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Last November we celebrated a milestone for one of Disney’s most iconic characters. Today we gather for another – Happy 85th Birthday Donald Duck!
There’s a certain irony to Donald’s popularity: in the theme parks or shows like The Mickey Mouse Club or House of Mouse, Donald is portrayed flagging behind Mickey in fame and adulation if not outright forgotten. But in the real world so many people prefer Donald over Mickey, and I can see why. Mickey’s status as the company’s mascot rarely allows him to be a mischievous rascal like in the old days. Donald on the other hand has always been the feisty fowl generations could relate to due to how much he’s put through the wringer and his resulting temper flares.
Because he’s not on as high a pedestal as The One That Started It All, he’s given more freedom of personality, and, as a result, much more to do. Donald’s worn a variety of hats throughout his five-and-fourscore-long career. This also expands beyond traditional media. You’d be hard pressed to find a Donald Duck video game that isn’t at least a little fun to play. Getting to bash things with his trademark temper tantrums is a treat, and Disney always takes full advantage of it. In fact, before Sora was created to be the protagonist for Kingdom Hearts, Tetsuya Nomura imagined Mickey as the main character, but Disney wanted it to be Donald! They’re well aware that no matter how bad the scenario, Donald can take a licking and keep on ticking, and that’s done him well these past 85 years.
So to mark the special occasion, I’m counting down my Top 21 Favorite Donald Duck Shorts. Why that many? Because I like to go eleven steps beyond.
The rules from before apply: I’m not counting segments from or complete feature films like Saludos Amigos or The Three Caballeros. Donald has to be the main focus of the entire short feature, and not just “Mickey’s name is in the title though Donald takes up 90% of the action but it’s totally a Mickey short, you guys, for reals”.
But par the course for this blog, a few Honorable Mentions first:
- Pomp and Circumstance – This highlight from Fantasia 2000 has Donald assisting Noah before the flood then reenacting An American Tail with Daisy on the ark.
- Trick or Treat – A Halloween classic where Donald falls victim to a witch’s tricks after he deprives his nephews of their treats.
- Donald and the Wheel – Two spirits of innovation try to inspire caveman Donald to invent the wheel, but it doesn’t quite stick. Meant to be educational, but the music is unbelievably catchy.
- Drip Drippy Donald/Early to Bed – These shorts featuring Donald being robbed of a good night’s rest would be hilarious if they weren’t so relatable.
- Donald’s Dilemma – The title’s a bit of a misnomer; Daisy’s the focus and there’s barely a dilemma. But it reveals a darker side to her romance and shows just how far she’d go to hold on to him.
- Orphan’s Benefit – While an ensemble piece for Mickey and Friends, it’s Donald who steals the show as usual.
- Commando Duck – Horribly blatant anti-Japanese sentiment aside, this World War Two-era short of Donald behind enemy lines has a fun chase at the climax.
- Cured Duck – Donald tries to cure his temper once and for all with an insult machine.
- Slide Donald Slide – Another one of Donald’s quarrels with Spike the Bee wins points for mirroring the World Series game playing on the radio, but winds up here because Spike is technically in the wrong this time around.
- The Wise Little Hen – The one that started it all.
- Donald’s Double Trouble – Donald hires an inexplicable doppelganger with better manners and English to win back Daisy only for it to backfire terribly.
- Donald’s Golf Game – Donald goes golfing with his nephews and their usual amount of mischief.
- Donald’s Valentine Dollar – Donald must retrieve his last dollar from all sorts of shenanigans in order to purchase a valentine for Daisy. It’s completely silent, but that repetitive piano music can get grating.
- Donald’s Camera – Donald’s attempt to shoot wildlife with a camera instead of a gun goes as well as you’d expect. Interestingly, I never knew about the original ending for years since they abruptly cut it off whenever they aired it on tv.
- Sleepytime Donald – A sleepwalking Donald takes Daisy out on a late night date, and it’s up to her to make sure he doesn’t wake up in a precarious situation.
- Mickey’s Philharmagic – Yes it’s a 3D show in the Disney parks and Mickey’s name is in the title, but don’t be fooled. Donald is the star of the show, and seeing him interact with some of the most iconic musical moments of the Disney Renaissance in stunning CGI animation for the time is astounding.
21. The Trial of Donald Duck
Donald goes on trial after a crooked restaurant owner accuses him of trying to weasel out of his bill. What follows is the defendant’s account of the incident that tries to smooth over Donald’s temper during the incident. If you’re expecting a Rashoman-style courtroom drama, this ain’t it. Instead the short focuses on the culture clash between blue-collar Donald and the snooty cafe and just how much of a penny-pinching bastard the waiter is. Not only does he charge Donald for food he brought himself, but also adds an exorbitant amount (back then) for coffee so minuscule it wouldn’t even count as a shot.
While I wouldn’t count the sentence Donald receives as fair, how he carries it out while getting back at the restaurateur makes it all worth it.
20. Mr. Duck Steps Out
Donald’s nephews tag along on his date with Daisy and get in the way of their romancing to his frustration. There’s not much to it other than some fun animation and hot jazz. The last few minutes in particular get wild once Donald becomes the victim of some cartoon-logic popcorn thanks to the boys. This also happens to be Daisy’s official introduction (Donna Duck from Don Donald doesn’t count, though I saw her as Daisy playing a role). And since this is when Clarence Nash did the voice for all of Disney’s duck characters, that means Daisy sounds exactly like Donald. It’s so odd hearing her make his familiar squawks. But it doesn’t distract from a fun date.
19. Soup’s On
Donald sends Huey Dewey and Louie to bed without supper after they refuse to wash up, leading the boys to scheme how to steal their dinner from under his nose.
The Donald Vs. Nephews shorts have been always uneven since they first bounded into his life; most of the time they tend to have one side stoop to almost heinous lows to make you sympathize with the other. Soup’s On falls into something of a gray area, however. There’s some good slapstick and silliness all around, with both teams more or less getting what they deserve (even if tricking your uncle into believing he was killed by a boulder does take it pretty far). And it holds some nostalgic value for me as much of this short was used in bumpers for Quack Attack. If you want a short that doesn’t have the Duck family at each other’s throats for once, look no further than our next entry.
18. Canvas Back Duck
When Donald gets a little too cocky showing off his strength at a carnival, he’s tricked into a boxing match against the ironically named “Peewee” Pete, and only Huey Dewey and Louie can save him. It’s nice having Donald and his nephews working together instead of against each other for a change. And what better cause to unite them than the Classic Disney villain for any occasion or character, Pete? Huey Dewey and Louie’s methods of defense technically count as cheating, but they’re using them to defend their uncle instead of getting back at him for once. Donald does manage to deliver an honest final blow himself, so that counts for something. It’s a boxing match for the whole family.
16. Computer Dot Don
You whippersnappers don’t know how easy you have it. All you have to do to get your internet and computer set up is just plug it into the wall. Back in my day, we had to go through the overly complicated shit Donald does in this short and for the exact same reason why – so he won’t be called a dweeb.
While it plays up the difficulties just a tad, this short captures exactly what it was like to set up your computer and start learning to be more technologically savvy in the early 2000’s. All the jokes work, from the incredibly slow internet loading times to the voice recognition constantly getting Donald’s name wrong (some things never change). I swear I’ll never get tired of the computer referring to its new owner as “Doould”. There’s also a neat sequence of Donald getting sucked into his computer and turned into a 3D model of himself while the mouse cursor messes with him. It’s actually great computer animation for the time. Out of all the classic Disney characters, Donald made the smoothest transition to the Mouse Works/House of Mouse style of shorts, and this is one of the best examples.
17. Trombone Trouble
It’s easy to classify Pete as Mickey’s number one enemy; it’s been that way since Steamboat Willie. Yet there’s plenty of times where Donald goes toe to toe with the big palooka and this is one of the more entertaining ones.
Donald can’t sleep due to Pete going out of his way to be obnoxious with his trombone practice. It gets so bad Donald winds up receiving aid from the gods themselves. Duck Jupiter and Duck Vulcan are sick of Pete’s ruckus keeping them up all night too, so they lend Donald some of their divine strength to take him out. I have a list of nightmare faces I never want to come across in the dark and Donald’s when he realizes the extent of his newfound power and immediately starts going mad with it is among them. Donald bringing the wrath of heaven down on Pete is funny to watch, and even Vulcan and Jupiter get their just desserts.
15. Donald Duck and the Gorilla
Huey Dewey and Louie scare Donald in a gorilla costume just in time for a real gorilla to invade their home. Fast-paced slapstick and chases ensue.
While it borrows a similar premise from an early Mickey Mouse cartoon, Donald Duck and the Gorilla is its own beast, so to speak. It goes from Donald and the nephews trying to scare one another to banding together to save their skins. Ajax, the titular gorilla, is a good foil and threat to Donald. What the brute lacks in brains he makes up for in size and strength. The maze-like house and dark stormy atmosphere make this short perfect for a night of laughs and thrills.
14. Donald’s Better Self
Donald’s shoulder angel and devil come to blows over his soul when he’s convinced to skip school and try smoking. It’s a good thing the angel steps in before Donald plays some pool or else he’d be a total goner. Something I like about this iteration of Donald is that he’s not an irascible adult but a naive child under peer pressure. This kind of characterization is actually rather endearing. For all his bluster, Donald’s just a kid having a bad day. I’m also grateful they don’t make the angel as much of a pushover as they could have. When she (and yes, the angel is played a woman) socks the devil good, it’s highly satisfying. It doesn’t get a higher place on this list due to how much of a clear-cut morality play of the times it is, but I still think it’s pretty sweet.
13. Donald’s Ostrich
Donald becomes the impromptu caretaker of an ostrich named Hortense who’s left behind at a train station. Hortense is completely adorable if perhaps a bit too affectionate (no means no, girl) but she’s at that age where you test out whether or not you can eat every new object by putting it in your mouth. This leads to a disastrous case of the hiccups, which is made all the more difficult to cure when she swallows Donald’s noisy radio. Donald has his work cut out for him, but he’s sincerely concerned for Hortense’s wellbeing and does what he can to help regardless of his own safety. Though this is Hortense’s only animated appearance, for a time she was Donald’s pet in some of his earlier comics. I think it’s time she made a comeback.
12. Donald’s Rocket Ruckus
Huey, Dewey and Louie want to go on the hottest new thrill ride, though Cast Member Donald thinks it’s too dangerous and does everything in his power to prevent them. Will the boys be able to outwit their uncle and enjoy the ride of their lives? Does Donald not wear any pants?
Almost every joke in this one hits their mark, especially when it comes to the nephews’ various attempts at sneaking past Donald. There’s a particularly funny subversion of a certain gag the boys previously used in the 50’s short Straight Shooters, which coincidentally also took place at a carnival. Donald does have a good reason for not letting the boys on to the rocket rods, though purposefully altering the height requirements and then actually making the attraction unsafe just to teach them a lesson does go a bit over the line. But it all works out in the end and leaves us with some good chuckles.
11. Donald’s Dinner Date
Another underrated one from the Mouse Works/House of Mouse era that still makes me laugh. Donald tries to prove to Daisy once again that he can control his temper while sharing a romantic dinner out. The problem is Goofy is their waiter. You can imagine the complications his mere presence causes.
This short combines the best of Donald’s cartoons with the best of Goofy’s. The high energy and physical comedy are perfect. And the outcome is delightfully ironic: as the evening wears on, Donald gets better at self-control while Daisy only grows worse. In a funny way, it shows how Donald and Daisy are more or less different sides of the same coin. They’re both flustered ducks with anger issues and really are meant for each other. And of course, there’s Goofy’s naturally upbeat goofiness to balance it all out.
10. Der Fuehrer’s Face
Yep, we’re going there, folks. The infamous short that depicts Donald as a Nazi. And there’s a lot to unpack here, so please hear me out.
Der Fuehrer’s Face is a propaganda short – and if you think it’s pro-Nazi propaganda, I kindly ask you to remove your head from Seth McFarlane’s ass. Disney was demonizing Hitler and his regime, not praising him. The song this short is named after and plays throughout openly mocks Hitler and his way of running things. Like all propaganda shorts of the era, this one exaggerates things to a cartoonish degree so audiences could laugh at how ridiculous the “other” was. And that release through laughter also served as a reminder. It gave audiences a taste of the nightmare that was Fascist Germany, albeit skewed towards dark comedy and surrealism more than gritty realism. It worked to remind Americans of the freedoms they may have taken for granted at the time. Watch and you’ll see Donald is never happy to be a Nazi, not once. All the marching and heiling he does is under duress, especially when he’s forced to switch between that and his hellish factory work in rapid succession. In the end, it’s all a terrible dream that Donald is thrilled to wake up from.
As of writing this, Der Fuehrer’s Face is the only Donald short to win an Oscar. But hey, if Ralph Fiennes and Christoph Waltz can win Oscars for playing nazis, then why not Donald Duck? You feel every bit of his misery, and his descent into madness somehow succeeds in outdoing the Pink Elephants sequence in sheer trippiness. Biting political satire goes hand in hand with top-tier animation, though the broad stereotypes presented by the other Axis powers are still problematic. To this day it ranks among the most effective pieces of propaganda ever made and an important part of animation history. Me personally, I think this is one of the few Disney properties I’d love to see a live-action remake of.
9. Music Store Donald
Donald and Pete are at risk of losing their jobs at a music store if one of them doesn’t make the next sale. Enter Daisy, who’s looking for the right instrument to play a certain “romantic” song which I won’t spoil here. The rest of the feature is Pete and Donald fighting to complete the song first using a variety of instruments and musical styles, which leaves the shop in shambles. It’s incredibly quick and too silly to not smile at. I also appreciate the nod to another entry higher up on this list by representing their otherwise unseen boss as a talking loudspeaker.
8. Duck Pimples
Donald gets so caught up in reading pulp novels on a dark and stormy night that he winds up becoming part of the story…or does he?
This short is so surreal I love it. It messes with your head almost as much as Donald’s. It can get surprisingly dark at times, even for an old-school Disney short. And oh, the animation! The characters that pop out of the book are lively, rubbery and crazy with a lurid palette to match; all animation students should study them. It’s the closest Disney has ever come to being like a Tex Avery cartoon. Though the ending leaves you with far more questions than answers, it’s still an unforgettable trip.
7. Modern Inventions
Donald visits a museum of “modern” inventions and gets in the usual amount of trouble when he tests some of them out himself. The devices are creative and silly, which leads to some inventive gags. To top it all off, there’s a fun running joke of a robotic butler following Donald around and taking his hat only for Donald to keep replacing it with a new one. Though am I the only one who thought that robot was just a bit creepy? The deep voice, that one big eye, him stalking Donald everywhere, that thing has ‘creeper’ encoded into its wiring. I wonder if people back in 1937 imagined this is how we’d live in the future. I confess I always found retro-future designs and guesses at how technology would affect everyday life from decades past intriguing. While it’s doubtful we’ll be getting automated barber chairs any time soon, it’s always fun to speculate.
6. Donald’s Snow Fight / The Hockey Champ
These are two winter-themed shorts that I just didn’t have the heart to separate. I hold Donald’s Snow Fight in slightly higher regard due to nostalgia, but I’m also a bit of a hockey fan and can’t ignore a good story where its the central theme.
In the first of these shorts, Donald and his nephews embroil themselves in a snowball war that probably violates the Geneva Convention on more than one account. It escalates from vehicular snowman slaughter to snowballs to loaded snow bombs in a matter of minutes. Huey Dewey and Louie even manage to break the laws of physics by raining snowballs that are on fire down on their uncle. The action onscreen is silly, but boy do you feel every blow as each side turns to more violent measures. I’m with Donald when he cries out after one particular unfair exchange “That’s unconstitutional!” But the brutality doesn’t make any less entertaining to watch. Plus, this is considered a Christmas short because Donald opens the short with his sled singing Jingle Bells, and I look forward to watching it every year around that time.
The Hockey Champ is a bit more straightforward. While both shorts open with Donald enjoying the cold weather and all that entails, The Hockey Champ eschews much of Snow Fight’s buildup to get right to the action. Donald is out skating and comes across his nephews rioting out on the ice like in any good hockey game. Eager to show off his own skills, he challenges them to a three-on-one match. In the end, Donald’s fumbles against his nephews proves the old adage about there being no “I” in team true. It’s fast good fun that, like the short preceding it, captures the feeling of winter and its sports to a T.
5. Donald in Mathmagic Land
I bet some of you were wondering when this one would turn up. Donald in Mathmagic Land does the impossible and makes an edutainment special enjoyable to watch, even outside the classroom! Donald wanders into Mathmagic Land and The Spirit of Adventure (played by the great Paul Frees) guides him on a visually and intellectually fascinating journey through what math has to offer the world, from music to art to nature to games and more.
Donald’s curiosity, enthusiasm, and playful attempts to bend the rules makes him a great audience surrogate. He bounces off of Frees’ dry remarks well. I used to find the parts that didn’t have Donald in it boring, but now Frees’ calm narration paired with the beautiful patterns and images are quite soothing. This short looks simply wonderful, with environments and creatures clearly inspired by Alice in Wonderland. In fact they deliberately reference Alice in the second half when they demonstrate how math plays an instrumental part in chess (also so they could recycle some animation from there). On the topic of games, there’s a nifty scene using real billiard balls to demonstrate how to play a perfect game a pool.
I was never very good at math in school and had no desire to learn more beyond the basics. But thanks to Donald in Mathmagic Land, learning mathematical theory has never been more entertaining.
4. Officer Duck
By far my favorite of the Donald vs. Pete confrontations. Donald must arrest notorious criminal “Tiny Tom” and he devises the perfect scheme to do so – infiltrate his hideout disguised as a doorstep baby. It’s a simple premise that is taken full advantage of. Donald must constantly keep up the facade of innocent toddler while trying to outwit his strong-armed foe. And it’s so humorous seeing the normally brutish Pete go to pieces over his adorable little ward. It all climaxes in a rare deus ex machina for Donald that surprisingly works. Sometimes, after everything he’s put through, it’s good to let the duck win.
3. The Autograph Hound
Donald sneaks into a Hollywood studio to collect autographs from his favorite stars all while dodging a no-nonsense security guard. But after he’s recognized, Donald’s the one who’s inundated with autograph requests!
While Warner Brothers is the undisputed king of cartoon celebrity caricatures from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Disney proved they were more than capable of stepping up to the challenge thanks to shorts like these (Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, a Silly Symphony released the year prior, took the premise a step further and won an Oscar). Now that I’m older I can truly appreciate how well they captured these celebrities’ likenesses, especially since I only knew a few of them when I was a kid.
Donald gets into some hilarious scenarios while meeting his idols, whether it’s engaging in a troll-off with Mickey Rooney or falling victim to the Ritz Brothers’ zaniness. It’s refreshing when Shirley Temple is not only delighted to give him her John Hancock without any trouble but is the first to recognize him, which in turn saves and helps him get some revenge on the overzealous guard.
2. The Clock Watcher
Donald works as a gift wrapper in a fancy department store. Hilarity ensues.
I don’t know what else to say about this one. It never fails to crack me up. The timing is on point and each new surprise package gives Donald a new opportunity to milk some laughs from it. Donald goes about his work like a true American – finding new ways to slack off while appearing busy, making fun of his boss when his back is turned, carrying out the responsibilities of six other people all on his own, being denied a raise when he proves he can do his job competently, and forced to work overtime just as quitting time rolls around. And people wonder why millennials are turning to socialism on Tumblr.
A big part of what makes this short so funny is the conflict with Donald’s boss. Take C-3PO’s pedantic nature, infuse it with an anthropomorphic bullhorn and you have a perfect workplace antagonist. His uptight attitude clashes with Donald’s, shall we say, “unorthodox” methods and both manage to drive each other up the wall. When he finally pushes Donald too far and gets beat up at the end, it is tremendously satisfying.
But what gives this short such a top spot are the fond memories of how I became acquainted with it. I know unlike Donald’s Snow Fight this isn’t a Christmas short, but I always love watching it at Christmastime, especially when I’m wrapping presents. I have a special that used to air on the Disney Channel recorded on a VHS tape and this short was included among the more traditional Disney holiday clips because, as the host Jiminy Cricket puts it, somebody needs to wrap up the gifts. Because of that I always associate this short with Christmas. Not to mention my own wrapping skills are on par with Donald’s so I can relate.
And the Number One Donald Duck short is…
1. Donald’s Lucky Day
Donald’s own theme song proclaims he’s the one who gets stuck with all the bad luck, which makes Friday the 13th a particularly bad day for him (interestingly, The Three Caballeros states that his birthday is on Friday the 13th). In this short, Donald’s a delivery boy trying to get a package from Point A to Point B while encountering all manner of things that incur misfortune on this ill-fated day – ladders, broken mirrors, black cats, and the like. And to top it off, he doesn’t know that his package is really a bomb due to go off soon.
The noir setting of foggy docks and dusky alleyways underlines the short’s dark tone but provides a good contrast to the comedy without giving us tonal whiplash. There’s charm oozing from every bit of the animation, sound effects, and of course, our main character.
Like Brave Little Tailor to Mickey, this is the short that sums up everything we know and love about Donald. He’s not the most patient or forthright character, and much of his misfortune is a result of his own doing, but no matter how terrible things get he never gives up. Instead he comes back fighting twice as hard. And in this case, that persistence can turn things around and transform an unlucky day into a lucky one.
Donald Duck may be considered second-best within canon, but in the hearts of fans he’s second to none. Happy Birthday, Donald!
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