Bringing Forth The Mouse

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After extricating himself from Powers, Disney had to find a new distributor. The man he finally settled with was Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures. This time Disney had no trouble striking a bargain that allowed him to retain the ownership of his films and the independence of his studio. The trouble was that his drive for an improved product continued to push costs up. At the time he signed with Columbia, a Disney short cost $5,400 to produce. By late 1931 he was spending $13,500 on each little film and doing no better than breaking even on them. Each cartoon barely paid for the next one. Worried about costs but always a perfectionist, Disney was driving himself relentlessly in the time-honored tradition of the American success ethic. He recalled later that he often took his wife out for dinner, then suggested dropping in to the studio to do a few minutes’ work. She would stretch out on a couch in his office and fall asleep, and he would plunge on at his job, losing track of time until he glanced at his watch and found that it was after one o’clock in the morning. When he woke his wife and she asked what time it was, he would tell her it was only ten thirty. He claimed she never discovered the truth.

Also at about this time the problems presented by Mickey’s character became extremely frustrating. The mouse more or less fitted the description of him written in 1934 by no less a literary figure than E. M. Forster, who found Mickey “energetic without being elevated” and added that “no one has ever been softened after seeing Mickey or has wanted to give away an extra glass of water to the poor. He is never sentimental, indeed there is a scandalous element in him which I find most restful.” The trouble was that some people were scandalized rather than refreshed by Mickey’s style, and the popularity he did attain, as the critic Gilbert Seldes said in 1932, had “some of the elements of a fad, where it joins the kewpie and the Teddy Bear.” To have started a fad was obviously not good enough for Disney. Mickey had to become both more verbal and somewhat softer in manner if he was to be a symbol that could outlast the shifts of fashion.

Although he recognized the necessity for the change, transforming Mickey’s character seemed to disturb Disney almost as if it were his own personality that was being tampered with. It also presented him with purely aesthetic decisions that were painful. Likable as Mickey was becoming, his new sweet self was as difficult to build a cartoon around as his old sharp self had been. He was still not funny in and of himself— he was merely unfunny in a different, though perhaps more generally appealing, way. (This humorlessness, as well as his naïveté and his enthusiasm for projects, were perhaps traits the mouse inherited from Disney, who insisted that he had a sense of humor and scorned anyone who lacked one, but who was never known to have uttered a genuinely funny remark in his life.)

Disney apparently saw as early as 1931 that Mickey was simply not very adaptable. As he later said, he was “trapped with the mouse … stuck-with the character.” Mickey “couldn’t do certain things—they would be out of character. And Mickey was on a pedestal—I would get letters if he did something wrong. I got worried about relying on a character like the mouse—you wear it out, you run dry.” The answer for him was diversification. “We got Pluto and the duck. The duck could blow his top. Then I tied Pluto and Donald together. The stupid things Pluto would do, along with the duck, gave us an outlet for our gags.”

The process of developing new characters, however, was slow. As of 1931, Disney had in addition to Mickey and Minnie only the villainous Peg-Leg Pete and a couple of rubber-limb-and-circle combinations known as Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar, who were serviceable but not memorable. It is true that a Plutotype dog had appeared as one of a pair of bloodhounds chasing Mickey in The Chain Gang in 1930, and that the same dog had appeared again with the mouse in The Picnic . He was known as Rover in that picture, however, and his useful presence was not apparent until late in 1931 when he acquired his appealing name and the beginnings of his marvelously eager, innocent, and therefore troublemaking identity. The duck did not arrive until 1934, when he had one line of dialogue (“Who—me? Oh, no! I got a bellyache!”) in The Wise Little Hen . His genesis is interesting, however. It seems that Disney heard an obscure entertainer named Clarence Nash on a local radio show reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as a girl duck. He discovered Nash was employed by a local dairy to put on shows for schools, hired him away, and then tried to create a character to match his duck voice. It was not until some unsung genius changed the duck’s sex and temperament that Nash found his métier. He has been the voice of Donald Duck ever since. The other members of the stable (or “gang,” as Disney people preferred to call it)—Chip and Dale, the team of comic chipmunks; Daisy Duck, Donald’s inamorata; and Donald’s nephews Huey, Louie, and Dewey—all came along several years after the duck.