Have you ever heard of . . . a bootle beetle? Well, confidentially, neither have we. But it seems that long ago, these little creatures were plentiful. But because of an in-born love for travel and adventure, the bootle beetle is now a rare little bug.
So begins the off-screen narration to the 1947 Donald Duck cartoon Bootle Beetle. But in a 1978 interview, Disney Studio veteran and cartoon director Jack Hannah revealed the actual origin of one of Donald Duck's lesser known, but still very charming and memorable co-stars:
"There was a series with a beetle named Bootle Beetle. My wife knew a race horse in Pomona named Beetle Bootle and I just switched it around."
Bootle Beetle went on to star in two more Donald Duck cartoons, Sea Salts and The Greener Yard, both released in 1949. Hannah directed all three of these cartoons. They were included in the recently released Walt Disney Treasures DVD The Chronological Donald Volume Three.
The three shorts marked a departure from the standard Donald Duck fare of that particular time period, especially when comparing Bootle to the Duck's other mischievous and often times much more malicious but equally pint-sized adversaries. In all three films, Bootle is very much the star and Donald falls back to an almost secondary status. In fact, in Bootle Beetle, three full minutes pass before Donald makes his first appearance. Unlike Chip 'n' Dale or Spike, Bootle is kind, gentle spirited, articulate and well spoken. In many ways he is a reborn Jiminy Cricket and the physical resemblance to that much more famous character is likely not coincidental. His encounters with Donald are told through a series of reminiscences, related by an older, wiser, and whiskered and bespectacled version of the character.
In Bootle Beetle, Bootle cautions the younger Ezra Beetle to not go running off so quickly to a life of adventure. He relates the story of his first encounter with Donald, who is portrayed as an obsessed entomologist attempting to find the Bootle species of beetle, which is revealed to be rare and endangered. The younger Bootle's innocence and naivety stands in stark contrast to the duck's high strung personality and bad temper, and the usual comic antics and pratfalls ensue. In the end, the younger incarnation of Bootle races back to the security of his original toadstool domicile, and Ezra acknowledges to his elder the Dorothy Gale-esque "there's no place like home" moral of the story.
Ezra does not appear in the next Bootle cartoon, Sea Salts, and instead, an elderly Bootle Beetle reminisces directly to the audience of a tale of his younger days with the Duck, specifically aboard the S.S. Quack back in April of '26. Brought together as fellow castaways on a desert island, the always well meaning Bootle again falls victim to Donald's selfish and self-serving ways. Similar to the end of Bootle Beetle, an older version of Donald appears in the opening and closing framing sequences of Sea Salts. Bootle affectionately refers to him throughout the short as "the Captain."
Ezra does return in the final Donald Duck Bootle cartoon, The Greener Yard. Similar in theme and story to Bootle Beetle, the elder beetle again must counsel gentle lessons to his younger counterpart. Via flashback, Bootle demonstrates that Donald's lush and inviting garden landscape is not quite the paradise it appears to be. The short includes a quick homage to director Hannah by way of a "Jack's Real Estate" sign that appears within the trash filled vacant lot that the beetles call home.
As noted, the flashback-narration storytelling used was unique, and provided the Bootle cartoons with a gentler charm and genuineness that was certainly a contrast to the more frantic nature of other Donald Duck cartoons. In The Greener Yard, as the camera settles in on the vacant lot, Bootle invites the viewer to ". . . come on in and sit a spell, and let me tell you a story." Much of that charm was conveyed through the endearing voice work of Dink Trout, who also voiced the King of Hearts in Disney's animated version of Alice in Wonderland. Interestingly enough, the flashback format of the Bootle cartoons was later employed quite directly in 1952's Let's Stick Together, which featured the final appearance of the Duck's other insect foil, Spike the bee.
Another wonderful aspect of the Bootle shorts were the beautiful and often very clever layouts and backgrounds produced by Yale Gracey and Thelma Witmer. They very effectively gave a bug's eye perspective to each cartoon, from the lush forest setting of Bootle Beetle, to the deserted island of Sea Salts, to the bootles' junkyard-furnished dwelling in The Greener Yard. Captain Duck's nautical-themed home in Sea Salts was equally impressive and well realized.
Bootle Beetle would return sans-Donald in Morris the Midget Moose, released in 1953. His resume of storytelling acumen apparently won him the role of narrator for this particular stand-alone short subject, in which he related the story of Morris to not one, but two younger bootles, one of which was presumably Ezra.