Walt's Forgotten Essayby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
By now, I hope all the readers of this column have purchased at least one copy of my recent book, "Vault of Walt" (link) as a Christmas gift for themselves or a friend. The book is so thick—at more than 450 pages—that it also makes a good sturdy doorstop or potential weapon to throw at home invaders. Ten chapters in the 38 chapter book are devoted to the life of Walt Disney, with stories and information never before in print.
One of the questions that interviewers asked when the book first appeared slightly more than a month ago was: “Since you didn’t know Walt Disney personally, how did you find out so much new information?”
Of course, for more than 30 years I have been interviewing people who knew and worked with Walt. In addition, I spent time tracking down original sources, like letters, newspaper and magazine articles, radio interviews and much more. These sources can’t always be completely trusted, but certainly give an added perspective.
It was always fascinating to me that the Disney Company liked to aggressively ignore anything that Walt may have written or said, especially in the 1930s, that might not match the “brand” they are attempting to sell these days. For instance, the following essay by Walt may be a trifle politically naive when Walt states that while Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler dislikes Mickey Mouse the situation will be all resolved one day when Mickey does something nice—like save Hitler from drowning. I can’t imagine today’s Disney Company acknowledging that Walt once mentioned Hitler and Mickey in the same sentence.
While it has been claimed that Hitler specifically banned Mickey Mouse cartoons from Nazi Germany (for a variety of different reasons, including the fear of the popularity of foreign influences), I think much more research needs to be done on that subject. After all, in Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ diary entry for December 22, 1937, he wrote “I am giving the Fuhrer…18 Mickey Mouse films (as a Christmas gift). He is very excited about it. He is very happy about this treasure.”
Maybe we will all learn more in Carsten Laqua’s forthcoming book, Mickey Mouse, Hitler and Nazi Germany: How Disney’s Characters Conquered the Third Reich.
With the current revived interest in the Mickey Mouse of the 1930s, I thought it would be fun to share one of the earliest essays credited to Walt about his thoughts on the character. I smiled when I read that Walt felt that there is “Mickey” in all of us when we are focused on doing our best and being nice to others.
The following essay is from the Overland Monthly, published October 1933, roughly five years after the birth of Mickey Mouse. Overland Monthly was a California-based magazine that began in the 1880s and featured contributors like Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London and many other recognizable names. It finally ended publication in July 1935, which may account for why people today may be unfamiliar with Walt’s essay.
The editors of the magazine included the following observation about Walt’s article: “Walt is Mickey. If Mickey is good, it is because Walt is good. Every characteristic of Mickey’s from the lift of his eye-brow to his delightful swagger is Walt’s own. Mickey is not a mouse; he is Walt Disney.”
It was also interesting that they made special mention of Walt actively soliciting suggestions and criticisms of his short cartoons: “Mr. Disney is particularly anxious to get the reactions from various groups throughout the country on his pictures. He speaks with great pride of the fact that The Better Films Conference of San Diego takes the trouble to report their ideas of his cartoons. He expressed the wish that every organized group, Parent-Teachers, Women’s Federations, in fact everyone working for the betterment of Childhood, would write to him and give him suggestions and criticisms on his present pictures.”
Mickey had already been under stern scrutiny since at least 1931 as revealed in the short article "Regulated Rodent" from the February 16, 1931, issue of TIME magazine:
“Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America last week announced that, because of complaints of many censor boards, the famed udder of the cow in the Mickey Mouse cartoons was now banned. Cows in Mickey Mouse or other cartoon pictures in the future will have small or invisible udders quite unlike the gargantuan organ whose antics of late have shocked some and convulsed other of Mickey Mouse's patrons. In a recent picture, the udder, besides flying violently to left and right or stretching far out behind when the cow was in motion, heaved with its panting when the cow stood still; it also stretched, when seized, in an exaggerated way.
”Already censors have dealt sternly with Mickey Mouse. He and his associates do not drink, smoke or caper suggestively. Once a Mickey Mouse cartoon was barred in Ohio because the cow read Elinor Glyn's Three Weeks. German censors ruled out another picture because ‘The wearing of German military helmets by an army of cats which oppose an army of mice is offensive to national dignity’ (TIME, July 21, 1930). Canadian censors ruled against another brand of sound cartoon because a leering fish in it writhed up to a mermaid and slapped her on the thigh. But censorship is only a form of public testimony that Mickey Mouse and other animated cartoons are an important and permanent element of international amusement. Sergei Eisenstein, famed Russian director, has said: ‘They are America's most original contribution to culture.’”
The following essay is titled The Cartoon’s Contribution to Children but, almost immediately, Walt veers away from that topic to discuss Mickey Mouse almost exclusively. I am especially fond of articles by Walt from the early 1930s, because it is much more likely that the words are pretty much Walt without going through a professional Disney Studio writer or publicity person. These pieces also seem to reflect Walt’s stream-of-consciousness-style of speaking where he tosses words and ideas together as if they had just occurred to him.
When reading these articles from the past, it is important to keep them in the context of the time in which they were written. In this case, Americans were suffering through the Great Depression but were not yet preparing for another World War. Walt Disney, after years of struggle, had finally achieved recognition and financial success with Mickey Mouse and was still a year or two away from beginning Snow White and the Seven Dwaves. Walt is filled with boundless positive optimism and feels that the Mickey Mouse cartoons truly reflect this philosophy.
Here, from October 1933, is The Cartoon’s Contribution to Children by Walt Disney:
"It would be presumptuous of me to speak for the entire motion picture cartoon industry. You will think me immodest to limit this discussion to Mickey Mouse. I seem to be on the spot!
"Standing on the spot, I will make three guesses as to the nature of Cartoon Pictures’ contribution to children. I will do it blindfolded. I fear no man!
"To be honest about the matter, when our gang goes into a huddle and comes out with a new Mickey Mouse story, we will not have worried one bit as to whether the picture will make the children better men and women, or whether it will conform with the enlightened theories of child psychology.
"And, yet, if Mickey were to say or do one thing to hurt the child audience in any way, he would die of shame; and we, all of us who work and play with Mickey, would sneak off to the unexplored recesses of New Guinea…and there…imagine our mortification…the New Guinea cannibals would refuse to eat us; we being loathsome things; we being the depraved souls who made Mickey do a thing which hurt children.
"But this will never happen. Mickey would never stand for it. If our gang ever put Mickey in a situation less wholesome than sunshine, Mickey would take Minnie by the hand and move to some other studio. Then, how would we eat, conditions being as they are, the wolf eating the Fuller Brush Man at the door and good men sleeping three deep on the benches of Pershing Square?
"No, Mickey would never stand for it. He is never mean or ugly. He never lies nor cheats nor steals. He is a clean, happy, little fellow who loves life and folk. He never takes advantage of the weak and we see to it that nothing ever happens that will cure his faith in the transcendent destiny of one Mickey Mouse or his convictions that the world is just a big apple pie. Our animators and gag men having rescued Mickey from every conceivable predicament, the young fellow knows not fear save when he sees a friend in danger.
"When, on occasions, as boys will, the lad becomes too cocky and struts vaingloriously before admiring Minnie, Fate in the gag department kicks him from the rear and rolls him ignobly in the dust of gentle ridicule. Sex is just another work to Mickey, and the story of the traveling salesman of no more interest than the ladies’ lingerie department. He is not a little mouse. He only looks like one. He is Youth, the Great Unlicked and Uncontaminated.
"Now how could a fine, upstanding lad like Mickey ever do or saying anything to hurt a child?
"Nope! We have too much confidence in Mickey to worry about his effect on the growing child. In fact, we never think and build in terms of either child or adult audience. Mickey Mouse pictures are gauged to only one audience: the Mickey audience. The Mickey audience is not made up of people; it has no racial, national, political, religious or social differences or affiliations; the Mickey audience is made up of parts of people, of that deathless, precious, ageless, absolutely primitive remnant of something in every world-wracked human being which makes us play with children’s toys and laugh without self-consciousness at silly things, and sing in bathtubs, and ream and believe that our babies are uniquely beautiful. You know…the Mickey in us.
"Mr. Mussolini takes his family to see every Mickey picture. Mr. King George and Mrs. Queen Mary give him a right royal welcome; while Mr. President F. Roosevelt and family have lots of Mickey in them, too. Doug Fairbanks took Mickey with him to savage South Sea Islands and won the natives over to his project. Mickey is one matter upon which the Chinese and Japanese agree.
"Of course there must be millions of people who have a downright feeling of animosity for our M. Mouse. Mr. A. Hitler, the Nazi old thing, says that Mickey’s silly. Imagine that! Well, Mickey is going to save Mr. A Hitler from drowning or something some day. Just wait and see if he doesn’t. Then won’t Mr. A. Hitler be ashamed!
"What do animated cartoons contribute to children? Well, what do they give you? Wholesome entertainment? A clean laugh? A chance to spread the tattered wings of your imagination and soar to a realm where trees dance and you forget to shout, ‘Aw, neurts!’?
"It is not our job to teach, implant morals or improve anything except our pictures. If Mickey has a bit of practical philosophy to offer the younger generation, it is to keep on trying. That’s what we do who make animated cartoons. In the United States, there are 50 million children enrolled in Mickey Mouse Clubs. It is our hope and ambition to keep on trying so that the hundred million children of these 50 million children will have the Mickey in them released and nourished by better cartoons than we make today.
‘That’s our job…WE LOVE IT!”