Saturday, May 19, 2018

Mickey Mouse in the Dieselpunk Age


Here’s an interesting quote from Walt Disney:
“The robot angle is popular now. There have been several robots made that really do perform things, and the public is aware of the possibility of the thing.”
Is he referencing the now-famous Buddy Ebsen “little man” experiment? Or discussing the advent of audio animatronics as ultimately realized by such milestones as Great Moments with Mister Lincoln or Pirates of the Caribbean?

No, these words predate even those events by quite a number of years. They were written in January of 1933 as Walt put to paper his ideas for a cartoon short that would ultimately take the form of Mickey’s Mechanical Man, released on June 17 of that same year.

The cartoon was an odd and decidedly offbeat entry in the still clearly evolving Mickey Mouse series. As Walt noted, a fascination with robots and mechanical men was gradually emerging in Depression-era popular culture and it would reach a crescendo of sorts with Westinghouse’s introduction of Elektro the Robot at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. But while Mickey’s automaton marvel is certainly inspired by representations of robots in the science fiction pulp magazines of the era, the cartoon’s story and setting are much more pedestrian and decidedly non-“fantastic” in nature.For Sam, as Mickey named his mechanical wonder, is not destined for the amazing adventures experienced by his magazine and Hollywood counterparts, but was created in fact for a slightly less inspired function: boxing.

Sam’s adversary in the ring took its cue from another popular archetype of the period, a savage and menacing gorilla. Likely the short’s creative talent were aware of the impending April 1933 release of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, as the story’s boxing simian just happened to be named The Kongo Killer.

The story’s action and humor center on the literally one-note gag of Minnie’s car horn that sends Sam into a frenzied, out-of-control rage. It is ultimately that gimmick that empowers Sam to defeat his rival. In a fast paced sequence, boxing glove-donned arms and apertures rapidly and successively emerge from all over Sam’s body and pummel Kongo into submission.

While Walt’s original notes detailed scenes of Mickey actually building Sam and subsequently operating him by remote control, the finished short provides no apparent explanation of the robot’s origin, and he acts relatively autonomous from his mentor. Without this background, the cartoon takes on an almost matter-of-fact attitude towards its somewhat wacky premise, as if robot-gorilla matchups were common events during those early years of the Great Depression. But as in many of Mickey’s early black and white efforts, it’s the occasionally off the wall and weird ideas such as those realized in Mickey’s Mechanical Man that became many of the mouse’s more memorable moments.


In the end what I enjoy the most about this particular short is the simple tin can-style design of Sam and how it epitomized those early steam-powered, gear-filled representations of mechanical men. Cartoons are very often snapshots of popular culture, and Mickey’s Mechanical Man presented us with an early rendition of what would become a major icon of science fiction-themed entertainment.

Special thanks to Hans Perk who made available Walt’s original notes for Mickey’s Mechanical Man on his website A. Film L.A.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

It's the Simple Things . . .


The 1953 Mickey Mouse cartoon The Simple Things is an average and in almost all ways unremarkable production. But what it has come to represent, at least to me personally, resonates on an emotional and sentimental level that goes beyond anything the actual short itself conveys.

The Simple Things certainly lives up to its title. Mickey and Pluto take a fishing trip to the beach where their primary antagonists are a persistent clam and overly annoying seagull. It follows the typical pattern of multi-character shorts, where each character has a separate vignette (Pluto with the clam; Mickey with the gull) and then reunite for an overall climax.


But what distinguishes The Simple Things, was that for all intents and purposes, it was essentially the last Mickey Mouse cartoon.

Granted, Mickey’s Christmas Carol would be produced in 1983, and would be followed seven years later by the Prince and the Pauper. But they were both special productions-- adaptations of literary works with more extended running times, and were not really akin to the typical 7-8 minute shorts produced during the studio’s first three decades. And while both Runaway Brain (1995) and Get a Horse! (2013) certainly match the just described criteria for classification as cartoon shorts, both stand more as happy and refreshing anomalies rather than a return to regularly produced theatrical short subjects.


No, despite these films and even the television-produced Mickey’s MouseWorks, House of Mouse and the current Mickey Mouse Disney Channel/Youtube shorts, The Simple Things represented Mickey’s retirement from the very art form that he as a character certainly defined and revolutionized. It would also foreshadow Walt Disney’s own shuttering of the studio’s shorts department two years later in 1955.

Mickey’s retirement from film did not relegate him to the life of leisure embodied in the carefree fishing trip of The Simple Things. He quickly transitioned into a television personality via the Mickey Mouse Club and appearances on the Disney anthology program, and later into the roles of theme park ambassador and corporate icon. But he would with his costars--Donald, Pluto, and Goofy among others--leave behind the very form of entertainment that in fact had given birth to the Walt Disney Company.

I can’t imagine that director Charles Nichols and his crew ever intended for the title of The Simple Things to imply anything beyond the cartoon’s theme and content. But in my studies and research of the short, it has always been identified as Mickey’s last cartoon and in that context the title has always taken on an additional meaning for me. The song "The Simple Things" that opens and closes the film, provides more than a moment of bittersweet sentimentality when considered in the context of the then declining animated short subject, not just at Disney but across the rest of Hollywood as well.



The theatrical cartoons of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s are in many ways the simple things referenced by that song’s lyrics. As Mickey and Pluto no doubt journeyed to a rocky beach to escape their worries and troubles in The Simple Things, I and countless others still escape in a similar fashion to that simpler, yet always endearing animated entertainment of those bygone days.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

What a Character! - Spike


One of Disney's lesser known characters recently resurfaced at the 2018 Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. So what better occasion than this to revisit that certain cartoon insect who was the bane of a famous duck's existence during the heyday of classic Disney animation.

Alternately referred to as either Spike or Buzz-Buzz, the little fellow proved to be a worthy adversary to Donald Duck. Of the name confusion, author and Disney historian John Grant noted "It is certain that the bee who appeared in Bee on Guard was called Buzz-Buzz; a bee antagonized Donald in six other shorts, and this bee was often called Spike. The two bees are, to this eye at least, hard to tell apart; it is possible that any perceived differences may simply be the result of different artists working at difference times."

Spike made his debut in the 1948 cartoon Inferior Decorator. Fooled initially by Donald's flower print wallpaper, he quickly falls victim to the duck's trademark bullying. While Donald tends to maintain the upper hand throughout the short, the plucky Spike perseveres and comeuppance is ultimately delivered in the end.

Spike switched headliners in his second appearance, trading pratfalls with Pluto in the 1949 cartoon Bubble Bee. The short plays off of two totally oddball premises. First, that Pluto finds himself coveting bubble gum balls from a gumball machine. Second, that for some bizarre reason, Spike is pilfering said gumballs and hiding them in the nearby hive. A succession of bubble gum-based gags quickly follows and similar to Donald's previous fate in Inferior Decorator, Pluto also gets it in the end.

Spike returned to Donald Duck cartoons that same year in Honey Harvester, and remained the malicious mallard's co-star for his remaining five appearances. Slide, Donald, SlideBee at the Beach and Bee on Guard all featured similar bee-duck craziness. But Spike's final appearance in 1952's Let's Stick Together turned out to be an unintentionally appropriate swan song. An older version of Spike is seen reminiscing about an earlier, and often contentious partnership with Donald. Most notable about the short was that the older Spike was given a normal voice, distinctly different from prior appearances where he had always communicated via high pitched buzzes and squeaks. This is especially ironic in that longtime Donald Duck director Jack Hannah once noted the benefit of this particular attribute, saying "You can get a funny sound effect out of a bee. They can cuss you out with that little bee noise." This older Spike was also similar in personality to another insect supporting player, Bootle Beetle, who co-starred a few times with Donald during roughly the same time period.



Of the end of Spike's career, John Grant observed, " . . . it is very interesting that this retrospective [Let's Stick Together] should appear so abruptly, and at a time when the bee's career looked to be highly successful -- as if, indeed, he was all set to become a regular fixture in Duck movies in perpetuity. One can only assume that Disney overestimated his popularity."

Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Visit to Dr. XXX

It is a near overwhelming task to quantify the sheer brilliance of the 1933 Mickey Mouse cartoon The Mad Doctor.

Director Dave Hand clearly intended to borrow style and design from that era's stark yet very stylized black and white horror films. This seven-minute tour de force is heavy on atmosphere and surprisingly, a little bit more chilling and unsettling than one might expect. So much so that it was considered unsuitable for some audiences by a British film censor, and later, 16mm prints carried a similar warning.

The Mad Doctor employs many standard horror story conventions, beginning with its dark and stormy night opening. It then goes on to blend three somewhat disparate themes--a haunted house filled with booby traps and secret passages, threatening creatures in the form of animated skeletons, and the title character and his ambitious plans of body part amalgamation. Let's face it gang, those early Mickey cartoons were not the benign "strolling in the park one day" and "I'll clean up your yard" efforts that characterized his later Technicolor years.

The tone is established quickly when Pluto is violently kidnapped and taken to a skull rock-perched castle, the ominous and threatening features of which are only clearly revealed in split second lightening flashes. Mickey bravely follows in pursuit and quickly encounters the first in a series of comical yet still decidedly scary booby traps, when the castle bridge disassembles as he moves across it. Still teetering high above the crashing waves of the sea, Mickey is literally pulled into the castle's interior. At the same time, a nameplate near the door reveals the villain to be Dr. XXX. This is a distinct aside to Warner Brothers 1932 film Doctor X. That particular film's art direction and set design no doubt inspired Dave Hand and his crew as Mickey and Pluto's subsequent adventures would reveal.

Mickey finds himself in a set piece with all the standard haunted house embellishments. Cauldrons, chains and manacles, skulls and bones all litter the entrance foyer, while a swarm of bats emerge from the darkened recesses. Most striking is Mickey's journey down a secret passage that is, in my opinion, one of the single most amazing pieces of animation from those still rough-around-the-edges early days of cartoon production. In this sequence, as Mickey travels down a claustrophobic passage, the view follows him in a continuous shot as he pivots around a corner and tumbles down a long shaft. My son, upon viewing this segment of the short for the first time, immediately exclaimed, "Wow, that was 3-D!" No, actually that was hand-drawn, traditional animation at its finest, where the background elements were ingeniously animated along with central character.

Following earlier efforts such as The Skeleton Dance and The Haunted House, the comical potential of skeletons is revisited again as Mickey encounters the prank-delivering undead denizens of the doctor's castle. It is here that the very clever designs of the creative team are entertainingly demonstrated, beginning with a coffin-styled cuckoo clock complete with skeletal cuckoo. Equally clever and well-realized is the skeleton-filled stairs that Mickey literally finds himself falling victim too. An ensuing chase scene in which the skeletons lob their own skulls at Mickey builds up the short's kinetic energy, but it's tempered somewhat by the still determined and resilient mouse's encounter with a giant spider skeleton.

At the same time, helpless victim Pluto is mired in troubles of his own. The mad doctor has revealed both himself and his diabolical plans. These plans involve Pluto and an equally terrified chicken and a lot of cutting and dissecting. The doctor's chalkboard diagrams are very funny as is his poetic soliloquy, but Pluto's fear in the scene is so palpable that the short does tangibly shift into a slightly more chilling and for some, no doubt frightening experience. When the mad doctor cuts apart Pluto's shadow, it is almost more disturbing than comical.

Despite his own valiant rescue efforts, Mickey soon finds himself in similar circumstances, and with no hope of escape. The story's happy resolution is only accomplished through the "it's all just a dream" plot device. But subtly, this underlying nightmare context is still a bit unsettling--the villain was never vanquished and the heroes were left to some decidedly grisly fates. I can see why some of those early card-carrying members of the theater-sponsored Micky Mouse Clubs may not have left the theater happily whistling "Turkey in the Straw."

But that was, and is still the joy of those early Mickey Mouse cartoons. Most of these endeavors displayed a plucky irreverence that was ultimately lost or diminished in later years. The Mad Doctor both immersed itself in, and at the same time, satirized Hollywood's then fledgling horror genre to great effect. It is certainly a classic piece of animation, and one of the most notable achievements of the Disney Studio's pre-Technicolor years.

Images from The Mad Doctor © Walt Disney Company