Plane Crazy About Mickey Mouse

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Plane Crazy About Mickey Mouse

"Not long ago Walt brought home the first Mickey Mouse film he ever made, Plane Crazy. We were screening another picture in our projection room that night. For fun, Walt ran Plane Crazy first. It was crude in many ways. When Walt made it he was just 25, and he hadn't perfected the technique of animation yet. Too, it had been made originally as a silent film, and sound had been dubbed in afterward.

"Diane and Sharon were horrified and wanted to forget the whole thing. I reminded them with some heat that if it hadn't been for that old crude Mickey they wouldn't be sitting in their own projection room with their own swimming pool outside." – Lillian Disney (Walt's wife) quoted in "I Live with a Genius," McCalls magazine (February 1953).

Lillian was right that it was the early black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons that allowed the Disney family a comfortable lifestyle and allowed Walt the opportunity to experiment in animation and later, live action, and that helped maintain their pleasant lifestyle.

Lillian was probably passionate because she worked as an ink and painter on Plane Crazy and probably remembered even decades later how important it was that the cartoon be successful in order to save the Disney Studio.

However, Diane and Sharon were also right that Plane Crazy is a very raw cartoon that could be used by Disney Human Resources today as a training tool on sexual harassment.

The climax of the story focuses on Mickey Mouse trying to force Minnie to give him a kiss. Mickey even tries to intimidate her with dangerous aeronautical maneuvers in hopes of scaring her to kiss him in order to stop. At one point, Minnie angrily slaps Mickey in the face. This is definitely not the mild-mannered corporate icon of today but a very feisty young mouse ruled by his id, and his defeat at the end of the cartoon is the result of his own actions. This was a story pattern that would prove highly popular in later Donald Duck short cartoons.

Most discussions of this cartoon focus on the more positive aspect of the barefoot and gloveless Mickey trying to imitate Charles Lindbergh. In May 1927, "Lucky Lindy" had become a hero with the first solo airplane trip across the Atlantic.

In fact, the first few installments of the Mickey Mouse newspaper comic strip written by Walt and illustrated by Iwerks told an adapted version of this story of Mickey building and flying his own plane to emulate his hero, Lindbergh.

While Lindbergh was Mickey's hero, on the famous transatlantic flight, Lindbergh took along a stuffed Felix the Cat doll for luck and company. Of course, to be fair, Mickey didn't exist at that time and Felix was the most popular animated cartoon character in the world.

Plane Crazy was completely animated by the legendary Ub Iwerks, who was isolated from the rest of the Disney Studio where other animators were finishing up the commitments to produce the final Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons for Charles Mintz before they would leave to join Mintz's studio.

In the famous legend, Walt had lost the rights to Oswald, and his animators had signed on with Mintz in order to maintain their jobs. Only Ub Iwerks had not betrayed Walt and stayed with the Disney Studio. On a train ride back from New York, Walt created the character of Mortimer Mouse and at the urging of his wife changed the name to "Mickey." Walt felt that producing cartoons of this new character, who originally bore a physical resemblance to the popular Oswald the Rabbit, would save his studio.

Iwerks produced over 8,000 separate drawings beginning in April 1928 for the first Mickey Mouse cartoon to be ready for a theatrical release just a few weeks later in mid-May.

Ub also had animation drawings of the character of Oswald so that he could make a quick switch and cover the Mickey drawings if anyone unexpectedly barged in to his work location.

Walt put in three benches in his garage at his home on Lyric Avenue for a makeshift studio where Walt and Roy's wives (Lillian and Edna) along with Walt's sister-in-law (Hazel Sewell) inked and painted Ub's artwork onto cels. Mike Marcus was the cameraman and shot the cel artwork at night at the Disney Studio after the animators had gone home, with Walt personally cleaning up all traces of the work afterwards so it wouldn't be discovered the next morning.

Highly underated animator Michael Sporn (who has a terrific Disney animation-related blog) is the one of the few people I know who has shared this special historical note about the Plane Crazy animation. Sporn said, "This was the first animated film to use a camera move. The POV shot from the plane made it appear as if the camera were trucking into the ground. In fact, when they shot this scene, they piled books under the spinning background to move the artwork closer to the camera."

In fact, most animation historians rarely mention the great use of POV (point of view) shots in this cartoon that was highly unusual for the time period but that Iwerks used very dramatically including the sequence where Mickey's plane almost collides with an oncoming car.

Plane Crazy was finally completed and previewed at a theater at Sunset and Gardner in Hollywood on May 15, 1928. Walt had coached the theater organist on how to accompany the action and slipped him a little extra money as well to punch up the music. Reportedly, the picture got quite a few laughs and some applause from the audience.

Encouraged by this response even though they still did not have a distributor for the new animated series, Walt and Ub began work almost immediately on the second Mickey Mouse cartoon, Gallopin' Gaucho, a loose take-off on a popular Douglas Fairbanks silent film, The Gaucho (1927). By now, the defecting animators had left so there was no need for behind-the-scenes secrecy in producing the new cartoon.

At least one major movie studio, MGM, saw Plane Crazy but made no offer to finance a series. Reportedly, one executive claimed that a three-foot-tall mouse would frighten women in the theater audience. Walt engaged a New York film dealer, E.J. Denison, to find a distributor.

"I feel that I can make good cartoons and that they can be placed with a good distributor if the matter is handled right," Walt wrote to Denison, "But the time is short and there would be no second chance this year if we get off on the wrong foot. It is our intention to carry on an advertising and exploitation campaign that should, in a very short time, along with good pictures and a good release, make the name of 'Mickey Mouse' as well known as any cartoon on the market."

Apparently, Denison did make a valiant effort to interest major distributors in Mickey Mouse and when he couldn't generate even minor interest in the property, he withdrew, and Walt, despite his passionate optimism, was faced with mounting costs on the Mickey Mouse cartoons. By the time of finishing Steamboat Willie, Walt had gone through all of the money and more that the Disney Studio had made on the Oswald the Rabbit series.

Roy O. Disney in small handwriting entered into his ledger book the amounts (which included production and prints) for the first three Mickey Mouse cartoons:

PLANE CRAZY: $3,528.50

GALLOPIN' GAUCHO: $4,249.73

STEAMBOAT WILLIE: $4,986.69

When Steamboat Willie began to attract attention and it appeared that Mickey Mouse would become the star of a series of cartoons, Walt had theater organist Carl Stalling write music scores for Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho to have readymade product for release and to recover the investment in the first two cartoons.

Plane Crazy was eventually released theatrically March 17, 1929 at the Mark Strand Theater in New York after a new soundtrack had been added in December 1928. Minnie Mouse (voiced by Walt himself) also utters the only line of dialogue in the cartoon: "Who? Me?"

In Steamboat Willie, only the parrot had a line of dialog ("Hope you don't feel hurt, big boy," confirmed by a terrific animator and historian Mark Kausler who checked the actual exposure sheet) that was also voiced by Walt.

Walt Disney filed for a copyright on "Mickey Mouse in Plane Crazy" on May 26, 1928 as an unpublished work. This copyright was never updated. On August 9, 1930, Walt Disney copyrighted the sound versions of the first two silent films re-titled Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho.

There are a lot of physical gags in Plane Crazy, especially since it was originally a silent cartoon. Mickey grabs the udder of the cow and it sprays him with milk. The same gag re-appears in Steamboat Willie.

Walt often recycled popular gags from his previous cartoons. In the days before videotape and television, an audience might see a cartoon and then never see it again so it was not uncommon to borrow the funniest gags from previous cartoons to re-use in the latest cartoon.

Apparently, Walt had a great memory for gags, and when actor Dean Jones argued with Walt that a gag in one of the live action films was too corny, Walt replied, "It got a laugh in 1923 and it will get a laugh today." At the preview of the film, Jones admitted that Walt was right, as the audience howled at the gag.

When Pete pulls Mickey's stomach and it stretches in Steamboat Willie, Walt's comment on the original story script is "same as Oswald and the Bear in Tall Timber," which was an Oswald the Rabbit cartoon released July 9, 1928.

When the goat eats the sheet music and Mickey has to crank its tail for the music to play, it is a repeat of a gag from the Oswald cartoon Rival Romeos released March 5, 1928.

At the end of the cartoon, when Mickey is peeling potatoes and making big potatoes into smaller ones, it is a repeat of a gag of a mouse doing the same action from Alice the Whaler released July 25, 1927.

Steamboat Willie received a great deal of attention because of its innovative use of synchronized sound and the fact that it was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon released theatrically. Certainly, the Mickey Mouse in this cartoon is much more identifiable with the Mickey that audiences grew to know and love over the decades.

However, when we think about it all starting with a mouse, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon is really Plane Crazy. An example of how little respect it has today is demonstrated by the fact that in 2001, the International Cartoon Museum was unsuccessful in trying to sell off the illustrated six page, 36-panel animation story script done by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. It had been donated to the troubled museum that was trying to get out of debt but there were no offers at the suggested price of this historical treasure.

Not even from the Disney Company.