Quacking Up: Donald Duck Secrets

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"Here at the Studio, we feel both privileged and proud to have been associated with Donald (Duck) over the years. His perseverance, his loyalty and unshakeable devotion to his chosen profession in the entertainment world has endeared him forever in our hearts. And as they say, 'to meet him is to esteem him, to know him is to love him, to work with him is a rare unforgettable experience.' Donald is a duck of distinction." – Walt Disney "Donald's Silver Anniversary" November 1960 episode.

I've still got Donald Duck racing through my mind, not only because June is his 80th birthday, but because I gave a presentation on the history of Donald Duck to the local chapter of the Disneyana Fan Club on June 14, one day after Friday the 13th, the day that Walt wanted to be Donald's official birthday to explain all his bad luck.

Most folks know that my favorite Disney character is the black and white Mickey Mouse, who is so closely connected to Walt Disney himself. To celebrate Mickey's birthday last year, I even wrote a book titled The Book of Mouse listing everything I could cram about Mickey into 300 pages of text.

However, I have always had a fascination if not an affection for Donald Duck. I always felt he sometimes got a raw deal even if he was the instigator of the trouble and I always felt he was a great character.

Some readers may fondly recall the old "Official Disneyana" conventions held at the Walt Disney World Resort. Disney fans could attend seminars; hear Disney Legends speak; see special presentations; purchase overstock official Disney material, like ride vehicles and banners; and buy limited edition merchandise, among many other delights. While pricey, it was friendly and fun and in the earliest days we all felt the joy of the people running the event.

The seminar program was run by Disney Adult Discoveries and I had the privilege and the pleasure working for that group. I developed and taught some of the seminars, but the one that I most enjoyed was "The Donald Duck Underground."

The premise of the seminar that met in the early evening hours in a small darkened conference room in Disney's Contemporary Resort was a clandestine gathering of Donald Duck's fans at an event honoring Mickey Mouse.

There was a secret motto "Mice Never!" (putting two circled fists on top of your head) "Ducks Forever!" (making a duck bill quacking up and down motion with your two flat hands in front of your face)" I have to admit that the motto and hand motions only came to me as I was driving to the very first meeting.

We sang several of the songs written about Donald Duck by composers, like Oliver Wallace and Jimmie Dodd. We watched and discussed some rarely seen Donald Duck cartoons. Since at the time, the Disney Company owned the Mighty Ducks hockey franchise, I was able to get for all the attendees duck calls shaped like a duck's beak that participants would use randomly throughout the meeting either quacking during the cartoons or quacking at me as I lectured.

I put together a special 20-page pamphlet that included a reproduction of a Walt Disney drawing of Donald Duck from 1946; the official Disney Studio Donald Duck Coat of Arms with both a smiling and frowning Donald Duck face (like the masks of comedy and tragedy) and the mottos: "Et Tu Frustratus" and "E Pluribus Exasperation"; the list of Disney Studio-approved expressions that Donald could say; Donald Duck's draft notice (dated March 24, 1941); Donald Duck's name in different languages; a do-it-yourself flip book; and more.

On the cover, it read "This handbook is restricted to official members of the Donald Duck Underground only! All of the material within is classified TOP SECRET and CONFIDENTAL by the Duckburg Division of the D.D.U. This handbook is to acquaint new ducklings with the heritage of Donald Duck. It is only by being aware of the noble background of the noble duck that we can defeat the dreaded Mouse Menace. Loss or theft of this manual is punishable by the immediate cancellation of all quacking privileges. Assembled by Chief Quacker Jim Korkis."

We even gave out a special pin and button designed for the class. My manager, Kaye Bundey, was terrific. She was supportive and let me go wild with the class and even gave me some leeway on the budget. The class never lost money but it could have earned a few pennies more if we cut back on the goodies.

Unfortunately, as the "Official Disneyana Convention" changed direction to the downsized 2002 edition held at Epcot, the Donald Duck Underground only lasted for three years, although I will still run into attendees who will do the motto and quack when I run into them.

Anyway, the point of all that, other than my missing both the convention and D.A.D. that was also disassembled by the Disney Company is that there is much more to Donald Duck than most people suspect.

Let me share two examples we usually take for granted as we celebrate Donald's birthday.

What's In A Name? Donald Duck

Most people see no issue with the name "Donald Duck." After all, it was a long held conceit of children's books to give alliterative names to talking animals like Peter Pig, Tom Turkey and others.

That tradition carried over to comic strips and comic books that featured animal characters and later to animated films. Even the Disney Studio had characters named Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Clarabelle Cow, Dippy Dawg, Bucky Bug, Elmer Elephant and others.

However, there is a back story to Donald's name that hints at a dark secret.

"We've got this wonderful character for the television show. He's an uncle of Donald's. Ludwig Von Drake and he's of the continental branch of the family. The paternal side," stated Walt Disney to interviewer Pete Martin before the debut of the Wonderful World of Color weekly Disney television show in 1961. "Actually, you know, the drakes are males and the female is known as a duck. Donald took his mother's name. One little story I tell that gets a laugh. People say 'How come, you know, he's named Donald Duck and he's a male?' So I shock them by saying 'Well, he was a little bastard so he took his mother's name.'"

Was Donald Duck's father a goose? Donald waddles like a goose rather than a duck. Geese have longer necks than ducks and their beaks are straight, just like Donald's design in his first cartoon appearance The Wise Little Hen (1934).

After all, Donald has a cousin who is a goose, Gus Goose, who first appeared in Donald's Cousin Gus (1939). Actually, a male goose is called a gander, like Donald's lucky rival Gladstone Gander.

Could this supposed illegitimacy explain some of Donald's terrible temper and rage?

At the Disney Studio, Donald was always referred to as "The Duck." Mickey Mouse was always referred to as "Mickey" or "Mickey Mouse" but never as "The Mouse," especially around Walt Disney. People who worked on writing, animating of directing Donald's adventures were always referred to as "Duck Men."

A new Disney storyman from New York named Mike Myers was hired and before his first presentation of a Donald Duck story pitch to Walt that he had written, director Dave Hand, and a bunch of other Disney storymen, decided to help him out by having him do a dress rehearsal so they could give some pointers and encouragement.

As storyman Jack Kinney remembered the story, Myers stood in front of the group with his 8-by-4 storyboards filled with drawings but had a very colorful New-Yorkish vernacular way of speaking:

"Well, we open on Donald Duck's house. It's early morning. The f*king sun's just peekin' over another f*king rooster and boids start whistlin'. A cat yowls. Pluto wakes up an' starts chasin' the g*d*mn cat barking like a sonofab*tch. All kinda noises are raisin' hell.

"Donald Duck leaps outta bed madder'n a g*d*mn harnit. He trips over a pair of shoes and falls on his ass, then the f*kin' duck jumps to his feet an' runs out the f*king door. He sees Pluto chasin' that g*d*mn cat up a nearby f*king tree, raisin' hell with that f*king cat. Then the f*king' duck runs on, swinging a rake at the g*d*mn dog. As the f*king ducks takes a big swing at ol' Pluto, his f*kin' unnerwear catches ta clothesline hung with red unnerwear. The f*king duck gets hisself all f*ked up with all the f*king clothes…."

The storymen by this point were literally on the floor with uncontrollable laughter. Some could barely catch their breath to speak.

Dave Hand finally yelled out, "Mike! Mike! Hold it! Hold it! You gotta clean up your dialogue. Walt won't stand for you referring to Donald as 'that f*kin' duck'."

A puzzled Myers replied, "Well, that's what he is, ain't he?"

"No," Dave roared. "He's a duck…D-O-N-A-L-D-D-U-C-K!"

Myers answered, "I don't care how you spell it. He's still a f*kin' duck."

Myers quit the Disney Studio that day and the other storymen finished the story.

Donald Duck's Sailor Suit

"Quack, Quack, Quack. Donald Duck. In his sailor suit.
Quack, Quack, Quack. Donald Duck. Gee, I think he's cute!
I like the way he waddles and I like to hear him talk." – "Quack. Quack. Quack." Song composed by Jimmie Dodd

"[Clarence Nash] was there at the studio for about a year before we found what we could do with [that voice]. I'd always bring up and say 'What can we do with this duck, boys?' The thing that stumped us for a long time was I was thinking of a girl duck. Finally, we thought of a boy duck," remembered Walt Disney in a 1956 interview with Saturday Evening Post writer Pete Martin.

"We said, 'Well, he likes water.' We made him a sailor. We put a little middy blouse on him and a hat. He evolved into a pal of Mickey's and I worked him in with Mickey in stories and eventually we decided to set him up in his own pictures."

"It was Walt's idea to have Donald dressed up in a sailor suit," said Donald's voice, Clarence Nash, in an interview. "Donald is a duck, and ducks are associated with water. Therefore, it seemed only natural to have Donald dressed as a sailor."

However, it wasn't quite as simple and logical that a duck would love water and that water was associated with sailors. After all, there are many different types of sailor uniforms over the decades and many different ranks. The specific middy blouse and hat that Donald wears comes from a fashion trend that was popular during the time Walt was growing up.

Having young boys wearing sailor suits was popularized by Queen Victoria of England. The 5-year-old Prince of Wales (who became the future Edward VII) had his portrait painted onboard the royal yacht in 1846 wearing a scaled down version of a real Royal Navy enlisted man's uniform.

The Queen specifically picked this style rather than an officer's uniform to court favor with the public. In addition, it reinforced that at the time, England had the largest navy in the world.

The child's sailor suit caught the attention of families who wanted to copy the royal style. When he grew up, Prince Edward dressed his own sons in the sailor suit, as well.

By 1880, both boys and girls (girls wore a skirt rather than the dark bellbottom trousers) were wearing sailor suits thanks to aggressive marketing. In fact, some young boys up to age of 10 wore practically nothing but sailor suits. These were stylized versions in blue and white of Royal Navy enlisted men uniforms with the "V" front and back flap.

Because of the popularity with the middle class (especially since the dark blue showed dirt less on children who were active and the suit being appropriate at both formal and informal events), the country of France soon adopted the sailor suit for children, as well, and did some stylistic innovations including adding soft white hats that had a ribbon like Donald's hat.

Mass production helped make the suits affordable and there were both winter and summer versions with slight variations.

For a while, it became an international style trend but worn most commonly in France and Germany than any other country. It also became the traditional outfit of the famous Vienna Boys' Choir. The fashion fad died out during World War II.

Of course, by the beginning of the 1900s, the United States had also taken up the craze so it was natural to costume a young Donald Duck in such an outfit since it was so familiar.

In fact, in the year of Donald's first film appearance in 1934, this type of sailor outfit was often seen in theatrical productions like Cole Porter's Broadway hit, Anything Goes.

Animator and early Donald Duck expert Fred Spencer's lecture on the analysis of Donald Duck in 1935 to Disney animators included the following directions:

"The jacket is to be rather loose, but not so loose that it is floppy…loose enough to help in the flow of animation. The sleeves are a little loose around the wrist and the collar has a stripe around the outer edge.

"The hat can be used effectively to help expressions and takes. When Donald is meek or when he is thinking, the hat can sit straight on top of his head with the ribbon flowing in back; but to show anger, it is good to have the hat down overhis eyes and the ribbon falling down in front.

"Another established characteristic of Donald's is that when his hat flies off on a take or in anger and lands on the ground, he absent-mindedly reaches down for it without looking at it, picks it up, and slams it on his head before going into the next action."

Donald Duck does not wear pants because it looks awkward around his pear shaped rear end. In addition, the wearing of pants or shoes would obscure some of the most noticeable anatomy of a duck. The Disney animators quickly discovered that they could make an audience laugh by using Donald's tail feathers as a surrogate hand.

In 1977, newspapers around the world headlined that Donald Duck was banned in Finland because he did not wear pants and, so, set a bad example for children.

The city of Helsinki decided for budgetary reasons to stop supplying Donald Duck comic books to its youth centers, and perhaps replace them with sports or hobby magazines. The recommendation passed unanimously.

The following year, the person who suggested the removal of Donald Duck comic books was running for public office and his opponent portrayed him in political literature as "the man who banned Donald Duck in Helsinki." Foreign papers picked up on the controversy with headlines like "Donald, Where Are Your Trousers?" suggesting that it was Donald's lack of pants that caused his elimination.

After the initial tabloid outrage, the furor died down. Donald Duck comic books returned to youth centers and Donald Duck animated cartoons became more prevalent on Finnish television.