24 May 2010 | wmorrow59
A great star is eclipsed by a newcomer
This cartoon is something of a milestone in the realm of Disney character history: it marks the first occasion when Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck appeared together in the same film. The irritable duck in a sailor suit who appears in Orphan's Benefit doesn't quite match the one we expect, however. In this, his third short, Donald has the elongated bill and smaller head that marked his earliest appearances, before the Disney crew arrived at his now-classic design. But the familiar short-fuse attitude is in place, and quite ready to detonate. What's most striking about this short is how quickly and completely Donald overshadows the beloved but comparatively bland Mickey, who, in this very first teaming, is instantly reduced to the role of straight man.
Like many cartoons of the period this one is built around a variety show, a loosely organized Vaudeville-style program that allows the writers plenty of leeway for gags without any need for a plot. This particular event is, like the title says, a benefit for the local orphans' home, but it's not a fund raiser as such; it's a show put on strictly for the orphans themselves, which means that the audience is made up entirely of young, identical mice, seemingly hundreds of them, all looking like miniaturized versions of Mickey. Here, as in other shorts of the era, the Disney technicians proved to be especially good at animating amazingly detailed crowd scenes involving lots of complicated action in all corners of the frame, which is one reason they were the envy of animators at every other cartoon studio in the world.
Back to the show: the kids in the house are rowdy at first, but they manage to settle down and enjoy the entertainment for the most part. They watch politely as Clarabelle Cow performs a ballet, accompanied by Horace Horsecollar and Goofy, the latter two clad in loincloths. And they listen attentively as a rotund hen named Clara Cluck cackles her way through a song. But they seem to take an immediate dislike to Donald Duck, or perhaps it's more accurate to say that they soon take pleasure in tormenting him. Donald's intended contribution is the recitation of poetry. His first selection, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," comes off well enough, but he pushes his luck when he launches into "Little Boy Blue." This selection provokes a kid in the crowd to react with a Bronx cheer, so of course Donald loses his temper and has to be dragged offstage by the dreaded Hook. He returns periodically throughout the program and tries to finish his recital, but every time he reaches the line about blowing that horn the kids razz him -- and, eventually, hurl bricks, eggs, and other objects.
Comic hostility between the rowdy kids and the increasingly exasperated duck is what drives this cartoon, and makes it enjoyable to watch. Along the way there's a show biz joke that some viewers might miss: early on, when Donald is first thrown off stride by a sassy boy in the crowd, his nose suddenly turns bulbous as he exclaims: "Am I mortified! Am I mortified!" in the style of Jimmy Durante. The gag doesn't quite register because there's no attempt to make the duck sound like Durante; he still sounds like Donald Duck, so the point is obscured. But that's a minor quibble. Orphan's Benefit is an amusing cartoon that would make a nice lead-in to any good '30s feature film. Toss in a newsreel and a comedy short and you've got a full evening's entertainment.