Hello and welcome to In Too Deep Into Mickey Mouse, where I take a look at some of the more famous Mickey Mouse shorts.
So I’ve said before that I don’t think Mickey Mouse is that good of a character, that anything interesting about him has been grounded away to nothing. But is this true? Do I have a case? Well I decided that the only fair thing to do would to track the evolution of the character over 85 odd years to see where he came from and where he’s going. So join me over four weeks as I explore the question of â€œWho Is Mickey Mouse?â€
The Band Concert (1935)
We start off this blog with a historic first for Mickey Mouse, namely the first Mickey Mouse short to be in colour. And boy does Mickey look good in colour. It’s interesting comparing this to Flowers and Trees, the first colour animated short. They really managed to improve on a hell of a lot of the technology in such a short space of time.
This short is often lauded as being the greatest Disney short ever made and honestly I can’t fault them on that. It is just a fantastically perfect short (the two shorts beating it are Duck Amuck and What’s Opera, Doc? respectively). But while being a great Disney short, is it a great Mickey Mouse short?
Well in what I fear will quickly become a running trend in this blog, Mickey is overshadowed by everything going on around him. First off we have Donald, who steals the show by being his usual self. He acts very much like how early Mickey use to act, a self-centred brat who deliberately causes mischief. This is only the second time the two characters had interacted on screen (as far as my research can tell), but it sets up the rivalry the two characters would undertake for the next 79 years and beyond.
Then there’s the various musical related jokes. A lot of the gags just work perfectly, highlighting just how much effort went into the creation of this. They’re quite well done and have a lot of good to them. It’s a testament that it still makes me laugh even after seeing it so many times. So what’s the problem with this short?
Well it’s here we start to get the slightest hints at problems facing Mickey later in his career: He’s essentially a non-entity for this cartoon. He plays the conductor and has his own unique charm, yes… But you could replace him with another character and only lost a little. It’s not as bad as it gets in later cartoons, but it’s here where we start to see that perhaps Mickey Mouse isn’t as strong as a character as we first thought. After all he’s just the conductor. What do we see from his performance that makes him Mickey Mouse? But it’s less a fault of the character and more of the fact that he’s just overshadowed by everything going on about him. Unfortunately this problem continues into his next notable short.
Thru the Mirror (1936)
It’s essentially a re-telling of a few key scenes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, with concepts from the story being used as the basis for the explanations. It primarily deals with Mickey in a world full of living inanimate objects and being shrunk down to their size. It’s a good short, one that’s had a small but noticeable impact on Mickey’s life. Besides being an important part of Epic Mickey, the short has survived by being so visually interesting.
The character, however… See I mentioned last time how Mickey was brave in the face of danger. The important part of bravery is knowing that there is a threat and confronting it anyway. Being brave for bravery’s sake is not something that is in itself brave. In this short, Mickey very rarely acts concerned for his own well-being. Now this could easily be argued that Mickey knows it’s a dream and thus treats it all in good-nature, but the short’s climax is lost because there are no stakes. Unlike The Mad Doctor we know this is a dream up front and there’s no real danger. And this is where it becomes a problem.
Mickey spends the entire short laughing off any danger presented to him and using his wits and resources to get out of trouble. But without that fear that accompanies his adventures the threat is just not there. Mickey is never in any real danger and thus is quite boring to watch. He become a bland character because he doesn’t react to anything. If last week’s shorts were all about setting the character up, I fear it’s this week’s shorts that make him fall flat. Mickey is a bland cipher in this short, a being that exists only for the story to keep moving forward. He doesn’t do anything particularly memorable, anything that makes him stand out as a character. He just is, more of a plot device than anything else.
That’s not to say the short is bad, mind you. There’s a reason why it’s still the go to colour short of the 30s, since a lot of it is good. Sadly its lead character is not one of them. And things were only gonna get worse for the poor mouse in the next notable short.
Clock Cleaners (1937)
Now this isn’t the first time Mickey, Donald and Goofy starred in a short together… but this one is arguably the best one ever made based on the concept. The set-up is simple: The three of them have to clean a clock. What comes next are three separate but clever stories. Mickey has to deal with a stork that doesn’t want to leave, Donald has to deal with a malfunctioning spring (that he himself broke) and Goofy has to deal with a concussion (which mostly features Mickey trying to save him). Of the three stories, Donald’s probably the strongest, since it’s always fun to see him be a victim of his own stupidity. Goofy comes in second, since a lot of his animation features him running about doing some impressive feats of acrobatics. Which leaves Mickey’s story in third.
Part of the problem is that Mickey’s story doesn’t have any relation to the other two. It’s a fun gag, sure, but in terms of overall structure it never comes back into play (even though I presumed that at some point the stork would save Goofy). But on top of that it shows the problem of Mickey when compared to Donald and Goofy.
When Donald is faced with a problem his solution is to get over the top angry, which makes him hilarious to watch. He often makes the problem worse and causes all sorts of problems due to his temper.
When Goofy is faced with a problem he attempts to solve it, even if he doesn’t fully understand the problem he’s faced with or the best way to go about solving it. It’s funny because in a good-natured way he attempts to make his life better, often making it worse in the process.
But Mickey… he approaches the problem completely straight. The stork needs to be gotten rid of, so he tries to get rid of it. The stork presents problems, he does his best to remove the problem. But the comedy comes not from Mickey, but the stork that is toying with him. Mickey is the straight man of the act. Now straight men, good straight men, are hard to find. Their job is to be serious, in order to make the comedian seem even funnier in comparison. So Mickey is an interesting straight man… but that’s all he’s been reduced to at this point. In under ten years he’s gone from being a scrappy fighter to a being who exists for others to bounce jokes off of. Now you could argue that this is just personal preference, that I’m more of a fan of the early Mickey archetype than of this one. And you wouldn’t be entirely incorrect. But it’s clear that these shorts are paving the way for a character that is quickly losing his identity, one overshadowed by his more interesting co-workers. And sadly this trend continues in the next short.
Lonesome Ghosts (1937)
Much of what I said before will probably be repeated here, but this time Mickey is portrayed much better. While Donald and Goofy have the arguably more funnier moments, Mickey is able to hold his own here a lot better and have a more unique charm to him. I get the feeling that this really is the Mickey Mouse that we know and love.
But as good as the character is, he’s the weakest aspect of the short by virtue of everything else just being better. Goofy is more fun to watch, Donald is more fun to watch and the ghosts themselves are a technological marvel (as well as being fun to watch). But being the weakest character in the story doesn’t mean the character is then bad. Far from it. Mickey’s on fine form here. This is who Mickey Mouse should be: A straight man that has enough of an edge to him to keep him interesting. He manages to retain his identity enough to make him a more interesting character to watch. But unfortunately, as we move into the ‘adaptation’ territory, we start to lose Mickey a little bit more.
Brave Little Tailor (1938)
Another Academy Award nomination (once again losing to another Disney short, in this case Ferdinand and the Bull), I can finally say that Mickey Mouse isn’t the weakest part of this short. He’s not the strongest because, well, damn the giant is such a great character (not only in terms of animation but how he interacts with the world around him). Likewise the King and Minnie also work wonders in this story. It’s a shame it didn’t win, since I think it really should have on the quiet.
But lets focus on Mickey Mouse here. He’s great. The scene where he describes killing seven is an animation masterpiece. It’s great at showing how much energy and bravery he has. Furthermore his defeat of the giant is both clever and fits well into the story. Honestly it’s a great little short that a lot of people should put on their ‘to watch’ list. However…
Now while this becomes a problem a lot later on, this is probably where it starts. Now while Thru the Mirror is inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and it’s sequel, this is the first major Mickey Mouse short to take direct inspiration from another source. In this case it’s based on the Grimm’s fairy tale, The Valiant Little Tailor. Now there are major differences between the two that I might explore at a later point, but at the moment lets focus on the big question: Can we attribute Mickey’s actions to him? Or is he an actor playing a part?
Funnily enough the ‘Mickey is just an actor’ theory is actually supported in this short, since the guard looks suspiciously like Pluto. So perhaps it’s not inconceivable that Mickey is just acting at this point. But in that case, is Mickey really being his own character? Or is he just inhabiting the role created for him? When we see an actor do something impressive on screen, do we associate the action with the actor or with the character? In this case the character is the Tailor, so is it fair to say that Mickey is the one being brave during the short? He’s just playing a character, after all.
But as negative as I’m sounding, this is one of the few times Mickey’s lack of character is a big help. There’s still a Mickey Mouse to be seen in this film. He has traits that have survived from his early days. Much like an actor being recognisable in a role, Mickey’s natural goodwill shines through. But does this trend continue, or do we start seeing Mickey being swallowed up by the roles he finds himself in?
The Pointer (1939)
Another Oscar nomination, another loss to one of Disney’s other productions (in this case the last Silly Symphony, The Ugly Duckling). Don’t worry, Mickey Mouse finally gets an Academy Award next week. But lets look at the final significant short of the 1930s.
Seeing Mickey Mouse as a hunter sans Elmer Fudd is… unsettling, in a way. In fact seeing Mickey being mean to poor Pluto, insulting him and calling him names is also quite unsettling. It’s uncalled for and seems totally out-of-character for Mickey Mouse. I mean sure Mickey forgives Pluto, but it’s still quite uncomfortable to watch Mickey abuse his dog.
â€œBut Pretty Boy,â€ I hear you say, â€œAren’t you the one that complained about Mickey Mouse going soft?â€ And fair due, I was one to point out that Mickey wasn’t as malicious as he was in his earlier appearances. But softness and kindness aren’t the same thing. Mickey becomes more kind in the early 30s without becoming any softer, without losing his personality. But here… Yeah seeing Mickey Mouse trying to talk his way out of a bear attack doesn’t sit right. Don’t ask me why, it just doesn’t gel with what we’ve seen so far.
But ultimately, the problem with Mickey in this short is that he seems not to be quite the right fit. Having Mickey Mouse go hunting and scolding Pluto seem out of character to the point where I don’t really buy that it’s Mickey Mouse. However, he does have some vestige of personality. He’s not completely devoid of character. But he’s not quite as interesting as when he started out.
So there you have it. My look at the second half of the 1930s and what they meant for Mickey Mouse. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.