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Donald Duck is a man (well, duck) of few children, less patience and zero pants. Today is he turns 85. Cheer up, mate.
Screen and television legend Donald Duck made his first ever film appearance 85 years ago this month when he was employed by entrepreneurial film producer Walt Disney to join the cast of the 1934 Silly Symphonies cartoon The Wise Little Hen. In that short film, Donald shows off two of his talents—his fine dancing skills (just watch those dapper webbed feet moving to a sailor’s hornpipe) and his acting (no one does a bellyache better than Donald, although in this cartoon his offsider Peter Pig has a pretty good go). The Wise Little Hen marked the beginning of a very productive career for Donald Fauntleroy Duck, who went on to appear in over 190 features.
Wearing his usual attire of a cap and sailor shirt, often fetchingly enhanced by the addition of a red bow tie, his lack of trousers has often been remarked on, but many would say that Donald is simply a free spirit. And perhaps it explains his short temper—just imagine having to be naked from the waist down (feathers notwithstanding) at all your public engagements.
His speaking voice lacks a certain level of enunciation, a trait that he was carefully coached in by esteemed voice actor Clarence “Ducky” Nash, and although there are times when we don’t quite know what he’s saying, his acting skills make his message eminently clear. One of the crosses he’s had to bear has been the incomprehension of his fellow star Mickey Mouse who often remarked that he was unable to understand a word of what Donald was saying. Some critics have accused Mickey of a superiority complex when it comes to his professional relationship with Donald, but the truth is they share a very close friendship. And Mickey has privately acknowledged that Donald courageously takes roles where he challenges both his co-stars and his audiences. It’s a mark of the duck that he puts so much of himself into his acting. He’s also a team player, often appearing in ensemble features with Mickey, Goofy and Pluto, Minnie Mouse and his real-life paramour Daisy Duck.
In fact, Donald Duck has been in many ways a fearless actor. While his co-stars at the Disney studio tended to stick to innocent happy-go-lucky roles, Donald was always pushing the envelope, taking on more difficult roles in which he had to display irrational anger, sometimes by (purposely) muttering incoherently, jumping up and down and waving his fists about in a somewhat belligerent manner. But his hard work paid off, and before he knew it, he was being engaged to star in films like Donald and Pluto (1936) where he plays a plumber, and Donald’s Ostrich (1937) where his role as a luggage handler at a railway station garnered many accolades. A decidedly multi-faceted actor, he’s at home playing anything from a boat builder, golfer, hockey champion, fire chief, chef, test pilot, musician, sailor and commando. As far as character actors go, Donald Duck is among the most gifted in all of movie history.
He won his only Oscar (Best Animated Short Film) for his performance in the satirical anti-Nazi propaganda film Der Fuehrer’s Face, originally titled Donald Duck in Nutziland (1943). It’s possibly also one of the few times he appears on film wearing pants—although to be fair they are pyjama pants. Der Fuehrer’s Face wasn’t widely shown at the time because it depicted Donald as a Nazi, even though it was revealed at the end of the film to be a dreadful nightmare. Really, as if the quintessential American duck would ever be a Nazi! But it wasn’t Donald’s only appearance at the Academy Awards: alongside show business luminaries like Bob Hope, James Stewart and Rosalind Russell, Donald co-hosted the Oscars ceremony in 1958.
Donald Duck is well known for his comedic roles, but he’s also deeply committed to education and over the years has agreed to star in a number of educational films, The Litterbug (1961) and Donald’s Fire Survival Plan (1965) among them. He made a cameo appearance in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and has a pivotal role in Duck Tales (2017). In his long life and extraordinary career, he’s never really been out of work. Movies, short films, television shows and documentary-style features have been his bread and butter and he still continues to make regular appearances at Disney theme parks across the globe. (I can just hear him saying modestly, “Aw phooey!”)
Also on The Big Smoke
- The most famous mouse of all: Mickey at 90
- If it drives like a duck: Why anthropomorphism is an enduring part of stories we tell
It’s difficult for celebrities to keep their private lives out of the public eye, but Donald has largely managed to do this. We know he’s enjoyed a long relationship with his girlfriend Daisy, who has had a calming influence on him for many years, invariably succeeding in pacifying him when his temper threatens to get the better of him. A devoted family man, Donald also shares good times with his sister Della’s three sons Huey, Dewey and Louie, as well as his uncles Scrooge McDuck and Ludwig von Drake.
Donald Duck received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005, a fitting acknowledgement to a lifetime devoted to entertaining children and adults everywhere. Wishing him a very happy 85th birthday.