The Whole Tooth: Disney and Dentistry

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

From April to October 1938, Disney storymen struggled to develop a never-made Disney short titled Mickey’s Toothache. Given laughing gas, poor Mickey Mouse enters a nightmare world inhabited by living teeth, toothbrush monsters, and odd creatures that are half-dental pliers. 

In a final courtroom confrontation, there is a judge whose head is in the shape of a wisdom tooth and he charges Mickey with “teeth neglect.”  I couldn’t find a reason why this short never developed further other than the fact that over the years there were many Mickey, Donald and Goofy shorts that were started and never made it to production for a variety of reasons.

Since a dentist’s office is a standard springboard for comedy, it is odd that no Disney animated short was ever created for the Disney characters using this premise. After all, even Donald Duck had an impressive set of teeth when it was necessary for a gag. However, Walt did produce several Disney projects related to tooth care. 

In November 1922, Walt’s first company, Laugh-O-Grams was in trouble.  The deal with the Pictorial Clubs to release the updated animated fairy tales produced by the young Walt Disney and his crew had turned sour and Walt desperately needed money.  Walt tried to get some needed income by taking movies of local children for their parents and providing newsreel footage to national syndicates but it wasn't enough.

Walt was living on the second floor in the Laugh-O-Grams studio and eating on credit at the Forest Inn Cafe that was on the first floor. He soon ran up a debt of $60 and was forced to eat cold beans out of a can in the studio.  Walt had to go to the nearby railroad station to take a bath.

A local dentist, Dr. Thomas McCrum, of the Denner Dental Institute of Kansas City, agreed to pay Walt $500 for a short film about how bad things would happen to young people if they didn't take good care of their teeth.

Walt himself told the story that has become one of the famous Disney stories:

"One night [McCrum] called me.  He said, 'Come over here tonight and we can get it all wrapped up.'

"I said, 'I can't come tonight.'  

"And he asked, 'Why not?  What are you doing?'  

'Nothing,' I replied.  

'Well,' he said, 'why can't you come?'  

"And I said, 'I haven't any shoes.' 

“He said, 'you haven't any shoes? Where are they?'  

'They were falling apart,' I said, 'I left them at the shoemaker.  They're fixed, but he won't let me have them unless I pay him and I can't pay him.  I have to wait until I can dig up a $1.50 somewhere.'

"He had a car and he asked, 'Is the shoemaker still open?'   

"I said, 'Yes.'  

"He said, 'I'll be right over.'  

"Dr. McCrum came over, went in and paid the shoemaker, gave me my shoes, and then we sat down and struck the deal to make the little film.' " 

A live-action film was faster and less expensive to produce than animation.  It was to be Walt's first educational film and was titled Tommy Tucker's Tooth.

Supposedly, it was Dr. McCrum who came up with the basic storyline but it is obvious that Walt’s storytelling abilities fleshed out that outline even though there was no known written script. 

Basically, the storyline is that a young boy named Tommy Tucker takes pride in his appearance and practices good dental care that he demonstrates in great detail and all of this leads to success and a happy life.

Unfortunately, despite being a good kid and a hard worker, another young boy, poor Jimmie Jones is very careless about his appearance and neglects his teeth and he misses out on many opportunities, including a great job, until he becomes more like Tommy.  

Watching the film today, it is still effective because Walt cleverly connected dental care principles with things that people already knew and understood like refrigerating food and darning socks. The film shows how Walt understood how to communicate important information with humor and using familiar similarities that would be very evident in the military training films and educational films that the Disney Studios would make decades later.

Walt held auditions at various Kansas City schools to recruit his cast and from Thomas H. Benton Elementary School (which Walt himself had attended) came an 11-year old boy named  "Jack" Records to play the part of  "Jimmie Jones." John W. Records later became a doctor.  

"I don't recall a script.  Walt would act things out," Records later told Disney historian J.B. Kaufman and Russell Merritt for their excellent book about Walt’s silent films, Walt in Wonderland

Walt directed the film and his childhood friend Walt Pfeiffer ran the camera.

Filmed in December 1922, it remained in circulation so long that, 10 years later, Dr. Records' fiancee saw it in a university home nursing class. A copy of the film was donated to the Walt Disney Archives by the American Dental Association in 1971.

If you’d like a copy of the existing Laugh O Grams and “Tommy Tucker’s Tooth,” then you might want to check out this link.

A few years later, Dr. McCrum approached Walt to make a sequel. Walt produced that sequel in August 1926 featuring Walt's niece, Marjorie Sewell Davis, as "Clara" in Clara Cleans Her Teeth.

Clara comes from a good family but refuses to see a dentist despite the problems with her teeth. However an animated nightmare (with animation done by the legendary Ub Iwerks) quickly changes her mind and visits to the dentist gives her a new life where she can enjoy snacks at lunch in the schoolyard with her friends without her teeth hurting. 

"He would act things out. He would go through the facial expressions,"  Davis remembered many years later. She felt the only reason Walt cast her was because since she was a relative, he didn’t need to pay her much. 

Mickey Mouse was still almost two years away but the Disney brothers were having success with their Alice Comedies and had learned a great deal about directing children.

After those early attempts at educational films, Walt did not make another educational film until during World War II when he became involved in creating training films for the military.  Many of those films have been lost over the years after they served their initial purpose or quickly became outdated.  

Since they were military property and sometimes featured classified material, the Disney Studios never kept a copy of most of those films. However, once again, the wonderful world of dental health care was one of the subjects. 

Neither the Disney Company nor the Defense Audio-Visual Agency has a print of a film made by Disney for the U.S. Army in 1945 titled Dental Health (Project No. 7280).  The Navy had previously produced at least eight dental instructional films prior to 1943.  These films were made at the U.S. Naval Dental School at Bethseda, Md.

For the approximately eight-minute Disney animated educational film, Major Arthur H. Schmidt of the Army Dental Crops was the technical advisor.  The film covered such juicy topics as the reaction of peridontium to tissue irritants, the role of nutrition in the upkeep of a healthy dentition (which supposedly was supported by "well balanced Army meals"), dental infection, an overview of tooth function, and instruction in the functioning of full and partial dentures.

The Disney Company does still have an animation "continuity" script and includes the following dialogue that was accompanied by appropriate animation illustrating what was being said by the off screen narrator:

"The tooth is held there by a membrane, or tissue, made up of thousands of tiny fibers holding the tooth to the jawbone.  This membrane, incidentally, serves another purpose, too.  It acts as a cushion or shock absorber when biting pressure is applied to the tooth.  Now, let's examine the tooth itself.  The crown, that part you see above the gums, is covered by a very hard, glossy substance called enamel.  The crown is the chewing surface of the tooth.  The body of the tooth is made up of an ivory-like tissue known as dentine.  In the heart of the tooth is a space called the pulp chamber.  It's filled with small blood vessels and nerve fibers.  They're responsible for keeping that tooth alive and healthy.  We'll talk about it more a little later on.  Meanwhile, let's talk about pain."

When it came to military insignia, the U.S. Navy Dental Corps were represented by two designs from the Disney Company.  One was requested on December 20, 1941 by Lt. Francis A. Sines, who was assigned to the Naval Operations Base at Norfolk, Va.  There was a circle logo stating:  "Let's Go!  Keep 'Em Chewing" and featured a helmeted goat sticking his head through the circle and chewing away and revealing one good tooth.  

The other insignia was requested by Richard T. Street on July 5, 1942 for the dental reserve students at Loyola University.  The image is of a full sized sweating Donald Duck struggling as he carries an oversized molar that is as large as he is.   

Even after Walt's death, the Disney Company continued to produce educational films about dental issues.  Teeth Are For Chewing released in 1971 explained the importance of good personal dental care as well as the functional role of the teeth.  "Disney's Dental Health Program" in 1982 was a series of four cartoons explaining different aspects of dental hygiene. 

For Disney Educational Media, a live-action costumed Goofy character participated in a short 13-minute film called Goofy About Dental Health (1991).  Goofy leaves a magical toothbrush under a child's pillow and the kid is transported to a dentist's office where he learns how to have healthy teeth.

And when it comes to Disney and Dentistry, that’s the tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth.  Keep smiling!