Saturday, 14 March 2015

Mickey's First Feature Film Appearance

According to official Disney files, the first feature film appearance of Mickey Mouse was Fantasia. That may be his first feature film appearance in an official Disney film. However, Walt Disney rented is creation out in 1934 for a cameo in the MGM film Hollywood Party.

Starring comedian Jimmy Durante, Hollywood Party is one of the many variety films that came out during Tinsel Town's Golden Age. Purporting to show the hi-jinks of the glamorous and well-to-do, these mixes of comedy, production numbers, romantic vignettes and cartoon shorts provided entertainment, diversion and escape during the depths of the Great Depression. The year before, Disney provided his own version of it in the short Mickey's Gala Premier, which featured caricatures of Hollywood's Who's-Who... Everyone from the Marx Brothers to the Barrymore family to Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff to Douglas Fairbanks to Charlie Chaplin to Clark Gable to Joan Crawford to Greta Garbo to Jimmy Durante himself. 

Jimmy Durante in Mickey's Gala Premier.

In Hollywood Party, Durante stars as Schnarzan the Conqueror, a satire on the popular Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films of the early Thirties. It seems that film-goers are getting tired of him fighting stuffed lions, so the studio head hatches a plot for Durante to host a grand party for Baron Munchausen, freshly arrived from Africa with a horde of vicious man-eating felines. They hope that they can entice the Baron to sell them his menagerie and, consequently, rescue the Scharnzan franchise.

This fig leaf of story is really just set-up for the variety of skits and production numbers. We get a romantic dance number with Eddie Quillan, the Three Stooges are introduced in their nascent form when they were still second billing to Ted Healy, a classic routine with Laurel and Hardy, and Mickey Mouse introducing the Technicolor cartoon The Hot Choc-late Soldiers. The cartoon is more notable for being in Technicolor (when that was still a rarity) than for any really distinctive traits of its own. It describes a war between the chocolate soldiers of candy land against the gingerbread soldiers of pastry land. Why they're doing this and whether it is a war of aggression is never articulated, and the strange ending could leave it open to any variety of interpretations for those inclined to give it that kind of thought. Mickey's appearance is the more charming part, with some nice special effects integrating the Mouse and Mr. Durante.  

Durante has Mickey by the tail.
Mickey retaliates with a Durante impression.

Though only a cameo, the fact of Mickey's presence in this film demonstrates the animated character's cachet as a legitimate Hollywood star. It was a role Mickey was warming into in shorts like Mickey's Gala Premier and the 1936 short Mickey's Polo Team, where the team from Disney (including Mickey, Donald, and the Big Bad Wolf) faces off against a team of Hollywood comedians including Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Harpo Marx. In 1934, Mickey cartoons were on the verge of going to colour, his newspaper comic strip had fully transitioned to Mickey as an action hero, and his face could sell just about anything. He began as a combination of sorts between Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, and by this time was a bigger star than either. Most significantly, Walt Disney received an Honorary Academy Award in 1932 for the creation of Mickey Mouse. Unlike any animated character before - or since - Mickey had arrived. 

Unfortunately the film did not do well at the box office, and suffered greater indignity by having many scenes excised for foreign audiences. Mae West had filmed a scene, as did Johnny Weissmuller, but both were discarded to the cutting room floor. Only 68 of the original 75 minutes remain. Neither Mickey nor practically the entire roster of MGM's contracted actors could save the film. Today it stands as an interesting artifact of Hollywood's Golden Age and an example of how Mickey Mouse himself matured in his early years. 

Thankfully the remaining 68 minute film can be easily found online, and here it is:

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