Wednesday, May 02, 2007

When the Cat's Away - May 3, 1929

For seven brief minutes in 1929, Mickey Mouse was, at least in physical size, a mouse.

It has always been a point of amusement that Mickey is, well . . . pretty big for a mouse. When viewed in scale to his surroundings, Mickey likely stands three to four feet tall; a little guy in the conventional sense, but one pretty hefty rodent otherwise. Many toddlers are often sent into screaming hysterics when they encounter for the first time Mickey’s even larger theme park incarnation.

That is why the 1929 cartoon When the Cat’s Away, Mickey’s sixth film, stands as a curious anomaly in the iconic character’s long filmography. For in both physical size and social dynamic, Mickey is truly a mouse in this Walt Disney directed short.

Like many of its early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony counterparts, When the Cat’s Away is a music-based collection of pratfalls and gags centered on a simple premise and void of any kind of plot. Its raw barnyard pedigree is evident right from the start, when the title-referenced character of Tom Cat emerges from a run down shack and quickly imbibes in a triple-X branded jug of moonshine before making his required exit. To the uninitiated, when Mickey pops out of the small hole in Tom’s porch moments later and subsequently leads a small army of mice into the shack, the short takes on an unintended surreal quality.

It is no small coincidence that the Mickey’s fellow mice bear striking resemblances to similar rodents from Disney’s earlier silent endeavors. The film is a remake of sorts of Alice Rattled by Rats, produced in 1925, and the character designs do not stray far from that short’s original cast. And these “supporting mice” contribute much of the cartoon’s content. Mickey’s antics are for the most part focused on a player piano and the typical cartoon gags that that instrument usually inspires. While somewhat mundane overall, the film’s shortcomings are easily forgiven in relation to its more relevant historical context.

But more than anything, When the Cat’s Away is fascinating simply on the level of watching Mickey engage in an environment that matches the creature that he is. In that regard, the cartoon is a curious left turn away from the five Mickey Mouse shorts that preceded it. Mickey had been clearly established as an out-of-scale mouse from his inception in Plane Crazy. For whatever reason, in this case premise trumped consistency and Mickey enjoyed a brief connection with his more primal (albeit still in a cartoon sense) nature.

I can think of only one other screen appearance where Mickey was distinctly “mouse scale”--the 1934 film Hollywood Party. This early live action-animation mix has comedian Jimmy Durante at one point picking Mickey up by the tail while party-goers scream and stand on tables and chairs. Check this earlier post for more information on that particular Disney-MGM collaboration.

And on one final note regarding When the Cat’s Away—the frequent off-color humor prevalent in many of these early shorts is markedly apparent at the cartoon’s end. Minnie’s own “end” becomes prominent in one of the film’s parting shorts.



Hey Jeff,

What a fascinating feature! I know "Rattled By Rats" well, but didn't remember this film at all. Now I will have to dig out the "Black & White Mickey" DVD and have a look at this intriguing cartoon. Kudos for your research and observations!

Jessica said...

Great post as always! I always loved watching "Thru the Mirror" as another cartoon where Mickey becomes true "mouse size" and dances with the gloves.

Anonymous said...

"When the Cat's Away" has certainly become one of my favorites of the early black-and-white era Mickey shorts, if only for its uniqueness with Mickey and Minnie being depicted as normal-sized mice rather than as human-sized mice.

Unknown said...

I read in one of my many Disney books that Walt always thought rear ends were funny.

This is obvious that it has carried on through the years. Just check out the many rear ends that you see of Brer Bear during Splash Mountain.

Thanks for a great post, Jeff!