As a big fan of the original Mickey Mouse, I am excited to see the supposedly "lost" Mickey Mouse short called "Get a Horse!" with Walt Disney as the voice of Mickey Mouse that will be unveiled June 11 at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France.
According to Disney publicity, the hand-drawn short "follows Mickey, his favorite gal pal Minnie Mouse and their friends Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow as they delight in a musical wagon ride, until Peg-Leg Pete shows up and tries to run them off the road."
In June 2011, Warner Brothers announced at Annecy that it would be producing two new "lost" classic cartoons, "Daffy's Rhapsody" and "I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat", in CG animation but utilizing songs recorded by voice artist Mel Blanc for children's records in the 1950s.
The shorts were directed by Matthew O'Callaghan and were released theatrically along with a new Road Runner and Coyote short, "Coyote Falls." Producers were Spike Brandt and Tony Cervone.
So the suspicion is that the "lost" Mickey Mouse short is based on some forgotten soundtrack, perhaps for a radio show or an outtake from a shelved cartoon, with newly hand-drawn animation, perhaps from the animators who were recently laid off from the Disney Company.
Looking over my notes on uncompleted and never made Mickey Mouse shorts, I don't see a synopsis to match the description for "Get a Horse!" and from the style of artwork on the title card, it also seems to be from an earlier time period from when ideas for Mickey shorts were developed but then shelved.
The reason for so many unmade Mickey Mouse shorts was not just that a story idea didn't seem to gel but that Mickey was the victim of his own early success.
The February 16, 1931 edition of Time magazine ran an essay about what it described as Walt's "regulated rodent":
"Already censors have dealt sternly with Mickey Mouse. He and his associates do not drink, smoke or caper suggestively. Once, a Mickey Mouse cartoon was barred in Ohio because the cow read Elinor Glyn's 'Three Weeks'. German censors ruled out another picture because 'The wearing of German military helmets by an army of cats which oppose an army of mice is offensive to national dignity'."
Elinor Glyn's scandalous book Three Weeks, while not sexually explicit, did recount a romantic fantasy of a short-lived but intense extramarital affair between an incognito European queen who seduces a younger British aristocrat. It created tremendous controversy when it was first published in 1907.
It was still an international bestseller over two decades later when an enthralled and naked Clarabelle Cow decided to read the book in her bed in the Mickey Mouse cartoon short "The Shindig" (1930) before she goes to the big barn dance. Clarabelle then puts on a polka dot skirt to cover her huge udder because censors had clamped down on Walt using that sight gag as well.
The July 21, 1930 issue of Time magazine had more coverage on the German ban of Mickey's cartoon, "The Barnyard Battle" (1929).
In an interview in a 1949 issue of Collier's magazine, Walt Disney stated, "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."
"(Donald Duck's) temper made him an easier character to work with than Mickey Mouse," Disney Legend Jack Hannah who worked as a Disney storyman in the late 1930s and early 1940s told me in a 1978 interview. "I remember many stories were started with Mickey but as soon as they started to rough the Mouse up, somebody would come up and say, 'Well, that's more of a Donald Duck story' so they'd turn around and make it a Donald Duck story.
"Mickey was a little more the hero type so it was a little bit harder to find material for him. Walt had a special love for Mickey and I don't think he wanted to see Mickey roughed up."
One classic example of a Mickey story being transformed into a Donald story was "Yukon Mickey," a 1930s unproduced short that was partially storyboarded with Mickey Mouse and was completely reboarded with Donald Duck. Neither version seemed to capture the possibilities for humor that Walt wanted.
It became increasingly difficult to find stories for Mickey since he was now a "reactive" character rather than one that would instigate the action, which is one of the reasons he found himself more and more teamed up with Donald and Goofy, who could be involved with any violent action and its consequences.
"Mickey reached the stage where we had to be very careful about what we permitted him to do. He had become a hero in the eyes of his audiences, especially the youngsters," explained Walt. "Mickey could do no wrong. I could never attribute any meanness or callous traits to him."
Any Mickey Mouse storyline, in particular, underwent rigorous review from Walt himself, who would repeatedly say in story conferences, "Mickey wouldn't do that."
Sometimes a Mickey story idea was just a simple sentence or two like on a page from the mid-1930s in the Disney Archives that lists a dozen quick ideas, including, "Mickey is a poor farmer… Pete is a wealthy neighbor… Mickey finally triumphs over him in some way."
Sometimes there would be a short written story outline or a selection of quickly done gag sketches to show the potential. Further development might reveal the story to be too flimsy, too labored, or just not appropriate for Mickey. For instance, Mickey could only attack Pete if it was in defense of saving Minnie.
However, some ideas did progress almost to the point of being put into production, and two unreleased Mickey Mouse shorts in 1951 were over 90 percent completed, and many animation fans have urged Disney to either release these pencil tests or complete the animation.
Here are just a few Mickey cartoons proposed in the 1930s that didn't get beyond the storyboard stage:
- "Navy Mickey" – Mickey joins the Navy (just like Roy O. Disney did during World War I) and has run-ins with an admiral who is a Bulldog.
- "Hillbilly Mickey" – In the mountains, moonshiner Pete mistakes newcomer Mickey as a "revooner" sent to close down his still. Mickey would meet Minnie as a cute hillbilly girl at a dance.
- "Jungle Mickey" – Mickey as a newsreel photographer in darkest Africa.
- "Pilgrim Mickey" – This would have been the only Thanksgiving short ever made by the Disney Studio. There were several variations on the story, including Mickey recounting a tall tale to his nephews of how he went hunting for a turkey and ran into Indian trouble.
- "Tanglefoot" – Taking place at a racetrack, Mickey is the owner of a horse with hay fever named Tanglefoot who appeared in Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse comic strip. "Transcripts of the story meetings confirm that Walt Disney was intrigued with the project," wrote Disney historian J.B. Kaufman, author of many fine books about Disney history. "Strive for the personality of the horse rather than relying on props for gags," warned Walt at one story meeting.
- "Pluto's Robot Twin" – Mickey builds a robot dog to show Pluto how a good dog should behave. Unfortunately, the robot goes out of control and Pluto must rescue Mickey before the berserk automaton kills Mickey with its sharp teeth.
- "Mickey's Toothache" – Because of an aching tooth, Mickey takes ether at the dentist and falls asleep. He dreams that Dentist Pete takes him to court (where a gigantic wisdom tooth is the judge) and charges Mickey with dental neglect. Mickey confronts creatures that are half animal and half dental instruments in a nightmarish world. Disney artists spent six months coming up with elaborate pencil drawings.
- "Prehistoric Mickey" – The story of the first Mickey Mouse.
- "Mickey's Follies" – Mickey, like the Great Flo Ziegfeld, is the host for a musical revue featuring all the standard Disney characters as well as some of the popular ones from the Silly Symphonies series.
- "Mickey's Hotel" – There were at least two versions of this story. One had Goofy and Donald as bumbling bellboys. Another had Mickey running his hotel with robots which, like all robots in animated cartoons, go out of control.
This listing doesn't even include some of my favorites like "The Time Machine," where Mickey is sent back to the city of Atlantis, or "Mickey's Sea Monster," Walt's own suggestion of putting Mickey in a short version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
There were many great ideas where Mickey teamed with Donald and Goofy as well. I personally would love to see Disney do a full-length version of "Morgan's Ghost" (sometimes known as "Three Buccaneers") starring Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, and which was later reworked into Donald Duck's first original comic book story, "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold." I've written about that story before.
However, in 1951, two Mickey shorts were almost completely finished before being shelved.
One was "The Talking Dog" in 1951, and like many other Mickey shorts of this time, focused more on Pluto than Mickey.
Scott MacQueen uncovered the scratch track (the preliminary rough voice and sound effects track) and some completed animation for this gem and I got to see it at the Disney Institute in January 1997.
MacQueen spent 12 years at the Disney Company beginning in 1991, where he was responsible for overseeing the restoration and preservation of literally hundreds of classic cartoons, animated and live-action features.
In addition, he uncovered many treasures in the vaults that were mislabeled and forgotten, including the clip of Walt doing the voice of Mickey for the cartoon "Mr. Mouse Takes A Trip," the unused but completed Ub Iwerks animation for the Danny Kaye feature film "Up In Arms," live action reference for Jiminy Cricket, and so much more.
Of course, he was laid off by the Disney Company.
The Mickey animation was done by the legendary Fred Moore, known for his ability to bring the Mouse to life in a way that eluded so many others, and the Pluto animation was done by the legendary Norm Ferguson, who was renowned for his earlier work on Pluto, like the scene of Pluto battling flypaper.
Milt Schaffer was the director.
Here is a rough synopsis from what I got to see. Pluto has been a bad dog and a stern Mickey Mouse sends him out of the house. As a sad Pluto walks along the side of the road, he is scooped up by a crooked medicine man who is Black Pete in what looks like a moving van.
The medicine man decides to entice customers to buy his wares by convincing them that Pluto can speak. Using his ventriloquist skill, he asks Pluto how he feels, and the poor pup seems to answer "Just like a piano… GRAND!"
Pluto soon gets tired of this sideshow career and longs to return home.
When Mickey can't find his beloved pet, he goes on a search that ends with a struggle with the medicine man on top of the careening truck. At one point, as they approach a covered bridge, they both leap from the top of the truck to the bridge and continue battling across it until they jump back on to the top of the truck as it exits the bridge. The driverless van smashes into a huge tree and Mickey recovers Pluto.
Mickey asks Pluto if he is OK, and Pluto responds, "Grand!"
Another Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1951 that was over 90 percent animated was "Plight of the Bumblebee."
Once again, the primary Mickey Mouse animation is done by Fred Moore, with other scenes animated by Cliff Nordberg and Hal King. John Sibley may have been involved as well.
It was directed by Jack Kinney, who once offered the following explanation for why it was abandoned before going to ink and paint: "The best Mickey ever was never finished. It was called 'The Plight of the Bumble Bee,' and it was all finished in animation. It had an awkward length, but Fred and Sib agreed that it could not be cut, so it was shelved."
Most animation scholars agree that the length was probably not the major factor in the cancellation of the film.
It is not the best Mickey Mouse ever, but it is a nice cartoon and a little out of the ordinary for Mickey. For one thing, he is dressed in a suit and a hat (think of Mickey dressed as Don Draper from the television series Mad Men) and calls to mind the "look" of Goofy as an office worker from cartoons of the same time period.
The cartoon is done with a straight announcer voice-over narration, and I asked voice expert Keith Scott if he had any ideas on the voices in the cartoon because they were unfamiliar to me.
"I think the narrator could be Wendell Niles, Ken Niles's brother. The singer sounds a bit like the frog singer Bill Roberts in places, and the female sounds like Aileen Carlisle," replied Scott—but I am sure since the film was nearly completed that the Disney Archives could find the payment records from that time period to accurately identify the voices.
Walt always said that Mickey's voice, because of its limited range, could not sustain long stretches of dialog—so maybe that is the reason for the narration (again like the typical suburban Goofy cartoons of the period, which were also directed by Kinney).
The storyline is that Mickey stumbles into a local bar, where he finds a bee named Hector singing "bebop" (a bee who is jazz bopping), but notices that the bee occasionally hits a beautiful operatic note. Mickey decides the bee is destined for bigger things, and becomes his manager by signing Hector to a contract. However, Mickey soon discovers that the reason Hector is singing in a bar is that he has a weakness for the nectar of flowers.
In fact, whenever he has a drink of nectar, he becomes a sloppy drunk. So, Mickey tries to keep Hector away from the temptation. Unfortunately, for Hector's operatic debut, the stage set is decorated with flowers and Hector overindulges, causing the female opera diva on stage into a fit and a faint. After the performance, a defeated Mickey runs across a musical grasshopper outside and decides to try again.
The premise is very similar to other animated cartoons, like "Dixieland Droopy" (MGM 1954), "One Froggy Evening" (Warners 1955), and Finnegan's Flea (Paramount 1958).
There is an interesting story behind the discovery of this "lost" cartoon. In 1981, Daan Jippes, who was working at the Disney Studio in Burbank in Consumer Products, was casually browsing though some index cards in the Disney Archives, and found some information about Production 2428 ("Plight of the Bumblebee"), including the location of three dusty boxes filled with stacks of animation, layouts, photographed storyboards, and x-sheets (exposure sheets). Also found was the recorded soundtrack (with the final voices) on a transcription disc.
Disney Legend Floyd Gottfredson, who did the Mickey Mouse comic strip for decades, in an interview done by Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz, stated: "This big model sheet up here was all made from drawings that [Fred Moore] made for… a featurette, called "The Plight of the Bumblebee." Mickey had a bee that could buzz operatic numbers, he was a great virtuoso that way. But the bee had a weakness, he was a nectarholic: he'd get drunk on nectar, so Mickey had trouble controlling him this way. Fred got that picture about 90% animated, I understand, and Walt dumped it because he got scared of the alcoholic connotations."
Once again, the alcoholic connotations was probably not the reason the film was dropped because at this time period, drunkenness was not considered a disease but a weakness and often a springboard for comedic moments in films.
In fact, at this same time, Walt was actively suggesting that a cartoon based on drinking be developed for the Goofy "How To" series of cartoons. It was Roy O. Disney who stepped in and blocked that particular cartoon, according to producer Harry Tytle.
Under the supervision of Burny Mattinson and utilizing all the elements that had been found, a picture reel was filmed and shown to the Disney executives and Jeffrey Katzenberg passed on completing it.
The Fred Moore model sheet for the cartoon was used as the cover for a 1972 animator recruitment booklet from the Disney Studio, entitled "What Do You Know About Disney?"
After the screening, someone walked away with the picture reel—but fortunately, Mattinson had had the foresight to burn a one-quarter inch copy for himself. When Jippes was working on the television series Mickey MouseWorks in 1999, there was talk about finally finishing the short and using it on the series—but nothing came of it.
The pencil test short was posted on YouTube but removed at the request of the Walt Disney Company.
Perhaps the real reason for those shorts being abandoned was Walt feeling he couldn't generate a good story for the Mouse. Walt told an interviewer in 1951, "I'm tired of Mickey now. For him, it's definitely trap time. The Mouse and I have been together for about 22 years. That's long enough for any association."
I doubt those harsh words reflected Walt's true feelings, but just his frustration at being able to find a good vehicle for the Mouse. However, Mickey only appeared in five films between 1951 and 1953, and was upstaged by Pluto in all of them. For three decades, Mickey's final theatrical appearance was in "The Simple Things" (1953).
However, if the Disney Company wants to invest some money, there are several uncompleted Mickey Mouse cartoons that could be finished fairly easily.