Happy Birthday, Mickey Mouse
Monday, November 18, 2013 at 9:37PM
Tim Brayton in Disney, Get a Horse, Mickey Mouse, Oscar Trivia, Oscars (13), Steamboat Willie, animated films, short films

Tim here. Today, the short film Steamboat Willie celebrates the 85th anniversary of its theatrical debut. And that makes today, according to Disney, the 85th birthday of Mickey Mouse, cinema icon and greatest company mascot in the history of mascots. This despite Steamboat Willie being only the third Mickey short completed (it was, however, the first one commercially distributed). But if the giant media conglomerate wants to semi-arbitrarily choose by diktat which day we are to gather in celebration of their most famous son, who I am to disagree?

Anyway, It’s an ideal excuse to revisit Steamboat Willie, one of the best of all early sound cartoons. Of which it was not the first, no matter what you might have heard; it’s certainly the most technologically sophisticated, though, and the one that introduces the idea that animals and inanimate objects make melodically squeaky noises when you poke at them. Thus revolutionizing the world of cartoon sound effects down to the present day...

Even in terms of its visuals, though, this is a pretty terrific piece of slapstick, as executed by the great unappreciated animator Ub Iwerks, whose gift for the rubber, physics-free style popular at the time was unmatched.

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed most about the early run of Mickey cartoons (up to 1932, maybe; certainly, no later than 1934) is how much he’s not the clean-cut, family-friendly mascot he’d be turned into once Walt Disney discovered what a cash cow he had on his hands. The Mickey of Steamboat Willie is frankly a little shit, abusing cats and pigs and laughing in self-satisfied delight as he hears a parrot’s drowning death cries. And that, I am not remotely sad to say, is the version of him I like best.

Someone at Disney would seem to agree with me, given the recent push towards more old-school Mickey adventures. The run of super-short TV cartoons that premiered on the Disney Channel bring back the more manic, warped humor of the early Mickey comedies (I don’t personally, care for the animation style, but I’m glad they exist), and in barely more than a week, the new short Get a Horse! will screen in front of Frozen, a project explicitly based in the idea, “we should try to update ‘30s Mickey for a modern audience”.

a just-released clip from that new short

It’s all a gratifying corrective to the depiction of Mickey as a well-intentioned square for more than seventy years, basically since Donald Duck became the studio’s go-to comedic figure.


That said, the version of Mickey that’s a little bit more sincere and less of prankster isn’t without merit – one of his best and most popular vehicles, The Band Concert, finds him as the only mature figure surrounded by an orchestra full of comic screw-ups. And from time to time, Disney would free the character up to star in a short entirely by himself, which gave him more of a chance for adventure and swashbuckling than the many films where he was Donald’s foil, or the background character in a story about his dog Pluto. And thus we have things like Thru the Mirror and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from Fantasia, two of the last great Mickey stories before he was sanitized into oblivion. For many decades after that, the only form he took was as the anodyne face of theme parks, or as a very bland brand name icon in places like Mickey’s Christmas Carol, where, title be damned, he’s roughly the 10th most interesting character.

But we do not come to eulogize the figure that Mickey became, but celebrate the spunky little figure that he was, the version that made him an instant star and the most marketable figure in 1930s Hollywood. With that in mind, I’d like to offer up my list of ten of the most essential Mickey Mouse shorts from the first decade of his career. Links go to (unofficial) online versions of the films.

Tim's 10 Mickey Mouse Essentials



Steamboat Willie (1928)
The reason, after all, that we still care about the character 85 years later.

Mickey’s Follies (1929)
Essential for the introduction of Mickey’s theme song for many years after, "Minnie’s Yoo Hoo". 

Mickey’s Orphans (1931)
Mickey dressed as Santa! The best early appearance of Pluto! And if you don’t find those little kitten orphans adorable, then I can do nothing for you. [Oscar Nominated]

The Mad Doctor (1933)
Mickey gets plunged into a German Expressionist nightmare, and it’s as strange as you’re probably thinking.

Orphan’s Benefit (1934)
The first Mickey cartoon with Donald, and a great showcase all-round for the Mickey universe cast of characters.


The Band Concert (1935)
Mickey’s first Technicolor short, and the very best of all the films predicated on his antagonistic relationship with Donald.

Thru the Mirror (1936)
Wonderfully creative fantasy, with some of the most beautiful animation Disney produced throughout the decade; the glove dance is one of Mickey’s all-time crowning moments. 

Clock Cleaners (1937)
"Mickey, Donald, and Goofy take a job and screw it up" was the plot of many, many shorts, but none so excellently choreographed or actively funny.

Brave Little Tailor (1938)
His last solo triumph: great comedy, excellent personality animation, and Walt Disney’s vocal performance at its best. [Oscar Nominated] 

The Pointer (1939)
The premier of the "modern" Mickey design, with some of the lushest animation ever given to a Disney short. Possibly the last standalone Mickey vehicle that’s not too nice to avoid being bland. [Oscar Nominated]

Your turn! What are your favorite Mickey Mouse cartoons?


Article originally appeared on The Film Experience (http://thefilmexperience.net/).
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