Unmade Donald Duck Cartoons

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I have always had a fascination with Disney projects that were announced but were never realized. In Hollywood, these are often referred to as being in "Development Hell," meaning that it sounded like a good idea, extensive work was devoted to developing it and talented people were connected with the project.

However, for a variety of reasons, from poor timing and lack of budget to significant people leaving the project and attention being shifted to something else, the project had to be abandoned or put on a semi-permanent "pause."

Entire books have been written about Disney animated projects and Imagineering proposals that seemed to be a "sure thing," and then suddenly stalled and faded.

The very first Disney animator I interviewed extensively when I was younger was Disney Legend Jack Hannah in August 1977. That first interview led to several others and I was able to capture some information that no one else ever did.

Since Hannah was responsible for most of the classic Donald Duck cartoons, one of the topics we covered was unmade Donald Duck shorts:

"I worked on a lot of cartoons, some with the Duck, that for one reason or another just never developed. A story may look like a good idea and then once you get into it, you just can't come up with enough gags or it would be too expensive to animate it correctly or just a lot of other things. It is important to know when to just stop and move on to something else.

"One of the most frustrating ones was this one Duck short where the Duck was working with a small elephant. It never made it to the screen.

"I thought we could do something with it in the animation. Norm Ferguson was assigned to me to do a lot of the animation and that became another problem. He wasn't able to do his best work because he was having some health problems. I think it was diabetes but he never said anything. I could immediately tell that he wasn't able to do what he used to do.

"I called Walt and said, 'I've got this picture and it is just not coming together. I can't see what I could do to fix it. It would cost more money to fix it up than to junk it right now and start a new one'.

"Walt said, 'Well, if it's that bad, I agree with you'. Walt always knew what was going on. He probably knew the picture was in trouble before I did. He knew that Fergie was having some problems and so that's why he didn't say anything else. I just threw the whole thing out and never saw it again."

In 1939, the story team of Carl Barks and Hannah worked on several Donald Duck shorts that didn't make it to the screen.

One of those shorts was The Beaver Hunters that had Donald and Pluto out hunting for beavers. Of course, the clever animals foil all their attempts. At one point Donald disguises himself as a tree and he also rigs his rifle to fire a plumber's helper plunger. Walt eventually felt that the personalities of the beavers were not appealing and the gags were flat.

Another short would have included Donald working in a museum and would have featured the parody paintings of Donald in classic paintings that were later featured in Life magazine (April 16, 1945). The colored sketches were actually done by Disney animators John Dunn, Phil Klein, and Ray Patin in 1939 as a gag during their free time, which is why they were available for consideration years before they appeared in the magazine.

Yet another Donald Duck story was titled Donald's Stratosphere Flight that would have detailed the problems Donald had with a hot air balloon, including launching and repairing it. It had originally been prepared as a Mickey Mouse cartoon story, with Mickey in a hot air balloon race with Pete, but it seemed it would be too complicated and expensive to produce and the whole concept of a race was removed.

Donald Duck poses for the Masters. The pictures were printed in Life, but the cartoon, which would feature Donald working in a museum, was never made.

Barks drew an inspirational sketch of Donald outfitted in full aviator gear for the project. Hannah told me:

"In 1939, I worked with Carl on a Duck cartoon called Donald's Stratosphere Flight where the Duck was going to set some new record going up in a hot air balloon. Actually we were told to design the cartoon so it could be easily animated by the new guys coming into the animation department.

"That meant to have some simple animation that didn't depend on personality to put across a gag. This was a way to train newer animators and give them some pencil footage experience.

"I don't remember how much time we spent on this story. I thought it had a lot of great possibilities but Dave Hand [director of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Walt's right hand man at the time] never saw it as a priority. He was worried we were going to abandon working on Donald's Vacation [1940] which he really wanted to see."

Here is an excerpt from the story meeting on that short that Hannah gave me (along with some other goodies):

Story Meeting for Donald's Stratosphere Flight

Meeting Held: Monday, August 14, 1939. 9:30-10:30 a.m. Sweatbox No. 4

Those Present:

  • Walt Disney
  • Dave Hand
  • Carl Barks
  • Jack Hannah

(Carl Barks recapitulates story. Discussion opens.)

Walt Disney: Well, I'll tell you, I think it's the type of gag and the type of story that doesn't have a lot of subtle animation and things like that. I think it's worth developing, because that kind of gag will be easier to put over with less experienced men.

Dave Hand: Well, we would hold that idea there for future development. We would do nothing with it right this minute.

WD: Yes. You could just as well do away with the orchestra leader because your whole business there would be the anticipation of the balloon going up the minute they cut the ropes. That would take out some complications there. The orchestra leader would fit in, but it's something that would sort of complicate the thing and it does take up a certain amount of footage. You could do the whole damn thing with just the three kids and the duck and leave out anyone else. It would simplify it. It seems like the whole idea would be strong enough without it.

DH: Even cutting out the grand stratosphere flight angle.

WD: That doesn't seem necessary at all. You plant the idea that it's a stratosphere flight just with this fancy looking balloon he has there and with the kids to send him off.

Carl Barks: It seems like with a crowd there it would be a better reason for him to make a success.

WD: When you analyze it, you have your audience sitting out there – he has to be a success to them.

Jack Hannah: Do you think we could do it with atmosphere.

WD: We always do that, but I wonder if we need it here. He is playing more or less to the audience that is sitting watching, because a lot of the effect you get anyway on the screen when things happen to the duck. He is sort of humiliated for the audience that is watching.

DH: That is true in Good Scouts and Sea Scouts.

CB: That is a subtle point, though.

WD: I don't know, but whatever you do I'd like to see you hold down a lot of that work there with crowds and things. Of course, it's possible you could take and pull it out of an old picture that we have already animated.

JH: It's easy to do—take one shot of old animation and plant it with your sound effects and band, etc.

WD: We even have a band that you could take out of the circus picture.

DH: In the Tortoise and the Hare, you have an opening like that.

WD: If you wanted to plant the band, you'd have to show shots and we have some stuff in that circus picture.

JH: If you can have the crowds without too much work, I think it would add something.

CB: That crowd in the Tortoise and the Hare picture is the best one.

WD: if the crowd is cheering him when he takes off and when he lands here in the middle of a barnyard and the cows are mooing and the chickens cackling, you could get the effect of a barnyard cheering that you could iris out on them cheering him. You can't get into these subtle gags until you know you have animators coming along to do them and this is good slapstick stuff. Not depreciating the business— you'll have to work to put this over with plenty of socko.

CB: The Duck never has an opportunity here to stand still long enough to let you see what he really looks like. Young guys could animate him swell.

WD: I think it's worth developing.

DH: Do you think in the point of variety and the possible need for footage because there isn't nearly enough footage here, that we might start out the picture with a sequence of the nephews filling up the balloon.

WD: What I'd do on that—you think there isn't enough footage, but we have always had trouble cutting out footage after a story goes into work and the director kicks that there is too much footage. So what the hell, let's go ahead and make a picture and build it in if we need it.

DH: In Ice Hockey we had to throw it back and add about 150 feet. It was because it was a fast-type picture.

WD: If that is the case, what you ought to do is get some simple type of stuff at the beginning.

CB: As Dave says, there might be some business in filling that darn balloon with gas.

DH: I meant a little sequence of gags there and then wipe right over to the big ascension and you're all ready to go.

WD: Where you could add footage, if you could make some kind of a speech at the beginning – you could just have an announcer there talking and "Donald Duck is going to reach the stratosphere!" and this and that so it builds up anticipation and "Donald Duck says, quote…" and you build it up big. In other words, you can't have the Duck say it, but someone else is quoting the Duck. It gets comic with that announcer quoting the Duck. "I'll reach the thing or else – Wa-Wa-Wa!"

That is what you are building here—the guy gets such a hell of a big send off with what he is going to do. I saw a newsreel where a guy had these wings on and he had this whole suit on and he had an aviator's helmet on. I don't know whether it was a gag or not or whether the guy really thought he could fly.

The guy—no, it was a woman—and she'd give leaps and she couldn't get up and she couldn't get up and she kept giving these leaps and finally she came to a hill and jumped off and she fell flat on her puss. And God, it was a howl in the theater. You get your audience feeling good and they are cheering this stratosphere flight, and the Chamber of Commerce comes in and puts this medal on him and, oh boy, is he proud of this medal and it's funny when he has to drop that medal overboard—it breaks his heart. We build it up there. He hates to do it.

DH: We work up the spirit of the thing.

WD: It's an easy thing to translate.

CB: When he comes to what the Duck says – where he quotes the Duck –would you try to make it sound like the Duck?

WD: You know what you could do before it happened, you could have both of the kids filling up the balloon and the announcer is talking and we cut inside to the Duck in there listening and, oh boy, he likes all this and he wants to make his grand entrance. You have the Duck's reactions—you know he is a cocky little so and so. He loves this praise. You don't have to stay on announcer forever. The Duck comes out there and it's all set and ready and there ought to be a big ceremony to chopping the tie ropes. And Don is up there saying "Goodbye! Goodbye!" and he even kisses each one of the little kids goodbye, and then with much pathos, "Let her go!" and a big build up and then he doesn't go.

CB: That is kind of a subtle point to handle—it would require a lot of personality animation when the thing doesn't go up. That dumb look and the guy's disappointment.

WD: Wouldn't he close the whole damn thing, wouldn't he go inside and close the whole thing, and he is sitting in there waiting. "Well, well, I wonder where I am?" and he opens it up and looks down and there he is on the ground.

CB: He opens the door and makes a big gesture expecting to see the crowd way down on the ground.

WD: Maybe he gets a telescope and here is a bunch of ants crawling along the ground and he comes out with the telescope and he says they're so far away they look like ants and he looks through this thing and when he looks up here is everybody standing around looking at him.

CB: The audience could think he has gone up—that would be a laugh to them.

WD: They had another one of those things in a newsreel with a little lifeboat. [Here Walt explains the newsreel and the life boat invention.] There is some animation of a train in a trailer picture. Wherever you could use those things it saves that much. Even your smoke—there might be some smoke you could use. You can always cheat your set-ups around to use that stuff. I think this is a good gag type picture.

CB: There is an awful lot of gags that could come of that anchor rope. It might catch a factory whistle causing it to blow steam up on Don and the steam coming up there shrinks the balloon until it is only about four feet in circumference.

WD: It's good with Don ending up in a mud puddle with a bunch of pigs and the barnyard animals around there braying.

JH: The anchor might drag through a lake and catch a fish. There are so many set ups. You never have to stay with one thing.

WD: The medal idea is funny. I think it's worth working.

CB: How do you like that windmill stuff generally.

WD: That is all right. That is good stuff. There is nothing wrong with it, but I would watch for complicated things that would be hard to explain to an audience.

CB: You get a pattern up here of this thing going around and you see the pump rod moving up and down and the water coming out in sync with the pump rod, it explains the whole mechanism of the pump.

WD: The basket burning is funny. There is some good stuff in there with the Duck and it isn't complicated and your backgrounds are simple, and I feel it's the type of animation we can put over with the younger men, and we need work for them. That is the way we are going to get animators here. The more important stuff you could put a man on that could get it. What was your plan on this, Dave—just to keep developing it?

DH: If you like the basic idea, we'll just put it aside and when they finish up we can move this in. The Beaver picture is more developed than this and we can't work more than one thing at a time.

WD: Why don't they work on this as they have time?

DH: They will, but I just didn't want Jack to think that he was going to walk out on Vacation, because we want to see it.

WD: No, that is one thing we want to set our minds on. We want to build these stories until they are fool-proof. Really if we spent what we are supposed to spend on these pictures we are spending a lot of money, we should be able to do it or else we should get wise to ourselves and stop making them.

Fourty-five thousand dollars is a lot of money to spend on a picture and it has to be a good picture to get that back, because by the time you put your print cost and your distribution cost on there, and other things that you have to contend with, and duty, and all that kind of stuff, that picture has to do $75,000-$80,000 to even clear itself, and there isn't one of these things that do even $50,000 gross.

So when we ask you to make a good picture for $45,000, it isn't unreasonable. It is poor economy on your part to start work on a story before it's ready and get it to where it costs a hell of a lot of money. Be sure we know the gag and be sure that it's workable. I think a lot of the time over there, the fellows just don't understand their gags. They have no definite workable plan in their mind to put a gag over.

I think a lot of this indecision has never been settled until after a thing is animated twice and then everybody gets together and figures it out. We just have to keep working on those stories. And now is the time to do it when it is in the story stage. Just make up your mind you're going to have to carry those through.

JH: I have to get in and time that thing for Leica and the rest of my crew have nothing to work on.

WD: We have to simplify it—for the sake of the gag you have to simplify it. I think we complicate gags a lot. There is no need of it. There is something about that skeleton of the Duck that is slightly repulsive.

CB: I saw it like an X-ray. Maybe that sketch is a little too vivid there.

DH: It might be better if you kept the Duck in half exposure instead of showing him all black.

WD: I don't quite get the X-ray connection.

CB: That is cartoon license, Walt.

WD: I think there has to be a certain amount of logic to it.

CB: I imagine if we didn't show his skull up here, he wouldn't look so gruesome. Just show his bones from the neck down. He'd look funnier without that death mask appearance. But there are probably funny things that could be done with electricity without the X-ray gag.