Bringing Forth The Mouse

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So he closed with Powers and got to work while still in New York on the creation of scores for his two unreleased silent Mickey Mouse films, Plane Crazy and Gallopin’ Gaucho , as well as for a brand-new vehicle for the mouse, The Opry House . Again he turned to his native Kansas City for talent he could rely on—a faithful theatre organist who had previously lent him money was brought east to score the films. By the time he left New York early in 1929, Disney had a package of four films ready for release. When these went into national distribution, their cumulative impact was simply tremendous; so great, in fact, that Disney was emboldened to attempt an animated short without Mickey or Minnie.

That picture was The Skeleton Dance , the first in the famous series of Silly Symphonies. However primitive it may seem to a modern audience, it then represented an extremely important advance for the animated cartoon. In The Opry House , Disney had already moved musically beyond “Yankee Doodle”; in that cartoon, Mickey and company cavort to a Rachmaninoff prelude. Now he decided to animate Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (with a few bars of some other serious music—notably “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite—thrown in). Obviously this was not suitable music for Mickey and his gang, whose activities were firmly located against an American small-town and country background. So Disney had to break with the most firmly held of all the conventions of animation—using animals as the principal characters.

It is difficult to say just what cultural influence was driving Disney at this time. Although he had studied the violin briefly as a boy, he had no real musical knowledge nor, indeed, standards. This is obvious from his cheerful chopping and bowdlerizing of music, not only in The Skeleton Dance but in all of his later work, not excluding his mightiest effort at uplift, Fantasia . (Indeed, when he was working on Fantasia he so felt his lack of musical training that he subscribed to a box at the Hollywood Bowl concerts, where, he recalled to a co-worker, he invariably fell asleep, lulled by the music and the warmth of the polo coat he liked to wrap around himself in those days.) One suspects that Disney’s desire to bring serious music into an area where it had not previously penetrated was based on several considerations. First was his commercially intelligent desire to differentiate his work from that of less adventurous competitors. Then there was the technical challenge that complex music presented to the animator. As early as 1925 he had made a short in which a cartoon character seemed to conduct a theatre’s live orchestra from the screen. He had also toyed with the notion of supplying musical cue sheets to theatre musicians so his silent shorts could be properly accompanied. In addition, there was, perhaps, his vaguely defined yet keenly felt yearning for “the finer things.” His father, as Disney once said, “would go for anything that was educational,” and Disney himself proved throughout his career that he was chipped off much the same block (though his ideas of what was educational were often eccentric). Finally, there was his own shrewd sense that sound—as he felt it could be used—was the basis of his new success.

To understand this point, one must take a closer look at Mickey Mouse. There is no more useful tool for this purpose than the print of the silent version of Plane Crazy owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The film is not a bad piece of animation when judged by the standards of its time. Particularly in the anthropomorphizing of inaminate objects, like the airplane in which Mickey takes Minnie up for a ride, it is quite good. That machine, like others that followed it, actually registers emotions—it strains forward in anticipation of action and cowers when it sees obstacles looming ahead. The construction of the story, too, is superior to that found in most competing cartoons. It is, like most silent comedies, live or animated, nothing more nor less than a string of physically perilous disasters, each more absurd and more dangerous than the last but all stemming from a perfectly reasonable premise—the natural desire of a young swain to prove his masculine prowess by taking his girl friend for a ride in an airplane that he has designed and constructed. When, at the end, the mice extricate themselves from their assorted perils (Minnie parachutes to safety with a great display of patched bloomers; Mickey successfully makes a forced landing), it is clear to the viewer that he has seen a work of talent and intelligence, however crude.

One also observes that Disney and his people made shrewd use of satire by giving Mickey’s hair a Lindberghian ruffle when he stands in his plane taking bows for his achievements. One is impressed, too, by the fact that, faced with the need to create an original cartoon, Disney had the wit to draw upon his own experience for subject matter. His recollections of the mice in his Kansas City workshop inspired the main character, his rural boyhood supplied the barnyard setting for background, and his understanding of the typically American urge to tinker and invent provided the film’s psychological motivation.