Saturday 10 June 2023

Mouse Makeover

Once upon a time, there was a man named Amedee Van Beuren who owned the Fables Studios, which made silent cartoons starring, among others, Milton and Rita Mouse.

Here are Milton and Rita in the 1929 cartoon, Jungle Fools.

Then, one day in 1928, along came a gentleman named Walt Disney, who cleverly took advantage of sound when it was married to cartoons that starred Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

Van Beuren liked sound, too, and it seems he liked Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Because, soon, Milton and Rita began to look like, and even sound like, Mickey and Minnie.

Just how many Fables cartoons are we talking about? These are the ones I could find on-line, in order of release.

Singing Saps, February 7, 1930.

Foolish Follies, March 7, 1930 (incidental character).

Western Whoopee, April 10, 1930.

Hot Tamale, August 3, 1930.

Circus Capers, September 28, 1930.

The Big Cheese, October 26, 1930 (incidental character).

The Office Boy, November 23, 1930.

Stone Age Stunts, December 7, 1930.

Cowboy Blues, February 15, 1931 (Milton only).

College Capers, March 15, 1931 (a whole team of them).

Old Hokum Bucket, March 29, 1931 (incidental character).

For reference, here are Mickey and Minnie in The Karnival Kid from 1929.

By the start of 1931, Uncle Walt had (and had seen) enough. In what became a seemingly popular habit, the corporate lawyers went to work.

Here’s the Associated Press’ version of the tale:

Movie Mouse Producer Sues Alleged Imitators.
LOS ANGELES, March 31— (AP)—Enter Mickey Mouse into the courts.
Mickey, through his production company Walt Disney Productions Ltd., filed suit against Pathe Exchange Inc., and the Van Beuren Corporation, New York, for an injunction to prevent the defendant companies from further use of animated cartoon characters "in any variation so nearly similar as to be mistaken” for the original Mickey and his side kick Minnie.
Further, the company demanded an accounting damages and surrender of all profits made on the alleged imitations.
Mickey contended his alleged double is doing all sorts of things he (Mickey) wouldn't think of doing, and has brought down on the bewildered creators of Mickey a flood of Irate letters and complaints.| Disney set forth he saw various “Aesop’s Fables” in which Mickey was imitated in a "jerky and amateurish style, ugly, unattractive and lacking in personality,” further that representations of the Van Beuren organization threatened to put him out of business unless he entered a contract with them.
Disney's suit was supported by several affidavits, one of which, made by Mr. and Mrs. E. H. Holton, recited the Holtons took their two Mickey enthusiast children to the theater and were embarrassed when the alleged Mickey’s girl friend lost important garments. The picture they saw was “Stone Age Stuff,” [sic] a Van Beuren production, the affidavit said.

(Dubs on-line of Stone Age Stunts show no scenes of clothing being removed).

A story in the United Press added Disney had copyrighted Mickey and Minnie in September 1928, and claimed Van Beuren et al had taken in more than $1,000,000 in profits from the imitation cartoons.

Apparently, Amedee Van Beuren claimed in response that Milton and Rita pre-dated Mickey and Minnie, which was true, but also disingenuous. As you can see above, the Van Beuren designs changed after Mickey and Minnie were born.

A wire service story dated April 28, 1931 reported Federal Judge George Cosgrave had granted that day a preliminary injunction stopping the further release of the offending cartoon(s). In hunting through newspapers, I have not found whether the case reached a conclusion in court or was settled in lawyers’ offices, but it should be noted Milton and Rita disappeared and, on August 1, the Fables began to star two humans, Tom and Jerry.

Nine years later, MGM pasted the Tom and Jerry names on an animated mouse and cat. Van Beuren couldn’t do anything about it. The Van Beuren studio folded in 1936 and Van Beuren himself was dead in 1938.

The irony is the shorts with Milton and Rita are being lovingly restored in new Blu-Ray collections of Fables by Steve Stanchfield’s Thunderbean Animation. Take that, Mickey and your corporation.

Thus, Van Beuren cartoon fans lived happily ever after.


  1. Well no wonder he sued! I think Walt took a lot from Terry, but it all evolved into its own thing, as Tom and Jerry owed a lot to Disney's The Worm Turns.

  2. There's one more: A CLOSE CALL (1929) in which the two characters really start looking like Mickey and Minnie.

  3. There's also Toy Time (1932), which mainstream publications today still occasionally get fooled by.