Saturday, 2 February 2013

A Piece of Mickey Tail

In an era of smart-ass cartoon characters of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Woody Woodpecker and Heckle and Jeckle, Walt Disney had an idea—let’s make more Mickey Mouse cartoons.

One wonders what Disney was thinking in 1951. Perhaps he saw the success—and accolades—UPA’s “Gerald McBoing Boing” had recently received and figured the time was right to spotlight a non-rambunctious character who could be child-like if need be. At any rate, the plan—if there really was one—was short-lived. The lion’s share of the studio’s shorts weren’t the mouse’s share; they starred Goofy or Donald Duck.

Here’s Disney talking about it in a feature story with the Associated Press. The most puzzling thing about the Story According to Disney is something else entirely. It’s his comment that Mickey had not been drawn with a tail in years. I fully admit I’m not conversant in the Disney shorts, but I looked at copies of “Mickey’s Garden” (1935) and “Mickey and the Seal” (1948). He has a tail in both. So I don’t know when Mickey was tailless.

The photo accompanying the story is a publicity shot of “Pluto’s Party” (1952), directed by storyman Milt Schafer. Perhaps appropriately, a tail enters the plot.

Mickey Mouse, One-Time Film Favorite, Hits Comeback Trail
Hollywood, March 3. (AP) — Mickey Mouse, all-time international movie favorite, is hitting the comeback trail. He’s getting his tail back, too.
After ten lean years, the fabulous rodent, who in some 125 films has played scholar, great lover, cowboy, explorer or medieval knight with equal aplomb, is set for a new series of starring roles. “We never really dropped Mickey,” says Walt Disney, who created the tiny dynamo 22 years ago and made a fortune off him. “We just kind of drifted away from him.”
The toast of the world 15 years ago, Mickey began taking a back seat to other members of the Disney cartoon family in 1938. That was the year Walt made his first feature-length fantasy, Snow White. That year also marked the emergence of Donald Duck as a rival. Disney’s crew, which once turned out 15 Mickey Mouse starrers a year, cut back to three or four. Donald, Pluto and Goofy, who broke in with Mickey, became famous in their own films. Dumbo, Bambi and the Three Caballeros stepped into the limelight in elaborate feature pictures.
Was ‘De-Emphasized’
Disney says Mickey was de-emphasized, not because his popularity waned but because he’s tricky to handle.
“Only my top men are good enough to work with Mickey,” Disney says (he’s always done Mickey’s voice himself). “Because he’s a nice, sympathetic character, not a natural comedian like Donald. It takes a lot of ingenuity to write a story for Mickey.”
During the war the little fellow became a complete casualty; Disney was devoting 85 per cent of his production to special armed forces projects. Mickey has made only four or five films since.
With his comeback in four cartoons this year, many of the younger generation will be meeting Mickey for the first time; and they'll be seeing him with a tail. Maybe you’ve forgotten that Mickey has been tailless for more than a decade.
When Walt first drew him he was a skinny little tyke. His only clothes were a pair of shorts and shoes and he had a tail. But for one reason or another, Walt can’t remember exactly why, they lopped his tail off.
Why tack it on again?
“We came to realize,” Walt says, “that he’s not as cute without it. It’s an expressive thing. I remember he used to twirl it when he was nervous or angry. It carries him through action smoothly, gives him balance and grace.”
There have been other changes through the years. As he aged, Mickey graduated to long pants. They gave him a shirt. Once spidery, his limbs thickened and his body assumed a pear shape. His eyes, formerly dots, were given lids. In the new series he’ll have eyebrows.
Mickey wasn’t Disney’s first love. The first was a cat. The second was a rabbit named Oswald. But Walt wasn’t quite satisfied. He wanted to make improvements and when the company he worked for said no, he launched his own business.
The first two mouse cartoons didn’t make much of a splash. The industry was being turned topsy-turvy by a new element—sound. Walt took his third Mickey to New York and had it synchronized for sound. They premiered Steamboat Willie at the old Colony Theater in New York in 1928 and the mouse was famous.
There never was a more versatile fellow than Mickey. He’s been a tailor, a steam shovel operator, fire chief, cop, musician, magician, inventor, football hero, polo player, farmer, whaler, tourist, hula dancer, scientist and gas station attendant.
He's been around the world—to Argentina, Alaska, Africa, the Alps, Arabia, Brazil, even to Gulliver’s mythical Lilliput. Once he got going there was no stopping him.
His piping voice was translated into ten foreign languages. He had fan clubs in 50 countries. His likeness was given a choice spot in Mme. Tussaud’s waxworks in London. He got into the Encyclopedia Brittanica and got Disney into Who’s Who. He won Disney an Academy Award and countless other accolades. And his face appeared on armed forces insignes and on hundreds of commercial products.

Mickey, of course, made a real comeback, but I’m sure Disney didn’t know about it at the time he talked to the AP. In 1955, “The Mickey Mouse Club” appeared on the air, with Mickey as a friendly host. Mickey didn’t have to worry about comedy or carrying a cartoon short, All he had to be was genial, and that was his strong suit by then. The same thing could be said about Mickey’s voice when he hosted his own show starting a few years later.


  1. Someone better-versed in the Disney shorts may be able to shed more light into this, but I happened to look at the 1941 Mickey Mouse cartoon The Nifty Nineties just after reading this post, and in that one he's drawn without his tail.

  2. When Walt says, “Only my top men are good enough to work with Mickey ... Because he’s a nice, sympathetic character, not a natural comedian like Donald. It takes a lot of ingenuity to write a story for Mickey.” he's either being a tad disingenuous or failing to see his own involvement with the mouse may have been part of the problem.

    Warners had the same problem with Porky as the 1930s turned into the 40s -- the "What do we do with the bland personality when the gags and pacing of the cartoons have sped up?" It frustrated directors like Freleng and Tashlin to have to try and match harder gags to a softer personality, but they found workarounds, even if it meant Porky had to get knocked around a bit during the picture, as in Tashlin's "Brother Brat" or Jones' "Wearin' of the Grin". And you can still set up the story so the adversary-of-the-moment gets it in the end (literally, in the former cartoon's case).

    Disney could have easily put Mickey into similar stories, but there seemed to be a limit about how much punishment you could dish out to the mouse by the early 40s, either due to a lack of imagination by the staff or a fear that dinging Mickey up a bit wouldn't sit well with Walt. If you've got a bland character and you have a proscription on what you can do with that bland character, you're really not even giving yourself a chance to make a good picture.

  3. The article also falsely states Unca Walt was still providing Mickey's falsetto, when in fact SFX specialist Jim MacDonald had taken over in 1947 with the "Mickey and the Beanstalk" segment in "Fun and Fancy Free".

  4. Tailess Mickey cartoons:

    "Canine Caddy" (1941)
    "The Nifty Nineties" (1941)
    "Orphan's Benefit" (1941)
    "Lend a Paw" (1941)
    "Mickey's Birthday Party" (1942)
    "Symphony Hour" (1942)
    "Squatter's Rights" (1946)

    1. Mickey also doesn't have a tail in "Society Dog Show", the last cartoon to use the "classic" Mickey design. The next cartoon, "The Pointer", Mickey's face is redesigned...and his tail is back.

    2. Funny they weren't that consistent over time.

  5. The cartoon where Mickey's tail disappears is "The Little Whirlwind" (1941). If you watch closely, his tail is clearly evident at the beginning of the cartoon. Midway through, it vanishes between frames. Evidently, the decision to do away with Mickey's tail (an economical measure during wartime) was made right in the middle of production of "Whirlwind." I wonder how many people at the time noticed. In "Mickey's Delayed Date" (1947) Mickey has his tail back.

  6. The article comments, "With his comeback in four cartoons this year, many of the younger generation will be meeting Mickey for the first time" but that isn't necessarily so...while he may have been absent in movie theaters, Mickey Mouse was still appearing daily in newspaper comic strips and regularly in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories and Mickey Mouse comic books, as well as various other Disney publications. So I'm sure many kids of the 1940's probably met Mickey for the first time through the print media.