In this definitive book about the cinematic career of Mickey Mouse, animation historian Gijs Grob analyzes each of Mickey's theatrical films, in chronological order, with introductory essays, plot summaries, and notes about the talented creatives who brought Mickey to the silver screen.
Grob divides Mickey's filmography into seven parts, beginning with his first primitive efforts in 1928 and continuing through Get a Horse! in 2013, with substantial sections about Mickey's "barnyard" years, the introduction of his friends and rivals, and his "settling down" to cartoon prosperity, as Goofy, Pluto, and Donald eclipse his fame.
The book also includes a look at Mickey's "doppelgangers," the little-remembered Foxy, Milton, and Rita; a list of Mickey's Academy Award nominations; comprehensive "show notes" that include release dates and the names of the animators, storymen, layout artists, musicians, directors, and others who created each Mickey film; and extensive notes and index.
Throughout, Grob stays opinionated, pointing out flaws where he finds them, and not letting Mickey (or Disney) off the hook for a poor performance.
Part 1: The Birth of Mickey Mouse (1928)
Part 2: The Barnyard Years (1928–1930)
Part 3: Mickey Grows (1930–1932)
Part 4: Mickey Mouse Superstar (1932–1935)
Part 5: Mickey and the Gang (1935–1940)
Part 6: Mickey Settles Down (1940–1953)
Part 7: Later Mickey Mouse Films (1983–2013)
Appendix A: Mickey's Dopplegängers
Appendix B: Mickey’s Top Ten
Appendix C: Mickey’s Academy Award Nominations
Appendix D: A Disney Timeline
Before Mickey Mouse the icon, before Mickey Mouse the company symbol, before Mickey Mouse the theme park character, before Mickey Mouse the television host, and even before Mickey Mouse the comic-strip hero, there was Mickey Mouse the movie star. This book is about Mickey’s career in the movies. I’ll discuss every single theatrical film featuring Mickey, from 1928 until 2013, in chronological order. I’ve also included Parade of the Award Nominees, which was only shown at the 1932 Academy Award ceremonies, and The Standard Parade, which was only presented to Standard Oil employees (albeit in theaters rented for the occasion), for the simple reasons that they, too, can be found on the Walt Disney Treasures DVDs and there would be no other place to include them. I’ve classified Mickey’s films in different periods, all with their own characteristics. Each period has an introductory section presenting a wider view on Mickey’s career. And finally, I’ve added some info on Foxy, Milton, and Rita, early contemporaries of Mickey who resembled him a little too much for comfort. I’ve left out, however, all references to Mickey in films by others, for there are way too many of them.
This book is a reference book. It is not meant to be read from start to end. But for those who do, in my writing I’ve tried to guide you through the ups and downs of Mickey’s extraordinary and wonderful career. I certainly hope my book contributes to the appreciation of his films, and of Mickey’s rather neglected black-and-white films in particular. When reading books on Disney, it sometimes seems that relatively little of interest happens between Steamboat Willie, The Band Concert, and Fantasia. Many books more or less hover over the Mickey films after Steamboat Willie in favor of the Silly Symphonies and focus on Disney’s first animated feature films. How unjustified! Some of the greatest cartoons of all time, like Touchdown Mickey or Two-Gun Mickey, were made in this period, and deserve more attention.
My reviews of Mickey’s films are opinionated. This is not because I value my own opinion as ultimate and final, a vision that would be utterly preposterous in any case, but because I think that criticism will spark the reader’s own opinion. I’ve always found works that lacked this aspect as missing the point. For example, Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald missed a golden opportunity with their otherwise impressive tour-de-force Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons by merely providing the contents of hundreds and hundreds of Warner Bros. shorts, without further analysis. Forgettable films and masterpieces stood side by side, indistinguishable from one another. This was frustrating to me. In contrast, less exhaustive, but more opinionated works like Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic and Michael Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age helped readers find their way into the world of classic animation. At least, books like these certainly helped me to develop my own opinions on classic animation films, even if I disagreed with the authors. Thus, in my own book I’ve chosen to guide readers, to point out a film’s strengths and weaknesses, and make them able to cherry pick, leaving it to the fanatic (a category to which I certainly belong) to watch all the films. I hope that my book will inspire readers to watch Mickey’s films, and to agree or disagree with me.
Likewise, the star rating system is arbitrary. I often change my opinion on individual films; thus, the stars do not reflect more than an average result of repeated viewings. Needless to say, readers will disagree with some, perhaps many, of my ratings. The stars, therefore, are not meant as absolute truth, but as a guide to help newcomers explore Mickey’s better films without the need to watch them all.
Gijs Grob is a Dutchman who has been passionate about animation film since the late 1980s. Over time he has collected over 4,000 animation films and over 100 books on the subject. Since 2009 he has his own blog on animation films called Dr. Grob’s Animation Review, which now has over 1,000 entries and 4,000 visitors a month. The blog has raised the interest of such historians as Michael Sporn, Ross Care, and David Gerstein.
Gijs is a lover of art and science: he studied biology at the University of Utrecht and illustration at the Willem de Kooning Academy, Rotterdam, He worked as a scientist at the University at Leiden, and as a writer and editor at the National Pop Institute and FRET magazine. He has made illustrations, cartoons and comics for several institutes and magazines, and done volunteer work for the Holland Animation Film Festival for several years. He currently works as an IT specialist and a teacher at the University of Amsterdam.
Mickey's earliest years were spent in an environment well-remembered (and likely romanticized) by Walt of his own childhood: the barnyard.
With Steamboat Willie, Mickey became instantly famous, and he quickly rose as the cartoon industry’s biggest star, supplanting Felix the Cat, whose owner Pat Sullivan was too reluctant to move to sound pictures. In fact, Mickey would not get any serious competition until the arrival of Popeye in 1933. Walt could now finally release Mickey’s first two cartoons, Gallopin’ Gaucho and Plane Crazy, which he did in December 1928 and March 1929, respectively. What’s more, by 1929 Mickey became a national phenomenon. He was praised by the public and critics alike, ranked among Hollywood’s most famous “actors,” and was revered and loved throughout the world. Even influential Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein praised Disney’s work, stating that Walt “was the only man working in the United States who used sound properly.”
Mickey’s early films captivated audiences. This fascination can be illustrated by contemporary writings, which stumble on each other in praise for the mouse. For example, in December 1929 British reviewer Caroline A. Lejeune wrote in the Observer that “Walt Disney’s cartoons of Mickey Mouse are the most imaginative, witty, and satisfying productions that can be found in modern cinema.” A week later French critic Pierre Scize earnestly wrote: “Like the devotees of a new religion, we ask with a knowing wink: ‘Did you see The Opry House? Ah! And The Jazz Fool? Oh!’ And the joy as your memory recalls this or that savory touch, sequence of musical notes, or gag.” And in July 1930 columnist Creighton Peet: “It is true that there are other cartoons—many of them excellent, many of them imitations of the Disney films. ‘Looney Tunes,’ for instance, substitutes petty vulgarities and smirks for ingenuity and invention. It can’t be done. There is but one Mickey Mouse. Amen.”
Mickey’s enormous popularity gave rise to byproducts. The first were the Mickey Mouse clubs. Starting in September, these clubs suddenly sprouted all over the country, each meeting every Saturday at local cinemas. The Mickey Mouse clubs were a huge success, even too much of a success, such that by 1935 the studio had to end them. The clubs were instrumental not only in spreading and maintaining Mickey’s popularity among the youngest generation, but also in the development of Mickey as a role model. Club members took a pledge: “Mickey Mice do not swear, smoke, cheat or lie.” Likewise, as the years went on, Mickey became less the mischievous rascal he was in his first film, and more of a friendly, helpful character.
Mickey’s most triumphant years were in the black-and-white era. Of Mickey’s 126 theatrical cartoons, 74 (59%) are in black and white. Moreover, half of his cartoons were made in his first six years (1928–1933), with the other half spanning a lengthy nineteen years. The obvious breakpoint is 1935, the year in which Mickey went to color. In this year, the studio’s output of Mickey Mouse cartoons for the first time dropped from once a month to eight a year, becoming less and less in subsequent years. The early cartoons established Mickey’s fame, and it’s there we have to seek the roots of his enormous appeal.
To modern audiences, however, the phenomenal success of Mickey’s earliest cartoons have become a bit puzzling. It has been suggested that Mickey happened to be the right man in the right place at the right time: when the Great Depression hit the nation, Mickey’s happy-go-lucky optimism was exactly what the public needed. Yet, the Wall Street Crash, which formed the start of the Great Depression, occurred on October 24, 1929, when twelve Mickey Mouse cartoons had already been released, and Mickey’s fame had been well established.
Much of Mickey’s initial appeal lay in the novelty of synchronized sound. Indeed, most of the early cartoons feature Mickey as a performer, or rather endless musical routines, with Mickey and Minnie frolicking at the barn, at a station, etc. The earliest Silly Symphonies, too, feature nothing but animals and things dancing and moving to a musical beat. These song-and-dance routines must have captivated the audiences used to silent cinema and rather creaky early talkies. Indeed, there’s a certain innocence, a simple joy to these earlier cartoons. But despite their obvious popularity in the late 1920s, Mickey’s early cartoons have aged less well than later Mickey shorts, which feature stronger stories, better animation, and more gags. The early shorts too often are terribly primitive, full of simple animation, repetitive action, trite gags, and overlong musical routines. Moreover, Mickey’s looks are far from consistent, and at times he looks downright ugly. Only in the third year of Mickey’s existence would things start to improve.
Continued in "Mickey's Movies"!
Pluto, as everyone knows, is Mickey's dog. But in the pup's debut, in 1930, not only was he not Mickey's dog (he was Minnie's dog), but he wasn't even named Pluto.
The Picnic opens with Mickey driving to Minnie’s house whistling and scatting to his own theme song. They are going on a picnic. While Mickey and Minnie are singing and dancing across the field to the tune of “In the Good Old Summertime,” hundreds of wild animals take their food away. The picnic ends in rain.
This short is a rather plotless and unremarkable cartoon. It nevertheless contains a nice surreal gag in which a rabbit pulls away a hole. This kind of surrealism was rare at Disney at that time, but later Tex Avery would reuse this gag often at Warner Bros. and MGM.
The Picnic would have been forgettable, did it not mark the debut of Pluto. He is called Rover in this cartoon, and appears to be Minnie’s dog rather than Mickey’s, but he is Pluto, especially in the scenes by Norm Ferguson. Ferguson had animated the bloodhounds in The Chain Gang which formed the blueprint for Pluto, and he would remain the expert on the character for the rest of Pluto’s career, animating important scenes for him, like the flypaper scene in Playful Pluto (1934) and the skating scene in On Ice (1935). Already in The Picnic, Ferguson shows that he understands the pup best, animating Pluto lovingly licking Mickey, Pluto biting himself to get of fleas, and Pluto sniffing into the camera, a variation from a similar gag from The Chain Gang that would be reused in The Moose Hunt (1931) and (1939).
Despite Pluto’s sympathetic debut, at this point there’s no reason to believe that Disney intended to make the dog a regular character. Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse comics of January 1931 cover similar ground, but feature a large dog called Tiny. Only six months later, in April 1931, Pluto would return in The Moose Hunt, this time to stay. In fact, Pluto would become a more and more important character in the Mickey Mouse cartoons, at times stealing most of the screen time from Mickey, who would become more and more a straight man. Eventually, Pluto would be given his own series, in 1937.
Continued in "Mickey's Movies"!