Fifty years later, Donald Duck is still a quack-up

Donald Duck turns 50 on June 9. And if Walt Disney Productions has its way this year, you'll have to take extended leave of the planet to avoid the ceremonies for one of America's liveliest cartoon characters.

Already in the works are a network special, a national tour complete with trained Peking ducklings, and a web-footed print in cement in Hollywood - along with months of gala birthday parties rivaling those of Mickey Mouse just five short years ago.

But insiders here at Disney World, and Disney-watchers around the nation, agree that there's something deeper to be learned from the staying power of an irascible quack like Donald Duck. It may be found in the reasons he was born in the first place - and how he managed, as a reflection of the nation's collective comic-consuming imagination, to eclipse the mild-mannered Mickey Mouse as Disney's most famous star.

''It would be interesting for Americans to ask why we bypassed a sweet, innocent, and gentle mouse for the feisty and petulant figure of Donald Duck,'' says Tom Inge, a professor of English literature at Clemson University.

Professor Inge, who has taught a course entitled ''Walt Disney and the American Dream,'' says Disney, uneasy with the overidealized world he created with Mickey Mouse, brought along the irascible Donald to provide some balance. But the new Duck - best known for his fists-raised, knees-locked pose and the exclamation ''Wanna fight?'' - became so popular on the screen that Mickey virtually had to retire.

With the exception of ''Mickey Mouse's Christmas Carol,'' released last Christmas, Mickey's last appearance in a film or short subject was in ''The Simple Things,'' way back in 1953. Even before that, however, Donald's popularity outstripped Mickey's: His comic-book sales far exceed those of his mousey rival, and although he is six years younger, he has appeared in more cartoon films (128) than Mickey Mouse (118).

''When Donald Duck came along in the middle of the depression (1934), he became immediately popular because of his personality,'' says Dave Smith, the archivist for Disney Productions, charged with holding and cataloging all things Disneyesque.

''He gave Americans something to laugh at at a time they were having a lot of problems,'' Mr. Smith says. ''People could get vicarious pleasure from seeing him throw temper tantrums (and) squawk and scream about everything. He went into the biggest rages you've ever seen - and the public loved it. Since he let it out on the screen, they didn't have to.''

But like most of us, Smith says, ''Donald's mellowed since the early days.''

In comic-book form, says Inge, Donald Duck's durability has to do with capturing those traits of national life that appeal to Americans. ''Comics are extensions of the national literature,'' he explains. ''Characters like Orphan Annie and Donald Duck are popular, like Huck Finn and Mike Fink, because they stand outside the accepted traditions and mores. When Donald won't behave in the accepted way, a part of each us applauds - it's a reflection of a certain part of our natures.''

That peculiarly American fondness for Donald's independence may be one reason for his longevity. But another, according to veteran Disney animator Bill Justice, was the advent of World War II.

Disney needed someone with more spunk for roles in such cartoons as ''Fall Out, Fall In'' and ''Donald Duck Goes to Boot Camp,'' recalls Mr. Justice, who is credited with the Mickey Mouse March cartoon used as a finale on the ''Mickey Mouse Club Show'' in the 1950s. ''Mickey was just too sweet for those roles,'' he says.

Donald's most famous film, ''Der Fuehrer's Face,'' won an Academy Award in 1943. ''No other Disney character could've masqueraded as Hitler,'' Inge says.

Not just a complainer, however, Donald Duck was also harnessed in more serious ways for the war effort - in movie short subjects telling people to pay their taxes and educating kids not to play with matches. And when Disney was deluged with requests for insignia for planes, tanks, and PT boats during the war years, ''400 were designed with Donald's face, only about 5 or 6 with Mickey's,'' says archivist Smith.

But the famous duck's incorrigiblity has been the subject of criticism. Was he, in fact, a bad example for the kids?

''Nonsense,'' says Justice. ''Everything Donald does is mild compared to the witch in 'Hansel and Gretel.' ''

Archivist Smith agrees. ''You never saw Donald involved in the kinds of violence you see in Road Runner, Sylvester and Tweetie Pie, or Bugs Bunny,'' he says. ''In those, everybody is always getting flattened or blown up.''

''He's definitely a PG rating,'' says Paul Vachon, an electrical engineer at the University of New Hampshire and a longtime collector and trader of comic books. ''Compared to the superhero violence in most comic books today, like 'GI Joe' and 'Atari Force,' '' he says, ''Donald is easygoing.''

One thing that separates Donald from most comics, Vachon says, is the emphasis on family structure. ''Most superheroes are desperadoes out of nowhere, '' he says. ''Donald had two uncles, three nephews, and was always going on family outings. Huey, Dewey, and Louie might have played tricks on him all the time, but you had the sense of family unit that is absent from comics today.''

Even that won't satisfy everyone, however. Several years ago a Helsinki youth committee canceled library subscriptions to Donald Duck comics because of his nonmarried relationship to Daisy, the uncertain parentage of his three nephews, and the short sailor suit that left his bottom exposed.

Like Mickey Mouse before him, Donald Duck has evolved somewhat over the years. Bill Justice recollects that Walt Disney once called in some efficiency experts to cut costs. ''They did a mileage analysis of our drawings,'' he recalls, and told Disney he that could save money by deleting Donald's nostrils and the four buttons on his suit, and by giving him only two nephews. Says Justice: ''Walt got rid of the nostrils, the buttons, and the efficiency experts.''

One thing he kept, however, was Clarence (Ducky) Nash - who has been the voice of Donald Duck ever since Disney overheard him making animal sounds back in 1934.

''Some say Donald shouldn't lose his temper so often,'' says the plucky, white-haired Nash. ''But most people love him because of it. That's his endearing quality,'' says Mr. Nash, who has been brushing up on Donald's Spanish and German for world tours.

Amid all this year's hoopla and press releases, however, there is no mention of the man who, besides Nash, is probably the main reason for Donald's worldwide success: Carl Barks.

An animator with Disney for seven years, Mr. Barks is credited with the creation of many of the best Donald Duck comic books - which, says Professsor Inge, ''have reached more people in the world than the cartoons ever will.''

Barks ''created the comic equivalent of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County,'' says Inge of the man who created Uncle Scrooge in 1952. That world has now been analyzed by literary scholars in a 10-set, 30-volume annotated edition of Barks's comics - complete with deconstructivist criticism and essays on the evolution of Donald and the nephews.

''It's high-powered literary stuff,'' says Inge, adding that a Carl Barks association gets together yearly to discuss comics. ''He created a fictional world all its own.''

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