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Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 August 13, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Mickey's Nightmare © Walt Disney‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ is not a spooky horror cartoon like ‘The Haunted House‘ or ‘The Gorilla Mystery‘. No, it’s more of a bachelor’s nightmare…

The short’s plot harks back all the way to ‘Poor Papa’ (1928), the pilot film for the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series, Mickey’s predecessor. In ‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ Mickey dreams he finally marries Minnie, and is soon visited by a stork delivering a baby, and another, and another… Until the storks deliver tons of little kids. When he is awake he’s very happy to be still a bachelor.

‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ introduces the little orphan mice, who would replace the little kittens of ‘Mickey’s Orphans‘ (1931) and ‘Mickey’s Revue’ (1932) as a cause of complete destruction. In Mickey’s dream they ruin the house, especially with paint. In order to show Mickey’s horror scenario, the short uses some excellent and complex use of animation cycles featuring lots and lots of little kids.

It’s interesting that the orphan mice first were introduced as Mickey’s children, and only in dream form. In their next cartoon, ‘Giantland‘ (1933), they suddenly materialized into the real world. The orphan mice would stay around until 1936, starring five more cartoons, before returning one final time in ‘Pluto’s Party‘ from 1952.

The little brats also appeared in the Sunday Pages of Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse comic, starting on September 18. In Gottfredson’s comics the mice are reduced to two, but no less disastrous. They are introduced as Mrs. Fieldmouse’s children and are apparently Mickey’s nephews. These two would eventually be christened Morty and Ferdie, and reenter the movie screen once in ‘Mickey’s Steamroller‘ (1934).

‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ spawned at least two similar cartoons: first the Warner Bros. cartoon ‘Porky’s Romance’ (1937), and second, the Donald Duck short ‘Donald’s Diary‘ from 1954.

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 44
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey in Arabia
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Trader Mickey

‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 October 1, 1932
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Bugs in Love © Walt Disney‘Bugs in love’ was the very last of the black and white Silly Symphonies, being even released after  the technicolor films ‘Flowers and Trees‘ and ‘King Neptune‘.

The short’s story is almost a copy of that of ‘The Spider and the Fly‘ (1931) and features two bugs in love, who are threatened by a mean crow. Luckily their fellow flies come to the rescue, in an elaborate battle scene, in which the flies use e.g. ink, false teeth, shoe polish, an eggbeater, a mousetrap and castor oil to defeat the crow.

The ingenuity of this particular battle scene is intriguing, but unfortunately it follows all too similar scenes in films like ‘The Spider and the Fly’, ‘The Bird Store‘ and ‘The Bears and the Bees‘. The result is a rather traditional Silly Symphony, with its repetitious animation and rhythmical sequences. Luckily, with its two color Silly Symphonies Disney had demonstrated it could do much better, and the studio did not return to this formula, until the elaborate ‘The Moth and the Flame’ from 1938.

‘Bugs in love’ is clearly related to the successful comic strip ‘Bucky Bug’, begun earlier the same year. However, it’s not entirely clear to me whether the hero bug in ‘Bugs in Love’ is Bucky himself, or not.

Watch ‘Bugs in Love’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 31
To the previous Silly Symphony: King Neptune
To the next Silly Symphony: Babes in the Woods

‘Bugs in Love’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 January 21, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Duck Hunt © Walt DisneyIn ‘The Duck Hunt’ Mickey and Pluto are hunting ducks.

Their attempts are quite circumstantial and fail due to the inferior quality of Mickey’s gun. When the ducks discover that the female duck is only Pluto in disguise, they take revenge by taking Pluto by the ears and drag him and Mickey, who has gripped Pluto’s tail, into the air.

‘The Duck Hunt’ is a gag cartoon similar to ‘The Moose Hunt‘. Unfortunately it isn’t very funny. A lot of screen time is devoted to Mickey and Pluto marching to civil war tunes, and Pluto’s and Mickey’s flight through the air fails to become the intended great finale, because of a lack of great gags, although I liked the gag of Pluto’s flees leaving his fall by parachuting from his behind.

‘The Duck Hunt’ shows that not every Disney cartoon was a winner, despite the studio’s obvious efforts.

Watch ‘The Duck Hunt’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 37
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Orphans
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Grocery Boy

‘Blue Rhythm’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 August 7, 1931
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Pluto?
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Blue Rhythm © Walt Disney‘Blue Rhythm’ is a genuine concert cartoon, in the vain of ‘The Opry House‘ (1929), ‘The Jazz Fool‘ (1929), ‘Just Mickey‘ (1930) and ‘The Barnyard Concert‘ (1930).

Something has happened however, for now Mickey and the gang are not performing for their own fun or at the barnyard, but they are giving a concert in a large theater. It thus predates similar concert cartoons like ‘The Band Concert (1935), Bugs Bunny’s ‘Rhapsody Rabbit‘ (1946), and Tom & Jerry’s ‘The Cat Concerto‘ (1947), introducing several piano and conductor gags.

This is one of those rare Disney cartoons in which the music performed can be unmistakably identified as jazz (in the earlier ‘The Jazz Fool’ this is not the case, despite the cartoon’s name). In fact, the cartoon is one great rendering of the St. Louis Blues (and not ‘Blue Rhythm’, a composition also popular in 1931, and recorded by Fletcher Henderson and Mills Blue Rhythm Band).

W.C. Handy’s classic song is first performed by Mickey on the piano, borrowing some tricks from Chico Marx. Then it is sung by Minnie, followed by some scatting by the both of them. Then Mickey and Minnie leave the stage, the curtain opens to reveal a big band, to which Mickey returns to conduct. And finally the blues is performed by Mickey on the clarinet, imitating bandleader Ted Lewis, complete with the entertainer’s typical top hat.

Minnie’s blues singing resembles contemporary female vaudeville blues singers (e.g. Gertrude Lawrence, Ethel Levey and Victoria Spivey) and the pig trumpeter performs in the growling jungle style of Bubber Miley, who was a trumpeter in Duke Ellington’s band. Mickey shows to be an all round entertainer, performing as a stride pianist, a scat singer, a conductor and a clarinetist. Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, on the other hand, are clearly a percussionist and flutist, respectively, roles they would also have in ‘The Band Concert‘ (1935), the greatest of Mickey’s concert cartoons. Also featured in Mickey’s band is a dog who may or may not be Pluto, and who plays the trombone, disturbing Mickey while doing so.

Blue Rhythm is a great cartoon, from the opening scene, in which Mickey casts a huge shadow on the curtains to the grand finale in which the excited performance makes the stage collapse. This cartoon may have few gags, it is a delightful ode to music, and to jazz in particular.

Watch ‘Blue Rhythm’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 31
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey Steps Out
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Fishin’ Around

‘Blue Rhythm’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 January 23, 1931
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Birds of a Feather © Walt DisneyFollowing Van Beuren’s ‘A Romeo Robin‘ (1930) Disney devoted a whole Silly Symphony on birds.

The short follows the half-story formula introduced in ‘Playful Pan‘ with the first part consisting of more rhythmical movement to music than real dancing. The film starts with quite uninspired and tiresome gags about several birds moving randomly to music (opening with swans and a peacock moving to Jacques Offenbach’s barcarolle), but after 5’10 these give way to a small story about a baby chick who is taken away by an eagle but saved by a group of small birds.

The birds are drawn cartoony and not at all naturalistic. But such naturalism eventually would occur in Disney’s films, within only a couple of years, with ‘Birds in the Spring‘ being the prime example. It’s interesting to compare these two cartoons, which are only two years apart. The comparison makes ‘Birds of a Feather’ look primitive and dated, but even this cartoon knows one complex scene, in which the flock of small birds attacks the eagle. In this scene the movement of the circling birds  is animated beautifully and quite convincingly, as well.

Watch ‘Birds of a Feather’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 16
To the previous Silly Symphony: Playful Pan
To the next Silly Symphony: Mother Goose Melodies

‘Mother Goose Melodies’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphonies’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 April 11, 1931
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Mother Goose Melodies © Walt Disney‘Mother Goose Melodies’ is one of those Silly Symphonies showing the enormous strides the Walt Disney studio was taking to advance animation forward.

The cartoon easily outdoes all its contemporaries. The cartoon is extremely rich for its time, introducing us to countless characters, with only a few being stock models (the spider, some mice and some pigs). Some of the scenes are quite elaborate, like the finale, in which the book collapses and we watch all nursery rhyme figures dancing to the joyous music.

But the opening scene, which takes its time to introduce Old king Cole, is the most remarkable: it’s one long parade scene, looping the background, but otherwise remaining fresh by introducing new nursery rhyme characters all the time. Indeed, Walt Disney reused this device (and a lot of its animation) in the color cartoon ‘Parade of the Award Nominees‘ (1932), a special short for the fifth Academy Award ceremony, and in ‘The Standard Parade’ (1939), a commercial for Standard Oil.

Moreover, for the first time since ‘El Terrible Toreador‘ (1929) the studio takes its chances at the human form again. And although King Cole and his nursery rhyme friends are no ‘Snow White’, they’re a great deal more convincing than the humans in the earlier cartoon. The designs are more elaborate, and there’s much more sense of weight.

‘Mother Goose Melodies’ is also the very first Silly Symphony to feature singing characters, anticipating the operetta cartoons of 1932-1935. The short simply bursts with ideas, and is a cartoon of sheer joy. On the other hand, it’s just that: by taking the ‘song-and-dance routine’-concept to the max, this cartoon offers singing and dancing only. There is no story, there are no gags, and the short features a lot of repetitive animation. This makes ‘Mother Goose Melodies’ strangely awesome and a little boring at the same time. Nevertheless, the cartoon was so successful, Disney would revisit its theme two times, in the Silly Symphonies ‘Old King Cole‘ (1933) and ‘Mother Goose goes Hollywood’ (1938).

Watch ‘Mother Goose Melodies’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 17
To the previous Silly Symphony: Birds of a Feather
To the next Silly Symphony: The China Plate

‘Mother Goose Melodies’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphonies’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 December 16, 1930
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Playful Pan © Walt DisneyWith his double pipe, Pan makes all animals and plants, yes, even trees and clouds move and dance. The latter cause a fire with their lightning, but Pan lures the flames away to the lake, as if he were the pied piper.

Like ‘Springtime‘ (1929) ‘Playful Pan’ can be regarded as a forerunner of Disney’s groundbreaking cartoon ‘Flowers and Trees‘ (1932). The short is especially interesting for the introduction of the anthropomorphized flames, so typical of cartoons about fire. ‘Playful Pan’ is more entertaining than earlier Silly Symphonies, because half way the dance routine gives way to some kind of story, in which fire threatens the forest. This fire sequence is actually rather exciting. The fire itself is well animated, and the flames form a real threat: they do kill a humanized tree, and make all the animals flee.

The story formula of ‘Playful Pan’, in which the second half has some kind of story, was explored in many more Silly Symphonies from 1931 (e.g. ‘Birds of a Feather‘, ‘The China Plate‘. ‘The Busy Beavers‘). One had to wait until ‘The Ugly Duckling‘, from the end of that year, to watch a Silly Symphony to feature a concise story from start to end.

Watch ‘Playful Pan’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 15
To the previous Silly Symphony: Winter
To the next Silly Symphony: Birds of a Feather

‘Playful Pan’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 October 22, 1930
Rating:
Review:

Winter © Walt DisneyAmong the earliest Silly Symphonies there was a cycle devoted to the four seasons. ‘Winter’ is the last of these four season cartoons.

Following the artistic success of ‘Autumn‘, ‘Winter’ is unfortunately as dull and plotless as the earlier ‘Springtime‘ or ‘Summer‘. The cartoon both starts an ends with a winter storm. In between we watch animals skating and dancing on Emile Waldteufel’s Skaters’ Waltz. This scene features some deer, which are a far cry from ‘Bambi‘ (1942), but who are more comfortable on ice than Bambi would ever be twelve years later. The cartoon ends when a groundhog sees his shadow again, and cold and snowy winds drive the animals back to their hiding places.

Luckily, ‘Winter’ formed the end of an era. Already with the next Silly Symphony, ‘Playful Pan‘ the Disney studio would aim to exchange the endless dance routines for more experiment, and this level of experiment would only increase from 1931 onwards…

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 14
To the previous Silly Symphony: Monkey Melodies
To the next Silly Symphony: Playful Pan

‘Winter’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 September 2, 1930
Rating: ★★
Review:

Monkey Melodies © Walt Disney

The Silly Symphonies were to be a series of great innovation, but in 1930 this was not so clear, yet, as the entries of that year were mostly preoccupied with dance routines.

The ‘innovation’ of ‘Monkey Melodies’, for example, is the embryonic story of its second half. But only with ‘Playful Pan‘ from the end of the year, some real experimentation was to kick in.

‘Monkey Melodies’ opens with monkeys, apes and parrots frolicking in the jungle in a long dance routine. After several minutes we follow two monkeys in love, who frolic to the tune of Rudy Wiedoeft’s Narcissus. The two go on a boat ride on a log, and manage to escape a crocodile, a hippo, a snake and a leopard.

‘Monkey Melodies’ is a very standard Silly Symphony, typical of 1930, the ‘story’ of the second half notwithstanding, and to be frank, the short is rather dull. Its highlight may be the effect animation of a crocodile swimming under water.

Watch ‘Monkey Melodies’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 13

To the previous Silly Symphony: Midnight in a Toy Shop
To the next Silly Symphony: Winter

‘Monkey Melodies’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 November 20, 1930
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Pioneer Days © Walt DisneyIn ‘Pioneer Days’ Mickey and Minnie are pioneers travelling in a caravan through the Midwest.

After an all too long sing-and-dance-routine they are attacked by vicious wolf-like Indians. These bring in some spectacular animation: a dance with long shadows around a bonfire, a complex attack scene, and an impressive shot taken from one of the horses circling the encampment, showing a moving background of wagons in perfect perspective.

Most spectacular is the fight between Mickey and a horrible Indian, who has kidnapped Minnie. The fight is shown in close-up, and contains quite some complex movements between the two. It’s scenes like these that show that Disney kept taking the lead in the animation field, ever pressing forward.

Of course, our hero saves the day: when he and Minnie pretend to be the cavalry all the Indians flee.

‘Pioneer Days’ is Mickey’s first of only a few films clearly set in another time period, and thus the precursor of ‘Ye Olden Days‘ and ‘The Nifty Nineties’. The film recycles some footage from ‘The Fire Fighters‘ of two dogs holding a bed to catch falling people.

Watch ‘Pioneer Days’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 24
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Picnic
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Birthday Party

‘Pioneer Days’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: ‘Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 August 18, 1930
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Peg Leg Pete, (Pluto)
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Chain Gang © Walt DisneyIn ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘ Mickey had been depicted as a bandit, but it still comes as a surprise to see him being a prisoner in ‘The Chain Gang’. We’re sure some injustice has been done, and that Mickey is in fact innocent…

Mickey is imprisoned in a mixed prison (one of the inmates is a cow), where Peg Leg Pete is one of the guards. When Pete goes to sleep Mickey brings out his harmonica, like he did in ‘The Shindig‘ one month earlier, and starts playing Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 hit ‘The Prisoner’s Song’.

This leads to an unremarkable sing-and-dance-routine, which abruptly ends in a massive jailbreak. Mickey escapes, but is followed by two bloodhounds, possibly the most elaborately designed dogs hitherto. Animated by Norm Ferguson, these bloodhounds would become the prototype of Pluto later on. Indeed, the animation of the blood hound approaching and sniffing into the camera was reused for Pluto as late as 1939 for ‘The Pointer’. The real Pluto would appear on the screen two months later in ‘The Picnic‘, and even then he still was called ‘Rover’.

The ‘birth’ of Pluto is the single most important feature of this cartoon, although it’s also noteworthy for the presence of gags involving recurring characters (something pretty new at the time), and for the chase scenes, which contain some nice perspective effects.

Watch ‘The Chain Gang’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 21
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Shindig
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Gorilla Mystery

‘The Chain Gang’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: ‘Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 June 20, 1930
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Fire Fighters © Walt DisneyIn ‘The Fire Fighters’ Mickey is a fire chief who rushes to a burning building, losing almost his complete team on the way.

Together with Horace Horsecollar he rather pitifully tries to extinguish the fire. But he saves the day when he rescues Minnie from the flames.

‘The Fire fighters’ is the first Mickey Mouse cartoons since ‘The Gallopin’ Gaucho‘ to tell a straightforward story. The cartoon is simply packed with gags, which lead to an exciting finale, showing Mickey’s heroic character.

Among Mickey’s team mates is a primitive Horace Horsecollar who is only half anthropomorphized. ‘The Fire Fighters’ is also notable for its use of animals as objects (an ostrich as a pole, a cat as a siren), while objects are very much alive, indeed, most notably the ladder, which is shown sleeping in bed.

The cartoon makes clever use of animation cycles, especially in the scenes depicting the burning building. Some of the gags are quite unique, like Mickey milking a fire hydrant and a ladder that climbs itself down, a gag that has to be seen to be believed.

In all, ‘The Fire Fighters’ is one of the best of the early Mickey Mouse cartoons, and certainly Mickey’s best short of 1930.

Mickey would fighting fire again five years later in the equally inspired ‘Mickey’s Fire Brigade‘ (1935).

Watch ‘The Fire Fighters’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 19
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Cactus Kid
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Shindig

‘The Fire Fighters’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: ‘Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 March 7, 1931
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Peg Leg Pete
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

raffic Troubles © Walt DisneyIn 1931 Mickey’s cartoons slowly but surely got better. ‘Traffic Troubles’ in particular is a gem, arguably being Mickey’s first great gag cartoon since his first cartoon, ‘Plane Crazy‘ (1928).

In this film Mickey is a cab driver driving an anthropomorphized car, resembling Flip the Frog’s car in ‘The Cuckoo Murder Case’ from five months earlier. His first customer is a fat pig, but he loses his passenger on a road, full of potholes and bumps. Mickey’s horror and surprise when he realizes his customer is gone, is priceless.

Mickey’s second customer is Minnie. When they get a flat tire, Peg Leg Pete makes an odd cameo as ‘Dr. Pep’ who revives Mickey’s car with some kind of potion, with disastrous results. This part leads to a great end scene in which Mickey’s car ends on a cow, rides through a barn, and crashes into a silo.

‘Traffic Troubles’ is a genuine gag cartoon without any songs or dances, but with fast action, plenty of gags building to a grand finale, and spectacular and flexible animation. It also contains a very funny scene in which a police officer asks Mickey many questions while silencing him at the same time. In short, ‘Traffic Trouble’ is arguably the best Mickey Mouse film from 1931, and Mickey’s first really great cartoon since ‘Steamboat Willie‘. But by now the Disney studio was making faster and faster strides, and Mickey’s best cartoons were still to come.

Watch ‘Traffic Troubles’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 26
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Birthday Party
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Castaway

‘Traffic Troubles’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White Volume Two’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: September 29, 1934
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pluto
Rating:
Review:

Mickey Plays Papa © Walt DisneyMickey Plays Papa’ reuses the concept of Mickey receiving orphans from ‘Mickey’s Orphans‘ from 1931. But this time he has to deal with only one orphan mouse, called Elmer.

The film is particularly noteworthy for its scary opening: while Mickey’s reading a scary novel titled “the cry in the night” in bed, someone’s laying the orphan on his doorstep, whose cries startle Mickey and Pluto. When Mickey and Pluto discover that these cries are caused by a cute little baby, they both try to comfort him. These attempts include a nice Charlie Chaplin imitation by Mickey. This cartoon also contains a gag in which Mickey’s being attacked by numerous kitchen tools, which was copied in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?‘ (1988).

But most importantly, the cartoon contains long character-based solo sequences, like Mickey’s trouble with a rubber nipple and Pluto’s antics with a toy bunny and a fishbowl. This type of elongated solo scenes, alternating between the two characters, appear for the first time in this cartoon, but unfortunately they’re not very funny here. Nevertheless, they would become a dominant style element of the Mickey Mouse cartoons of the rest of the 1930s, especially in the Mickey, Donald and Goofy trio outings, luckily often with way more hilarious results.

‘Mickey Plays Papa’ ends when Mickey’s released from the rubber nipple and he finally succeeds in making the baby laugh, by doing a Jimmy Durante imitation with his elongated nose. It would be the last cartoon directed by Burt Gillett before he left Disney in March 1934 for the Van Beuren Studios, only to return in 1937 to direct two other cartoons, the excellent ‘Lonesome Ghosts’ (1937) and ‘The Moth and the Flame’ (1938).

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 69
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Orphan’s Benefit
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Dognapper

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: March 3, 1934
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Playful Pluto © Walt DisneyPlayful Pluto consists of several loose gags around Mickey and Pluto in a garden. It contains Mickey’s first encounter with a little whirlwind, which he manages better than his second one in ‘The Little Whirlwind’ from 1941.

But ‘Playful Pluto’ is most notable for the now famous flypaper sequence,  in which Pluto gets caught in flypaper. This is an important scene in animation history, because it’s the first time Pluto is seen as a thinking character. Not only that, it is arguably the first believable animation of thought processes. This illusion of thought is achieved solely by pantomime animation.

The flypaper scene elevated its animator, Norm Ferguson, to the eternal hall of animation fame and it showed how laughs could originate in character animation alone. This sequence not only raised the standards of animation of Pluto, but of character animation in general. As to celebrate its success, this scene was reshot in color for the Donald Duck short ‘Beach Picnic’ (1939).

At the same time, this cartoon shows how character-based gags could slow down the pace. This was an unfortunate side-effect, for this high pace had been painstakingly achieved in the Mickey Mouse cartoons during the previous years.

Watch ‘Playful Pluto’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 65
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Camping Out
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Gulliver Mickey

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: September 30, 1933
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Still from 'The Steeple Chase' featuring Mickey, his horse and the colonel in a wheelchairMickey is a jockey in a horse race.

Unfortunately, his horse Thunderbolt gets drunk just before the race starts. So he rides a pantomime horse, with his two black stable boys in it, instead. Remarkably, they win, due to a colony of angry and determined wasps, who chase the two poor black boys to the finish and into the distance, while Mickey receives all the glory.

‘The Steeple Chase’ is one of those ‘adventure type stories’ Mickey began having in 1932, and which were undoubtedly inspired by Floyd Gottfredson’s comic strip. ‘The Steeple Chase’ is a prime example: it shows clear similarities to ‘Mickey Mouse and his horse Tanglefoot‘, which ran about the same time (from June to October 1933). The colonel from ‘The Steeple Chase’ returns in that comic strip as a grumpy judge.

The early scenes firmly state why Mickey should win the race, e.g. when Minnie tells him “you gotta win, Mickey, or you’ll break the colonel’s heart”. Thus we are more involved in the horse race then in Mickey’s boxing game in ‘Mickey’s Mechanical Man‘ from earlier that year. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that Mickey’s actually cheating in both these cartoons, and misusing the two black stable boys while doing so. This makes it rather difficult to sympathize with Mickey. Moreover, the race is hardly as exciting as the one in ‘Barnyard Olympics‘ (1932), and the cartoon is by all means inferior to Gottfredson’s classic comic strip. The best gags come from the numerous ways in which the wasps attack Mickey and his fake horse.

Watch ‘The Steeple Chase’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 60
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Puppy Love
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Pet Store

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: February 28, 1933
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Still from 'Mickey's Pal Pluto' featuring Pluto and his little devilish self‘Mickey’s Pal Pluto’ shows how important Pluto had become by 1933.

It’s the first cartoon having the sympathetic mutt in its title, and it’s he, not Mickey or Minnie, who’s the real star of this short, arguably making ‘Mickey’s Pal Pluto’ Pluto’s first own cartoon.

In ‘Mickey’s Pal Pluto’ Pluto saves a few little kittens from drowning. Mickey and Minnie take them home, but there Pluto grows jealous of the intruders, exemplified by a conflict between his devilish and angelic sides, who materialize outside him, and who speak in rhyme. Unfortunately, when Pluto listens to his little devil, this leads to Mickey putting him outside. Nevertheless, when the kittens fall into a well, Pluto rescues the kittens from drowning again, almost drowning himself in the act. In the end he’s rewarded for this unselfish behavior with a roast chicken.

The moral clearly is that being good will be rewarded, as Pluto’s angel character clearly states in the end. So some of the childish sentimentality that had entered the Silly Symphonies in 1933 sneaks in to the Mickey Mouse series, as well.

‘Mickey’s Pal Pluto’ marks the first appearance of Pluto’s imaginary little devil and angel, symbolizing his inner conflict. This cartoon was more or less remade in color in 1941, titled ‘Lend a Paw’. Pluto’s little devil would reappear in ‘Mickey’s Elephant‘ (1936).

Watch ‘Mickey’s Pal Pluto’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 53
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Mad Doctor
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Mellerdrammer

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: September 10, 1932
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Still from 'King Neptune' featuring several mermaids on a rock

King Neptune is a merry sea giant, who gets angry when a bunch of horny pirates capture one of his topless(!) art deco mermaids. This leads to a war at sea, complete with an aircraft carrier whale and sea creature dive bombers.

‘King Neptune’ introduces a new concept to the Silly Symphonies, that of operetta. No longer the characters act silently to music, now they actually sing in operatic fashion. In the mid-thirties operetta was very popular in Hollywood, and in 1933 the operetta format would spread through the series, and it even shortly invaded Mickey Mouse films, like ‘The Mad Doctor‘, ‘Ye Olden Days‘ and ‘The Mail Pilot’ (all 1933).

This trend led to curious mini-musicals, like ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ and ‘The Pied Piper‘ (both 1933). The style reached its apex with ‘The Goddess of Spring’ (1934), in which the singing in all its seriousness became downright ridiculous. The operetta style survived into 1935, after which it disappeared from the Disney cartoons. However, Walt Disney’s first feature, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), clearly uses the operetta-style, probably because it already had been conceived at the end of 1933.

King Neptune is kind of a stock character. In many ways he’s just Old King Cole from ‘Mother Goose Melodies‘ (1931) in an updated form – rather awkwardly still wearing gloves. This character would resurface as Santa in the next Silly Symphony ‘Santa’s Workshop’ (1932), as Noah in ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ (1933), and as King Midas in ‘The Golden Touch’ (1935).

The pirates and mermaids are nowhere near realism, yet they’re designed and animated much better than the hunters in ‘The Fox Hunt‘ (1931), showing that Disney was making fast strides to realistic human designs already at this stage .

‘King Neptune’ is only the second Silly Symphony in color, yet unlike the first, ‘Flowers and Trees‘, it was made with color in mind from the start, and it shows. What a lush, elaborate, colorful and stunningly beautiful short this is! The cartoon simply bursts with color. Nevertheless, at several points the artists were still struggling with the new language of color. For example, one fighting scene on deck is almost rendered in reds only, in another scene the turtles have almost the same color as their background rock, failing to stand out. However, already in the next Silly Symphony, ‘Santa’s Workshop’, these problems appeared to have been solved, for that cartoon juxtaposes the most vibrant colors in all its scenes.

Apart from the use of color, ‘King Neptune’ is astounding because of its astonishingly elaborate animation. It’s packed with special effects, and complex and beautiful animation. The opening shots alone, in which King Neptune introduces himself, contain excessive, complex cycles of bubbles and fish. But the short’s highlight is the epic battle, which contains scenes of unprecedented complexity.

More impressive Silly Symphonies were soon to follow, but ‘King Neptune’ itself already is no less than a masterpiece. All previous Silly Symphonies literally pale compared to this one, let alone contemporary cartoons of other studios.

Watch ‘King Neptune’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 30
To the previous Silly Symphony: Flowers and Trees
To the next Silly Symphony: Bugs in Love

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: November 12, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Still from 'The Wayward Canary' featuring two canaries and a charicature of Douglas FairbanksThe Wayward Canary’ follows the same story line as ‘The Barnyard Broadcast‘ (1931) and ‘Mickey’s Revue‘ (1932). Like in these films, a song-and-dance routine is interrupted by numerous animals causing havoc.

This time, Mickey gives Minnie a canary for a present. It appears to have numerous offspring. These little birds escape and fly all over the house. Before they’re all caught, the complete house is wrecked.

Among the numerous gags there’s a surreal one when Pluto and a cat run through a wringer, which renders them flat. By 1932 such extreme body deformities had become extremely rare in Disney cartoons, and soon they would vanish altogether, as they were not in tune with Disney’s search for the ‘plausible impossible’. It was up to Tex Avery at Warner Brothers to revive gags like these in the late 1930s.

Among Minnie’s household there is a lighter with a swastika on it [update: see animation historian David Gerstein’s comment below for an explanation]. She also has signed portraits of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Together with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, these two actors were the co-founders of United Artists, the company Disney had joined in 1932.

These portraits are the first caricatures of real people in a Mickey Mouse film. Although Mickey and Minnie were only slowly shedding their barnyard background, these signed portraits are not too surprising accessories, considering Mickey’s enormous popularity in the early 1930s. Moreover, they suggest that Mickey and Minnie, although being cartoon characters, live in the real world, among other Hollywood stars. This concept would be developed further in the next year, in the superb ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘.

Watch ‘The Wayward Canary’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 48
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Touchdown Mickey
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Klondike Kid

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: February 27, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pete, Pluto
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Still from 'The Mad Dog' featuring Mickey protecting Pluto against a dogcatcherWhen Mickey is washing Pluto, Pluto accidentally swallows a piece of soap.

He runs into the street where he’s seen as a mad dog. There he confronts Pete (with peg leg), who is a dog catcher and who wants to shoot Pluto…

‘The Mad dog’ is a fast gag cartoon with a clear story from the beginning to the end. By now, the Disney studio could produce amazingly consistent stories. Moreover, effect animation had fully penetrated the Mickey Mouse cartoons. The washing scene, for example, is full of difficult and extraordinarily lifelike animation of splashing water.

Watch ‘The Mad Dog’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 39
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Grocery Boy
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Barnyard Olympics

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