Mickey’s Early Progressions in Personality

This paper was written in a class as an exercise in analyzing a pre-1940 Disney cartoon short’s form, and how the formal elements of the film do or do not contribute toward putting over a convincing cartoon reality.  I settled on Just Mickey (1930) because it stuck out to me as unique in the Mickey Mouse series at the time.  Take a look here if you have seen it.  Also, I apologize for the messy footnotes.  I’m trying to understand how to format them better via WordPress.

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For Walt Disney Productions in the 1930’s, the constant improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness in recreating the “illusion of life” through animation was the motivating drumbeat that often worked its way into many of the studio’s projects.  Though many of their milestones in depth, color, and convincing motion and physics were depicted in the Silly Symphony series, the character of Mickey Mouse could provide an equally compelling vehicle for advancing the technique and art of animation from time to time. One such cartoon that exemplifies these progressions is Just Mickey (also titled Fiddlin’ Around) (1930).  Especially when taken in context of the surrounding Mickey Mouse releases, this cartoon is highly ambitious in terms of conveying personality, characterization, and emotion, while more emergent in other formal elements such as sound and physical movement. The film fits into the studio’s long-term vision for a higher degree of realism, yet reveals in its simplicity to be concerned really with only perfecting personality animation and characterization, conceding to further resolve others elements like sound, color, and depth later in the decade.

To begin, first consider the film’s approach to space, which is constructed by both depth and sound. Easily enough, the majority of the film’s action occurs on a proscenium.  Only briefly is Mickey Mouse depicted walking from the back of the stage to the front.  This opening shot provides the greatest depth contrast to the otherwise flat curtain.  While it puts over a convincingly deep shot, it’s highly mechanical, and a primitive portrayal of depth at best.  The space is communicated only by Mickey’s growth in perspective as he approaches the audience, and never shakes the feeling of being artificially produced. It is depth communicated by the drawn action, and not by the camera itself.

Just Mickey, directed by Walt Disney (1930; Walt Disney Productions, 2004), DVD.

Just Mickey, directed by Walt Disney (1930; Walt Disney Productions, 2004), DVD.

Depth is also briefly communicated by Mickey’s shadow, which matches his movements in the spotlight, and even obeys a shift in light as he plods offstage. Overall, there is a conscious effort to evoke depth, yet it falls flat in its forced appearance and inefficient reproducibility (such drawn depth could never hold up the detailed pans and trucks required in films like The Old Mill [1937]).

Another element that helps construct the space is sound, which Disney is able to use here to varying degrees of reality.  Of course, considering nearly all of the action Mickey engages in is playing the violin, this is a somewhat simple task. However, space is still constructed through the use of sound. Notice how the steps grow louder as Mickey approaches the front of the stage, or the soft swish of his hair as he shakes his head.  These efforts to crescendo or soften sound communicate a concern for establishing and obeying (occasionally) the physic principles of a drawn world. Perhaps most illuminating is the use of off-screen sound, in this case a heckling spectator, and the larger audience to which he belongs.  With little plot and no camera movement, the off-screen sound is vital in establishing where Mickey is, who he is playing for, and perhaps even some small obstacle to overcome (the heckler) by playing his violin to actual pieces. Of course, the soundtrack falls short of realism with effects like a ringing bell when Mickey is hit on the head.  Though there are problems of consistency and economic, industrial reproducibility, Just Mickey provides a ground for improvement in establishing animated space, though it is by no means a milestone picture in that formal element for Disney.

With the space established, next consider what and who live in that space, and whether they are convincingly presented. For this film, it is clear that Disney and his animators have begun to distance themselves from gags that break with believable physics. Though the animators here are still working out believable motion, weight, and force (notably in the breaking of the violin), the gags are entirely situational and emotional.  True, Mickey’s hair does seem to be flippantly and conveniently introduced, yet it’s a story element that carries believability and departs from the gags of physical transformation and removal of appendages, not to mention that it is consistent through the film. This is just the beginning of a larger progression towards stories of consistent physicality.  In addition to a less outrageously driven gag story, the animators invoke Mickey with more believable action.  There is no question that this film is predominantly animated on the reliance of “rubber house” animation, particularly in Mickey’s arms and legs; however, this was a constant struggle, and can even be seen cropping up in the character of Snow White years later in 1937.  What most noticeably catches the eye is the secondary action occurring while Mickey plays the violin.  As he pushes back the bow, his near foot offsets that action with a twist.  When his weight shifts and he pulls the bow back again, then comes another twist of the foot on the opposite side. As animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston describe, this adds “richness to the scene, naturalness to the action, and a fuller dimension to the personality of the character.” [1]

Or consider the manner in which Mickey’s entire face convulses as he cries, as opposed to simple tears streaming down his cheeks.  Further, there is even an element of squash and stretch in the violin as it bends and bows under Mickey’s aggressive finale.  While these principles were likely not even codified at this time, the film provides imagery that suggests the animators were pursuing physics in their drawings that emulated a style in the illusion of life. The techniques used here are by and large crude, and hardly even qualify as examples of their principles on animation, but the point is made to recognize the ideas and qualities that animation was moving towards just two years after the inception of Mickey Mouse. While physical construction of Mickey in the cartoon can at times detract from that goal with his rubbery build, there is inarguably a conscientious effort toward attaining a realism to the motions, imperfect as they may be at this time.

As a composite, though, each of the above formal elements exist to contribute in some way toward the film’s actual purpose, which is a character study of Mickey Mouse.  Important to note is that the concern of the picture is not establishing who Mickey Mouse is – two years in film had already familiarized him – rather it was in effectively representing that character in close up action, in his characterization.  The six-minute film could not be sustained alone on the action of Mickey playing the violin, but instead he must exhibit believable emotion. This explains the simplified story all the more, because more than action and movement, what the animators had to focus on was drawing personality.  Animation historian Michael Barrier emphasizes that this need for personality was one of Walt Disney’s most pressing concerns, noting:

Disney and the best of his animators, working in their own humble medium, were struggling to bring just such an emotional dimension to animation that represented the mechanics of movement with increasing accuracy.[2]

This “emotional dimension” was concerned with how the feelings affected bodily movement, and though the above quote is in relation to the three years distant Three Little Pigs (1933), it is also true of the struggle Disney’s team pursued in Just Mickey. In seconds, the audience watches Mickey work through feelings of embarrassment, excitement, surprise, anger, determination, and then joy after coming on stage.  Arguably, characterization and personality are formal elements that precede realistic movement in significance.  Without a compelling, believable character, what cause does Mickey’s audience (quite literally in this short) have to care for what he does?  The subtler movements of a violin concerto provided the studio team the space to tackle a deeper character study that might not be achievable in the broad action of a cartoon like The Barnyard Concert (1930), which immediately preceded this one. In this intimate space, Mickey can work through performances of practiced determination, sadness, and foot-stomping joy, all defined and characterized by his reactions to the crowd and the rhythms of his music. When he plays, Mickey’s determination is shown through rhythmic bouncing in synchronization with the tempo. It is a step beyond simple “mickey-mousing,” because here the character generates the music, and must physically accommodate the effort required to play it.  His sadness is communicated in crying not just a single tear, but sniffles, a wipe of the nose with the bow, and slumped shoulders and dragging feet.  In the finale, his uproarious surprise as he slides across the floor is deeply contrasted by a bitter display of disgust and contempt toward his heckler.  Recall, this is just two years following Plane Crazy (1928) in which Mickey’s expression of surprise is conveyed by his ears jumping off of his head.  The level at which Disney’s artists could now communicate emotion and feeling had bounded far ahead, even if the mechanics of animation were still held back in the rubber hose style of construction.

With a film such as Just Mickey, the artists and story men of Walt Disney Productions were given a vote of confidence in their newfound ability to create characters with capacities for a range of emotions and believability as actors.  Their efforts to compose space and depth via sound and perspective are recognized in this film but adjusted and improved in future films of the decade.  The crudeness of the art form could eventually catch up, but it was clearing this first hurdle to imbue personality and characterization in primitively drawn characters who were initially conceived as little more than trivialities that marks Just Mickey as a contributor to Disney’s struggle for the “illusion of life” via personality animation.

[1] Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation (New York: Hyperion, 1995), 64.

[2] Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 98.

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