"Mickey Mouse Tries to Commit Suicide" is a horrible title for a column. It is probably the Disney equivalent of a tabloid newspaper headline that is intentionally misleading and yet so intriguing that you must read the column to find out the answer.
Will the column be about some underground parody from the Sixties (like the privately produced animated short "Mickey Mouse in Vietnam" where Mickey, who is representing America, signs up to do his duty and is shot to death in his first few seconds in Vietnam) that will use the Disney icon for its own agenda? Will it be a news announcement of a new Robert Smigel animated satire for Saturday Night Live like "The Disney Vault"? Or is the title merely figurative and is being used to comment on some Disney Company mistake in judgment where Disney is sabotaging itself and "committing corporate suicide"?
The truth is that the headline is real and that it was Walt Disney's own idea to have it happen. However, like all Disney stories, there is an even more interesting backstory to the event although it will take a few paragraphs to set the scene.
Walt Disney was fond of vaudeville and silent movie comedies. It is no secret that he had great admiration for Charlie Chaplin. As a kid, Walt won contests in movie theater competitions by imitating Chaplin. As an adult, Walt was too awestruck to speak the first time he met the famous comedian. Chaplin was also a huge fan of Disney and not only supplied Walt with important legal information when Walt moved from shorts to features (as Chaplin had done) but Chaplin also insisted that a Mickey Mouse short be run with the release of his film Limelight.
This mutual admiration resulted in some reviewers comparing the early Mickey Mouse to Charlie Chaplin. However, that comparison is misleading. Chaplin's character of The Little Tramp was clearly a scrappy, down-on-his-luck, immigrant trying to fit in to the mainstream of American society, often doing things that, while amusing, might have lacked a certain integrity. That was never Mickey Mouse's character.
While certainly feisty in his early cartoons, Mickey Mouse was clearly a Midwestern all-American farm boy. And while he might have occasionally danced on the line of appropriateness, there was never a mean-spiritedness to his character that sometimes surfaced in Chaplin's work. Mickey Mouse was much more like another silent movie comedian, Harold Lloyd.
Most people probably only remember the image of Lloyd hanging dangerously from a clock over a busy Los Angeles street. However, Lloyd was one of the most popular and amusing silent screen comedians of his day. He was a typical small-town, normal-looking young man who found himself involved in the most outrageous situations that often required athletic prowess in order for him to finally get the girl. Just like Mickey.
In 1920, Walt saw a Harold Lloyd comedy entitled Haunted Spooks. There are actually two distinct storylines in this film but the first half of the film details Lloyd's character being so despondent that he tries to kill himself. However, being a comedy, the results are unexpected. He picks up a gun to shoot himself and it turns out to be a water pistol. He stands in front of a trolley to be run over and it veers away on another track a mere three feet in front of him. He ties a rock around his neck and leaps from a bridge in Echo Park into a pond of water that is a little over ankle-deep.
(A sad sidenote is that in this film while taking promotional stills, Lloyd did a gag shot of him holding a bomb as if it were a cigarette lighter. The prop accidentally went off, badly burning him (permanent blindness almost resulted) and the thumb and forefinger of his right hand were blown off. He was fitted with a prosthetic glove to finish the film and he is indeed wearing that glove when he hangs off the clock in "Safety Last".)
So what does all of this have to do with Mickey Mouse trying to commit suicide? Well, Walt was famous for never forgetting a gag, especially one that was successful with the audience, and would incorporate that gag in his films. Actor Dean Jones remembers complaining to Walt that a gag in his latest film seemed corny and Walt replied, "They laughed at it in 1923 and they will laugh at it today." At the premiere, seeing the reaction from the audience laughing loudly at the gag, Jones had to admit that Walt was right. Jones said even he laughed at it on screen.
In 1930, the Mickey Mouse comic strip appeared. Originally written by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, it was immediately successful for King Features Syndicate. However, several weeks into the strip, Ub Iwerks left and the illustration chores were turned over to Disney artist Win Smith, who had been inking Iwerks' penciled artwork.
The comic strip was a gag-a-day format and King Features decided it wanted more of a story continuity strip because story continuities were proving extremely popular at the time, and increasing readership who wanted to know what happened next to the character.
Walt didn't have time to handle his expanding studio and all the things he was experimenting with in animation and handle the writing of the strip, so he tried to bully Win Smith into taking over the writing as well as the illustrating. Smith, for reasons still unclear to this day, balked at taking on the writing responsibilities, and quit.
Newly hired Disney artist Floyd Gottfredson, who had always wanted a career as a newspaper cartoonist, took over the stripwith his first episode appearing in May 5, 1930. Walt continued to write the continuity for another two weeks before having Floyd take over completely and finish the story of Mickey Mouse in Death Valley looking for treasure.
The next continuity story, "Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers," was written entirely by Gottfredson himself except for some unusual input from Walt himself. "Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers" began appearing in newspapers on September 22, 1930 and would run until December 29.
Although Walt was very busy with his studio responsibilities and was happy with the work of Gottfredson (except for Walt's continual complaints that Gottfredson needed to simplify the backgrounds), Walt called the artist into his office to discuss a storyline he would like to see in the latest continuity.
Floyd Gottfredson discussed this meeting in a November 1975 interview with Disney Archivist Dave Smith:
"He would make suggestions every once in a while, for some short continuities and so on, and I would do them. One that I'll never forget, and which I still don't understand was when he said, 'Why don't you do a continuity of Mickey trying to commit suicide?' So I said, 'Walt! You're kidding!' He replied, 'No, I'm not kidding. I think you could get a lot of funny stuff out of that.' I said, 'Gee whiz, Walt. I don't know. What do you think the Syndicate will think of it? What do you think the editors will think? And the readers?' He said, 'I think it will be funny. Go ahead and do it.' So I did, oh, maybe ten days of Mickey trying to commit suicidejumping off bridges, trying to hang himself... I don't remember all the details. But strangely enough, the Syndicate didn't object. We didn't hear anything from the editors, and Walt said, 'See? It was funny. I told you it would be.' So there were a few things like that."
The suicide episodes appear roughly from October 8 through October 24, 1930. In the story, Mr. Slicker looks remarkably like Mortimer Mouse and with the same attitude of arrogance and sneakiness. He takes a fancy to Minnie Mouse. Minnie only sees his supposed gentleman manners and his fine words. Mickey finds himself continually upstaged by Mr. Slicker and shoved further and further into the background.
One evening, Minnie has invited Mr. Slicker over to her house and shows him the family photo album ("Here is my grandpa, Marshall Mouseand that's my grandmother Matilda MouseThis group down here is Uncle Milton Mouse and his family!"). Mr. Slicker's long rat-like nose is very close to Minnie's. When Mickey, who has been worrying that Minnie will fall for Slicker's big city ways and dump him, stops by to see Minnie, the silhouette on the window shade looks like Slicker and Minnie are kissing!
A despondent Mickey returns home and moans: "Oh, what's the use? She doesn't care for me anymorewhat is there to live for? Without Minnie, I might as well end it all!" Mickey reaches for the rifle on his wall and takes it down.
The next day, the reader sees that Mickey has rigged the rifle on two chairs with a rope so that when he pulls on the rope, he will be shot in the back of the head. Fortunately, the cuckoo clock goes off and Mickey realizes he is cuckoo for trying to end it all that way. The next day, he jumps off a high bridge but lands instead on a small boat that had been tugging underneath. The ship's captain decides to throw Mickey overboard but the plucky mouse pleads: "Please don't! I can't swim! I might drown!"
The next day, Mickey turns on the gas in his house and lies down on his bed to drift into endless sleep. "Goodbye, Minnie! Goodbye, cruel world!" However, while his eyes are closed, a squirrel scampers in to use the escaping gas to fill his balloon. The balloon explodes, waking Mickey, who thinks he has been shot. The next day, Mickey with a huge anvil around his neck goes to the river bank where he asks a nearby fish "How's the water today?" When he gets the response: "Br-r-r! Cold as the dickens!?, Mickey decides to try again the next day and tosses the anvil in the river.
Finally, Mickey tosses a noose over a tree branch in order to hang himself but before he can do so, he is surrounded by happy playful squirrels and Mickey says: "I guess you think I'm crazyWell, I must've been to think of hanging myself! When I look into your smiling faces, I feel ashamed! It isn't such a bad old world after all! It took a squirrel to prove what a nut I was!" So Mickey uses the rope to make a swing.
It was obvious that in the era before television and videotape recorders that Walt felt that audiences wouldn't remember a 10-year-old film by Harold Lloyd with gags about committing suicide and that being the same type of personality as Lloyd, Mickey would be a good character to try and re-create that humor.
The early Mickey Mouse comic strips were very much a product of their time and certainly don't reflect the political correctness of today's famous corporate icon. One panel in an early Mickey Mouse newspaper strip shows Mickey discovering a room full of cheese and proclaiming in words written by Walt Disney: "Oh boy, what cheese! If only I had a bottle of beer..."
However, it would be nice if Disney would consider a limited edition reprinting of the early Mickey Mouse comic strips for adult collectors. The early adventures of Mickey Mouse in animation and the comic strip truly reflect Walt's Mouse and why audiences fell in love with the character.
In the mid-'70s, a German comic book club got special permission to reprint several volumes entitled The Complete Daily Strip Adventures of Mickey Mouse (1930-1955). Each volume covered one year's worth of daily strip art. Disney granted permission since the volumes were only meant for the club members and the total print run was limited to no more than 500 copies.
I have several volumes in my personal collection that I have purchased over the years and I know of two friends who have a complete collection if I ever needed to impose on them for research. Malibu Graphics tried reprinting in the late '80s the early public domain Mickey Mouse comic strips in a series entitled UnCensored Mouse before discovering the power of the Disney legal forces.
However, thanks to the Internet, many surprising items appear. If you would like to read these strips instead of my summaries, a fan has posted them online (link). Mickey trying to commit suicide is just another odd anecdote in the rich career of this popular character.
(Send an email to Wade Sampson)
Wade Sampson grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Wade describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.