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"The more we got into reality, the more Mickey became an abstraction."—Ward Kimball
Ah, Mickey, we hardly knew ye. Almost as soon as you debuted on screen, in "Steamboat Willie" (although you already had two unseen adventures before that), you were already fated to be overshadowed. First, attention would be diverted away from you by technology: people would talk about the sound and color instead of you. Then, your supporting cast would divert attention: Donald, Goofy, Pluto, and later Walt himself would all upstage you. In a mere ten years, from 1928 to 1938, you would reach your peak, then gradually evaporate, leaving behind a silhouette that would forever mark your presence, your body as icon, while reminding us that you were no longer there in spirit.
Perhaps it was not entirely your fault. After all, you are such a nice guy. So nice, in fact, that it is tough to find things for you to do. In the early days, you were a bit of a rascal, but Walt had a bad habit of reforming most rascals who came his way, turning them into squeaky-clean role models. Don't feel too bad: he would do the same thing later to Davy Crockett and Mary Poppins.
Looking back now at your adventures, or at least the color shorts collected in the limited edition, tin-case set Mickey Mouse in Living Color, I am struck by how quickly you made the transition from major star to nearly-absent symbol of Walt's animated empire. The title card, "A Walt Disney Mickey Mouse," heads up every cartoon. Not "a Mickey Mouse cartoon," as if each new short is a new Mickey Mouse unto itself—not a cartoon at all but a living entity, a new incarnation. Twenty-six Mickey Mouses (or would that be Mickey Mice?) over four years, until "The Brave Little Tailor" broke the pattern. But I will come to that shortly.
Your first color appearance was in a rarely seen promotional short created for the 1932 Oscar banquet—and not surprisingly, you are immediately upstaged by parodies of famous stars. Your first solo outing, the 1935 cartoon "The Band Concert," features smoothly timed gags, but again, I wonder how forced that ubiquitous grin of yours is as you see that relative newcomer Donald Duck steal scenes. Most of your 1935 adventures are like this. In "On Ice," you and Minnie spend your time skating, while Goofy tries to catch fish with chewing tobacco, and Donald torments Pluto and wiggles his butt a lot. Walt certainly did like butt jokes, didn't he?
Or maybe it was director Ben Sharpsteen, who trades off directing duties on most of these shorts with Wilfred Jackson and David Hand. In any case, you were certainly billed as the star here, even to the extent of your costars going unmentioned in the titles and no director's credits appearing on screen (my director listings come from Leonard Maltin's wonderful book Of Mice and Magic—but Maltin always did stick up for you). In Jackson's "Mickey's Garden," you get a freaky hallucination sequence, thanks to some home-brew bug spray. But that is the exception that proves the rule. "Pluto's Judgment Day" gives the freaky dream sequence to your dog, who imagines himself in Hell for chasing cats (I won't blame you for the blackface gags borrowed from Cabin in the Sky). And "Mickey's Fire Brigade" would be the start of a reliable formula for your gag writers: team you up with Donald and Goofy for some job with comic potential, then fill with situational gags for eight minutes. Plot and character are pretty incidental (there is virtually no dialogue), and the gag sequences seem to run on forever. It would be another year before this formula would take hold, giving you a pretty short run as the star of your own cartoons.
That is not to say that the cartoons on Mickey Mouse in Living Color are unimpressive. Quite the contrary. The gags are wonderfully timed, and the animation bouncy and mobile. The attention to detail is evident in the rare pencil tests included on this disc: three nearly complete cartoons ("Fire Brigade," "Pluto's Judgment Day," and "On Ice") assembled and synched to their soundtracks. This is a remarkable educational resource, showing off Disney's ability to create a full range of motion and expression, as well as allowing viewers to see the details of gag construction, proving that comic timing is a fine art.
With such inventiveness, how could you have failed to carry your own as a star, Mickey? You did get a few moments in the spotlight in 1936, with the brilliant "Thru the Mirror," in which dream logic allows for a host of clever Alice in Wonderland-inspired bits, including animate furniture (already a hallmark of Max Fleischer's cartoons) and an encounter with playing cards that plays even better than the "official" Alice movie Walt would offer years later. You got to defend your honor against a roguish Mortimer Mouse (who looked suspiciously like Walt) in "Mickey's Rival." Although that cartoon brought up an intriguing problem. Looking at Mortimer's peach complexion and full wardrobe, compared to your white face and—well, those bizarre two-button pants—I often wonder if you are really supposed to be a mouse. Your ears always point the same way, no matter how you turn your head, after all. Well, no matter. "Mouse" seems to be more your last name than a designation of your species. There is only one of you.
Well, two, if you count Minnie. Perhaps more: in "Orphan's Picnic," you and Donald play host to an army of mini-Mickeys who all call you "Uncle." Of course, they are such vicious pranksters that I am not surprised you abandoned your own offspring to an orphanage. Or am I reading too much into this? The orphans turn up again in "Mickey's Circus," where the gags fly so fast that it is all the audience can do to simply keep pace. The same quick pace is evident in "Mickey's Polo Team," but for different reasons: here movie stars battle Disney stars, and it seems as if the animators worked overtime to cram in as many characters (and butt jokes, of course) as possible. Clark Gable and Clarabelle Cow make a cute couple though.
Sometimes the manic pace threatens to erase you from your own cartoons altogether. You would think that the presence of Clara Cluck and Donald in "Mickey's Grand Opera" would offer enough opportunities for humor, but Pluto gets an extended sequence with a magic hat as well. Pluto also dominates "Mickey's Elephant," in which the titular gift from the Rajah of Ghaboon ends up bringing out the worst in the jealous pup. Goofy takes center stage in "Moving Day," in an extended battle with an uncooperative piano. And in "Alpine Climbers," while you did get a short routine in which you try to steal eagle eggs (for shame, Mickey), most of the cartoon is taken up with Donald battling with a goat and Pluto getting drunk with a St. Bernard. Speaking of Donald, the captions on the disc help to no end puzzling out his dialogue, given that it is sometimes the only dialogue in many of these cartoons.
Disc Two of Mickey Mouse in Living Color features the complete run of 1937 and 1938 Mickey cartoons, plus a bonus 1939 Nabisco ad made for the World's Fair (Minnie's disastrous attempt to bake cookies is salvaged by a host of Nabisco products, including Milk Bones for Pluto!) and an extensive gallery of posters, pencil sketches, and storyboards. 1937 marks several subtle changes in the franchise: illustrated title cards before each cartoon, near-complete dominance by the supporting cast, and—well, flesh tones.
I first noticed the flesh tones in "Hawaiian Holiday," where you and Minnie appear slightly more tanned than usual. Some of this effect may be due to the age of these cartoons: some mellowing of the hues has taken place over the decades, although I am glad that Disney has not tried to soup up the color here (like on the garish laserdisc edition a few years ago). The softer color suits these friendlier cartoons more than it might the aggressive attitude of a post-WWII Warner Brothers short. Cynicism was never Disney's strong suit. Take, for example, "The Worm Turns." If Bugs Bunny turned on full mad scientist mode, he might wreck havoc with gleeful abandon. But Mickey Mouse? Here the home-brewed courage potion seems more useful as a means of rendering justice: a fly gets to even the score against a spider; a mouse gets revenge upon a cat; that cat upon Pluto; Pluto upon the dog catcher—and the fire hydrant on Pluto as well. Here you may be first cause, Mickey, but the camera always steers away from you too quickly, as if embarrassed that the perfect everyman might be playing petty games.
And the supporting cast begins to take over the stage, crowding you out. "Clock Cleaners," "Lonesome Ghosts," "Moose Hunters": Donald and Goofy are the real stars now. Plot and character development are no longer important considerations. The key to each cartoon is to find a situation (the trio as ghost hunters, or moose hunters, or at the beach) and fill with clever gags for eight minutes, then end abruptly. Sometimes the formula is glaring: in "Mickey's Amateurs," an amateur-hour radio program consists of individual sketches—Clara and Clarabelle perform and waggle their oversized chests, Donald throws a fit and assaults the audience with a machine gun (!), and Goofy is a one-man band—until time runs out and we iris to black.
The notable exception to these cartoons is "Magician Mickey." Fluidly directed by David Hand, our hero gets equal screen time as the manic Donald Duck in an unpredictable magical battle. It would be one of the last times such inspiration would take hold. Walt was already losing interest in the eight-minute cartoon in favor of features like Snow White. The old gang would hang around through the war years, with Goofy turning to sports and Donald turning to whatever job would detonate his temper (Donald and Pluto would also spend some time in the military). But "A Walt Disney Mickey Mouse" would drop from two or three appearances a year, to one, to none.
Soon, there would be little left for you to do but appear in tributes. Walt tries his hand at one, in a clip from the premiere episode of the Disneyland television show in 1954 (although this is a truncated version—check out the complete version on the Disneyland USA DVD set). And Leonard Maltin offers a painfully brief (only nine minutes) overview of your career, including an appearance by Ward Kimball. It seems like there should be more to say here. Or perhaps Maltin simply wants your cartoons to speak for themselves.
So why did you leave so soon, Mickey? After all, 1938 was a pretty good year for you. Although "Mickey's Parrot" gives more action to Pluto, and your only real stand-out moment in "The Whalers" involves an inexplicably uncooperative bucket of water, both cartoons are still amusing, if a little uninspired. That whale in the latter short looks a bit familiar though: was he a precursor of Monstro two years later? An obsession with modern gadgetry takes over in "Boat Builders" and "Mickey's Trailer," both of which seem a little ahead of their time as satires of pre-fab high-tech living. They look more like comments on the post-war world of Levittown and push-button convenience, or was Walt already anticipating the futurism of the 1939 World's Fair?
Then there is "The Brave Little Tailor." Easily a masterpiece, it would be overshadowed a short time later by the legendary Fantasia performance, but in many ways, this is even better. Avoiding traditional cartoon gag structures, "The Brave Little Tailor" is a thoroughly character-driven piece, heavy in dialogue and personality. Here, we see a new sort of Mickey Mouse: not the blank, white-faced slate for generic gags (although by this time, the face had eased into a fleshy cream color with a more rubbery texture, the work of director Burt Gillett), but a comic actor, capable of performing in character as the story demands.
And the story itself is strong, well-structured, with a three-act structure and satisfactory closure, something lacking in many of the "situation" cartoons, which tend to start rather arbitrarily and end abruptly. For example, in "Mickey's Elephant," said elephant is dropped off at Mickey's door with little pretext (other than a vague note from the Rajah), and after some frustration on Pluto's part, there is a long sequence of sneezing jokes—and then suddenly the cartoon is over. But "The Brave Little Tailor" takes its time setting up the tailor, the situation, and the supporting cast (including the King and Princess Minnie), works its way through the climactic battle, and offers our hero his reward. All in eight perfectly paced minutes.
Unfortunately, the condition of this cartoon is appalling. It is very scratched and worn, with a "sparkle" effect throughout that seems the result of dust on the print. "The Brave Little Tailor" is easily the best color short in this collection, and it deserves more restoration. This was Mickey's finest hour. He was allowed few strong roles as a comic actor (after Fantasia, he would not have another opportunity until "Mickey's Christmas Carol" over forty years later—check that one out on Volume 2). Perhaps I am overfond of this cartoon, because I wore out the storybook record of it when I was a child.
But this says everything about the career of Mickey Mouse as a short-cartoon star. You, dear Mickey, seem more successful as icon than as subject, more powerful in the wings than in the spotlight, and more beloved in memory than in person. But looking back on this entertaining collection of your adventures, I wonder what you might have accomplished if merely given the chance to take center stage in your own career.
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