”

No pants, naturally.

According to Leonard Maltin’s seminal history of pre-Renaissance animation Of Mice and Magic, Walt Disney himself created Donald. It was partly due to censorship. The spirit of the times had stripped out many of the negative qualities of Disney’s reigning character, Mickey Mouse. The problem was the public didn’t quite shine to Mr. Mouse as a generally nice guy, or at least not like they used to. When Mickey was first introduced, he used to spit, fight, shoot guns, drink and put his gloved paws all over Minnie. Not any more.

Then one day Disney heard one of his animators, one Clarence “Ducky” Nash, recite the poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” in the voice we now recognize as Donald’s. Sure said voice was barely intelligible, but as drawn by such Disney master designer Dick Lundy, Donald was rarely misunderstood. He was a feisty bugger, and his physical expressiveness insured all fans knew what he was thinking. He was always ready to put up his dukes and subsequently be clobbered. In “Little Wise Hen,” he would feign belly aches in order to get out of work. Eventually, realizing he had a great thing going, Disney teamed Donald up with Mickey and Goofy for some of their greatest work ever. Donald, naturally, was the spoiler, the one who inevitably got the trio in the most trouble.

The fans loved it. It wasn’t long before Donald would star in his own series of shorts. His popularity grew so much he actually appeared in over 50 shorts before 1941.

From there, it wasn’t long before the Duck moved on to movies. His first feature film appearance was a cameo part in the film The Reluctant Dragon (1941). From there he starred in the WW II propaganda films Saludos Amigos (1942) and Three Caballeros (1944). He also did his patriotic duty in such shorts as “Der Fuhrer’s Face.”

Still, his image was starting to soften. He started being the butt of a lot of jokes, rather than the center of them. By the 1950s, he was being plagued by the likes of Chip’n Dale, Humphrey the Bear, even his own nephews — Huey, Dewey & Louie — who would at one moment confess their love for their “Unca Donald” and the next make his life pure hell. From there, the animators at the Magic Kingdom would torture Donald in a series of “educational” films.

But here’s the kicker. Donald would star in “golden age” Disney shorts up until 1961. Mickey’s last was in 1953. Maybe starring in Mickey Mouse Club kept him too busy.

There is one other key difference between the Mouse and the Duck. Starting in 1938 with the animated introduction of the Nephews, a universe of duck characters started to surround Donald. More interestingly, Huey, Dewey, and Louie were actually first conceived for a Disney comic book by legendary artist Al Taliaferro. Taliaferro also introduced Donald’s main love interest, Daisy Duck.

Things though really kicked into overdrive when Carl Barks started doing Duck comics. Donald wound up with a permanent home, Duckberg. He also wound up with friends and enemies ranging from Gyro Gearloose, the Beagle Boys, and many more. Of course, the biggest creations were Donald’s uncle Scrooge McDuck and Ludwig von Drake, but that’s a whole other story. Still, this ducky universe would have its eventual effect on television.

When Disney would launch its critical Disney Afternoon block of programs, the initial cornerstone of the four-show block would be Duck Tales. True, Donald only made a cameo appearance in the series pilot. It really starred Scrooge and the Nephews, but his presence was always felt. Eventually he would be back in a later series, Quack Pack, which was pretty entertaining in its own right.

The original "The Donald" is still pretty active to this day. Yes, he’s back to playing a supporting role in Mickey’s House of Mouse, but he’s still there, cutting it up and getting into trouble.

Then again we true fans know who’s the real star of that show. It’s only a matter of time before the Powers-that-Be at Disney remember who was really their #1 character as far back as 1938 and we'll all be properly rewarded.

That’s as it should be.

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