Bringing Forth The Mouse

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But having observed all this, one is still bound to conclude that the mouse, as originally conceived and as silently presented, was a very shaky basis for the empire that was to come. As Time observed in 1954 in a biographical sketch of Mickey, “he was a skinny little squeaker with matchstick legs, shoe button eyes and a long pointy nose. His teeth were sharp and fierce when he laughed, more like a real mouse’s than they are today… .” His disposition matched his appearance. He was quick and cocky and cruel, at best a fresh and bratty kid, at worst a diminutive and sadistic monster—like most of the other inhabitants of that primitive theatre of cruelty that was the animated cartoon. Five minutes with the mouse, however diverting, were quite enough. His amazing—indeed, impossible —voyagings in various guises were often amusing enough in their broad conception and they supported some excellent comic situations, but the truth is that at the outset it was the witty, constantly surprising use of sound to punctuate the stories, and the technical genius of the animation, that brought the best laughs.

This is nowhere more obvious than in Steamboat Willie . In it the mouse has, if anything, regressed as a character; he represents nothing more than the spirit of pure, amoral, very boyish mischief. Employed as an assistant to the villainous Peg-Leg Pete, he takes it upon himself to rescue Minnie, who appears to be the riverboat’s sole passenger, from Pete’s lustful advances. In the course of the ensuing chase, the mice find themselves among a group of domestic animals housed in the boat’s hold. A goat nibbles some sheet music, Minnie cranks his tail as if it were the handle of a street organ, and out of his mouth comes “Turkey in the Straw.” There then pours forth a formidable concert—in which a cow’s teeth are played as if they were a xylophone, a nursing sow is converted into a bagpipe, and so on—in a marvelously inventive and rapidly paced medley. The gags are not very subtle ones and, indeed, there is something a little shocking about the ferocity with which Mickey squeezes, bangs, twists, and tweaks the anatomy of the assembled creatures in his mania for music. But even today the effect of the sequence is catchy; in 1928 it must have been truly stunning.

What Disney had understood was that sound was not merely an addition to the movies but a force that would fundamentally transform them. He became the first movie maker to fuse sight and sound successfully, making them absolutely “co-expressible,” as one critic explained it, with neither dominant or carrying more than its fair share of the film’s weight. The concert in Steamboat Willie presages those intricate animation sequences that were to be the high points of his studio’s work in years to come—a rendition of the William Tell overture continuing aloft in a twister in the Mickey Mouse short The Band Concert (1935), the housecleaning sequence in Snow White , the ballet of the hippopotamuses (to “The Dance of the Hours”) in Fantasia . All are infinitely more sophisticated than Mickey’s musical interlude in Willie , but their basic appeal is the same: to ear and eye, “they come out right.” It would be preposterous to assume that Disney knew consciously where he was going in Steamboat Willie . He, too, simply liked things to come out right. But he knew better than his distributors did where the appeal of his films lay. They were convinced that Mickey Mouse was, like other leading cartoon characters, an exploitable personality, a “star” of a sort. Disney realized that it was technique, not personality, that drew the audiences.

Even though within a few months Mickey Mouse cartoons were getting billing on marquees, an almost unprecedented commercial tribute for a short subject, Disney was determined not to be trapped by his own mouse. By May of 1929—with the Mickey series barely under way—he had The Skeleton Dance ready for release. He sent the print off to Powers, who rejected it, telling Disney to stick to mice. He then took it to a friend who ran one of the theatres in the United Artists Los Angeles chain and got him to show The Skeleton Dance to a morning audience. One of the man’s assistants sat with Disney during the screening and, when it was over, told him he could not possibly recommend it for regular showings, despite the fact that most of the customers liked it, because it was simply too gruesome. Still Disney pressed on. Tracking down a film salesman in a pool hall, he wangled a showing of his cartoon at the Carthay Circle Theatre, one of the most prestigious houses in Los Angeles. It was a hit and collected an excellent set of notices. Back the film went to Powers, this time with its West Coast reviews and the advice to get it seen by “Roxy” Rothafel. The famous showman liked it, put it into the Roxy Theatre, and found himself with such a successful short on his hands that he held it over through several changes of feature.