Looking Back at Mickey Mouse
November 18… On the 50th Birthday of the Mouse With White Gloves (from the New York Times Book Review)
Mickey Mouse was introduced to the world on November 18, 1928, in “Steamboat Willie,” the first cartoon talkie. In 1978 the David McKay Company, noting that it was “Mickey’s first hardcover publisher,” reproduced from the color originals the first three books in which the mouse appeared. “Jumping Juniper,” Mickey would have said.
In some circles a Disney book may still be unwelcome. It has become routine to deride Disney Inc. This wasn’t true in the old days, in the days when Janet Flanner went to meet the master, when Jerome Kern would say that Disney “has made the 20th Century’s only contribution to music,” when Toscanini would ask to see him and Sergie Eisenstein would proclaim him an American genius. H. G. Wells used to brag that he introduced Chaplin to Disney.
Disney had a special affection for his own little tramp, the mouse with white gloves. For 20 years he supplied Mickey’s squeaky falsetto. And it was, no doubt, Disney who thought of merchandising Mickey to McKay.
In the first of “The Adventures” in this anniversary collection, Mickey outwits Claws, the Cat, by virtue of his size. While Mickey holds a dance for his barnyard friends, the cat is held in check, caught in her own mousetrap, after her claws have ventured on the far side of the hole grabbing for Mickey. Mickey has been assisted in this prank by Minnie (who lives a discreet distance away in the chicken coop and also sports gloves). After Mickey goes to bed Claws finally escapes, though she continues to see cartoon stars and ringed planets.
This is one of those rare and early stories in which Mickey was both heroic and gratuitously cruel. But he is, after all, the Little Guy, and it’s 1931 in Hollywood as well as Scottsboro and Harlan County.
Book II of “The Adventures” appeared a year later, when the Bonus Army encamped in Washington and the Lindbergh baby disappeared. Minnie, Mickey and Pluto (“his old houn’ dog”) set off to visit the impoverished Widow Church-mouse. In this story, told in rhyme, they encounter the wolfish villain Peg Leg Pete unearthing a buried treasure chest (it seems that Peg Leg made a voyage with Captain Church-mouse but the Captain never returned). The trio frightens Peg Leg and his henchmen and restores the purloined treasure to the Widow Church-mouse. The Widow is delighted (she has no pension) and plans to share the booty with Clara Cow) who has a broken arm and a mortgage to pay.
The Widow’s largesse and her motto (“others’ burdens try to ease”) must have been congenial to a country trying to keep the wolf from the door and whistling “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” The next year, when Disney won the Academy Award for “The Three Little Pigs,” the most popular song was “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”
The work ethic of the three little pigs is important to the third book here, “Mickey Mouse and His Horse Tanglefoot.” If it isn’t an Horatio Alger story, then it is Disney’s story of his own lost childhood spent as a penniless hawker trying to help the family. Mickey “struggles manfully” at the delivery business: ice — groceries, milk and finally parcels. Alas, though he gets to work earlier than others and works harder, he is undone by his dutiful horse, Tanglefoot, whose attention to Mickey’s commands always seem too righteous for the occasions. “Just when everything was looking so bright,” Mickey’s jeremiad goes, “It was hard indeed to find yourself and your business in the gutter.”
“There are three reds in town with a time bomb and these fellows are dangerous, regular revolutionists!”
But Mickey is not one to cry over spilt milk, groceries, or ice. The last chapter is titled “Success at Last.” Shortly after Mickey is asked by a group of bearded dogs with accents to deliver a package to Mr. Much-money, he meets a policeman on the lookout: “There are three reds in town with a time bomb and these fellows are dangerous, regular revolutionists! They won’t work and have nothing themselves and they don’t want anyone else to have anything.” “Goats and Ganders!” thinks Mickey, “there was not a minute to lose.” He tosses the package over a fence and scorches the Reds, who happen to be hiding behind it. “What a mouse!” everyone says, “and from that day on their affairs prospered, for everyone wanted to do business with the brave little fellow who knocked out the three revolutionists.”
This was in 1936, the same year Chaplin’s “Modern Times” was released. In that year, too, Franklin D. Roosevelt would look back at the labor and socialist strifes that marked his first 100 days as President: “In the spring of 1933, we faced a crises . . . . We were against revolution. And, therefore, we waged a war against the conditions which make revolution — against the inequities and resentments that breed them.” Disney’s hardworking New Deal mouse did, too.
A version of this essay originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (June 25, 1978).
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