There are probably not a lot of people whose favourite Disney duck is Professor Ludwig Von Drake. He’s apparently on the new Duck Tales, but I don’t think he was ever on the old one. Carl Banks used him a grand total of once. His first appearance was on the first episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, where he taught the audience about, yes, colour. That’s long been his job—teaching the audience about things. No wonder I like him so much.
Here, he’s giving a history of music going from ragtime (“The Rutabaga Rag”) to rock (“Rock, Rumble, and Roar”). Naturally, he claims to have invented the various genres and certainly claims that the spectacular mansion in which we see him was paid for out of his royalty checks. “Charleston Charlie” was allegedly written to put Dixieland on the map. During the Depression, he wrote “Although I Dropped a Hundred Thousand in the Market, Baby (I Found a Million Dollars in Your Smile).” “I’m Blue for You, Boo-Boo-Boo-Boo-Boo” was a crooner melody. “The Boogie Woogie Baker Man” is an Andrews Sisters-style boogie. “Puppy Love Is Here to Stay” brings to mind Paul Anka.
You may notice that it’s an awfully white history of popular song. With, yes, an ethnic caricature; the Chinese baker in the faux Andrews Sisters is a fortune cookie maker—and fortune cookies aren’t even Chinese. But despite the role of black culture in American popular music, there are no black people here. A ragtime tune written by a duck born in Austria sounds about right for a mainstream treatment of the subject from 1962.
On the other hand, having said Austrian duck sing rock and roll is a bit shocking for a mainstream treatment of music from 1962. This is just a shade before Beatlemania. Elvis was just out of the army and making terrible, terrible movies. Rock and roll was not that long ago referred to as “race music,” and we were only a few years past the years when the way Chuck Berry songs became hits was when they were covered by Pat Boone. And here Disney was not merely not condemning it but positively celebrating it.
It could also be said that there’s something appropriate to having Von Drake claim to have invented all these styles of music that he manifestly didn’t, as it’s just an extension of the Pat Boone Phenomenon. The ultimate erasure of those original artists, as it were. We forget, from our perspective, that the songs that remain with us were not necessarily popular in their now-famous incarnations. And, of course, Neil Sedaka spent as long on top of the Billboard charts in 1962 as Chubby Checker, the Four Seasons as long as Ray Charles.
And about that Chinese baker. Yes, he’s a racist image. It’s really unpleasant. On the other hand, he’s also allowed to be someone looking for romance, which is even now not really something that Asian characters get much in American popular culture. He gets the girl with the power of baking. Honestly, it’s a song that I don’t believe could have actually come out in the ’40s, at the height of that musical style—we were so busy confusing Japanese and Chinese people that it’s unlikely you’d get a song with an Asian protagonist.
He’s also a good segue into the animation of this short. Von Drake himself is your standard Disney duck, but each short has its own distinctive animation. There’s several styles of stop motion, including a paper cut-out style. There’s some real creativity here, even if you can’t get behind my support of that baker. Granted, I’m not sure it was truly original to have faux-Bing Crosby and his microphone look almost identical, but still; it’s visually fun, at least.
At its best, Disney has long excelled at combining creative musical styles with creative visual styles. This short does that so well that it deserves to be considerably less obscure than it is, even if you don’t get into Von Drake. I also like that Disney did a bunch of cartoons in the middle of the last century that were intended to teach people things in an entertaining way. It makes you wonder what they could do if they really put this feel toward educational television instead of what they’re actually making these days.