Modern Inventions is a 1937 Donald Duck cartoon that the opening titles oddly refer to as “Walt Disney presents a Donald Duck.” It was produced by Walt Disney productions but released through United Artists. It is a play on the ill-conceived 1930s notion that the future was going to be so overstuffed with mechanical devices (mostly robots) that we would have them doing everything from cutting our hair to feeding our infants. Since the protagonist in the middle of all this technology is Donald Duck, shenanigans are a foregone conclusion.
The short opens with Donald reading the name of the institution that he is about to visit: The Museum of Modern Marvels. There is no door, only a coin-operated turnsile with an admission price of twenty-five cents. Cheapskate Donald cheats the machine by putting in a coin on a string and pulling the coin back out again.
Inside he finds a vast array of oversized futuristic mechanical exhibits. Almost immediately he is greeted by “The Robot Butler” who offers to take his hat. “Your hat, sir” the robot says but Donald doesn’t want to give it up. The Robot Butler takes it anyway, to which the angry Donald quacks “Why doncha pick on somebody your own size, ya big boob!” Proving that he’s smarter than any robot, Donald produces a replacement hat from his sleeve, this one a top hat.
The first exhibit that Donald visits is called “The Hitch-hiker’s Aid”, a suitcase that proudly advertises that “It works while you sleep.” In order to trick the machine into springing to life, he pretends to make car noises. He laughs but the robot hitch-hiking aid becomes irritated at being disturbed and promptly pokes the duck in the eyes.
The Robot Butler returns (“Your hat, sir”) and removes Donald’s top hat. Donald, angry at being duped again, magically produces a third hat, this time a Bicorne.
The next exhibit is a Bundle Wrapper with a clearly labeled note warning, “Hands Off! Do Not Touch!” but of course Donald partakes and, via a pair of robot hands, gets wrapped up in cellophane with a big red ribbon and then unceremoniously tossed down a chute.
Emerging from the bundle wrapping, Donald is once again met by The Robot Butler (“Your hat, sir”) who takes his Bicorne. Donald, again angry, manages to unwind himself from the ribbon and exclaim “I’ve never been so mortified in all my life.” With that he produces another hat, a Civil War Kepi. Incensed at The Robot Butler, he yells at the machine whose eye glows red. The machine turns around intending to remove the Kepi, but Donald eludes the device by hiding in a baby buggy next to a sign which reads, “Robot Nurse Maid, Patent 99766-1/2”
Donald is overjoyed to be in the baby buggy and magically replaces the Kepi with a baby bonnet. The device is apparently designed to take care of your baby for you, and Donald seems to love it. A speaker sings “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” and rocks the cradle much to the delight of Donald who begins goo-gooing and sucking his toes. He likes it when the machine plays “This little Piggy” and then asks for his bottle to which the machine splashes milk in his face. He doesn’t like this, nor does it like the fact that Robot Mama won’t let him leave the buggy, nor does he like having his diaper changed.
Escaping from the baby buggy, Donald again meets The Robot Butler (“Your hat, sir”) who removes the baby bonnet. Donald kicks the diaper off and produces a bowler hat from his sleeve.
Final exhibit is a robotic barber chair; “Say, whadda swell outfit!” Donald says. The machine is coin-operated and Donald again pulls out a coin on a string and tricks the slot. The machine comes to life and asks what Donald would like. “Gimme the works” says Donald. The chair bucks and Donald ends up upside down with the machine parting and combing his hind-quarters while his face gets a shoe-shine. The machine parts and styles his butt while questioning “Haven’t I seen you before? I never forget a face.” Placing Donald’s bowler hat on his behind, the machine releases an angry Donald only to have The Robot Butler remove it again (“Your hat, sir”). A frustrated Donald blows his stack as the scene irises out.
The obvious reference in Modern Inventions is Chaplin’s Modern Times which was released two years earlier. Similar to Donald, Chaplin’s Little Tramp dealt with the would-be conveniences of modern civilization and the automated devices that were going to make the future a place of leisure and comfort but instead only served to frustrate and over-complicate tasks that don’t really need an upgrade like eating, changing a baby or a getting a haircut.
Unlike The Little Tramp who was frustrated by “modern conveniences,” to the point that he effectively moved off the grid, Donald is fascinated by the appliances of the future. Each new exhibit is met with a spirit of exuberance and possibility (“Oh, boy!”) only to find that the machinery isn’t flawless and that in following its programming it overlooks the fact that it is twisting our protagonist into a pretzel. Plus, Donald doesn’t really learn anything from his horrifying experiences. When a machine goes awry he becomes frustrated but moves on to the next gadget with a joyful exuberance, seemingly unaffected by the previous incident.
He also repeatedly pays a price for trying to trick the machines. He tricks the hitch-hiking machine which retaliates by poking him in the eyes. He waves off the sign on the Bundle Wrapping machine (“Ah phooey!”) and ends up becoming a bundle himself. He tricks the coin slot on the barber chair and ends up upside down with his butt getting styled while his face gets a shoe shine. And, of course, he is repeatedly at odds with The Robot Butler over a revolving series of hats (“Your hat, sir”). The machines are suppose to be friendly but distant, but they have moods. The hitchhiking machine actually gets angry as does the butler – at one point his eye glows red and he becomes clearly agitated.
Another thing of note is that Donald is the only person in the museum. The place seems deserted suggesting the possibility that the place may actually be closed. Or possibly the place is so aggressively violent toward potential customers that others have learned to stay away.
The design of the museum is fascinating. It has the colorful art-deco look that reminds us of the drawings and sketches of what artists in the 1930s assumed that the future would look like. The backgrounds are bright and kind of beautiful despite the ill-tempered duck being mangled in the foreground, and there are signs of other exhibits that we become thankful that Donald didn’t try out, The Old Razor Blade Mangler, for instance or the Hydraulic Potato Peeler.
There are little touches in this short that make it more than just standard shenanigans. For instance, the running gag involving The Robot Butler always ends with Donald doing a slight of hand and producing a different hat. Plus, at various times, he breaks the fourth wall as when he tries to trick the coin slot and winks at the audience.
I love Modern Inventions because it displays the perfect setting for the perfect character. There isn’t another character in the Disney cannon more suited to this than Donald Duck because we have to feel that the terrible things that happen to him are his own fault. He tricks his way into the museum, he constantly flaunts warnings and he ends up on the wrong end of modern technology. With any other character in the role, the material would have mean-spirited, but with Donald it’s just right.
Pssst . . . you can watch it here: