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Director: David Hand
Release Date:
August 20, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pluto
Rating:

Review:

Still from 'Trader Mickey' featuring Mickey playing saxophone to a cannibalMickey is a trader in Africa. He is captured by a bunch of hungry cannibals, whose king laughs with Goofy’s guffaw.

The cannibals ruin Mickey’s trade, which consists mostly of musical instruments. When Mickey grabs a saxophone, he launches a long song-and-dance-routine, making the short old-fashioned when compared to contemporary Mickey Mouse cartoons like ‘Barnyard Olympics’, ‘Mickey in Arabia‘ and ‘Mickey’s Nightmare’. The cartoon is hampered further by severe and backward caricatures of African natives.

‘Trader Mickey’ was the first short directed by David Hand (1900-1986), who’d become Disney’s third director after Wilfred Jackson and Burt Gillett. Hand  had joined the Disney studio as an animator in early 1930, just after the departure of Ub Iwerks. As a director he would create many wonderful shorts, like ‘The Mad Doctor‘ (1932) and ‘Who Killed Cock Robin‘ (1935). Then he advanced to features, directing ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) and ‘Bambi‘ (1942). Hand would leave the Disney studio in July 1944 to set up his own studio in England.

Unfortunately, ‘Trader Mickey’ cannot be regarded a great start of Hand’s directing career. It’s a weak film, based on ingredients from the equally weak ‘Cannibal Capers‘ (1930) and ‘The Delivery Boy‘ (1931). Hand would nevertheless maintain a high standard in all his next films, the only other failures being ‘Mickey’s Man Friday‘ (unfortunately also starring cannibals) and ‘The Robber Kitten‘, both from 1935.

Watch ‘Trader Mickey’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 45
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Nightmare
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Whoopee Party

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: March 15, 1930
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Still from 'Cannibal Capers' featuring a cannibal using skulls as castanets‘Cannibal Capers’ is a typical early dance routine Silly Symphony. This time we watch dancing cannibals, followed by the antics of one poor cannibal chased by a lion.

The caricatures of the ‘primitive’ blacks are backward and quite extreme in this cartoon: the cannibals have such huge lips, they almost look like ducks(!). Nevertheless, the cartoon is less offensive than a later film like ‘Mickey’s Man Friday‘ (1935), because the cannibals at least look sympathetic (despite the skulls that lie everywhere), and are not compared to apes, like in the latter cartoon.

It also fairs better than the Betty Boop cartoon ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re dead you Rascal You’ (1932), which also features cannibals, but here they’re linked to musicians of Louis Armstrong’s orchestra, making a direct connection between the racist caricatures and real Afro-Americans.

Cannibals were staple characters of cartoons from the thirties, but the caricatures managed to stay well into the fifties, being featured in shorts such as ‘His Mouse Friday‘ (Tom & Jerry, 1951), ‘Spare The Rod’ (Donald Duck, 1954) and ‘Boyhood Daze’ (Merrie Melodies, 1957).

Watch ‘Cannibal Capers’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 8
To the previous Silly Symphony: Autumn
To the next Silly Symphony: Night

Director: Ub Iwerks
Release Date: January 4, 1930
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Still from 'Summer' featuring a spider surrounded by four flies‘Summer’ is the second Silly Symphony in the season mini-series. ‘The merry bugs’ would have been a better title, because the short only focuses on insects (and one spider).

Like the other early Silly Symphonies, there’s only one long sequence of unrelated dance scenes, there’s no story whatsoever, and a lot of the animation is repetitive. This makes ‘Summer’ rather tiresome to watch. It’s undoubtedly the weakest entry of the four seasons, and one of the weakest of all Silly Symphonies. Like ‘Springtime‘ and ‘Autumn‘ it was directed by Ub Iwerks, and somehow, it shows the animator’s lesser ambitions.

Watch ‘Summer’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 6
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Merry Dwarfs
To the next Silly Symphony: Autumn

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: October 28, 1933
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Pet Store © Walt DisneyMickey applies for a job at an Italian pet store. Then Minnie drops by and together they perform their usual song-and-dance-routine.

‘The Pet Store’ was Mickey’s last cartoon to feature the half song-and-dance routine half story formula, a story structure that had become old-fashioned by now.

This time Minnie’s quite tiresome lalala’s are interrupted by ‘Beppo, the movie monk’, an ape who has read about King Kong (that movie was released the same year) and who wants to imitate him. This leads to a nice spoof of King Kong, in which the ape climbs a pile of boxes with Minnie under his arm while being attacked by birds, mimicking the planes in the original feature. In the end Mickey and Minnie are fleeing the pet shop, just before the owner returns, leaving it in complete ruin.

Part of the fun in this cartoon is provided by pseudo-Italian labels (like “birda seed” and “biga da sale”), a type of pun that was later borrowed extensively by Chuck Jones in his Pepe le Pew-cartoons.

Watch ‘The Pet Store’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 61
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Steeple Chase
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Giantland

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: November 25, 1931
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Mickey Cuts Up © Walt Disney‘Mickey Cuts Up’ can be summarized as ‘Mickey Steps Out’ set in a garden.

The first part of the cartoon consists of a quite tiring song-and-dance-routine (with Mickey dancing as a turtle as a minor highlight). Like in ‘Mickey Steps Out’ there’s some whistling with the birds, with Mickey impersonating one. Later the two perform the 1921 hit song ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’ on harmonicas.

Only after five minutes, the second part starts. This hilarious sequence is devoted to Pluto chasing a cat and causing havoc, just like he did in ‘Mickey Steps Out’. The contrast with the first half couldn’t be greater: suddenly the gags come fast and plenty. There’s even an early running gag in which Mickey gets wet in various ways. The second half is of a stunning speed, and a real tour de force in its string of gags leading to other gags, and to the grand finale. This half makes the cartoon a stand out of the era, and one that looks forward to things to come.

Watch ‘Mickey Cuts Up’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 35
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Beach Party
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Orphans

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: July 10, 1931
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Mickey Steps Out © Walt Disney‘Mickey Steps Out’ is the first of a few Mickey Mouse cartoons that are half musical numbers  half story.

This was a plot structure used in many Mickey Mouse cartoons from 1931 to 1933, with ‘The Pet Store‘ being the last example. This half-baked structure was soon replaced by stories filling the complete cartoons.

In ‘Mickey Steps Out’, Mickey visits Minnie, but Pluto, who should have stayed in, is following him, dragging his dog house along to Minnie’s place. First, Mickey and Minnie perform their usual song-and-dance-routine (this time based on ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’), but when Pluto is chasing a cat, their music is interrupted and followed by a fast sequence of gags of Pluto and the cat ruining the house culminating in a blackface gag.

‘Mickey Steps Out’ arguably contains the first well-build up finale in Disney history. It’s at least the first of a series of cartoons that end in complete destruction. Pluto would again cause havoc in ‘Mickey Cuts Up’ (1931) and ‘The Grocery Boy’ (1932). Later, destruction would be caused by little kittens (a.o. ‘Mickey’s Orphans‘, 1931) and orphan mice (a.o. ‘Mickey’s Nightmare’, 1932). ‘Mickey Steps Out’ reuses footage of ‘The Birthday Party’ of Mickey with a fishbowl on his head.

Almost secretly, the film introduces another novelty: the first attempt at a realistically drawn animal: Minnie’s canary is in no sense cartoony, behaving like a real bird. It’s a major advance when compared to the Silly Symphony ‘Birds of a Feather’ from six months earlier. The canary only plays a small part in the cartoon, but is the testimony of Disney’s ultimate ambitions, even at this stage. It’s these innovations, better story arcs and a strive towards better, more realistic animation that propelled the Disney cartoons forward, leaving their contemporaries far behind.

Watch ‘Mickey Steps Out’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 30
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Delivery Boy
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Blue Rhythm

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: May 16, 1931
Rating:  ★★★★½
Review:

Although this cartoon is one of those Silly Symphonies from 1931 using the half song-and-dance-routine half story formula, it is one of the most beautiful and most entertaining Silly Symphonies of the era.

The film is inspired by a Western view on a mythical ancient China. The film is without any dialogue and makes effective use of Albert Ketèlbey’s musical piece ‘In a Chinese Temple garden’ to create an oriental atmosphere. It tells a simple story of a little fisherman who saves a girl from drowning, falls in love with her and rescues her from an evil mandarin and a large (Western and fire-breathing) dragon.

After ‘Mother Goose Melodies’ this is the studio’s second take at the human figure. The result is a mixed bag. The heroin’s movements are still cartoony, walking with her knees sideways, and the long-legged China-man has no hint of realism at all. Moreover, the hero’s size is quite inconsistent, suddenly becoming very small when fighting the evil mandarin. On the other hand, the boy and girl are elegantly drawn, especially their hands. The two easily gain the audience’s sympathy and transcend the stereotypes that occupy most of the film.

Together with ‘Mother Goose Melodies’, ‘The China Plate’ is the most elaborate of the early Silly Symphonies. It’s surprisingly fast-paced and full of action. The complete cartoon is one of sheer delight.

Watch ‘The China Plate’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 18
To the previous Silly Symphony: Mother Goose Melodies
To the next Silly Symphony: The Busy Beavers

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: May 3, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating:
Review:

When The Cat's Away © Walt DisneyAwkwardly, in this sixth Mickey Mouse cartoon Mickey and Minnie are portraited as real mice.

They are joined by several look-a-likes in a house party, while the owner, a drunk cat, is gone hunting. There’s still some silent comedy (and no dialogue), but there’s no real story, only an extended musical number. Therefore this cartoon can be regarded as the first of many ‘song-and-dance-routine’-cartoons that would dominate the early thirties. It even predates the Silly Symphony series, which initial sole raison d’être seems to be song-and-dance-routines.

These cartoons no doubt delighted the audiences at the time. However, I regret their coming, because both story and surreal humor had to give way to the rise of them. ‘When the Cat’s Away’  is a prime example: despite some clever gags, it is easily the dullest of the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons.

After ‘When the Cat’s Away’ Mickey would never been portrayed as a real mouse again. Like in his first five cartoons, he would just be a boy in the shape of a mouse. The idea of Mickey being a mouse would become negligible compared to the cartoon star he was. Mickey was seen as an actor, not an animal. This would eventually lead to the awkward situation of Mickey dealing with ‘real’ and very different looking mice in ‘The Worm Turns‘ (1937).

Watch ‘When The Cat’s Away’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 6
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Opry House
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barnyard Battle

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
November 18, 1928
Stars:
Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating:
★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Steamboat Willie © Walt Disney

In 1928 Walt Disney was at a low point in his career. He had refused to work for Charles Mintz at lower wages, he had lost most of his staff to Mintz, and he had no distributor for his new cartoon star, Mickey Mouse.

Mickey’s first two cartoons, ‘Plane Crazy‘ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘, were well-made and entertaining films, but they didn’t impress any distributor. The problem was that despite their high quality, they were not really different from other cartoons, like Disney’s former own Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. Disney had to think of something.

And he did. Mickey’s third cartoon would have the distinction of sound. Sound was an extremely fresh cinematic feature at the time. The breakthrough feature, ‘The Jazz Singer’ had only been released in October 1927, and the first all talking picture, ‘Lights of New York’ was only released in July 1928, the month in which production on ‘Steamboat Willie’ started.

Using sound creatively

Surprisingly, ‘Steamboat Willie’ was not the first cartoon to use synchronized sound. The Fleischer studio, for example, had experimented with the technique as early as 1924, and in October 1928 Paul Terry would release ‘Dinner Time’, which also used a synchronized soundtrack. However, Fleischer’s films failed to reach complete synchronicity, and Paul Terry’s film (which can be watched here) is essentially a silent and remarkably boring cartoon, which just happens to have sound to it.

‘Steamboat Willie’ on the other hand makes perfect use of the novelty of sound. Already in the opening scene we’re treated on something no less than spectacular: we watch and hear Mickey Mouse whistling a joyful tune. After watching several silent cartoons, this sole scene still has a startling effect. But all scenes in ‘Steamboat Willie’ are there to show us the novelty of sound: we watch and hear whistles blowing, cows mooing, chickens cackling, and Minnie shouting “yoo”-hoo”. And thanks to the invention of the click track all sounds are in perfect synchronization with the moving images.

However, the real treat of ‘Steamboat Willie’ comes after 4 minutes, when a goat swallows Minnie’s sheet music and guitar. What seems a disaster turns out to be a delight, for the goat becomes musical, and Mickey and Minnie turn it into some kind of hurdy-gurdy. This gag, in fact, had already been used in the silent Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon ‘Rival Romeos‘ (released in March), but makes much more sense with the added sound. For now the goat-hurdy gurdy provides an intoxicating soundtrack for Mickey to improvise on, incidentally mostly by torturing animals. This musical number, based on ‘Turkey in the Straw’ is a sheer delight, and entertains even today.

The impact of ‘Steamboat Willie’

Needless to say ‘Steamboat Willie’ boosted both Mickey Mouse’s and Walt Disney’s career and it gave a valuable shot to the ailing animation industry. Yet, it also caused a setback, one that can already be seen in this cartoon. In ‘Steamboat Willie’, sound is the sole raison d’être of some of the shots (chickens cackling, a cow mooing). But more important, storyline has given way to an extensive musical number. While the two Mickey Mouse shorts that were made before, ‘Plane Crazy’ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’, had strong, albeit simple stories, Steamboat Willie has almost none. It wasn’t necessary: simply watching Mickey Mouse dancing and playing to the music was marvelous enough for the audiences of that time.

Therefore, in the years after the success of ‘Steamboat Willie’, Disney would favor often tiring sing and dance routines above great story lines. It took the studio almost two years to bring back strong stories to its cartoons (Mickey’s 19th film, ‘The Fire Fighters’ from 1930, is arguably the first).

Conclusion

Nevertheless, ‘Steamboat Willie’ is a great cartoon, and a lot of fun to watch. It is still deeply rooted in the silent era: because lip synchronization had not been developed yet, the characters’ vocabulary remains rather limited. Therefore, it still uses a comic strip-like visual language to express the characters’ feelings. Yet, the musical number is both fresh and catching.

When you’ve seen Steamboat Willie, you’ll be whistling ‘Turkey in the Straw’ for days, with a smile on your face.

Watch ‘Steamboat Willie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 3
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Gallopin’ Gaucho
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barn Dance

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: August 19, 1931
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Egyptian Melodies © Walt Disney

In ‘Egyptian Melodies’ the little six-legged spider from ‘Midnight in a Toy Shop’ (1930) returns to the animated screen.

The short is one of those early Silly Symphonies that offers quite a dull dance routine only (and no story). Nevertheless, the introduction of the cartoon is well worth watching: when we follow the spider down into the pyramid, we experience some astonishing 3D-effect animation, creating the feeling that the camera wanders with the spider through corridors and staircases.

This unique exercise in perspective would not be repeated in animation until labyrinth computer games were introduced in the 1980’s. The Disney Studio itself must have been impressed by this stunning piece of animation, for they reused it two years later in the Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘The Mad Doctor‘ (1933).

Once inside the pyramid, the spider watches four mummies dance, and the drawings on the walls coming to life. These last scenes feature 2-dimensional characters, which can be seen as very early and primitive forerunners of the cartoon modern style of the 1950’s. Unfortunately, these scenes are a little bit dull, but they do lead to a great finale. This is one of the earliest nightmare-sequences, in which the montage of images is diffuse and increasingly sped up, in order to suggest the feeling of getting insane. This predates similar sequences in films like ‘Der Fuehrer’s Face‘ (1943) by many years.

The idea for ‘Egyptian Melodies’ may have come from the Van Beuren cartoon ‘Gypped in Egypt’ (1930), which also features dancing hieroglyphs, nightmarish scenes, and even a corridor scene. Notice that the classic horror film ‘The mummy’ (1932) hadn’t been released, yet, at the time.

This is Silly Symphony No. 21
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Cat’s Out
To the next Silly Symphony: The Clock Store

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