MY PARENTS took my sister and me, and her stuffed animals, to drive-in movies in the '50s. We'd fall asleep in the back seat halfway through "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" but we'd be wide awake earlier, just after dusk, when a small marathon of cartoons began. I remember distinctly that a click of expectant excitement would go off in my head anytime a cartoon started with the beaming-blaring face of Donald Duck filling the screen.

It still does.

I've been hooked on a duck for 30 years, but the duck has been around longer than that. Donald Duck was officially 50, if such things can be said to be official, on June 9; the celebration of his demi-centennial will continue all year. The date of June 9 is used by Walt Disney Studios because it was on that date in 1934 that "The Wise Little Hen," the first cartoon in which Donald Duck appeared, was released.

The world has been a noisier place ever since. Oh, but a richer place, too.

For a technically one-dimensional character, Disney's iconographic mallard has shown surpassing stamina and depth. Disney spokesmen don't like to say so, but Donald is surely more widely relished, if not more universally liked, than Mickey Mouse, antic company cornerstone. You can't hate that mouse, but he really doesn't have much going for him. Kind of a wimp, really. Too nicey-nicey. Too few recognizable falliblities.

Donald has a million fallibilities and they are all recognizable. But he also has brass, and moxie, and chutzpah. He even has a kind of sexual energy. In 50 years, he has not worn pants.

"I hope we never lose sight of one thing," Mr. Disney used to say of his empire. "This was all started by a mouse." Yes, but a duck, too. Donald was in fact invented partly because Mickey grew into such a perfect gentlemouse that he lacked the stuff of dramatic conflict; the writers couldn't work with him. Donald offered rich possibilities. Rich rich rich. He was, as his character evolved through the years, short-tempered, often selfish, chronically vindictive, vain and impulsive, sometimes even sadistic in retribution. But he was also inspiringly plucky and resilient and beneath all the clamor, essentially good-hearted.

He was always ready, at the beginning of each new cartoon, for whatever life would lay on him, even if in previous cartoons he had been mauled, throttled, electrocuted, battered, kicked, clobbered, tarred and feathered. Bees attacked him, bears attacked him, sharks attacked him, his relatives attacked him--even chipmunks attacked him (that would be the estimable Chip 'n' Dale). He had three disobedient nephews and an emotionally unstable girlfriend to deal with. And frequently every inanimate object within his artfully animated universe--a dripping faucet, a rebellious water hose, a cantankerous alarm clock, a terminate composition wheezing automobile--joined in conspiracy against him and his pursuit of happiness, of simple pleasure, of a good night's sleep.

Within the framework of a single six-minute cartoon, Donald Duck could be Huckleberry Finn, Oliver Twist, Ma Joad, Horatio Alger and Scarlett O'Hara all rolled into one. Rocky Balboa is a milquetoast compared to this illustrious duck. His outbursts are legend; pushed to the brink, he explodes into a fireball of flying fists and snapping beak, a furious ballet of protean protestation, a passionate rage against heaven itself.

When, in the cartoon "Cured Duck" (1945), Donald was unable to open a window at Daisy's house, when he had pulled and tugged and yanked until his face, his entire head, had turned red, he did what must be done such circumstances. He threw a tantrum and demolished everything in sight. It's not that he is a violent creature. It's that there are circumstances for which mindless rage is the only suitable response.

Though he was magnificent in battle, he was spectacular in his pleasures ("Oh-boy oh-boy oh-boy"), a miracle of drawn lines, of physical as well as spiritual buoyancy, of the American impulses both to put up a good fight and never to say die.

His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, "This was a duck!"

At the Disney Studios in Burbank, desks are flooded with plans for celebration of the Duck's anniversary. Already The Disney Channel, a fledgling cable network, has aired "Donald's 50th Birthday Show," which recounts and documents highlights of his career, and "A Day in the Life of Donald Duck," the first installment of "The Disney Family Album Show," this one featuring Clarence "Ducky" Nash, who for the last 50 of his 79 years has been Donald's inimitable squawk of a voice.

In the program, Nash wanders cheerfully around the Disney lot with a plastic Donald Duck dummy affixed to his arm, answering questions in Donald's voice as often as he answers them in his own. When Donald was saluted on this year's Academy Awards show, and after Nash spoke to the crowd in thickest duck, Johnny Carson said, "Can you imagine what life has been like for Mrs. Nash?"

The duck voice is of course among the most imitated and distinctive in the world. A current commercial for Eastern Airlines, offering a Disney World tie-in deal, has an entire family erupting in duckspeak at the dinner table. For half a century or so, kids who can mimic the voice successfully have been lunch-hour heroes and heroines. This will unquestionably continue forever.

Donald Duck cartoons are regular features on the Channel (sometimes in offensively truncated versions) and on Disney's wonderful "Mouseterpiece Theater," where host George Plimpton refers to the character as "Duck," "the duck" and even "Don."

Donald's 50th birthday is "the summer-long theme" at both Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida, says Jim Garber, Disney vice president for marketing development, from Burbank. Disneyland will have a birthday rally daily and a special parade twice daily. A D.D. cartoon festival is playing at the Main Street Theater in Disney World all summer; another is in the second week of a four-week run at the Guild Theater in Manhattan.

As part of the ongoing commemoration, Donald has been made an honorary member of the Screen Actor's Guild (his union card is in the Disney archives), an honorary member of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps ("for his fighting spirit," the citation said), and an honorary alumnus of the University of Oregon, where he has been the school mascot since 1943. Donald (as impersonated by an actor in a large duck suit) visited the White House for the annual Easter Egg hunt and was presented with a birthday cake by Vice President Bush; he may return in the fall, Garber says--this time, it is hoped, for a visit with fellow SAG member Ronald Reagan himself.

On Armed Forces Day, Gen. Arthur Brown, director of Army staff, issued Donald his official discharge papers, with a rank of Sgt. E-5, because in 1941 the Duck had starred in a morale-boosting wartime cartoon called, with typical Disney simplicity, "Donald Gets Drafted." He has been given a star on Hollywood Boulevard and, on May 21, he became the first cartoon character to have his footprints immortalized at Mann's Chinese Theater.

And that's only this year's Donald Duck lore.

Of course there will be commercial exploitation of so commercial an occasion. "We've asked 100 of our licensing companies, those that we authorize to produce merchandise, to come up with a new line, a new product or special commemorative items, and this will all be rolling out in the fall," says Garber. A one-hour special, "Happy Birthday, Donald Duck," narrated by Dick Van Dyke, will air on CBS late this year.

Garber is asked if, partly on the basis of all this hoopla, Donald isn't, in fact, more popular than the Mouse, whose 50th birthday was celebrated in 1978.

"I can't say he surpasses Mickey," Garber says carefully. "I don't think any of our characters do. But he's right up there with Mickey. To judge from the mail we receive here at the studio, adults seem to relate to Donald better than they do to Mickey."

For years many of the more than 125 Donald Duck cartoons made from 1937 to 1961 by Disney were unviewable. Occasionally one would be attached to a new Disney feature or re-issue making one of its cyclical theatrical rounds. Some were mangled for inclusion in ill-considered Disney fiascos like the syndicated "Mouse Factory" series. Many of the duck's cartoons, as well as others from the vast and immaculately preserved (and priceless) Disney library, now show up on the Disney Channel's DTV series, the mouse-eared answer to MTV, in which old footage is re-edited to modern pop tunes.

Today, fortunately, the home video industry is making it possible to rent or to own authentic and vintage Donald Duck cartoons and play them until the tape wears out. At first, Disney was only releasing compendiums of cartoons as they were edited and spliced together for Disney TV shows of the '50s and '60s, encumbered with nuisance narration by Ludwig Van Drake, a tedious variation on the Sid Caesar "old professor" character. Foul fare this was, reeking of travesty.

But now, for a "limited time only," according to Disney, a set of seven "Cartoon Classics, Limited Gold Edition" have been issued in Beta, VHS and CED videodisc formats (the bargain purchase price for the tapes is $29.95), and two of them, "Donald" and "Daisy," feature extensive Duckanalia. The Donald tape includes "The Autograph Hound" (1939) in which Donald cavorts with caricatures of Greta Garbo, Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable and the Ritz Brothers, and hits it off rather grandly with Shirley Temple. In this and most of his cartoons, Donald seems to be about the size of a 6-year-old child.

But it's the Daisy tape that has the chain of classics, including "Sleepy Time Donald" (1947) in which a somnambulatory Duck, his eyes closed, puts a boot on his head and saunters off to Daisy's house in the middle of the night ("I must humor him," she says. "I mustn't wake him, or it would be fatal"), and "Crazy Over Daisy" (1950), a blissful 1890s idyll in which Mickey and Minnie Mouse make cameo appearances and Donald's attempt to court Daisy is thwarted by the chipmunks. Daisy is done up like Olivia de Havilland in "The Heiress."

The finest, most emotionally resonant cartoon in either of the collections, also on the Daisy reel, is "Donald's Dream Voice" (1948), a moral tale that ranks with Chuck Jones' Warner Bros. classic "One Froggy Evening." Donald the brush salesman is ridiculed because of his incomprehensible speaking voice. He buys a box of amazing instant voice pills ("To be a man, you must talk like one," the sign says) and suddenly his babbling becomes a florid baritone with a Ronald Coleman accent. The brush business picks up, and Donald runs over to Daisy's house to propose in his newfound mellifluous timbre. But he stumbles, all the pills but one fall into the sewer, and the last pill has to be chased as it bounces and skitters all over town until it finally finds a resting place--in a cow's mouth.

Donald squawks and swings his fists and the cow says, with diction that is anything but bovine, "Oh shut up. Can't you read that sign over there? It says, 'No Trespassing.' " The best laid schemes o' mice and duck gang aft a-gley.

Similar, and similarly brilliant, is "Donald's Dilemma" (1947), wherein Donald and Daisy's stroll along the boulevard is interrupted by a flower pot that falls from the 99th floor of an office building and renders Donald senseless. He hears a mysterious stentorian voice that bellows, "Donald Duck! You are the greatest singer in the world!" And he thereupon launches into a smoothie crooner's rendition of "When You Wish Upon a Star."

Donald no longer recognizes Daisy, is snapped up by theatrical agent Joe Blurt, and is off on a stellar career. Daisy, desperate and abandoned, seeks psychiatric help (after briefly contemplating suicide and wildly biting her arm) and is advised that the only way to get Donald back is to bop him with another flower pot. She does so from the rafters of a theater, right in the middle of the line, "Like a bolt, out of the blue . . . "

All the endings are not happy for Donald. Often a cartoon will end with him disappearing into the horizon, chased off the screen by whatever nemeses he has managed, sometimes in all innocence, to antagonize. Not for nothing does the Donald Duck theme song end, "Who gets stuck, with all the bad luck? No one--but Donald Duck."

Donald's hairiest time, however, occured in a cartoon not available for home consumption and almost never shown publicly (a splinter of it surfaces in the Disney Channel special): "Der Fuehrer's Face" (1943), a propaganda masterpiece that has Donald dreaming he is a citizen of the Third Reich, condemned to an assembly line that spits out bomb upon bomb, and berated from all sides by the commands of braying loudspeakers. At the end of the film, the only Donald Duck short to win an Oscar, Donald awakes, still in his Uncle Sam p.j.'s, and sees the shadow of a raised arm on the wall of his bedroom. Still in his dream state, he obediently shouts "Heil, Hitler," but then realizes he is awake. The shadow on the wall is made by a model of the Statue of Liberty on his windowsill.

The duck hugs and kisses the lady with the torch. Oh-boy oh-boy oh-boy.

Richard Fried, of Disney Home Video, says many of the wartime Duck cartoons will probably not be released because "there is some sensitive material in some of them"--anti-Japanese and anti-German caricatures. But "Der Fuehrer's Face" is a cultural and political artifact. It deserves to be seen.

It was fashionable several years ago to disparage the Disney oeuvre and to search it for sinister psychological undercurrents--like aggressive reflexes and even an anal fixation. In any century's folklore one can find distressing subtexts, grisly imagery and morbid themes. In that context, the collected works of Disney need no apologia, and their longevity, their capacity for delight, is the end that justifies occasionally disturbing means.

Of all the Disney characters, Donald is surely the deepest and his behavior the most meaningful and redolent. Slings and arrows were the least of his problems, and his readiness as a combatant was equaled only by the eagerness of the universe to thwart and harrass him. Most often, or at least most memorably, the demons Donald battled were demons from within--his violent temper, which he repeatedly tried to control; his helpless incoherence, the curse of the inarticulate; and the frequency with which his good intentions, his humble aspirations, were undone by his own character failings and inability to cope with adversity.

It has little to do with ducks. There is little ducklike about him, really. In many of the cartoons the first image of him is this: a chipper fellow in a sailor suit embarked on a new vocation or project, exuding high hopes and brash faith, and ready to face whatever monkey wrenches will be thrown into the works of his existence. Cleaner of clocks, pumper of gasoline, seller of brushes, whatever; each new incarnation found him renewed, ebullient, and at least momentarily at peace with the world around him.

What we see in Donald is all too clearly and sometimes all too accurately our refracted selves--our best instincts, our worst tendencies, our most cherished ambitions. Donald, you have dallied in realms where no feathered friend ever went before, and your refusal to accept defeat remains a Quixotic inspiration. This isn't just cartoon stuff we're talking about. This isn't Mickeymouse. This is, no foolin', the human condition.

Hail to thee, blithe spirit.

Duck thou never wert.