Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Opry House - March 28, 1929

The Opry House is Mickey Mouse's fifth cartoon. The short is not one of my favorites, but it does mark the appearance of an important addition to Mickey's design: gloves.

The Opry House in The Opry House is apparently owned and operated by Mickey, and the toon opens with him getting ready for the big show. This short is Mickey's first solo film, though Minnie makes a cameo in a poster advertising the theater's own Yankee Doodle Girls.

One of my favorite parts about studying different animation shorts from yesteryears is the sense of by-gone culture found within many of them. The Opry House focuses on Mickey's Vaudeville act, an entertainment venue popular in the late 1920s but completely forgotten today. It's very interesting as a 21st Century viewer to discover these time capsules within animated films.

As I said this is Mickey's first solo cartoon, which means that hoochie Arabian belly dancer is not Minnie. Mickey is obviously a very talented mouse as he dresses in drag to charm a snake as well as the audience. Notice also how he has gained gloves over his hands, a characterstic of his design which in time will become standard not only for him but almost all Disney characters. Even some Warner Bros. characters, such as Bugs Bunny, will adopt Mickey's hand wear.

Taking a closer look at Mickey's gloves, we can see exactly what inspired them. Ever wonder what those 3 lines on the back of each glove were for? Gloves in the late 1920s-'30s were made with 3 distinct lines over the back of the hand. The Disney animators were simply copying an already fashionable style.

It's not entirely clear why Mickey was redesigned with gloves on his hands, but the most widely accepted and logical reason the choice was made was to make the character's hands distinguishable against his black body. In any case, Mickey (and Minnie) are seen wearing gloves in both the title and end cards of each short preceding The Opry House, beginning with the pair's first toon Plane Crazy.

Mickey as the Arabian belly dancer performs many "cartoony" effects like squishing, squashing, and stretching. You'll find a lot of this type of animation in these early shorts because animation itself was still being explored and rules were still being created. As time progressed and animation became a little more refined, Disney eventually decided to stick to more realistic performances. In some cases the cartoony stretching effects were used, but for the most part they were phased out.

Mickey also does a short jig as a Hisidic Jew. Though considered rascist by many today, back then such caricatures were commonplace in cartoons.

The cartoon ends with Mickey's rousing piano performance. An interesting note is that one of the tunes he plays is "Hungarian Rhapsody". The song can be found in many other shorts from different animation studios as well as the Disney movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit (performed by Daffy and Donald Duck).

The Opry House is very a much a gag-driven short like many of these early cartoons. My favorite gag is method Mickey uses to help a rather rotund audience member fit through the theater's entrance. Classic.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Barn Dance - March 14, 1929

The Barn Dance is the fourth Mickey and Minnie cartoon. While there is nothing truly important about the short, it is entertaining and enojable to watch.

The toon opens with Mickey in his old-fashioned horse-drawn buggy on his way to Minnie's house to take her to the local Barn Dance. Does the horse look familiar? This cartoon marks the first (and primitive) appearance of Horace Horsecollar. While never really a popular character, Horace is featured more and more in later Mickey shorts before he is phased out altogether. He will also begin to walk on two legs, talk from time to time, and even gain a bowler hat.

Of course Mickey's outdated buggy is no match for Pete's modern horseless carraige. Pete too wants to take Minnie to the dance, and surprisingly Minnie accepts his offer.

It's interesting to compare Minnie's personality in these early shorts to her present persona. She is easily swayed by flashy, expensive things (such as Pete's car), and it will be some time before she comes into her own and transforms into the lovable sweetheart of Mickey. In a way it reminds me of Popeye and Olive Oyl. Their early toons (and even much later ones) usually feature Popeye and Bluto fighting over Olive Oyl, with Olive being nothing more than an item. In much the same way Olive eventually gains more facets to her personality, Minnie also evolves into a more complex character.

Like any girl, however, Minnie does not appreciate it when Pete's modern car turns out to be a dud.

Lucky for her, there's another beau waiting for her company. Again, I think this portrays Minnie in a particulary bad light as she seems a bit shallow. This of course will change in time.

Mickey, Minnie, and even Pete reach the Barn Dance, which is in full swing. Animals are dancing to the lively music...

...but unfortunately Mickey's dancing skills are not the best. Minnie again is more than happy to leave Mickey for Pete.

Always the thinker, Mickey devises a plan to win Minnie back. Using a balloon, he literally becomes light on his feet.

However, Pete is not willing to give up. Using a pin and his sock garter as a slingshot...
...Pete easily ruins Mickey's chances at impressing Minnie. The two fall on the floor in a crash.

Seeing no potential in Mickey, Minnie once more goes back to Pete. In a cruel twist, the toon ends with Mickey sobbing.

The Barn Dance is an interesting short because it shows Pete, Minnie, and Mickey in very different ways than audiences are used to. Minnie is entirely unloyal to her true love, Mickey seems to do one wrong thing after another, and Pete is shockingly portrayed not as a menacing villain but rather a proper gentleman. The whole story bears some resemblance to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow where Brom Bones, the gentlemanly villain of the story, battles with Ichabod Crane to win the affections of Katrina Van Tassel. Though Ichabod meets his demise differently than Mickey, the villains of both stories get the girl in the end.

To put a cap on this Mickey short, I wanted to point out this parrot. He previously made fun of Mickey in Steamboat Willie, and it seems Minnie decided to take him in as a pet for The Barn Dance.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Steamboat Willie - November 18, 1928

Steamboat Willie has long been known as the quintissential Mickey cartoon, and for very good reason. It was this toon which caught the interest of audiences all over America and sent the lovable mouse on his journey to mega-stardom.

The film is also a historical work of art for its use of sound. 1927's The Jazz Singer was the first film ever to use a soundtrack, yet the process was still seen as a novelty. Truth be told, Steamboat Willie was not the first cartoon to have sound; in fact popular animator Max Fleischer (creator of Popeye and Betty Boop) experimented with sound effects in seven of his films before 1928. These cartoons were mostly silent except for a few sounds placed here and there. Needless to say, they were not well-received.

It wasn't until 1928 that Walt Disney decided to try creating a cartoon with a synchronized soundtrack throughout the entire film, a first of its kind. What came out of this idea was Steamboat Willie.

Ah yes, the iconic black and white image of Mickey Mouse as captain. So much of Mickey's personality is shown is just this opening scene. Here we have a lovable character that is very relatable. His design has changed from his appearance in Plane Crazy. Besides gaining shoes (yet still gloveless), Mickey's eyes have turned to oval buttons.

Deciding to change Mickey's eyes to pupil-less buttons was an interesting choice animator Ub Iwerks made. From listening to animators like South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker and The Simpsons' Matt Groening, one of the most important features of an animated character is its eyes. Notice how Homer, Marge, Cartman, and Stan all have very large round eyes. This helps the character to express much more emotionally, which is a characteristic that became troublesome for Mickey in later years; in fact, it is the reason why he eventually regains his pupils for 1940's Fantasia. While this early Mickey can certainly evoke happiness, sadness, and other simple emotions, it must have been a challenge for the Disney animators to create a confused, worried, or thinking look.

Steamboat Willie also sees the first appearance of Mickey and Pete together onscreen. Though this toon is Pete's first appearance in a Mickey Mouse film, the character had previously been introduced in the Alice Comedies of the 1920s. In this toon Pete is the captain of the steamboat and curiously has no interest in Minnie at all. His villainous role further cements Mickey as the character worth rooting for and the true star of the film.

Minnie is introduced as a maiden trying to catch the boat before it leaves the dock. Here we see a revised design of the character. She gained her shoes as Mickey did in The Gallopin' Gaucho, but for this toon she is given her trademark flowered hat.

The last character of importance seen in this toon is the parrot. While he never becomes a star in his own right, he does appear in several other Mickey shorts down the road.

Steamboat Willie is another Mickey cartoon which isn't up to Disney's present, family-friendly standards, though it's important to note that it was perfectly fine in 1928. While it is void of any racial stereotypes, it does have a scene featuring tabacco chewing.

Minnie and especially Mickey are also showcased in a rascally light. Whether it be cranking on a goat's tail...

...defiling an innocent cat....

....torturing a nearby goose...

...using a cow's teeth as a xylophone...

...or terrorizing both a group of piglets and their mother, Mickey was certainly a devilish character.

Steamboat Willie remains one of the most important cartoons in animation history today. It was voted #13 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of All Time and was even selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It's not the greatest Mickey cartoon ever made, but it is very entertaining.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Gallopin' Gaucho - December 30, 1928

The Gallopin' Gaucho is the second Mickey and Minnie Mouse cartoon and, like Plane Crazy, it was first a silent film. The cartoon was never released as a silent film due to its predecessor's poor performance. After Steamboat Willie however, it was finally released with sound, making it the second Mickey cartoon made but third released.

Done as a parody of the Douglas Fairbanks film The Gaucho, The Gallopin' Gaucho is a small improvement over its predecessor. The toon is not very notable for anything in particular, but I do have to say that it is enjoyable and even funny to watch.

The cartoon opens in Argentina with Mickey, as the notorious "El Gaucho", riding into town with his trusty emu (emus, not ostriches, are native to South America). That right there is comedic gold. It's interesting that Mickey plays this outlaw role, which of course is completely out of character today. Notice how now Mickey has gained shoes.

In the town cantina, Gaucho Mickey spots the charming dancer Minnie. Here she is portrayed as much sexier than in her previous film, what with her hips gyrating from side to side. As the character evolves over time, she will become less sensual and more mouse-next-door. Minnie also has gained shoes along with a bra.

Though The Gallopin' Gaucho is only the second of the mice's films, already you can see improvements in animation. A great example is the short tango sequence between Mickey and Minnie, in which the two dance in perfect unison and move very fluidly.

This cartoon also marks the first appearance of Pete in a Mickey Mouse film. While Pete eventually becomes Mickey's arch-nemesis (and later the enemy of Donald, Goofy, and others), his true history extends beyond even that of Mickey and Minnie. Pete first appeared in the Alice Comedies of the 1920s, and once the production on those silent films ceased he found a home with the mice.

Pete's formula in these early shorts is almost always the same: he steps in to steal Minnie away for himself. That's exactly what he does here, and the storyline allows Mickey to be seen not as just a mischevious character but also as a true hero. As more and more cartoons are made, Mickey will ultimately pursue this hero personality and leave his naughty ways behind.

In the end Gaucho Mickey of course saves the beautiful Minnie, and they both share their first onscreen kiss atop a running emu. Romantic, isn't it?

Like Plane Crazy before it, The Gallopin' Gaucho showcases a Mickey we today are not used to seeing; in fact, in this cartoon he is perhaps even more devilish than before. Mickey is seen smoking, which today is just plain crazy to see.

Mickey also downs a hearty mug of beer, which again is a true rarity today.

An interesting thing I noticed while watching this cartoon was Mickey's design. In the beginning, Mickey is drawn the same as he appeared in Plane Crazy (with shoes); once Pete is introduced, Mickey's facial design changes to his more familiar button eyes. Not only does this mark the first time this design is seen, but it's interesting that it occurs at the moment Mickey becomes a hero. It's amusing to think that Mickey changes not only his personality (which up to this point has been naughty) but also his appearance to reflect his more heroic and "everyman" design that becomes so popular later in his cartoon series.

Plane Crazy - May 15, 1928

Plane Crazy is perhaps one of the most forgotten cartoons starring Mickey and Minnie Mouse. It's completely understandable... the toon isn't the best featuring the pair nor is it particularly memorable; however, what most people do not know is that Plane Crazy is truly Mickey and Minnie's film debut.

Plane Crazy was created in complete secrecy at the Walt Disney Studio. At the time of its creation, Charles Mintz had just gained the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit as well as convinced Walt's staff to walk out on the studio, leaving only Ub Iwerks. Walt decided to launch a new character, that of Mickey Mouse, by creating a new cartoon to interest potential distributors. Iwerks actually drew the entirety of Plane Crazy with Walt and Roy Disney's wives, Lillian and Edna, inking and painting (along with Walt's sister-in-law Hazel Swell).

The toon premiered May 15, 1928 at a theater on Sunset and Gardner in Hollywood. It seemed to be received well by audiences; the trouble was distributors panned Mickey or just never saw the toon. Without a distributor, Walt couldn't afford to make a Mickey Mouse series.

It wasn't until later in 1928 that Mickey and Minnie gained their stardom thanks to sound and a steamboat named Willie. Now that his characters were popular, Walt wisely re-released Plane Crazy with sound on March 17, 1929, and it suddenly became a hit.

Plane Crazy is a simple toon involving Mickey flying an airplane. Mickey's design was created by Ub Iwerks, and as you can see it's very different from today's version. Here Mickey has no gloves nor shoes, though he does wear his trademark shorts. His eyes are interesting because they include pupils; this of course changes with Steamboat Willie where he is seen with oval, button-like eyes.

In the cartoon, Mickey wants to be like his idol Charles Lindberg, the famous aviator who was the first to complete a non-stop flight from New York to Paris.

So, he builds a plane and of course asks his girlfriend Minnie to take a ride with him. Here we see the first design for Minnie Mouse, which doesn't differ too much from Mickey's. In subsequent cartoons she will gain shoes, gloves, and a flowered hat (from time to time). Her eyes will also make the change to oval buttons in Steamboat Willie. An interesting fact here is that Minnie says the only words in the toon, "Who, me?". Her voice was provided by Walt himself.

Now, while watching Steamboat Willie, I believe Minnie does yell "yoo-hoo" while running to catch the boat; then again, she could just be making a noise that sounds like "yoo-hoo". For that reason, it's hard to tell whether or not her line here is the 1st or 2nd time she speaks.

Besides being Mickey and Minnie's very first cartoon, Plane Crazy is also notable for being the first animated film to use a camera move. As Mickey loses control of his plane, he runs down a cow. To achieve the shot, the Disney animators piled books under the spinning background to move the artwork closer to the camera, thus creating a sense of moving in.

Plane Crazy shows the raw side of the Mickey shorts, before he was refined to become the Disney corporate symbol he is today. Gags like turning animals into machinery or instruments are my favorite in these early films because today they are simply not seen.

Mickey is shown as a mischevious and sometimes malicious character, which is an interesting contrast to his persona today. For example, ripping off a turkey's tail to use as a plane's tail is something Mickey would NEVER do in a present day cartoon.

While watching Plane Crazy, it's easy to see the untapped potential in the two mice. Who at the time could even guess at the characters' future popularity?