Special Exhibit Articles
Mickey in the Post-War Era
By Charles Solomon
Mickey's popularity had skyrocketed during the early '30s, but by the late '40s, his popularity with children and his role as a corporate symbol had placed so many restrictions on his behavior, he became dull. The rambunctious imp of the '20s and the polished dancer of the '30s gradually turned into a docile suburbanite.
Walt summed up the problem in an interview in "Collier's" in 1949: "Mickey's decline was due to his heroic nature. He grew into such a legend that we couldn't gag around with him. He acquired as many taboos as a Western hero - no smoking, no drinking, no violence." Over the next several decades, the artists tinkered with Mickey's appearance, e.g. making his ears three-dimensional in "The Nifty Nineties" (1941), but they never bettered the Mickey of 1938-1940. When a new generation of artists animated the character during the '90s, they looked to the Mickey of "Brave Little Tailor" and "Sorcerer's Apprentice" as a model.
Frank Thomas, one of the celebrated "Nine Old Men," as Disney called his key cadre of animators, observed, "All the Mickeys have something of Chaplin in them." They also have a lot of Walt in them. Lillian Disney frequently noted how much Mickey reminded her of Walt. Many story artists recall Walt rejecting a gag or a piece of business in a cartoon because "Mickey wouldn't think that way."
"Mickey was definitely Walt's alter-ego," states veteran Studio artist John Hench, who painted the official portraits of Mickey for his 25th, 50th and 60th birthdays. "Like Mickey, Walt was optimistic -- he certainly had enormous faith in himself, and, of course, Mickey has enormous faith in himself -- he takes on giants and whatnot. Mickey seemed like a live person. We knew how he'd act under a given circumstance -- there'd be some surprises, but we knew basically how he'd behave."
"Mickey really is Walt in a lot of ways," agrees Roy E. Disney. "I'm not sure it had occurred to me earlier so strongly, but Mickey has all those nice impulses Walt had, the kind of gut-level nice guy he was."
Walt Disney was fond of Donald and the rest of his Studio's characters. He supervised their development carefully, laughed at their antics and paid bonuses to animators who did exceptional footage of them. But he always kept a special affection for Mickey Mouse that no other character -- however successful -- could supplant.
Disney became more involved in features, live-action films and other projects during the '40s. He stopped doing Mickey's voice in 1947 because he didn't have the time to spend in the recording studio and because years of heavy smoking had deepened and roughened his voice. Jim Macdonald, a Studio sound effects man, spoke for Mickey after that. But no one understood Mickey's nature as thoroughly as Walt, which made it harder to find appropriate stories.
"Nobody but Walt could do the Mouse," says Ollie Johnston, another of the celebrated "Nine Old Men." "He was the only guy who felt how to handle Mickey. After 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice,' there really wasn't a good Mickey. Then they started drawing him in a different way, with different proportions. But the drawing wasn't the problem -- it was that they just didn't have the right things for him to do."
The difficulty in finding "the right things for him to do" was reflected in the decreasing number of Mickey cartoons Disney produced after 1940. Between 1941 and 1965, the Studio released 109 Donald shorts, 49 Goofys and only 14 Mickeys. In most of them, Mickey played straight man to Pluto and other comic characters. Disney revealed his awareness of the character's limits in a story meeting about the never-completed short, "Mountain Carvers," held on August 8, 1939:
"Mickey isn't funny in a situation of that sort. I think people think of
Mickey as a cute character --he is a cute character -- and he should be
more likable in everything he does. I have always kind of compared Mickey to Harold Lloyd -- he has to have situations (or) he isn't funny...
I'd rather not make Mickey (films) if we don't get the right idea for him...These things with the Duck are always funny, but if you try to pull those with Mickey, it seems like someone trying to be funny."
Walt had expressed similar reservations 18 months earlier (Feb. 21, 1938) in a meeting about another unfinished cartoon, "Yukon Mickey/Yukon Donald": "This picture might be suited better for the Duck as you would be able to use more personality with the Duck in spots where he would be laughing than you would with Mickey. The expression and the voice of the Duck would help it. It is a natural for the Duck to get in a situation like this -- and the audience likes to see the Duck get it."
During development and pre-production, films that began as vehicles for Mickey were sometimes rewritten for Donald, or The Duck, as the Studio artists called the character, for the reasons Disney described. Donald's volatile temper made him funnier, especially when he was the butt of a gag.
Donald Duck was listed among Mickey's friends in the book "The Adventures of Mickey Mouse" (1931), but the character didn't make his screen debut until "The Wise Little Hen" (1934). Donald began as a rather pudgy bird with a narrow beak and feet. During the next several years, the artists refined him into the rounder, more attractive character familiar to audiences everywhere. Donald's personality essentially gelled in his second film, "The Orphan's Benefit" (1934, remade in color in 1941). When the rowdy little mice laughed at his efforts to recite "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Little Boy Blue," The Duck threw his first temper tantrum. Over the next several decades, Donald would appear in roles that ranged from the guardian of his three nephews to Daisy's suitor to honey farmer to disgruntled Nazi factory worker, but his famous temper was always evident.
Like "a Western hero," Mickey is straightforward, good-natured, and modest. Donald is greedy, conceited, sneaky and hot-tempered. These very human foibles make it easy for Donald to be funny. His personality brings him into conflict with his environment and other characters, which provides opportunities for "The Duck to get it." His unwarranted confidence in his own abilities leads him to hatch elaborate schemes that invariably backfire.
In the 1949 story "History Lesson," science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke speculated on Mickey Mouse's ultimate legacy. Thousands of years after an ice age has extinguished human life on Earth, an expedition from Venus finds a short film in a cache of artifacts. Fascinated and mystified, the scientists stare at the grinning, large-eared biped on the screen:
"For the rest of time, it would symbolize the human race. The psychologists of Venus would analyze its actions and watch its every movement until they could reconstruct its mind. Thousands of books would be written about it. Intricate philosophies would be contrived to account for its behavior...Millions of times across the ages to come those last few words would flash across the screen, and none could ever guess their meaning:
A Walt Disney Production."
"The life and ventures of Mickey Mouse have been closely bound up with my own personal and professional life. It is understandable that I should have a sentimental attachment for the little personage who played so big a part in the course of Disney Productions and has been so happily accepted as an amusing friend wherever films are shown around the world. He still speaks for me, and I speak for him."
Be sure to read the preceding article 'The Golden Age of Mickey,' also in this month's special exhibit.
-- Walt Disney
This article was excerpted from the essay "Mickey Mouse and the Disney Repertory Players" by Charles Solomon.