Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Donald Duck's Best Christmas

Disney legend and comic book artist-writer Carl Barks is well known for his deft storytelling and often times sharp wit, and these qualities are certainly evident in the various Christmas-themed tales he put to paper over his long and prolific career. But it is also interesting to note that the Duckman never really succumbed to infusing excessive holiday spirit into these efforts, and more often than not, his tales of Christmas seemed more prone to cynicism than sentimentality. However, Barks' very first four color Christmas story, "Donald Duck's Best Christmas," does touch on themes of kindness and unconditional giving that even the bluster and self serving qualities of its title character can't completely overshadow.

Donald and his nephews anticipate their best Christmas ever; they're heading to Grandma's house via horse and sleigh, bringing presents and the Christmas turkey and singing festive carols along the way. But a curmudgeonly farmer and bad weather soon impede their travels. When Donald is nearly frozen by a plunge into icy waters, they are forced to seek shelter with a destitute family in a remote cabin. Without any thought at all, the mother and her two children quickly offer what little they have--the warmth of the fire and the last of their hot milk--to aid in Donald's recovery. Not surprisingly, Donald can only focus on his own troubles and fails to recognize the hardship that surrounds him, or even acknowledge the sincerity and selflessness of those who have come to his aid.

It falls to Huey, Dewey and Louie to act collectively as the story's moral center and good conscience, roles they typically play in so many of Barks' efforts. For when the ducks give up their trek to Grandma's and sadly turn back for home, the boys reveal to their uncle that they have in fact given away the presents and the holiday bird to the needy family. While Donald is surprisingly non-plussed by the revelation, he still remains relatively true to self by being seemingly unimpressed by his nephews' kind and genuine gesture. His self-centered, final panel proclamation gives credence to the theory that Barks' parting words in holiday tales tended to be jaded and cynical ones.

It was an odd dynamic and one that Barks scholar Geoffrey Blum commented on in a collection of Barks Christmas stories published by Gladstone Comics back in the late 1980s. Blum noted of Donald, " . . . if anything, the story has proven him eminently fallible. By giving Donald the last word, however, Barks managed to soften what would otherwise have been an unbearably preachy ending. It's the first in a long line of ambiguous morals, a device at which the artist became quite proficient. As a purveyor of wholesome entertainment for children, he could seldom finish up with a snarl, yet he was equally determined not to end on a syrupy note. Best to conclude with a question mark."

Whether or not Carl Barks was a Christmas curmudgeon is certainly open for debate. Stories such as "Letter to Santa" and "You Might Guess" were almost totally void of sentiment, but in "Donald Duck's Best Christmas," and his most famous holiday story "A Christmas for Shacktown," even the Duckman allowed a little warmth of heart to emerge from some of the panels contained within those efforts. And that, in and of itself, is a small testament to spirit of the holiday season.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Disney's Christmas Mice

. . . and we don't mean Mickey and Minnie.

A different breed of mice came into prominence at the Disney Studio during the 1950s, but they were of a different nature than the oversize icons with the big round ears that had come to represent the company. The design style of these creatures seems rooted in rodents of Cinderella, epitomized by Gus, Jacques and their many friends who helped that film's heroine ultimately realize her happily ever after destiny.

Similarly-styled mice appeared in Ben and Me, of which the title character of Amos was the most prominent. This mouse-type also extended into other Disney efforts. In 1957, McCall's magazine featured the illustrated story Walt Disney's Christmas Carol that retold the classic Dickens tale but replaced Bob Cratchtet with the character of Cedric Mouse, who in physical resemblance could easily have been a cousin of Gus, Jacques or Amos. We featured illustrations and excerpts from Walt Disney's Christmas Carol in a previous post here at 2719 Hyperion.

In an interesting twist, the studio extended this mouse-mythology into the audio arena with the release in 1958 of Mickey Mouse Christmas Favorites which was in fact Walt Disney Records first holiday album. The album combined a number of previously released selections, the most notable of which was what would become the company's perennial Christmas tune "From All of Us to All of You." But as these liner notes describe, a number of the recordings came from some freshly discovered talent:

Discovered under a stairway at the Disneyland Studio, the unique all-mouse symphony orchestra under the able baton of Ludwig Mousensky is undoubtably the first and finest rodent ensemble in the world. And, we here at Disneyland Records are proud to present their first recording, "The Christmas Concert." Here are Yuletide hymns, "Hark The Herald Angels Sing," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Jingle Bells," and the popular 'Winter Wonderland." The Mousensky group's rendition of these songs is truly a delightful experience for all. Under the maestro, the orchestra, consisting of Squeeky, Zeke, Horace, Henrietta, Tubby, Tootie, Clarence, Pinky, Stuffy, Zooty, Hans, Fritz, Otto (these three were formerly with the Vienna's famed DeutschMICEster Band), Pee Wee and Frenchy give a new dimension to these Christmas favorites. All proving that Christmas is a time for both mice and men.

While the album jacket did not provide any visual representations of this "rodent ensemble," its high-pitched renditions are certainly reminiscent of those performed by Cinderella's pint-size pals.