Saturday 17 December 2022

Mickey's Going to Sing

Walt Disney and his musical director Carl Stalling seem to have mastered sound on film pretty quickly. Steamboat Willie (1928) is still a fun movie to watch, but the “sound” part is pretty much restricted to coordinating music with the action on screen.

Disney realised it couldn’t stop there, especially since Paramount was pushing Max Fleischer’s Screen Songs in early 1929. So it was Mickey sang, too.

This story in the Los Angeles Times of August 29, 1929 not only talks about Mickey Mouse’s singing debut (in Mickey’s Follies) but what other studios were doing about sound.

Oddly, the article mentions two East Coast studios but only lists one (the Fables studio run by Paul Terry). We’ve mentioned the Fleischers already. There’s nothing about the Krazy Kat shorts being made by Winkler/Mintz. Felix would return to the screen later that year, thanks to a contract with Copley Pictures, with sound that seems more an afterthought than anything else. Pat Sullivan’s opposition to spending money on sound (shared by Terry) resulted in Educational Pictures ending its relationship with him. That may have cost Felix his career on screen as Mickey became animation’s golden boy, er, mouse.


When animated cartoons must go vocal the drawing masters must work overtime.
The theme song and business of letting the shadows about seems to have passed to the studios of the motion comic strips.
“Mickey Mouse,” a favored character of these thing-a-ma-jig films, is going to sing in his next screen effort.
Perhaps Mickey’s voice will ring out clear and true for the total time space of one minute. Walt Disney, Mickey’s fond creator, conveys the astounding piece of information that 700 drawings will be required to reveal the contraction and expansions of Mickey’s throat in the simple act of getting the song out of his system.
These muscular movements of the throat and body must occur in such a fashion that they synchronize perfectly with the notes and words of the theme song, projected, of course, by a human voice double.
Just a matter of rhythmics and mathematics, explains Mr. Disney glibly. In fact, “you write the music to fit the drawings and the drawings to fit the music.”
Animated cartoons, as it may or may not be known, are simply a series of black and white sketches one sketch to each different posture or movement of the stiff-legged characters. A cartoon runs from five to six minutes. It may contain five to six thousand drawings, projected as such a speed that the whole seems a piece of continued action as if from humans.
The business of adding vocal histrionics to the film antics of Mickey and his confreres, Oswald the rabbit, and the farmer and the cat of Aesop’s Fables series complicated considerably animated cartoon construction.
Perhaps that is one reason why at present there are in existence only four cartoon studios, two on the west and two on the east coast.
The two local production units are the independent Walt Disney studio, found in a small one-story friendly appearing stucco building at 2719 Hyperion avenue, and the Walter Lantz studio at Universal Picture Corporation. Aesop’s Fables are produced in the East and released by Pathe.
Disney not only turns out the Mickey Mouse films, but recently launched what he terms his “Silly Symphony” series. The first of the latter, named “The Skeleton Dance,” was recently shown at the Carthay Circle Theater and proved a sensational success, taking about as much applause on the occasion of the premiere as the feature itself. The film depicted grotesque skeleton characters dancing weirdly to music of a symphonic—at times—nature.
His studio, small though as it is, employs eight artists, a musician and various technical assistants. Disney himself studied cartooning at the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago, went almost directly into picture work, and has maintained his present studio about six years.
Walter Lantz at Universal, now turning out the “Oswald, the Rabbit” series, is a veteran of the animated cartoon production. From him was gleaned the information that the first motion picture drawings were produced by J.R. Bray in 1914, and had to do with the antics of “Col. Heeza Liar.” About the same time Windsor McKay [sic] made a series about a so-called prehistoric dinosaur animal called “Gertie.”
Lantz was responsible for the first combination cartoons, that of a human appearing on the screen with the black and white figures.
He did much work at one time on the “Heeza Liar” series, originated a “Dinky Doodle” group, in which nursery rhymes were parodied, and sketched what was known as the “Un-natural History” series. Among these were such classic short fun films as “How the Elephant Got His Trunk,” “The Leopard’s Spots,” “The Cat’s Whiskers” and others.
Most of these have long since folded their wings and passed into oblivion as have more recent efforts, such as “Out of the Inkwell,” from the pen of Max Fleischer, and “Felix the Cat,” as well as a number of films based on newspaper comic strips.
The advent of talking pictures and the subsequent necessity for vocalizing the inanimate figures is blamed for the passing of the once popular strips.

This minor milestone didn’t impress the Motion Picture News. “Strictly speaking, it is not as good as some of its predecessors, but it certainly contains plenty of laughs,” critic Raymond Ganly opined in the Sept. 14, 1929 issue. “One of the weak spots in the film is the injection of a theme song sung by Mickey Mouse; it seems rather flat.” Ganly did like the scene where cats crash through an outhouse roof “and a pig runs out with his pants down. Can you imagine? Movie audiences relish this sort of screen fun.”

Indeed, they did love Mickey in 1929. News reported on Nov. 23, 1929:

Cartoons Held For Long Runs
Hollywood. — Disney Cartoons are on the programs of four Fox West Coast Theatre extended runs locally at the present time. "Mickey's Follies" has been at the Carthay Circle for nine weeks with "They Had To See Paris"; “Springtime," a Silly Symphony cartoon, is at Grauman's Chinese with "Sunnyside Up"; "Jungle Rythm" [sic] is on the supporting bill with "Flight,” at the Fox Palace; and "Jazz Fool" is current at the Criterion with "Dynamite."

The mouse’s sudden popularity spurred the animation business. Warner Bros. was convinced to ink a deal with Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising for a series of Looney Tunes (after something happened to an earlier deal with John McCrory for Buster Bear cartoons). Ub Iwerks was convinced to ink a deal with producer Pat Powers to make Flip the Frog cartoons for MGM. Paul Terry set up his own operation after being fired from what was soon renamed the Van Beuren studio. Charlie Mintz consolidated operations by moving his Krazy Kat studio to the West Coast, and signed with RKO to produce the Toby the Pup series. And there was the abortive effort by Romer Grey to bring Binko the Cub to audiences. All of this was in 1930.

But Disney wasn’t going to rest. Colour and then features were on the horizon. He would continue to be the industry leader.


  1. Does anyone remember Mickey singing Minnie's yoo-hoo?

  2. Great article wanted to inquire on Mickey’s Follies how you were able to confirm the cartoon ran along side “They had to See Paris”? Also the run period of 9 weeks? I’ve looked everywhere to confirm information including the New York Times archives but couldn’t confirm the information. Your assistance in getting a source for this would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

    1. Hello, Anon. I only reprinted what the "Motion Picture News" reported. I didn't look into it myself.