Monday, January 16, 2006

Donald's Nephews (1938)

Donald's Nephews (Walt Disney, 1938)
Dir: Jack King
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

The problem in starting an overview of any cartoon character's filmography is just exactly where to begin the discussion. With the first film, made most likely long before all of the character's most popular traits have been realized to their full extent? This is the problem with Bugs Bunny, who didn't truly become Bugs Bunny until several directors had taken their shots at his development. Or should one start with the most critically lauded film of the character's series? The problem there is that the most famous cartoons have probably been written about to death already.

I have been wrestling with just where to start with Donald Duck since Jen bought the first two volumes of The Chronological Donald for me this past Christmas. (It is shocking enough to some people that I did not already own Volume One, as it has been out for a year, but I had been in the moving process when it was released.) I knew that I had to start somewhere, but where? Donald's Dream Voice (1948), my favorite Donald cartoon, would seem a logical choice, but it won't appear until Volume Three, as the second volume only offers Donald films through 1946.

A quick look at the contents of Volume One revealed my clear choice: Donald's Nephews (1938), the first film appearance of the not-so-innocent Huey, Dewey and Louie, three little hell-raisers who delight in torturing their poor Unca Donald as much as they clearly adore him. This choice is tied up in the fact that my earliest memories of Donald are wrapped up tightly with this trio of mini-Donalds, only in two entirely different forms of media than animated film.

Growing up, I saw very few actual Disney cartoons, except for the occasional collection on the Wonderful World of Disney, though more often than not I was stuck with showings of Charlie the Lonesome Cougar and his ilk week after week. No, my early Donald adoration stemmed from a Little Golden Book called Donald Duck in Disneyland, first published in 1960, though I am unsure of the actual date of the edition that I possess. My brothers and I grew up with this book, and my fixation on going to Disneyland clearly dates back to about a thousand readings of this slight volume of focused Disney merchandising. (As an advertisement, it certainly worked well on me, though through a variety of circumstances conspiring against me, I didn't set foot in the Happiest Place on Earth until I was already 30. I am more than making up for that gap now.) In the book, Donald and his nephews take in the sights of the then only five-years old Disneyland, with the boys running amok in the fashion that the boys generally tend to do. Not in their usual destructive fashion; they simply make it difficult for Donald to know where any of them are in the park at any given time. The illustrations were basic but very inspiring to a dreamy-eyed youth sorely stuck in Alaska, and I still love to revisit the book to this day.

My other Disney source back in the day was Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, where I was enthralled by the adventures of Donald and his nephews, and, of course, Uncle Scrooge, Gyro Gearloose, and the Beagle Boys. This is where I longed to be a Junior Woodchuck (the Cub Scouts sucked in comparison to this awesome organization); wanted a miniature robot like Gyro's to sit on my shoulder and help me with my schoolwork; wished that I could go swimming in a giant pile of money (as long as you don't think about how dirty money actually happens to be); and wanted to travel the world seeking treasure and adventure with Uncle Scrooge. Carl Barks was my first comic artist hero; but because the comics were attributed to Walt Disney at the time, as a child, I never gave the true master his due, believing fully that the man whose name was on the story was the man who should receive the praise for such marvelous artistry. I also believed that Huey, Dewey, and Louie were miniature geniuses who were honest and true and lived by the code of the Junior Woodchucks.

A far cry from the Huey, Dewey and Louie of the cartoon world. On the title card for Donald's Nephews, the boys are shown standing below the title, the "A" from Donald's name shot out of it and lying broken on the ground. The three boys are posed looking away from the damaged letter, Huey brandishing a slingshot behind his back, and Dewey swiveling an eye down towards the "A." Donald receives a postcard from his sister Dumbella (!) telling him that she is sending his "angel nephews" over to "V-I-S-I-T - visit you," Donald reads aloud. "Aaaahhh," he says wistfully, eyeing the cute picture of his nephews in angelic baby poses on the cover. He buys this pose hook, line and sinker.

The onslaught begins when he opens the door to the three boys riding tricycles and brandishing croquet mallets. This can't lead to anything good for the fussy Donald, though were it me as the uncle, I'd ask if they brought a trike and mallet so that I could play, too. The boys start a rambunctious game of croquet, sans wickets, using Donald's furniture and assorted breakables in their stead. Donald consults a book on Modern Child Training and reads that "music hath charms to soothe the savage child." He begins to play "Pop Goes the Weasel" on the piano, and the boys join in on other instruments, but they use them to play pranks on their poor Uncle Donald. On the “pop" of each chorus, he ends up with his head trapped under the piano lid twice, and the third time soaked in the water from the goldfish bowl. The boys argue over who did the evil deed, and Donald reads in the book that hunger might be the true culprit.

I'm not going into my alarm at the fact that ducks eat chicken or turkey (for in Donald Duck cartoons they apparently do), apart from stating that when I get to viewing The Wise Little Hen (Donald's first film), I am going to watch it very carefully to make sure all of the chickens in the film are there at the end. In Donald's Nephews, our hero has a cooked bird of some species already laid out on the dinner table, and the ravenous little cannibals under his wing can't wait to devour it. His nephews make stabs at the food while Donald attempts a prayer, and at its conclusion, attack the table voraciously. Donald ends up with his hand between two slices of bread on which Louie promptly bites down. The pained Donald reads that sympathy might arouse their better selves, and he dives into a tearful confession. The boys act apologetic and offer their Uncle a piece of pie as penance. What Donald does not know is that they have replaced the filling with "Volcano Brand Mustard". Donald's face erupts as expected, and the boys hit him with increasingly larger doses of water: first a bucket, then a washtub, then the garden hose. Finally, they use the fire extinguisher on him, say "Goodbye" as two of them shoot him in the face with squirt guns and the third with the Child Training volume, and exit the house and the film. The book opens to this statement, "After all, little children are only angels without wings." Donald yells, "Angels! Phooey!" and shreds the book in his trademarked temper tantrum.

The action is swift, the boys are both little devils and completely adorable, and Donald is at the top of his game in taking their abuse in a series of slow burns. Part of the fun of Donald cartoons is watching him reach the boiling point, and while it doesn't come until the last frames of the film, it happens indeed. While not the Huey, Dewey and Louie that I grew up with in the comics, they are terrific foils for the star duck, and some of their appearances (especially in The Hockey Champ and Donald's Snow Fight) are amongst my favorite Donald films. It is not unsurprising to learn that Carl Barks, who started with Disney in the story department before he moved on to creating the comics in the 1950's, was the co-writer (with Jack Hannah, the future Donald director) of this cartoon and many others through the 40's. I just wish that more of the flair that he would eventually bring to the comics would have shown up on film at some point. But, as I said at the beginning, you have to start somewhere...

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 11/3/2015.]

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