Secret Tales of Mickey Mouseby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
We all grew up in a world where there was always Mickey Mouse. He was in cartoons, on television, in comic books, on records, in theme parks, in storybooks, and more. So we have falsely assumed we know Mickey Mouse.
As Mickey approaches his 90th anniversary on November 18, there are many tales that have never been told, rarely told or too often mis-told. To help celebrate the occasion, I recently released a book titled Secret Stories of Mickey Mouse: Untold Tales of Walt's Mouse with more than 100 such stories.
Here are a couple of the lengthier, uncut, out-of-the-ordinary versions of the stories that sometimes appear in an edited form for the book and might encourage you to ask Santa to include my book as a stocking stuffer this year along with all the other interesting Mickey Mouse oriented books being released this month.
Mickey Mouse Kills King Kong
It wasn't "Beauty that killed the Beast" in the original memorable 1933 King Kong film, despite what producer Carl Denham claimed. It was Mickey Mouse—and the proof is in the film itself.
In 1933, the same year King Kong was released and years before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was released, Walt Disney was in discussion with Kong's producer, Merian C. Cooper about making a co-production Technicolor animated film of the popular Victor Herbert operetta, Babes in Toyland for RKO.
Eventually, RKO did make a live action black-and-white version of the operetta in 1934 featuring Laurel and Hardy with a live Mickey Mouse (a trained capuchin monkey dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume and mask who tormented the cat with the fiddle and later helped save Toyland).
Disney also released the Mickey Mouse cartoon The Pet Shop on October 28, 1933 roughly eight months after King Kong was released. Mickey gets a job at a Pet Shop filled with an odd assortment of animals including an ostrich. Minnie stops by to visit and after the obligatory song finds herself in danger from "Beppo the Movie Monk".
Beppo, who the store loans out to appear in films, has been amusing himself in his cage by flipping through a recent movie magazine. He runs across a drawing of the actual first advertisement for the movie King Kong and is inspired to escape from his cage and grab Minnie.
Mickey and the other animals try to rescue Minnie but Beppo carries Minnie high up a stack of birdseed boxes resembling the Empire State Building. Beppo swats away the birds circling around him like the planes in the film.
Finally, Minnie is saved and Beppo finds his head stuck in a cage with a pair of skunks. Mickey and Minnie decide to run away before the owner returns from his lunch and finds all the destruction.
Of course, just a few years later, RKO which made King Kong would start distributing Disney cartoons for the next two decades or so.
In 1931, some enterprising young airman who had some artistic skill at the Naval Reserve Aviation Base Floyd Bennett Field in New York created an unlicensed design of Mickey Mouse to use on the fuselages of its planes.
The emblem depicted Mickey Mouse riding on top of a large goose wearing flight goggles (representing a bomber) and carried both a bomb and a Navy trident. The Statue of Liberty was in silhouette in the background.
In December 1932, RKO Studios contacted the Navy wanting four Navy Helldivers for one day's filming to last approximately two and a half hours. The Navy denied the request. Later, a representative from RKO directly contacted the commanding officer of Floyd Bennett Field.
RKO would donate $100 to the Officer's Mess Fund and pay the pilots $10 each to fly their planes around the Empire State Building. That was pretty good money during the Great Depression for an hour's work. The commanding officer accepted the offer, not knowing the request had been previously denied. Four Curtiss O2C-1 Helldivers participated.
Lieutenant John Winston recalled that he and three other pilots were given orders to "go and jazz the Empire State Building." It took the pilots less than 15 minutes to accomplish their mission. Winston recalled, "We didn't know what it was all about. They just said there was some kind of movie being made."
The fuselage of each plane sported the squadron's unofficial Mickey Mouse emblem and it can be clearly seen several times in the finished King Kong movie. The pilots flew around the Empire State Building while RKO cameramen captured the footage of the planes flying in formation, peeling off and diving at an imaginary target and then looping back in the opposite direction.
RKO intercut twenty-eight scenes of the Navy aircraft with process shots and miniatures also featuring the logo to create the illusion of the mighty Kong being attacked by the planes. Those planes featured the very first military Mickey Mouse logo even if it was unofficial. The first official Disney military logo would not appear until 1939.
Mickey Mouse Goes To War
During World War II, the Disney Studio provided hundreds of insignia designs for various branches of the U.S. Armed Services.
While no official numbers were kept, Mickey Mouse appeared on less than three dozen and generally for units like the signal corps, home front activities or a chaplain's unit.
He was just considered too nice a guy to appear convincingly aggressive and threatening. Donald Duck because of his more feisty personality appeared on almost two hundred insignias and was the most requested character.
Unapproved Mickey Mouse insignias were even displayed on Nazi warcraft.
A prominent and feared Mickey Mouse insignia first appeared around 1937 when German flying Ace, Adolf Galland of the Luftwaffe, painted a homemade version of Mickey on all the fighters he flew.
A demonic looking Mickey had a cigar in his mouth and held a pistol in one hand and an axe in the other. When asked why he chose Mickey Mouse, Galland replied, "I like Mickey Mouse. I always have. And I like cigars, but I had to give them up after the war."
Hundreds of German U-boat submarines displayed emblems on their bows during the war. They varied from typical war emblems of swords, axes and torpedoes to even Mickey Mouse with an umbrella on U-26 that served from 1936 to July 1940 and sank eleven ships.
Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito were all huge Mickey Mouse fans despite trying to ban the character in their countries during World War II.
Hitler had a personal collection in his film library of more than two-dozen Mickey cartoons by the end of 1937 despite the Nazi party's vehement denunciation because of the little fellow's popularity and prominent association with the United States.
Mussolini allowed the Mickey Mouse comic strip to continue in Italian newspapers despite banning all other non-Italian comic strips. In 1938, based on the Ministry of Popular Culture's recommendation, the Italian government banned foreign children's literature except Mickey.
Mickey was exempted from the decree for his "acknowledged artistic merit." Actually Mussolini's children were fond of Mickey Mouse, so they managed to delay the ban on Mickey in Italy during WWII as long as possible.
Hirohito treasured his Mickey Mouse watch so much that he insisted he be buried with it when he died in 1989.
Today, the Japanese adore all things Disney. They produced popular tin toys of the characters after the war. Japan is the home for the first foreign Disney theme park. However, in the dark days of World War II, Mickey was seen as an icon representing everything evil about a capitalistic United States threatening Japan.
It was not just the United States that produced animated cartoons for propaganda purposes. In 1934, Japan released the eight minute Omochabako series dai san wa: Ehon senkya-hyakusanja-rokunen (Toybox Series 3: Picture Book 1936) by Komatsuzawa Hajime. On the internet, it can be found under the title Evil Mickey Attacks Japan.
A Japanese island is populated by cute animals and children who sing and dance. One of the animals even resembles a counterfeit Felix the Cat. However, their happiness is short lived because from the air they are attacked by an army of Mickey Mouses, riding horrific bat-like creatures who also have Mickey Mouse heads. These villainous invaders are assisted by snapping crocodiles and vicious snakes who act like machine guns.
One of the frightened inhabitants appeals to a huge storybook to summon their folk heroes to protect them. Momotaro ("Peach Boy"), Kintaro ("Golden Boy"), Issun-boshi ("One Inch Boy") and Benkei, a warrior monk, all answer the call to battle the evil Mickey Mouses. The message was that the classic Japanese folklore characters were much more powerful than this recent cultural upstart.
The film was made in 1934 but was dated 1936 supposedly to coincide with the expiration of a naval treaty between the United States and Japan which would eventually lead to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Through magic, Mickey is defeated and even turned into a decrepit character to humiliate him. He hobbles away to a flood of laughter while the residents return to their joyful lives.
Mickey's use in war propaganda wasn't just confined to World War II.
Mickey Mouse in Vietnam was the work of Lee Savage (father of Mythbusters Adam Savage) and Milton Glaser (who designed the I ♥ New York logo as well as many other classic logos) for the Angry Arts Festival in 1968. The festival was designed to give creative artists a forum for protesting the Vietnam War.
The silent, 16mm black-and-white cartoon that lasts a little more than a minute was officially titled Short Subject. It finds the early 1929 version of Mickey Mouse happily walking along. He passes a billboard that reads, "Join the Army and See the World." Mickey studies the billboard, walks off-screen, and then returns wearing a helmet and carrying a military rifle with a bayonet.
Mickey sails off on a tugboat (so small that he is the only passenger) with the words "To Vietnam" printed along the bow. The voyage is unusually quick, with Mickey sailing across a calm Pacific Ocean from the United States (which is helpfully identified by a large sign posted on its shoreline) to Vietnam (which has its own large sign on its shore, along with huge explosions popping all over its land mass). Mickey arrives and marches into Vietnam, following an arrow-shaped sign that reads, "War Zone."
Mickey is barely a few seconds into an overgrown jungle when he suddenly drops his rifle, goes stiff and falls over backwards. The camera finds him flat on the ground, with a bullet hole in his skull. Mickey's smiling face turns glum as blood trickles out of the bullet hole. That's the entire film.
Savage, who is credited as director and animator of the short, and Glaser offered private screenings during the early 1970s. The film occasionally popped up in film festivals but was not widely known among Disney fans and was never released theatrically.
"Mickey Mouse is a symbol of innocence, and of America, and of success, and of idealism," Glaser said. "And to have him killed as a solider is such a contradiction of your expectations. And when you're dealing with communication, when you contradict expectations, you get a result."
The Disney Company made no attempt to destroy copies of the film as it was rumored but neither did it give the short film any public recognition hoping that not doing so would help it disappear into obscurity.
Glaser remembers there was some talk about Disney suing them but he was told it didn't happen because Disney didn't want to attract any attention to the film and felt it wouldn't be able to recover sufficient enough financial penalties to justify the time and expense.
Since the 1940s, one of the most frequently quoted but absolutely wrong "fun facts" about Mickey Mouse is that his name was used as the codeword for the launch of the Allied Invasion of Normandy (D-Day) on June 6, 1944.
However, no one could find any documented confirmation of this fact either in the personal files of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the general U.S. military archives or the Disney Archives. For several decades, it troubled Disney researchers as a story simply too good to be true.
Disney historian Michael Barrier uncovered a press release from United Press dated June 8, 1944 from London that clarifies where the story originated. The press release states:
"Mickey Mouse played a part in the invasion of northern France, it was revealed today. Naval officers gathering for invasion briefing at a southern port approached the sentry at the door and furtively whispered into his ear the password of admission: 'Mickey Mouse.'"
"Mickey Mouse" was the password for the officers to enter a meeting where they would receive information about the upcoming invasion. It was not the name that launched the actual invasion.
Recognition passwords by U.S. military sentry points often utilized information or names that were considered uniquely American from facts about baseball teams to cartoon characters. This "cultural I.Q." would be common knowledge for most Americans but obscure for foreign agents trying to infiltrate somewhere.
At the end of December 1980, a letter was received at Disneyland in Southern California addressed to Mickey Mouse. Inside was a form letter requesting that Mickey send in his correct birth date information so he could be properly registered for the Draft.
Mickey Mouse Imposters
With the popularity of Mickey Mouse, animation studios began to produce their own cartoons with characters that looked suspiciously like Walt's mouse including three shorts at Warner Brothers in 1931 featuring "Foxy" from former Disney animator Rudy Ising. The character and his girlfriend had fox ears and tails but looked exactly like Mickey and Minnie.
The three 1931 shorts were Lady, Play Your Mandolin (August), Smile, Darn Ya, Smile! (September) and One More Time (October). The voice performers were not credited and all three shorts eventually fell into public domain.
Ising stated before his death in 1992 that he stopped using Foxy because Walt Disney personally phoned him up and asked him to retire the character because he felt it was too close for comfort in appearance to Mickey.
However, the voice tracks were recorded and animation was already in process for two more 1931 Foxy cartoons: You Don't Know What You're Doin' and Hittin' the Trail for Hallelujah Land.
Ising came up with another character named Piggy, who still had some physical similarities to Mickey but with several significant differences, like a snout and curly tail and used him in those two cartoons instead.
Foxy and his girlfriend made an appearance after being redesigned to look less like Mickey and Minnie in the September 1992 episode titled "Two-Tone Town" of the Tiny Toons syndicated television show. Even after Ising left Warner's, he retained the rights to Foxy.
One of the more blatant attempts was Milton and Rita (earlier referred to as "Mary") Mouse produced by Van Beuren for their Aesop's Fables series who also appeared in only three cartoons: Circus Capers (1930), Hot Tamale (1930) and The Office Boy (1930).
While the characters physically resembled Mickey and Minnie, they lacked the charm of the Disney characters and were much ruder and cruder in their behavior.
On March 31, 1931, Disney sued Pathe and Van Beuren. Amedee J. Van Beuren on April 3, 1931 issued the following statement:
"The only information we have thus far received that such action is pending is contained in articles in the papers. In my judgment the action is entirely without merit or foundation. Aesop's Fables created the characters Milton and Mary Mouse at the inception of the company in 1921 and the company has been using them.
"If there has been any imitation, it would appear to be at the door of Walt Disney Productions, whose characters of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse are so similar to ours. As soon as we are served with papers we shall be prepared to defend the action."
Van Beuren forgot to mention that the characters had been recently radically re-designed by his artists John Foster, Harry Bailey and Manny Davis to closely resemble Mickey and Minnie.
Disney got a temporary court injunction against Van Beuren April 30, 1931 from Federal Judge Cosgrave and a formal decree was issued four months later prohibiting the studio from "employing or using or displaying the pictorial representation of 'Mickey Mouse' or any variation thereof so nearly similar as to be calculated to be mistaken for or confused with said pictorial representation of 'Mickey Mouse'."
Disney did not ask for any money, even though the original suit clearly stated "The petitioner demands an accounting, damages and surrender of all profits made on the alleged imitations".
In the 1960s, Roy O. Disney in an interview remembered: "We just stopped him. That's all we were out to do. We didn't ask any damages. We even let him finish marketing his pictures. We wanted to establish our right. That's what we were after. To establish a copyright like that is a big thing and that's an important thing to do."
As I mentioned earlier, there are many terrific, little-known stories about Mickey to enjoy as we approach his 90th anniversary. I hope you enjoyed these glimpses and next week I will share a few more.