Wednesday, 18 July 2018

An Engaging Rodent and Minor Masterpieces

Even as Mickey Mouse was being recognised and praised by the people who hand out the Oscars in 1932, the humanoid mouse had peaked in films.

Mickey, of course, stuck around for many years and still starred in films, but he was eclipsed by multiple colours, then by multiple pigs, then by multiple dwarves. Even setting aside features and Silly Symphonies, Donald Duck and, to a lesser extent, Goofy, began grabbing the audience’s attention in short films.

One wonders if part of the blame, if blame’s the word, could be put on film censors. Donald was just a loudmouth with anger management issues. Goofy was a dope. But Mickey was a “role model.” He had a wife-like companion, a dog, a home. In many ways, to the kid audience, he was similar to dad. And dad can’t be shown doing anything bad. He must uphold the American Family Way. So out went chamber pot and outhouse jokes, and udders and bodily fluids and stuff like that. Mickey became bland as, well, dad with his predictable routine of work, dinner, pipe and slippers and reading the paper.

Here’s a story from the New York Herald Tribune of November 27, 1932. I reprint it not because of its analysis of Mickey Mouse but because it has some small praise for other animated shorts. How often do you see Van Beuren’s Tom and Jerry receive some favour in the popular press? Almost never. You do here. Even Flip the Frog (before he stared at showering women through a keyhole) warrants a mention.

Mickey Mouse’s New Garlands Are the Subject of This Essay
By J.C. Furnas

THE annual awards of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences for the best acting, directing, camera work and so forth always produce more or less dispute. But that one of the recent awards which gave special recognition to Mickey Mouse is something with which almost all picturegoers can be thoroughly satisfied. You have your own ideas as to whom turned out the best job of acting among the great ladies of the screen, but, unless you are more or less than human, you cannot object to seeing Mr. Walt Disney’s engaging rodent hung around with garlands. Although it seems a little unfair that Minnie Mouse was not included in the honors, that is a matter touching domestic diplomacy and had been not be discussed in public.
Nor is this laboring of the Academy mountain to bring forth a mouse a matter of mere routine, like the selection of an All-American quarterback or the year’s best director. A special award of this sort has been made only twice before, once for Charles Spencer Chaplin, once for the Warner Brothers’ contribution in developing sound-production. This is fame. It ranks the absurd creature of Disney’s fancy with the actor who heads the screen pantheon and with the most important technical development the screen has seen since the close-up was invented. And there can be little doubt that Mickey deserves to be in such company. Only the early Chaplin comedies ever gained such a hold on the public affection as animated cartoons in general, and Mickey Mouse in particular, have developed since synchronized sound was combined with the old cartoon technique.
By an unfortunate coincidence, the current Mickey Mouse releases at the time of the award were not quite up to standard. Neither Mickey’s adventures in Arabia at the Roxy nor “The Wayward Canary” at the Rivoli match up with the best Mickey has done, such as the battle with the octopus on the beach, nor even with his average quality, which was well represented in “Mickey’s Revue.” And just at the moment attention has been diverted to the new colored Silly Symphonies, of which an excellent example is now showing at the Palace. But week in and week out, Mickey overshadows all other animated cartoons, and the best way to take this welcome award is as a tribute to the whole cartoon business, properly given to the most eminent practitioner.
Otherwise you would be guilty of the same sort of invidious preference which denies merit to all the old two-reel slapstick comedies except Chaplin’s. For, although Mickey Mouse is indubitably the best of the lot, there are plenty of other animated cartoons that are well worth sitting through. A Silly Symphony like “The Spider and the Fly,” also a product of Mr. Disney and his merry men, can come close to the edge of Mickey’s mantle. Bosco and Tom and Jerry and Flip the Frog all have their moments and, if you can discount the fading curse of the bouncing ball, even a few of Betty Boop cartoons have displayed an admirable fancy, particularly that specimen in a kind of topsy-turvy land where fish caught men and pipes lighted matches. Yet there seems to be something about Mickey which prompts his creator to a flawless taste, so that Disney is never guilty in a Mickey Mouse of the occasional candy-box prettiness that mar his Silly Symphonies.
It will be interesting to see how color affects Mickey’s personality, if they ever get round to ornamenting him with the dazzling polychromy that the Silly Symphonies already use. Color in photographed films has proved of little service, but perhaps Mickey can survive its preemptory monopoly of attention. He is developing all the time in other directions, not only in decorum with his past trouble with the censors. To his faithful and much tried Millie he is adding other stock characters: the lugubrious hound dogs that danced in “Mickey’s Revue” and the horse-creature with the laugh like a defective pump that caused so much of the joy in “Mickey’s Revue” and “Mickey’s Whoopee Party.”
If the academy award is to be taken seriously at all, it must mean that the animated cartoon has become a major achievement in films. Certainly the picture business accords no such emphasis to any other breed of short subjects. Mickey Mouse gets his own billing on marquees and stands outside theaters alongside cutouts of the popular stars. And the most precious and pretentious critics of the cinema agree with the cash customers: animated cartoons are the object of high praise and formidably grave analysis among those to whom Hollywood and its fruits are usually anathema. It is so often the fate of the American picture industry to labor pantingly to become aesthetically respectable in a big way and then discover that the aesthetes have come over to something like Chaplin or Mickey Mouse which nobody ever took seriously.
It may mean, of course, that the animated cartoon has a chance of developing into something large scale and important. Outside theorists like H.G. Wells have long been wondering why the flexibility of this medium is not turned to account in serious work, and animated cartoons receive a great deal of the credit for developing the new sound technique in conventionally photographed films. At least one Hollywood director—Frank Tuttle—now and then injects a cartoon gag into a regular film. But the main reason for the delight that the aesthetes take in Mickey Mouse is said to derive from the fact that in cartoons alone can they still find the complete subjugation of fact to fancy, the mad irresponsibility, the passing of which is still the subject of much lamentation among those who consider that the art of the cinema died with silent production and lives again only in Rene Clair.
That is a big load for Mickey Mouse to stagger under, as dean of the profession. It is hard to avoid a lingering suspicion that it is too much of a load, that, even at their amazingly delightful best, animated cartoons are very minor masterpieces and that Hollywood needs such surpassing achievements in major keys. It is as if the most fertile and aesthetically significant work on English literature were the limericks of Edward Lear. But things like that sound unpleasant in connection with the apotheosis or Mr. Disney’s offspring. Mickey Mouse is for all that, a joy forever, and if he can only keep from developing a swelled head—his proportions at the north end already far exceed the Lysippic canon—there is no reason why he should not continue to be the delight of the many and the admiration of the few.


  1. Mickey was much more interesting in his daily comic strip adventures. Even when he became a bland suburbanite, Floyd Gottfredson and his writers found something interesting for him to do or to get caught up in, and a parade of villains, friends and other incidental characters for Mickey to interact with. Perhaps in giving Mickey a narrative rather than a string of gags, Gottfredson helped keep the Mouse in the public eye a bit longer.

  2. The snark at the Fleischer's Bouncing Ball series is interesting here in its timing, since in 1932, it still seemed to be going over well with the audiences of the day, but would pretty much be over and done with five years later.

  3. "Mickey's mantle." Interesting in that, as this was written, the future Hall Of Famer was about a year old... :D