This writeup was completely overhauled and rewritten on 3 August 2001.
First off, let's clear something up. Donald Duck comics were never banned in Finland, regardless of his pants-wearing status. That is just an urban legend. The whole story can be found at snopes.com.
In 1934, as it was wont to do, Disney released an animated short; the one in question was called "The Wise Little Hen," and was based on the well-known morality tale. The characters in this short have long since fallen into obscurity, except for one -- Donald Fauntleroy Duck.
With those first nearly-unintelligble words -- "Ooooh, nooo, I have a bellyache!" -- Disney found a character that would serve as the perfect comic foil to Mickey Mouse and who would soon become a star in his own right.
Donald's debut in this short was rather humble. He was a minor antagonist, partnered with one Peter Pig (obviously Porky's less-successful younger brother); they both continually found excuses not to help the Wise Little Hen with her harvest, and they both learned a lesson when she refused to share the results.
There is, perhaps, a single reason why Donald Duck went on to become the major film star he is today while Peter Pig's name is hardly remembered. That reason is Donald's famous barely-intelligble squawk of a voice. Clarence Nash had auditioned for Disney, using that voice to represent some other small animal. But Walt Disney thought it sounded like a duck, and he cast Nash as Donald in "The Wise Little Hen." Following the success of Donald, Nash, now deceased, soon became known as "Ducky" Nash.
Donald's next appearance was in the Mickey Mouse short "Orphan's Benefit." It was here that the other major key to his success was demonstrated. In this short, we find Mickey putting on a variety show for a huge group of orphans. He's not having much luck, though, and he's relentlessly heckled by the rowdy audience. Not helping matters is an irascable duck in a box seat. Only when Mickey, always a bit of a prankster himself, turns his wit and slight of hand upon Donald does the audience respond with enthusiasm. The laughter at his expense, however, sends Donald into one of his now-famous spasmatic conniptions, and a star is born.
Now, with an established voice and temperament, The Duck (as he's affectionately known) quickly became Disney's fastest-rising star. By some measures, he surpassed The Mouse in popularity, at least at some point in their careers. This was helped along by the fact that the animators weren't quite sure what to do with Mickey anymore. When Mickey was created, he was like many other cartoon characters of the time -- an everymouse, albeit one with a mischievous streak. But he had grown to become the symbol of Disney, and Walt wanted to keep him bland and inoffensive to protect both Mickey's and the company's image. But a bland and inoffensive character is hard to write cartoons for, except as a straight man. And so Mickey became the straight man to Donald and Goofy's antics. And eventually, the later two moved on to their own shorts, leaving Mickey without effective co-stars.
That opened the door for Donald, who stepped out of Mickey's shadow and into the spotlight as the star of his own series of shorts. There is a long list of characters with whom he reguarly teamed up. Not the least of these is Daisy Duck. On the surface, Daisy is virtually indistiguishable from Minnie Mouse, but Daisy turns out to have more depth, lending a certain realism to her relationship with Donald. She clearly loves Donald, despite his frequent outbursts and fowl-ups. Yet she is stern with him, refusing to accept those outbursts as inevitable; she always manages to bring out the best in Donald. Not usually a good comic foil to Donald, she mainly served as an effective motivation behind the plot of the cartoon.
Donald was also frequently teamed up with his nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The young triplets loved nothing more than to antagonize their "Unca Donald," and although that wasn't difficult, they did so in great style. Donald was no slouch, however, and he often was able to turn the tables on his nephews. In the end, he did his best to help raise them right, and they seemed to turn out okay.
Although the chipmunks Chip 'n Dale occassionally turned up to annoy Pluto, their main target was Donald Duck. Unlike Huey, Dewey, and Louie, the future Rescue Rangers rarely intended to anger Donald; normally, they were simply going about their chipmunky business and happened to get in Donald's way. Donald being Donald, though, he consistently went out of his way to eliminate what should have been a minor annoyance, to great comedic effect.
In the 1940's, Donald starred in a series of war-themed shorts, most involving Donald as a soldier in the Army. The Walt Disney Company was being affected by World War II like many other companies, and like other film studios, they tried to help out the war effort by producing patriotic films. Donald was, perhaps, the perfect choice to star in these pieces of animated propagander -- his temperament contrasted nicely with the regimented, strict regulations of the Army. One of these shorts, "Der Führer's Face," won an Oscar. When the war ended, Donald received an official honorable discharge, in recognition of his "service."
Donald starred in hundreds of animated shorts and was always voiced by "Ducky" Nash. He also appeared in some full-length features, such as Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. But beginning in the 1950's, Disney decreased their production of animated shorts, favoring longer films, both animated and live-action. The market for shorts was drying up, as movie houses stopped showing them regularly. The opening of Disneyland in 1955 also signaled a change in the company's direction. Donald and Disney's other traditional stars slowly faded from the limelight and into supporting roles as symbols of the company, costumed characters at Disneyland, and images to be placed on products.
But Donald was never gone. He turned up from time to time, particularly as television gained prominence. He appeared side-by-side on-screen with Walt Disney on a couple of episodes of the various Disney TV shows. His comic books were still going strong, most of them illustrated by the great Carl Barks. In 1982, Donald caught a small break when he, along with many of Disney's other "classic" characters, appeared in the featurette Mickey's Christmas Carol. His role was small, as Scrooge's nephew Fred, but the film as a whole indicated that the classic characters were not forgotten.
With the advent of The Disney Channel in the early 1980's, Donald's short films of long ago came back to light, gaining a new audience. Many of the Channel's early programs consisted of nothing more than a few, unrelated, classic animated shorts, but these shorts were being seen for the first time in many years. Donald's adventures were once again becoming known to a young audience.
Things continued slowly for a while. In 1985, Clarence Nash passed away at the age of 80. Fortunately, Nash had fully trained a successor, Tony Anselmo, who continues to quack, sputter, and rant as the voice of The Duck today. In 1987, Donald made a cameo appearance in the pilot for the new TV series DuckTales; in it, he enlisted in the Navy, leaving Huey, Dewey and Louie with his Uncle Scrooge. He made a few other appearances throughout the series, too. In 1990, Donald co-starred with Mickey and Goofy in the featurette The Prince and the Pauper, which was released with The Rescuers Down Under.
More recently, Donald returned to a starring role in the series Quack Pack, which also starred Daisy Duck and his nephews. In that series, Donald was the cameraman for Daisy, a television news reporter, and the team travelled all over in pursuit of stories. Also recently, Disney began creating brand new animated shorts, starring its Big Six (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy, and Pluto), for a series called Mickey Mouse Works. New this year is House of Mouse, which I haven't seen, but it seems to have an interesting premise.
And finally, Donald's most notable recent appearance. In 1940, Mickey Mouse starred in one of the segments for Fantasia, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Although Donald did appear in three Disney Animated Features in the 40's, none had the quality, success, or prestige of Fantasia. Donald was finally vindicated in 2000 when he and Daisy starred in the "Pomp and Circumstance" segment of Fantasia 2000. Donald was in classic form for this segment, with plenty of his well-known easily-frustrated antics. However, he and Daisy were also called upon to deliver huge emotional scenes, something that's rarely been done in the past. The payoff is great, however, as they are reunited to the climactic strains of Edward Elgar's music -- one of the few scenes in any film capable -- even now, while writing this -- of bringing a tear to my eye.
What is Donald's legacy? Although he's often remembered as nothing more than a hapless and short-tempered firebrand, the character is, and should be, much deeper than that. Donald isn't really short-tempered; he has a long fuse, but when he explodes, he never does so half-way. He is capable of genuine emotion -- love for his nephews, passion for Daisy, and even occassionally compassion for Chip 'n Dale. He is the personality that Mickey could never be; where The Mouse never seems to let the slightest thing bother him, Donald can express what real people actually feel in stressful situations.
Ultimately, The Duck is, perhaps, the most real of Disney's classic characters. He's the guy who means well but explodes in frustration when obstacles continue to come up. And really -- don't we all feel that way sometimes? Donald Duck is successful because, unlike the ever-calm Mickey and the impossibly foolish Goofy, he reflects a piece of each of us. His frequent rants are cathartic for us as we share his frustration at daily life. And as Disney continues to use their classic characters in new ways, Donald is sure to remain in the fore, still the same frustrating, hapless, entertaining duck -- who we just can't help but love.
Thanks to IMDb for biographical and historical information.