Happy Birthday, Mickey Mouse

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Happy Birthday, Mickey Mouse!

So much has been written about Mickey Mouse and Mickey's birthday that it is difficult to come up with something new or different to share as another anniversary rolls around on November 18 for this world-beloved character.

For me, I love the Mickey Mouse of the 1930s, whether it is his antics in animation that seemed to be a glimpse into the life of an average young boy in a small town, or the comic strip where under the direction of Floyd Gottfredson, Mickey became quite an adventurer. So to celebrate Mickey's birthday, I am going to share some fairly obscure information about Mickey Mouse from the 1930s.

Let's start by sharing an observation by Walt himself when Mickey was a little older than 2 years old. I don't recall this quote being reprinted in any of the standard sources that use Walt quotes to describe Mickey Mouse and his success.

In American Magazine (March 1931), Walt Disney shared the following thoughts about Mickey Mouse:

"I can't say just how the idea came. We wanted another animal. We had had a cat; a mouse naturally came to mind. 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.

"Did I realize that I had hit upon an idea that would go round the world? Well, we always thought every new idea was a world-beater. And usually found out that it wasn't. We were enthusiastic over the idea of 'Mickey Mouse' but we had been just as enthusiastic over 'Alice.'

"In the beginning we thought we had to make the mouse very small in order to win the sympathy of the audiences. We have learned that we can make him as big as a horse. Sometimes we do. Another mistake we made was in thinking that American audiences always want brand-new gags—surprises and cute turns. We have found out that they want most to laugh. They easily forget the original turns but if a picture has given them a good laugh, whether by old gags or new, they always remember it and tell other people.

"We learned after hard lessons, too, that the public wants its heroes. In some of the pictures we tried to let other animals steal the honors from Mickey. There was an immediate reaction against this. Mickey has to be the whole thing, especially in the matter of brains. No one must outdo him. Most of all we learned that the American public loves dance music. It also demands villains with human characteristics."

Was Mickey Mouse really going to be named "Mortimer"? Roy E. Disney has said that he remembers as a child, his father saying, "Thank heavens we didn't name him Mortimer!" The legend is that Walt's wife, Lillian, hated the name "Mortimer" and some versions even have her suggesting the name "Mickey."

Well, here is another never reprinted quote, this time from Lillian Disney herself.

On the train ride from New York back to California and having just lost the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series, Walt Disney supposedly seized a handful of railroad stationery and roughed out a possible story for a new cartoon and a new character, a mouse named Mortimer.

"He read the script to me," Lillian Disney told American Magazine (August 1955), "but I couldn't focus on it. I was too upset. The only thing that got through to me was that horrible name, Mortimer—horrible for a mouse, at least—and I'm afraid I made quite a scene about it. When I blew up, Walt calmed me down. After a while, he asked quietly, 'What would you think of Mickey—Mickey Mouse?' I said it sounded better than Mortimer, and that's how Mickey was born."

Thanks to the Disney Treasures DVD, most of Mickey's cartoons from the 1930s are available to enjoy. However, during that same time period, Mickey also appeared in other cartoons as well that are not as well known.

In 1939, Mickey Mouse appeared in a short promotional short I have never seen titled "The Standard Parade." This short was used to promote Standard Oil's Travel Tykes Weekly that featured Mickey and his friends. Supposedly, Donald Duck and Goofy are also in the short and I suspect it might have had recycled animation from previous cartoons but having never seen it, I have no further information to share other than about the promotion itself.

The nationwide promotion involved Mickey and Donald each leaving from New York and Miami and racing across the United States to see who would be first at the Golden Gate International Exposition Treasure Island site. Children were given a free map at gas stations. Small images of Mickey and Donald in various activities are depicted on each state as well as Canada. The border of the map is designed for kids to paste on 18 pictures for each character that were to be cut from issues of Travel Tykes Weekly newspapers.

Although it has often been stated that "The Band Concert" was the first time Mickey Mouse appeared on screen in color, that well-known statement was not completely true. Three years earlier in 1932, Mickey made his first appearance in color in a specialty short titled "Parade of the Award Nominees," made to be shown at the 1932 Academy Award banquet ceremonies on November 18, 1932 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. At this ceremony, Walt Disney received a special Oscar for the creation of Mickey Mouse. Also, this was the year a new category was created for Best Animated Short Subject and the Disney Studio won for "Flowers and Trees."

It is obvious this short was only meant for this special occasion and not meant to be seen by the general public.

It begins with Mickey Mouse dressed as a drum major with a huge, fluffy yellow hat, a long red coat with epaulets and a lengthy tail, yellow shoes and green shorts with white buttons. Since Mickey had never appeared in color before, the choice hadn't been made to give him his famous red shorts and I am sure that Walt felt the red shorts would just blend in the with the traditional drum major red coat while green would stand out. With his baton, Mickey begins the parade.

Mickey is followed by Minnie Mouse in light blue shoes and hat wearing a pink skirt and carrying a banner proclaiming "Parade of the Award Nominees". She is then followed by animated characters recycled from the Silly Symphony, "Mother Goose Melodies" (1931) who walk down a carpet that has been strewn with flowers thanks to Clarabelle Cow.

These characters are followed by the nominees.

The legendary Joe Grant did caricatures of actors Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper ("The Champ"), Lynn Fontaine and Alfred Lunt ("The Guardsman"), a very young Helen Hayes playing an old Helen Hayes ("The Sin of Madelon Claudet"), Fredric March transforming from a handsome gentleman into a hideous green monster ("Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde"), and Marie Dressler ("Emma"). These performers walk down the carpet with a brief funny bit of business with Beery and Cooper being a highlight.

There were three nominees for Best Actor (March and Beery, who both shared the final honor, and Lunt) and three nominees for Best Actress (Hayes, who won, and Dressler and Fontaine).

Finally the procession ends with Pluto, who is grey since it hadn't yet been determined that he should be yellow, and on his tail is a yellow flag stating "The End."

This short appears as a bonus feature on the Disney Treasures "Mickey Mouse in Living Color" on Disc One.

Another unusual appearance by Mickey Mouse on screen did not appear in a Disney film but in a 1934 MGM musical revue titled "Hollywood Party."

"Hollywood Party" was planned as a lavish, star-studded MGM musical, but the production dragged on seemingly forever and used the talents of five directors (none of whom were credited) and seven writers who all tried to make some sense of the material.

The originally announced "all-star" cast slowly dwindled down to inexpensive contract players Jimmy Durante and Jack Pearl (radio's Baron Munchhausen) and a parade of cameos of non-MGM personalities. The final film told an odd story about The Great Schnarzan (Durante), a jungle-movie star like Tarzan, who throws a huge Hollywood party in a convoluted plan to purchase some healthy lions to bring some much needed zip to his films.

The party is just an excuse to showcase short comedy bits from everyone from Laurel and Hardy to the Three Stooges to Mickey Mouse. Well-respected Disney historian, J.B. Kaufman, wrote an outstanding and deeply researched article, "Before Snow White", in the June 1993 issue of the magazine Film History. He covers in great detail and with accuracy amazing for Disney history articles, the Disney Studios work at developing animated features and special animated projects before the release of Snow White.

In his article, Kaufman touches on the behind-the-scenes activity that eventually resulted in Mickey Mouse appearing in new animation for an MGM film.

There were several never-produced attempts at incorporating Mickey Mouse into an MGM film including a "Mickey Mouse travelogue" for a Baron Munchausen film with Jack Pearl.

In September 1933, a contract was drawn up for the Disney Studios to produce a segment in black and white for "Hollywood Party" where Mickey Mouse would crash the party and engage in some interplay with the main star of the film, comedian Jimmy Durante.

While the sequence was only supposed to be 75 feet of footage, it ended up nearly twice that length at roughly 132 feet.

One of the challenges was that the MGM writers didn't understand how to write for Mickey who was primarily a visual character who spoke in short phrases.

When Mickey disrupts the party, the writers had him saying "Now that the tumult has subsided," a phrase that was very un-Mickey.

There were several suggested actions for Mickey including having him enter the party by skipping among the glasses of drinks that have been left on the bar and reaching into a martini glass and taking out an olive to munch.

Finally, a script was devised (credited to writer Ned Marin) where women scream that a mouse is loose at the party and Jimmy Durante picks up the rodent by its tail to discover that it is Mickey Mouse. Mickey stretches out his snout and does an imitation of Durante including some additional good-natured banter with the star.

Here is the first time ever that Mickey interacts with a live performer on the silver screen. Then at Durante's urging, Mickey sits at a cartoon piano and begins to play the music for "Hot Chocolate Soldiers" that fades into a short Technicolor cartoon of the same name also produced for the film by the Disney Studio. (The rest of the film, including the Mickey Mouse segment is in black and white.)

Most of the production work for the Mickey Mouse scene was done in October since the final footage was delivered to MGM on November 8, 1933. Here's an interesting fact that Kaufman discovered: "The Disney exposure sheets suggest that the Mouse animation was largely in the hands of Fred Moore."

The completed film was released in June 1934 and to show how important Mickey Mouse was at the time, he receives his own separate title card in the credits just like the big name live action actors. One film reviewer of the time claimed that the Disney animation was the only bright spot in the entire film.

Because of the contract, the Disney sequences from the film were removed when the film was released to television in 1957. That's the way the film was shown for more than three decades until the Disney scenes were restored for the 1992 video edition so today, eager Disneyphiles can get a complete and legal copy of the film to enjoy.

The 1939-1940 New York World's Fair, located on the current site of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and also the location of the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, was one of the largest world's fairs of all time. More than 44 million people attended its exhibits in two seasons. There was also the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. Sponsored by 11 Western states of the United States and 28 foreign countries, this "world's Fair of the West" was built on Treasure Island, a man-made island in San Francisco Bay.

Both of these fairs had areas sponsored by the National Biscuit Company that presented a very special Mickey Mouse film titled "Mickey's Surprise Party."

The N.B.C. National Biscuit Company Magazine issue of January-February 1939 (Volume 26, Number 1) has an article titled "N.B.C. Theaters at New York and San Francisco World's Fairs." Here is an excerpt:

"In New York, we have a circular space in Food Building North, and ... are erecting an air-conditioned motion picture theater seating approximately 266 persons.

"On Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay our Company has erected a modern motion picture theatre in the Food and Beverages building. The theatre is rectangular in shape with rounded corners, and seats about 130 persons. There will be no charge to either theatre.

"At both Fairs, the N. B. C. screen program will be the same (except that in San Francisco a few of the products featured are different from those in the New York Version). ..."

"Mickey's Surprise Party" produced for National Biscuit Company might be considered one of the very first "infomercials." Obviously money was spent on this cartoon since the color is much richer than some of the other Mickey cartoons at the time and when Mickey first appears on Minnie's front porch there are shadows (even from Mickey's nose) that don't appear in other Mickey cartoons of the time.

Minnie Mouse and her dog, Fifi, are in the kitchen with Minnie stirring a bowl because they are going to "surprise Mickey with some cookies like his mother used to make." When Minnie leaves the room, Fifi barks to shoo away an annoying fly from the batter. When Fifi gives chase, she accidentally knocks an entire box of popcorn into the batter.

Minnie returns unaware of the accident and puts the cookies in the oven.

Mickey shows up with flowers for Minnie and Pluto shows up with a dog bone for Fifi. Mickey is curious what surprise Minnie has planned as she sits coyly at the piano. Suddenly, there is the smell of smoke of burning cookies.

Mickey scoops up a bug sprayer and fills it with water from the gold fish bowl, leaving just enough for the poor fish. Using the sprayer and hiding behind an overturned table, Mickey battles valiantly against the exploding, burnt cookies.

Pluto also joins in the fray but accidentally swallows one of the cookies that continues to pop inside of him.

Minnie is distraught and collapses into tears on the living room couch while Fifi howls. Her surprise party for Mickey is ruined. Minnie cries that "I wanted to make them the way your mother did." Mickey tries to comfort her with his flippant response: "Aw, my mother used to burn the whole batch all the time!"

Mickey suddenly gets an idea and he and Pluto zoom out of the house.

They return shortly with a variety of Nabisco cookies: Lorna Doones, Fig Newtons, Social Tea Biscuits, Ritz Crackers, Oreos and Animal Crackers. Pluto has even brought Milk Bone Dog Biscuits for Fifi.

"Mother used to buy them all the time and here's my favorite!" says a happy Mickey as he offers Minnie a Fig Newton. Minnie smothers Mickey with kisses and the film fades out on the Nabisco logo.

A censored version of this cartoon appears on "The Spirit of Mickey" video. All references to the Nabisco brand name are removed, including the names on the cookie boxes.

However, an uncensored version appears as an Easter Egg on the "Disney Treasures Mickey Mouse in Living Color" DVD. On the second disc, press the up arrow on your remote when "play all' is highlighted. Mickey's head appears in the "o" of Mouse. Press enter to see the cartoon with a short introduction by Leonard Maltin.

A very interesting cartoon because we learn a lot about Mickey's mother who I don't believe is ever mentioned in any other Mickey Mouse cartoon and we learn that Mickey Mouse loves Fig Newtons!

The cartoon was officially delivered to Nabisco on Feb. 18, 1939.

One final oddball Mickey Mouse appearance was in the cartoon "Out of the Frying Pan Into the Firing Line" (1942) produced for the Conservation Division of the War Production Board. Minnie Mouse and Pluto learn the importance of saving kitchen fats and grease that can be converted into glycerin to make cannon shells and such. In a brief cut, Minnie and Pluto look at a picture frame with Mickey Mouse in an army uniform as one of "our boys at the front" who depend on that ammunition. It is the only screen appearance of Mickey Mouse in a military uniform unlike Donald Duck who during the war years appeared quite frequently in uniform.

So, as we celebrate yet another birthday for Mickey, here are some obscure Mickey Mouse cartoons to enjoy as we nibble a bit of cheese with our Fig Newtons.