OK, he really debuted over 70 years ago, in an animated short entitled The Wise Little Hen. He sure has come a long way since then. Today, the public knows and loves Donald as the frustrated Everyman for whom things never go exactly right. Oh sure, he has come close to his dreams a number of times, but something always goes wrong, often because of those mischievous nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie.
But the thing about Donald Duck is that he never gives up, he really embodies the spirit of the pioneer, the entrepreneur, the average working man. And that’s way so many people have identified with him over the years and is what made him into the cartoon superstar that he is today.
Before he appeared in The Wise Little Hen, Donald Duck was mentioned in a 1931 book called The Adventures of Mickey Mouse, by David McKay. An image of a Donald-like character was seen in Mickey Mouse Annual #3, published by Dean & Son of London, in 1932, except that duck had black feathers.
However, Donald’s first definitive appearance was The Wise Little Hen, which debuted on June 9, 1934. In the animated short, Donald was “sort of shiftless or just out for a good time,” according to John K. Snyder Jr., long-time Donald Duck collector. Donald’s frustrated, angry personality didn’t develop until later appearances. In his second short, Orphan’s Benefit, Donald’s trademark aggravation began to emerge.
One of the things that made Donald so popular was his timing. He made his debut during a period when his pal Mickey Mouse’s own popularity was positively booming. Everyone wanted something Mickey, something Disney. During World War II, Donald was the number one character seen on planes and patches worn by service men, likely because many people couldn’t really see Mickey getting riled up enough to really fight, but Donald definitely would.
The original sheet of animation paper features original lead pencil art of Donald Duck in his first appearance in the 1934 Silly Symphony The Wise Little Hen. The classic tale adapts the fairy tale The Little Red Hen and recounts how the wise little hen teaches the value of hard work to the lazy Donald Duck and Peter Pig. The animated short was directed by Wilfred Jackson and featured animation by Art Babbitt, Dick Huemer and Dick Lundy. The short was released on June 6, 1934, though this art was most likely drawn in December, 1933. While rough sketches of Donald may have been produced before it, it was this model sheet that finalized Donald’s look for his first on-screen appearance. The model sheet contains eight different, full-body images of Donald as well as a preliminary sketch of his body shape and seven head shots, showing different views and emotions. A full-body image in the upper right hand corner has been pasted over with a new image of Donald as seen from the back. Artist Clyde Geronimi modified Donald’s tail (on the printed version of this sheet), giving it its modern feathery look, as opposed to the plucked bump featured in the other seven full-body drawings of Donald. When the sheet is held to light, one can see a prior drawing of Donald with the plucked-looking tail and large text reading “BACK VIEW.”