Donald Duck turns 90

With feathers that can be easily ruffled, Donald Duck can be proud, angry, arrogant and yet oddly charming — and apologetic when he harms others, including nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie.

He was once described by Walt Disney as the “problem child” of his animation company’s stable of lead characters, who include Pluto, Goofy and Mickey Mouse. But, in the end, he appeared in more Disney short films, movies and series — which expanded into a whole Donald Duck “universe” — than any of his animated colleagues.

Her are five highlights from a legendary cartoon career. 

1. Humble beginnings

An anthropomorphic duck with indecipherable speech who is dressed in a sailor outfit — but without pants — Donald Duck burst onto the big screen in 1934 with a cameo in the short cartoon “The Wise Little Hen.” Here, the idle duck lays the platform for his future misadventures as he does everything to avoid helping a mother hen plant corn.

That year Donald became an irritated, hotheaded foil to Disney star Mickey Mouse in an “Orphans Benefit” cartoon, kicking off decades of rivalry with his fellow cartoon icon. 

Three years later in 1937, Donald took top billing for the first time in short cartoons such as the Mexico-set “Don Donald,” in which viewers are introduced to his love interest, Daisy Duck, and “Modern Inventions,” where the hard-headed duck is frustrated in a world run by robots.

He went on to co-star in several feature films, including “Chips Ahoy” (1956), “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” (1983) and the 1999 musical “Fantasia 2000,” a sequel to the Disney classic from 60 years before. 

Who’s who? Donald Duck’s three nephews

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2. A hot-tempered hardhead — if a little unlucky

In those first few starring roles, Donald Duck cemented his down-on-his luck, impatient persona as he struggled to stay afloat doing odd jobs in the fictional town of Duckberg.

He often begins a film in a cheerful mood, and with a strangely positive outlook on life. But things inevitably go wrong for the feathered anti-hero.

That bad luck might be why Donald’s birth date was sometimes given as Friday the 13th in films such as “Three Caballeros” (1944) — in which Donald Duck sets off with two other birds for misadventures across Latin America.

In the end, however, the angry, frustrated yet loving Donald Duck became one of the most popular stars in the Disney stable.

A man in a suit holds up some award statues
Walt Disney called Donald Duck a “problem child” and said this was key to the character’s massive successImage: UIP/dpa/picture alliance

3. Anti-fascist Duck wins Oscar

In the World War II-era short animation “Der Fuehrer’s Face” (1943), Donald Duck plays a bumbling, naive and reluctant Nazi who is woken by an oompah band made up of such fascist figures as the Germans Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring, Japanese leader Hideki Tojo, and Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

Forced to work at breakneck speed in a German munitions factory, the heil-Hitlering Donald struggles to embrace the totalitarian dream. The anti-Nazi propaganda film won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film that year, which would be the first for a film featuring the sailor shirt and cap-wearing animation star. His films were nominated eight times. 

Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck form V for victory; Three Little Pigs and Pluto form the morse code for V
“Der Fuehrer’s Face” is an animated anti-Nazi short film from 1943Image: Courtesy Everett Collection/IMAGO

4. Donald Duck universe

Donald Duck has inspired many Walt Disney spinoff series, films and related characters who together form an unofficial “duck universe.”

From Daisy Duck to Scrooge McDuck, and of course Huey, Dewey, and Louie, Donald Duck’s extended family were the subject of TV series “DuckTales” (1987–1991), which also had a 2017-2021 reboot, and video games such as “Goin’ Quackers” (2000).

Donald Duck’s universe of quack content is most often set in the town of Duckberg, including “DuckTales” and the 1990s animated series, “Quack Pack.”

Many Europeans are familiar with the Donald Duck pocket books that are mainly produced in Italy and are particularly popular in Germany as the “Lustige Taschenbücher,” where they have been published on a regular basis since 1967.

The thumb is visible of a person holding a Donald Duck comic written in German
Germans have followed Donald Duck for decades through monthly “Lustige Taschenbücher”Image: Caroline Seidel/dpa/picture alliance

5. Hollywood Walk of Fame

In 2004, Donald Duck got his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He followed in the footsteps of Mickey but beat Minnie Mouse to a spot on the Walk, which also honors the Disney version of Snow White.

“He has brought tremendous joy and laughter to people around the world with his charm and explosive temper tantrums,” Disney CEO Michael Eisner said, as Mickey, Pluto and Daisy stood in attendance. 

Conferred on the animation icon’s 70th birthday, it was a vindication of Donald Fauntleroy Duck’s star power, which has not waned as he turns 90.

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier