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"The Chronological Donald, Volume 3": Another Side of Donald Duck

by on March 14, 2008

The Chronological Donald, Volume Three, part of the Walt Disney Treasures seventh wave, rounds up the Donald shorts made between 1947 and 1950, featuring twenty-nine in total, right from where volume two left off. There are two DVDs, which, as is customary for a Treasures release, come in a nice silver tin box complete with a lithograph and signed certificate (mine was 44,348 out of 50,000). It also comes with introductions from Leonard Maltin, some brief non-essential extras, and a gallery of stills. Two or three shorts on each disc are kept apart from the rest in a “From the Vault” section, which features a squeaky clean, ultra-PC intro by Maltin about possibly offensive content. Make of that what you will.

Donald Duck is one of the most recognisable cartoon characters in the world. But how many of people have actually sat down and watched a Donald Duck cartoon? Here in the UK, they haven’t shown Disney cartoons on terrestrial television for decades. When I was growing up they still showed Looney Tunes, but even that has stopped now. I only knew Mickey and Donald through cultural osmosis. It’s not like anyone said to me “This is Mickey Mouse, this is Donald Duck”; I already knew. It’s like I came pre-packaged with that knowledge, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who those characters are. To borrow a phrase from one philosopher, I “always-already” knew Mickey and Donald. But that is not to say I was familiar with them. I knew how they spoke and I was vaguely aware that Donald has a bad temper, but that was about it. I am sure I am not alone in this: millions of people must have grown up with this strange, seemingly innate knowledge of Disney’s flagship characters without actually ever having seen one of the shorts that made them famous.

Interesting then, that Donald’s identity—or rather, his split identity—lies at the heart of this set. Consider the lyrics to Donald’s theme song:

Who’s got the sweetest disposition?
One guess, that’s who?
Who’d never, ever start an argument?
Who never shows a bit of temperament?
Who’s never wrong but always right?
Who’d never dream of starting a fight?
Who gets stuck with all the bad luck?
No one but Donald Duck!

The sarcasm of the first six lines is apparent to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of Donald’s character. However, the closing couplet is more ambiguous. Are all the things that happen to Donald really the mere result of “bad luck”, or does he bring things upon himself? It is this question that the first disc poses. This is a tale of two directors. Of the sixteen shorts on disc one, Jack King directed six and Jack Hannah directed nine (the remaining short, “Crazy with the Heat”, a so-so desert team-up with Goofy, was directed by Bob Carlson; incidentally, it was his only directing credit). On disc one, King and Hannah wrestle with Donald; it is clear from the start of this set that they each maintain a different vision for the character.

Jack Hannah’s shorts—best exemplified by “Chip ‘n’ Dale” (the first appearance in which the future Rescue Rangers are named), “Bootle Beetle” or almost any of the shorts from disc two—all feature Donald being antagonised by a guest star. Most of these shorts follow a formula: Donald is attempting to do a simple task, say, to have a picnic, put up some wallpaper, or just warm himself by the fire, when the pest (Chip ‘n’ Dale, Buzz Bee, Beetle Bootle, Huey, Duey and Luey, àinsert annoying guest star hereß) does something to disturb him, usually because he is using or has an item they want. Then Donald retaliates with excessive force and indulges a little too much in his counter attack, thereby upping the ante. In each short, Donald starts as the victim but then quickly loses our sympathy by escalating the situation. The Donald of Hannah’s shorts is not just the victim of “bad luck”: he exacerbates and provokes, he actively enjoys the duel of wits and goes out of his way—sometimes to absurd lengths—to get one up on his opponent. He always loses.

Hannah shows us many ugly sides to Donald on this set. The duck is by turns selfish, greedy, sadistic, obsessive, pernickety, cruel, and uncaring. Inevitably, the formula starts to wear thin after a while. Hannah makes Donald very difficult to sympathise with—he’s no Wile E. Coyote—but it’s also difficult to side with the critters he battles. On disc two, which features fourteen shorts all directed by Hannah and conforming to his formula, I found myself siding with Donald by default simply because his opponents are so annoying. The cartoons in which Donald is repeatedly antagonised have often been criticised for being unfunny. I am undecided. The best of the 100% Hannah formula shorts are probably “Slide, Donald, Slide”, which features Buzz Bee and Donald fighting over a radio station, and “Two for Two Hundred” (from the “From the Vault” section), which features Donald battling a colony of ants—the way he toys and tortures the ant at the start is borderline sick! The worst of them make eight minutes feel like a long time.

Invariably, the best Hannah shorts here are the ones that break the mould a little bit. For example, “Sea Salts”, a Bootle Beetle story told in flashback, shows Donald and Bootle stranded on an island. Throughout the short, Donald is extremely selfish towards Bootle and shows a callous disregard for his welfare. Despite the fact there is limited water available, Donald squeezes Bootle’s straw (cutting off his supply) and takes all the water himself on a number of occasions. In another sequence, he pretends to lose his hat and then cons Bootle into being piranha bait! But he does give Bootle his fair share of the catch—Donald can share when he wants to! At the end, a ship arrives and Donald dashes off, appearing to leave a distraught Bootle behind only to offer him a seat in his hat. Bootle’s voiceover tells us that they became friends forever more but concludes that “he will never understand his old friend” after Captain Donald pulls the straw trick again. Donald is certainly not without his flaws but at least he has a heart. “Soups On” is also quite interesting in that it shows Donald trying to instill some discipline into his young nephews. Again, he’s a good guy at heart, if a little cruel—no, downright sadistic—in his methods.

And then there are the six shorts from Jack King, all on disc one. In this context, they shine like beacons. These shorts are charming and reveal different sides of Donald’s personality. Most importantly of all, Donald is given a bit of space to be the star he undoubtedly is. “Donald’s Dilemma” is a remarkable short in which Donald gets a knock on the head and wakes up with the ability to sing like Frank Sinatra. He promptly becomes a big star and forgets all about his poor girlfriend Daisy, who tells her psychiatrist that she would rather rob the world of Donald’s new-found beautiful voice than go on without him. It’s an amazingly mature piece of work for a Disney cartoon. There are others that are equally impressive: “The Trial of Donald Duck” finds our hero in court battling a pompous French waiter who erroneously attempted to charge him for his own packed lunch. In “Donald’s Dream Voice”, he is a salesman who no one can understand until he stumbles on some pills that give him a perfect voice for a limited amount of time. His sincerity in trying to earn enough money to buy an engagement ring and his increasing desperation as the pills start to run out are heart-wrenching. In “Drip Dippy Donald”, a dripping tap stops Donald from sleeping, which gives King room to stage his most innovative directorial flourishes. In one sequence, he gives us a superb point of view shot of Donald’s sink and, as the drips become louder, the water droplets become bombs and begin to shake the kitchen, then the house, then the whole world. It’s quite masterful. King’s shorts are both funny and strikingly modern. They remind me more of Curb Your Enthusiasm than your average Disney or Looney Tunes short—you feel Donald’s irritation. At times it’s almost as if Donald is some sort of 40s cartoon proto-type for Larry David.

This set, like all Disney’s Treasures sets, will look nice on your shelf and there is definitely stuff worth watching here. I consider the six shorts by Jack King masterpieces of the genre; and they star the Donald I prefer: yes, he’s angry, irritable and sometimes petty, but he’s also hard done by and has a heart of gold. The Jack Hannah shorts pale by comparison, and, alas, they make up at least seventy-five per cent of this set. But for the price Disney are asking for this, I’d pick it up anyway, if only for the King shorts.

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