Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky thinks Donald Duck needs some pants for that sailor suit already.
Our reviews of Walt Disney Treasures: The Chronological Donald, Volume Four (1951-1961) (published November 24th, 2008) and Walt Disney Treasures: The Chronological Donald, Volume Three (1947-1950) (published January 2nd, 2008) are also available.
"If he seems a bit reckless, you must remember Mr. Duck drives with a cartoon license."—Walt Disney, "A Day in the Life of Donald Duck"
The Walt Disney Treasures series continues, with Roy Disney's signature restored to the package. Most of the contents of this disc, however, have not been restored. Still, fans of Disney's scene-stealing, vocally-challenged, pantless waterfowl will enjoy this comprehensive look at his wartime exploits. At least, you'll enjoy the better parts of it.
Mickey Mouse, perhaps the most recognizable corporate icon on Earth, reached his artistic apotheosis before the outbreak of World War II. In a long-ago review of his cartoon adventures (Mickey Mouse in Living Color), I traced his transformation from the brightest star in the Disney firmament to a supporting player in his own series. Who stole Mickey's headliner mojo? It all started with a duck.
If Mickey worked better as an abstraction ("more beloved in memory than in person," was how I described him in that earlier review), and Goofy's evolution from stumbling hick to suburban everyman made his gags hit sometimes too close to home, Donald Duck stepped forward to become the perfect Disney cartoon hero. His near-inarticulate squawking forced the Disney story-men to rely on slapstick visuals rather than snappy dialogue, and he could not be groomed to look human enough (unlike Goofy, who only had to pin back his ears and put on a suit) for social satire. And then there was that temper…
The fun of early Donald Duck cartoons lay in their "ticking bomb" structure. How many minutes can Donald suppress his temper? Six to eight, depending on the running time. While Carl Barks would later find more depth in the character—a drive for success tied to a deep insecurity, a taste for easy pleasure meant to reflect the middle-class male psyche—the Donald of the theatrical short cartoon is pure catharsis. Wind him up, knock him over, and watch him flail in all directions.
As we begin The Chronological Donald, Volume Two in the year 1942, the Donald formula has become almost as smooth as a Swiss watch. The standard six to eight minute short consists of Donald working his way through between one and three long gag sequences. In "Bellboy Donald," our hero plays out a familiar "job scenario," in this case a bellboy, of course, coddling a difficult guest and his naughty son. (Various incarnations of Pete would usually play the villain roles in these cartoons.) In "Donald's Garden," the duck fights first with a water pump, then with a gopher. In "Donald's Gold Mine," his adversaries are a donkey and an ore processing machine.
Context is important here. Many of the scenarios for these cartoons of the 1940s revolve around situations familiar to Disney's wartime audience. Rubber shortages in "Donald's Tire Trouble." The rush of battle in "Donald's Snow Fight." Recycling plastic in 1944's "The Plastics Inventor." Donald's lack of discipline made him ideal for World War II military life. Mickey was too sweet to go to war; Goofy was, at least in his most public persona, too much of a rube. Donald already had the sailor suit.
Yet, somehow Donald ended up in the army far more often than the navy. Go figure. Disney bumps the military cartoons over to a section of Disc One entitled "In the Vault." Presumably, this is to segregate their content from the stuff your kids are more likely to watch. Many of these cartoons already turned up on On the Front Lines, Disney's indispensable survey of the war years. Watching them again, I am struck by how much more inventive many of them are than the conventional Donald Duck cartoons of the period. There is little surprising about a cartoon like "The Village Smithy," where you can predict what sort of "blacksmithing" gags the writers are going to come up with. And sure, in many of these war-related shorts, like "Fall Out—Fall In" (Donald goes on a forced march, then tries to pitch a tent), or "The Vanishing Private" (Donald gets hold of some invisible paint and torments his sergeant), the gags are pretty much what you would also come up with if given the plot situations used. But the military cartoons often seem funnier, because their gags are a little more aggressively paced and their targets are more clearly authority figures. "Der Fuehrer's Face," the one cartoon you would think would date the worst of anything on this collection, is still very funny—trashing pompous authority figures never goes out of style. Some of the military cartoons also push Disney's animators to their creative limits. The climax of "Commando Duck," for example, may be one of the wildest sequences of sheer destruction ever in a Disney short.
I suppose overall, Donald Duck made a pretty poor soldier: he was lazy, insubordinate, and easily swayed by the fervor of the crowd. But I am sure that his antics made green, nervous recruits feel better about their own chances in the war. If Donald could make it through, anybody could.
Another thing that strikes me about these military cartoons is how much better shape many of them are in than the other cartoons in this set. Most of these "In the Vault" shorts were restored a couple of years ago for On the Front Lines, and they are clean and bright. Which by contrast shows up all the flaws in the other cartoons on The Chronological Donald—Volume Two. Many of these are faded or dirty compared to the few that have been restored. "The Village Smithy" has a strange brownish tinge, and "Donald's Snow Fight" sounds like it was recorded in a bathroom.
The second disc of The Chronological Donald, Volume Two finishes out the war years with "The Duck" (as the Disney animators usually referred to him) in a variety of situations, some of which are predictable and some quite startling. "Trombone Trouble" begins as a formulaic "noisy neighbor" tale (Donald is frustrated by his neighbor's trombone playing), but turns very, very weird when Greek gods (!) give Donald superpowers. In "Donald's Crime," things take a psychological turn, when guilt consumes Donald over his theft of his nephews' piggy bank.
Indeed, the nephews act as foils for Donald in a surprising number of cartoons: "Home Defense," "Donald and the Gorilla" (the nephews dress in a gorilla suit, which apparently people in 1944 just kept around the house, then help their uncle fend off a real gorilla), "Donald's Day Off" (the nephews tweak Donald's hypochondria). "Old Sequoia," with Donald as a park ranger, offers two hungry beavers who are clearly prototypes for Chip and Dale. Donald was even paired up with Goofy a couple of times, as in "No Sail" (the two try to survive when their boat gets becalmed) and "Frank Duck Brings 'Em Back Alive" (Goofy plays jungle wild man; Donald tries to catch him).
One of the least developed characters in the Disney stable was probably Daisy Duck, who is a thinly-developed, feathered counterpart to Minnie Mouse. Her narrative function: get upset at Donald's misbehavior and demand he change. In "Cured Duck," she forces him to take an anger management course, which prompts him to fight with an "insult machine." In "Donald's Double Trouble," a serene, articulate twin shows up to seduce Daisy.
But too many of these 1940s cartoons show the Disney animators just trying to crank out product to fill out theatrical bills. Donald hypnotizes Pluto for a series of impersonation gags ("The Eyes Have It"); Donald paints his car and fights a pesky bird ("Wet Paint"). Some of these cartoons are just unfunny. In "Dumb Bell of the Yukon," Donald's task is to trap, kill, and skin a baby bear. It is more disturbing than amusing, and I suspect that even the audience of the 1940s must have caught the creepy vibe. Even Leonard Maltin admits (in Of Mice and Magic at least, if not actually in his smiling introductions to these discs) that Donald Duck had settled into a routine by the 1940s. It will not be until the next volume of The Chronological Donald that we will regularly see our hero teamed up with Chip and Dale (and later the brilliantly dimwitted Humphrey the Bear) in an effort to spice up his franchise.
Donald was still Disney's most marketable cartoon star in the 1950s though. This is clearly apparent on the full-length Disneyland television episode, "A Day in the Life of Donald Duck," which appears on Disc One of The Chronological Donald—Volume Two. Originally broadcast in 1956, this black and white show begins with Donald answering his fan mail in his office at the Disney Studios. He picks a fight with his own voice, actor Clarence Nash, whom Donald admonishes, "You just don't articulate!" Jimmie Dodd shows up for a song, followed by the Mouseketeers (call it marketing synergy, since their own show was only a season old). Along the way, the episode tries to pass off "Drip Dippy Donald" (1948), "Fire Chief" (1940), "The Vanishing Private," and 1938's "Good Scouts" as new cartoons, by showing us staged storyboard pitches, recording sessions, and the like. It always cracks me up that Walt tried to do this, to recycle old cartoons (which admittedly often were made before the kids in his audience were born) as if they were newly in production.
Disc Two features more documentary-style material as extras. Leonard Maltin interviews Donald's current voice, Tony Anselmo. There is a criminally-brief tribute to comics genius Carl "The Duck Man" Barks as well. I have two boxes full of Barks reprints I plan to give to my children when they are old enough to read them. There is also a cute montage of Disney's history during the war years, including a rare mention of the notorious strike of 1941. Art galleries and a 1940 public service announcement starring Donald round out the supplements.
Completists will certainly want to pick up The Chronological Donald, Volume Two to fill the space between Donald's early, wilder days and his later second career as foil to Disney's second generation stars like Chip and Dale. But the 1940s were a mixed bag for Donald, and fans will find the ratio of truly classic cartoons to mere filler a little troubling. Of course, that is not the fault of Leonard Maltin or the Walt Disney Treasures series: this is what comes of a comprehensive collection, where not every cartoon is A-level stuff. What is Disney's fault (and I will blame Maltin as well for not pushing harder on quality control) is the lack of restoration done on these shorts. Perhaps the company saw this as a filler volume as well. Perhaps now that Roy Disney is back in the fold, these cartoons will finally get restored for new generations.
Disney is ordered to perform community service directed toward better restoration efforts and more consistent production quality in future Walt Disney Treasures sets. If the company defaults on this task, the court will sic an angry duck on you.
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