The Charlie Chaplin Connection Part Two: Mickey as Chaplinby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Last week, I talked about Walt's admiration as a teenager for comedian and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin and his attempts to mimic the popular star. This week, I am examining the connection between Chaplin and Walt's most famous creation, Mickey Mouse.
In the January 20, 1934 issue of the New Yorker magazine is a cartoon by "Alain" where a phony sophisticate is venting to his entranced girlfriend, "All you hear is Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse! It's as though Chaplin had never lived."
At the 1932 Academy Award ceremonies, Walt Disney received the second Special Award in the Academy's five-year history "for the creation of Mickey Mouse." The previous Special Award recipient in 1929, Charlie Chaplin, was supposed to present Disney's award but elected at the last minute to stay home.
As Alva Johnston wrote in the July 1934 issue of Woman's Home Companion magazine: "Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse are the only two universal characters that have ever existed. The greatest kings and conquerors, gods and devils have by comparison been local celebrities. Mickey's domain is today even more extensive than Chaplin's. Charlie's mustache, hat, pants, shoes and cane belong to western civilization and make him a foreigner in some regions. Mickey Mouse is not a foreigner in any part of the world."
By the mid-1930s, Mickey had indeed started to eclipse Chaplin's fame and popularity yet during the early 1930s, writers delighted in connecting the two comedy legends because of several obvious similarities.
After all, both Mickey and Chaplin uniquely entertained both a broad public audience as well as the intellectual elite and did so primarily through their actions and reactions rather than with dialog. Both spawned extensive merchandise empires as well, unmatched by other Hollywood stars.
Walt Disney himself loved to foster the impression that the two icons had a similar ancestry.
In The American Magazine for March 1931, he described Mickey's creation. "I can't say just how the idea came. We felt that the public—especially children—like animals that are 'cute' and little. I think we were rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin ... a little fellow trying to do the best he could."
A year later, Walt told American Cinematrographer magazine, "In some pictures, [Mickey] has a touch of Fred Astaire; in others, Charlie Chaplin and some of Douglas Fairbanks but in all of these should be some of a young boy."
Indeed, artist Ub Iwerks claimed that his intent was for Mickey Mouse to be more like the adventurous Douglas Fairbanks. Mickey actually became a mixture of several different cinematic personalities but filtered through the consciousness of Walt Disney as a young boy.
Walt Disney, in a story meeting for the never-completed short, Mountain Carvers, in August 8, 1939, admitted that Mickey was less like Chaplin and more like another popular silent screen comedian.
"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 said.
Lloyd was not funny looking like other silent screen comedians, although he wore glasses to try to achieve a distinct screen image, but provided comedy through the situations he found himself in like hanging off of a clock tower. Mickey's cartoons were very much the same.
Yet, The Little Tramp and the early Mickey Mouse did have several superficial similarities. They played multiple different parts in different locations yet always remained the same easily recognized character at their core. They were the "little fellow" who was the poor underdog during the Great Depression who stood up against physically larger authority figures and usually got the girl.
Writer Alva Johnston, after an interview with Walt Disney, stated "Chaplin was a kind of godfather to Mickey Mouse. It is now and always has been the aim of Disney to graft the psychology of Chaplin upon Mickey. The two universal characters have something in common in their approach to their problems. They have the same blend of hero and coward, nitwit and genius, mug and gentleman. The emotional subtleties of Chaplin, his repose, wistfulness and pathos are not for the animated cartoon. The action is too rapid for effects which must be gradually developed. Laughs can be produced in the fraction of a second; tears require time."
Certainly, Walt's careful study of Chaplin's persona and his films did have an influence on Mickey Mouse, but Walt appreciated many of the other silent screen comedians, sometimes making references in discussions to Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy.
Animator Shamus Culhane recalled that Chouinard instructor Don Grahm would hold Action Analysis classes at the Disney Studio where he would run a Charlie Chaplin film at regular speed, and then once again frame-by-frame for certain sequences for the animators to study.
Culhane was responsible for a sequence in the Mickey Mouse short Society Dog Show (1939) and wrote:
"At one point, I remembered a little piece of Chaplin acting, where he was attempting to curry favor...and he hunched his shoulders up, crossed his hands in his lap and smiled a very artificially shy smile.
"I did the same with Pluto when he was trying to flirt with a little female dog. It was only after I had roughed out the action that I realized that it had stemmed from a Chaplin scene in the Action Analysis class...There was no indication of this kind of acting on the story-board or in Bill Roberts' direction."
"I learned a lot about storytelling from Charlie," said Walt to writer Frank Rasky for his article 80 Million a Year from Fantasy in the (Toronto) Star Weekly November 14, 1964. "He was full of fun. Loved to clown and act out his stories. I was with him once at Santa Anita racetrack. He was demonstrating to me the sight gags for his next picture. 'Now the Little Fellow does this', he pantomimed. 'Then he does that.' Charlie got so engrossed in his recital he didn't notice the crowds gathering around us. And the crowds got so wrapped up in the pathos of his characterization that they forgot all about the race.
"Charlie taught me that in the best comedy you've got to feel sorry for your main character," he said. "Before you laugh with him, you've got to shed a tear for him."
Several Mickey Mouse cartoons referenced previous Chaplin films: The Firefighters (1930) includes elements like the fire engine falling apart piece by piece on the way to the emergency from Chaplin's The Fireman (1916). The end of The Klondike Kid (1932) was inspired by a similar gag with a teetering shack in the frozen north from Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925) but with a particular Disney twist at the end. Other sight gags from Chaplin films were incorporated into early Mickey cartoons, as well including cranking a cow's tail later used by Mickey cranking a goat's tail in a similar fashion in Steamboat Willie (1928)
Brief visual references to The Little Tramp character pop up in the 1930s Disney cartoons, as well. To entertain an orphan mouse left on his doorstep, Mickey briefly imitates Chaplin in a scene animated by Bob Wickersham in Mickey Plays Papa (1934) and amusingly, the tyke is unimpressed.
In Mickey's Orphans (1931), Minnie Mouse gives one of the orphan kitten children a candy cane hanging on the Christmas tree and he immediately uses it to do a Chaplin impersonation.
The Silly Symphony Santa's Workshop (1932) has a mechanical Charlie Chaplin wind-up toy, with patched green pants and tipping his hat, shuffling into Santa's sack of toys while being followed by an angry mechanical policeman, echoing many a scene from a Chaplin comedy.
Mickey's Gala Premiere (1933) features caricatures of roughly forty move star celebrities attending the premiere of a new Mickey Mouse cartoon, Galloping Romance, at Grauman's Chinese Theater.
Chaplin's Little Tramp character sneaks by owner Sid Grauman by crawling on the floor between comedians Joe E. Brown and Buster Keaton who are handing the impresario tickets to get into the theater. Chaplin does a short little funny shuffle across a front aisle with his waving cane in the air before the movie starts. Then, at the end of the show, Chaplin shoves through the crowd of celebrities to congratulate Mickey with a handshake. All the celebrity caricatures were done by artist Joe Grant.
In Mickey's Polo Team (1936), The Mickey Mousers team consists of Mickey, Donald Duck, Goofy and the Big Bad Wolf. The Hollywood team of movie stars includes Charlie Chaplin, Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel and Harpo Marx. Chaplin enters on a polo pony with the same black curly hair, derby, mustache, shoes, and attitude as Charlie. Once again the caricatures were done by Grant.
Chaplin's inclusion was actually a last minute choice to replace Will Rogers who had recently died in a plane crash.
In the book The Art of Walt Disney by Christopher Finch there's an early layout sketch from the production which shows the Movie Stars Team entrance onto the field. Will Rogers leads the way, followed by Laurel and Hardy and then Harpo. Next to Rogers there's a circled note that says "ROGERS OUT" and above Harpo is a note reading "Chaplin Follows" indicating that Chaplin would be added and bring up the rear to complete the foursome.
This decision probably explains why the Chaplin caricature has little screen time and only one gag, using the hook of his cane to swing himself around the goal post. He does also participate in the final gag where all the horses end up riding their riders but it is Harpo Marx and Laurel and Hardy who participate in lengthy gag sequences.
Charlie's older brother Sydney Chaplin, who was also his business manager, after seeing audiences react so favorably to Mickey's Polo Team wrote to Charlie on June 4, 1936 stating, "If there is any character in the world that should be the great attraction in (animated) cartoons today it is yours ...you allow others to use (The Little Tramp) to play small parts in support of their own principal cartoon character. You would not support some second rate comedian yourself, would you? Why allow the cartoon character to do so?"
Sydney then suggested that Charlie revive the animated series featuring his little fellow character done in 1916. Producer Pat Sullivan and animator Otto Messmer had made a dozen Chaplin cartoon films and used the experience as the inspiration for Felix the Cat.
"Chaplin sent at least 30 or 40 photographs of himself in different [poses]," Messmer told animation historian John Canemaker. "He was delighted because this helped the propagation of his pictures. He encouraged us and we copied every little movement that he did. Later that rubbed off and we used a lot of that kind of action in Felix. We thought a funny walk sometimes would get a laugh without a script idea. Or the wiggling of the tail, things of that time...Chaplin had a great influence on us."
Chaplin does not appear along with other Hollywood caricatures in the Disney cartoons Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938) or The Autograph Hound (1939), perhaps an indication that his popularity was already beginning to fade for a variety of reasons from his outspoken political views to his scandalous sexual activities with much younger women.
With the ever-increasing number of sound films, Chaplin was worried how his silent feature, City Lights (1931), might be received by audiences even though he included a musical sound track and sound effects after the film had been made. Realizing Mickey Mouse's popularity, Chaplin insisted that a Mickey cartoon be shown before the film hoping to draw a larger crowd.
In an issue dated February 28, 1931, The Seattle Motion Picture Record reported on Charlie Chaplin's request for a Mickey Mouse cartoon: "Word has come that Charlie Chaplin has requested that his latest production, City Lights, be accompanied wherever possible with a Mickey Mouse cartoon. This unusual request bears upon Chaplin's high regard for the cartoon character and surety in that his own presentation will meet with a greater acclaim after an audience has been amused by Mickey's antics."
Columbia Pictures, who distributed the Disney shorts, ran a trade ad in the Film Daily on February 5, 1931 with Mickey Mouse standing between Chaplin and actor Douglas Fairbanks. The advertisement stated "Chaplin chooses Mickey Mouse as a running mate for his Broadway engagement of City Lights beginning at the George M. Cohan Theater February 6. And Fairbanks teams up daily with Mickey at the New York Criterion in Reaching for the Moon. There's more proof that Columbia beats 'em all in shorts!"
The Mickey Mouse cartoon that accompanied the Chaplin film was The Birthday Party (1931) about Mickey celebrating his birthday with the gang.
Cartoonist George Corley produced a now often-seen image of Chaplin (tipping his derby and offering a flower in the same iconic pose he does in the film) and Mickey Mouse entitled "Bouquet for Mickey Mouse" that ran in Portland Oregon's NEWS on March 16, 1931 with the caption "No less a star than Charlie Chaplin hands floral tribute to Mickey Mouse".
The ploy was so successful that Chaplin once again requested a Mickey Mouse cartoon for his feature Modern Times (1936). This was Chaplin's last silent film but it did have a musical sound track and sound effects although it still used title cards for the dialog.
Since United Artists was distributing both the Chaplin film and the Disney shorts, this made things easier. It is believed that a copy of Mickey's Polo Team (1936) was actually spliced onto to the beginning of every print of Modern Times since that particular cartoon appears in advertising and theater marquees across the country. However, some theaters seem to have shown the Disney Silly Symphony Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935) instead.
"Before we finished Snow White," Walt Disney said in 1938, "I was talking to Charlie Chaplin about it, and he said, "Don't be afraid to let your audience wait for a few things in your picture—don't be afraid to let your tempo go slow here and there.' Well, I thought he did it too much, because I used to get itchy from watching his pictures. But it's the truth—they appreciate things more when you don't fire them too fast."
Actually, Chaplin had a major impact on Walt's first animated feature film which according to The Film Daily was originally going to be titled Snow White and the Fairies and United Artists showed no interest in producing it.
"Charlie was very kind to me," Walt told Frank Rasky. "When everybody else was skeptical, he encouraged me to go ahead with my first feature-length animated film. Even let my bookkeepers examine all his books so I could lick the problems of distribution. 'Don't let the cynics or the bankers sell you short on Snow White,' Charlie told me. 'It'll be your biggest success'."
Walt Disney talked with writer Pete Martin during a series of interviews for The Saturday Evening Post magazine in June/July 1956 and remembered Chaplin's contribution:
"Charlie Chaplin was a friend. He was with United Artists when we got signed by United Artists. Lots of things United Artists wanted us to do Charlie was against yet he was on the Board of Directors of United Artists.
"Charlie talked to me one time and he said, 'Your pictures are going to live a long time. My advice to you is to clear and buy up every one of your pictures. If there's any that you don't own, get out and buy 'em'.
"When we were doing Snow White, Charlie believed in it. Charlie turned to my brother and said, 'I want you to know what I've done. They may try to undersell your picture. You shouldn't take anything less than top terms'. Charlie, as a gesture, turned his complete books over and my brother and our auditors went over there and went through his books and saw the top terms that Charlie had received. Charlie said, 'Don't take anything less. You should get more'."
This advice just confirmed what Walt already had learned in his dealings with Charlie Mintz and Universal over Oswald the Rabbit, to own his material and to not be afraid to ask for top dollar.
Chaplin attended the December 1937 premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Carthay Circle Theater. He later told the Los Angeles Times in January 14, 1938 that the dwarf Dopey was "one of the greatest comedians of all time".
Chaplin's books were important, not just financially, but Chaplin had been the first person to go from making two-reel comedies into making a feature film (The Kid in 1921) and realized that the visual comedy needed to be interwoven with a well-constructed and engaging story plot in order to sustain the extra length of film.
In a letter to "Mr. Charles Chaplin" from Walt Disney, dated May 31, 1938, Walt wrote: "Just a short note to express my gratitude and appreciation for your invaluable advice and help in the exploitation and selling of Snow White. Mr. Reeves has given us the utmost assistance and cooperation. Your records have been our Bible -- without them, we would have been as a sheep in a den of wolves. With my deep appreciation to you, I am, sincerely yours, Walt Disney."
"Mr. Reeves" refers to Alfred Reeves, a long time associate, studio manager and mentor to Chaplin from the old music hall days.
Walt joked to writer John McDonald in Forbes magazine May 1966 that after Snow White earned millions domestically, and the same amount world wide during its initial release that "Charlie came over and studied our books."
Unfortunately, beginning in 1952, Chaplin was hounded by a smear campaign about his morals and politics and was denied re-entry into the United States, and so he settled in Switzerland for decades.
As Walt told writer Pete Martin, "This was before he got all mixed up which was a very sad thing. I think that Charlie ended up that way because he's a very lonesome fellow. He just got himself in a trap and I think he's just too stubborn to back down. I don't think he actually believes that stuff. I've been with him many times. He went for politics. I used to see him quite a bit at Rob Wagner's. He'd go on to these things. He'd start talking politics. He didn't think anything about it. I think that what happened to Charlie is that they got to him. To me, it's a very sad thing."
Wagner was the editor and publisher of Script, a weekly literary film magazine published in Beverly Hills, California, between 1929 and 1949. The liberal magazine focused its coverage on the film industry and national politics. Its leftist leanings attracted many of the best artists and writers during the Depression but brought them under scrutiny during the Red Scare investigations of the 1950s.
Mickey Mouse and Charlie Chaplin will always be intimately connected and the plethora of merchandise, artwork, and more of Mickey dressed up as Chaplin is just one example of the public's assertion of that fact.
Kathy Merlock Jackson, Nancy Beiman, and J.B. Kaufman have all written well-researched and recommended essays about the connection of Disney and Chaplin. Their work continues to enrich Disney history, and I hope my two articles provide some additional information and insight.