Disney Cartoon #26: "Modern Inventions" (May 29, 1937)
by Albert Gutierrez
Donald Duck was Disney's Tramp. No, I'm not referring to the street-smart canine from the 1955 animated classic, and certainly not the other, more offensive connotation. I'm thinking about the timeless silent character forever immortalized on screen by the one and only Charlie Chaplin. His Tramp was a vagrant, someone who often did his best amidst woebegone circumstances. Most of his situations and misfortunes - usually never under his control - were turned into comedic gold for the audiences. We laughed at the Tramp because we felt bad for him, but also because we identified with him. Likewise, Donald Duck represented that character within Disney's animated shorts. He fell on bad times - but unlike the Tramp, it was usually caused by him - and yet we still sympathize and laugh. It's never more apparent than in 1937's "Modern Inventions," a short that came a year after Chaplin's own Modern Times and covered some of that film's themes and issues.
The Museum of Modern Marvels promises exactly what it says on the tin, and Donald decides to check out some of the new gadgets and gizmos they have to offer. Bypassing the 25-cent admission with the old quarter-on-a-string gag, Donald's first encounter is the Robot Footman, who greets him and then takes away his white sailor's cap with a tart "Your hat, sir!" Not wanting to be hatless, Donald pulls out a black top hat and resumes his exploration, where he finds the Hitch-Hiker Aid. Donald pretends to be a car driving by, causing the Aid to emerge from a suitcase and stick out his thumb. When Donald laughs, the aid pokes him in the eye and retreats back in the case. Donald's laughter is heard by the Robot Footman, who takes away the black top hat with another "Your hat, sir!"
Naturally, Donald pulls out another bit of headgear, this time a green bicorne. With a new hat comes a new gadget, and Donald decides to see how the Bundle-Wrapper works. Despite the "Hands Off! Do Not Touch!" sign, Donald tries it out anyway. The wrapper grabs him, wraps him up, and slides him down the chute. Immediately, the Robot Footman appears once again and it's the third "Your hat, sir!" of the day. By now, you should see where we're going. Donald's next fixture for his head is a red patrol cap. He yells, "So!" to the Robot Footman, whose red light blinks, causing him to rush over for the hat. Donald runs off and rounds a corner, where he encounters the Robot Nurse Maid. Turning the patrol cap into a pink baby bonnet, Donald pretends to be a baby.
It's a bad idea, as he soon finds himself trapped inside the perambulator, with the Nurse Maid's arms dousing him with milk, hitting him with a crazy clown toy, and affixing a diaper onto him. He finally escapes from the carriage, only for Robot Footman to once again "Your hat, sir!" the fowl. The last hat of the cartoon is a brown derby, which Donald removes when he decides to get into an automatic barber chair. However, the rowdy chair causes Donald to sit backwards in the seat, leading to the automatic barber to cut and shave his posterior, while his face gets a shoeshine and black polish. With Donald already steamed and annoyed, there's only one thing to finally set him off his rocker. "Your hat, sir!"
"Modern Inventions" was Donald's fourth solo outing, and one that firmly establishes his short temper. His exasperated fits after each encounter with the machines show the angry side of his personality, a character trait that becomes very predominant in the shorts that would follow. Here, we see a justification to his anger, as the inventions seem to do more harm than good. However, an audience may also sense that he deserves such treatment, as we see Donald intentionally doing things that would harm him. As mentioned earlier, the short came out a year after Charlie Chaplin's own Modern Times, and we see plenty of similarities. The idea of "man vs. machine" has pervaded throughout history for centuries, and the evolution of technology (with all its benefits and hindrances) only help to strengthen both the ideals of physical labor and machines made to replace it.
Both Modern Times and "Modern Inventions" directly parody and satirize that conflict. With Modern Times, we see Tramp's attempts at using a feeding machine while still working the assembly line. In "Modern Inventions," we see various gadgets that have no real purpose, like the Hitch-Hiker Aid and in one long shot, an onion peeler and pea splitter. These gadgets look promising at first, but when they actually interact with someone else, we see just how inept and unnecessary such inventions were. "Modern Inventions" and Modern Times gains their humor by poking fun at the rate of technology's advancement, but both also serve as warnings of technology's own disadvantages. After all, just because mankind can create a machine to do the work of a man, it doesn't mean such a machine is always necessary. I mean, are electric toothbrushes really that much better than a regular one?
"Modern Inventions" is on DVD in 2004's "Walt Disney Treasures: Chronological Donald, Volume One" and if you're in the mood for Chaplin, Modern Times is available from Criterion Collection on both DVD and Blu-Ray. And if you're like me and wanting to get away from technology after watching a short like "Modern Inventions," here's some great words of wisdom from Calvin, the smartest six year old in the world: