Friday, August 03, 2007

Mickey's Fire Brigade - August 3, 1935

There is so much pre-Snow White Disney animation that goes largely unrecognized and unnoticed, even though all of those early Hyperion Avenue efforts essentially laid the groundwork for the studio’s big leap into feature films. A shining example of this highly concentrated period of brilliance and creativity could easily be the Mickey Mouse cartoon, Mickey’s Fire Brigade, released on this day in 1935.

Mickey’s Fire Brigade was the second of what would become the well known “trio” shorts of the late 1930s that showcased Mickey, Donald Duck and Goofy . It followed Mickey’s Service Station by a little more than three months, and clearly benefited from the advancement into Technicolor that had just become the standard of all the studio’s productions. It would be hard to imagine this very color-intensive film executed in the stark grayscale designs that Mickey’s Service Station had then still been burdened with.

The film’s mid-1930s pedigree is readily apparent as represented by Donald and Goofy, who retain much of their early years characteristics. The Goof is still very much channeling his Dippy Dawg persona, and Donald’s long bill and lanky body remain very much in place.

Throughout the history of animation, fire has often been morphed into a personality-based entity, but never more successfully than in this particular cartoon. From the moment the title card erupts into flames, fire becomes a character every bit as distinct and adversarial as a villain such as Pete, or as pronounced as even the malicious and mischievous specters from The Lonesome Ghosts. When Donald and Goofy first approach the burning house, they are immediately met by very clever and highly motivated fire-based manifestations. Donald is literally lifted up by a flame from the basement and batted through an upstairs window, while Goofy’s approach through the front door is met by a smoke cloud that transforms into a boxer and punches him back out into the front yard. Similarly, when Mickey mans a fire hose at the top of a ladder, flames quickly reach out and close the window he has positioned himself in front of.

The cartoon is an incredibly kinetic tour de force of pratfalls and gags with nary a slow or subdued moment. Among its many, many high points:

Donald wages war with a small army of flame gremlins. His tactics include scooping them up and depositing them in a goldfish bowl, and doing the probable impossible of neutralizing them with fly paper.

They in turn taunt Donald by dancing on piano keys to the tune of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, and in a clever bit, literally take the floor out from underneath him.

Mickey dramatically wrestles with an out of control fire hose, that hilariously breaks the fourth wall when the film’s non-existent movie camera is doused in the process.

And Goofy’s misguided attempts to rescue furniture and valuables are lampooned when the items are ultimately and ironically incinerated in the fire engine’s boiler.

The action climaxes in the uproarious bathtub rescue that culminates in a crazy wack-a-mole exchange between Clarabelle Cow and our trio of heroes.

Every frame of Mickey’s Fire Brigade brims over with activity and attention to details. Director Ben Sharpsteen and his crew took no shortcuts; there are no static representations of fire anywhere in the film. Most notable in this regard--while Clarabelle performs her bathtub serenade, a small window nearby reveals the smoke and flames she is so blissfully ignorant of. It demonstrates the extra mile Disney animators were willing to go to have their product stand apart from all others.

It would be remiss to not mention the short’s wonderful watercolor backgrounds that were done such great justice by the aforementioned advance into Technicolor. Beautifully realized, these efforts would be a hallmark of much of the studio’s production during the late 1930s and foreshadow the later similar achievements in background painting that distinguished the likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio.

Even in the fast paced arena of golden age cartoons, Mickey’s Fire Brigade is layered with a creative brilliance and possesses a frantic energy that is nearly unsurpassed. It is a rollercoaster ride of classic animation that clearly represents the collective genius that was residing at the time at 2719 Hyperion Avenue.

Images © Walt Disney Company


Anonymous said...

Really good article, Jeff.

Nice to see your Disney short knowledge put to use.

I hope that Disney's other Fab Five follow Goofy back into the shorts over the next few years.

Hmmm... I think I need to make a few phone calls...

Coyote said...

"Mickey's Fire Brigade" is one of my favorites. I always laugh when Goofy is mistaken for a peeping tom and when Clarabell is sent screaming as her bathtub hurdles down the ladder.

Also, I just wanted to say you have a great blog. Keep up the good work!

Unknown said...

Even though the Silly Symphonies were being produced in technicolor before the Mickey shorts, I find it interesting that Walt continued to produce the Mickey's in black and white. He knew that a Mickey short would sell and still be popular in black and white.

The Studio could produce the black and white shorts cheaper and make more money from the rentals and oversea distribution.

Also, at that time, Walt's attention was being diverted to Snow White. The monumental task of doing something that had never been done before.

Great post Jeff--as usual!

FigmentJedi said...

To add to things, Mickey's Fire Brigade is one of the shorts used in the Timeless River world in Kingdom Hearts II along with Gulliver Mickey, Building a Building and Steamboat Willie (obviously...)

Matt Novak said...

Great analysis, per usual.