Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 7, 2004)
Slowly but surely, we’ve gotten all of Mickey Mouse’s cartoons on DVD. The process started with 2001’s Mickey Mouse In Living Color and moved along with 2002’s Mickey Mouse In Black and White. Disney wrapped up the color shorts with mid-2004’s Mickey Mouse In Living Color, Volume 2.
We head back to the monochrome years with Mickey Mouse In Black and White, Volume 2. This release packs an extensive roster of cartoons and it wraps up Mickey; add up the four Mouse-centric sets and you should get all of his shorts. It presents a whopping 40 flicks, and these span a period of seven years. We start with 1928’s “The Barn Dance” and progress through 1935’s “Mickey’s Man Friday”.
For each short, I’ll offer the following information: the year in which it was produced and its director. I’ll also provide a quick synopsis of the cartoon plus my number grade for each one done on a scale of 1 to 10. Note that my ratings are partially influenced by the standards of the time. I expect a different kind of cartoon from 1928 than I do from 1943, so you can’t really compare across eras. That’s not really an issue here since all the shorts come from a fairly abbreviated span of time, but I wanted to mention it so these marks will make more sense compared to those of other Disney sets.
DVD One (two hours, 27 minutes, 55 seconds):
The Barn Dance (1928, W. Disney): Mickey takes Minnie to a barn dance, where his clumsiness almost sends her into the arms of a competitor. The short proves clever and inventive, especially in the surreal elements connected to Mickey’s inept dancing. 8/10.
The Opry House (1929, W. Disney): Mickey works in a vaudeville show. While the early shorts lacked elaborate art and smooth animation, they compensated with sheer strangeness. For instance, at the start of “Opry”, a fat man can’t get through a door. Mickey stabs him with a pin that pops the guy’s inflated fat suit. Huh? Why was he wearing the enormous inflatable? Because it fit the gag, I suppose. That’s the kind of weirdness that makes these early shorts interesting. 8/10.
When the Cat’s Away (1929, W. Disney): Mickey and his rodent buddies infiltrate the home of Tom Cat. I guess Disney didn’t have Mickey’s role in the world set yet, since here he comes in an actual mouse-sized version; he’s maybe six inches tall instead of the usual couple of feet in stature. He also pals around with mice who truly look like rodents; they’re not as anthropomorphized as he is.
This leads to a cartoon that seems ordinary within the genre’s later conventions since Mickey does play moderately real mouse, not just a man who looks like a rodent. It enjoys the same oddness of the other old shorts along with some truly politically incorrect material; when we meet Tom Cat, he lovingly embraces his bottle of moonshine. 7/10.
The Barnyard Battle (1929, U. Iwerks): Mickey enlists in the army to fight in the war against the cats. At least Mickey’s apparently back to his normal size here. It’s another delightfully odd short. I have to like a cartoon that takes its time with gags, as this one does during an oddly prolonged inactive confrontation between Mickey and a cat. 8/10.
The Plowboy (1929, U. Iwerks): Mickey toils in the fields. After some fairly inspired lunacy, “Plowboy” feels very ordinary. It has a couple of decent moments but doesn’t go anywhere. 5/10.
Mickey’s Choo-Choo (1929, U. Iwerks): Mickey pilots his train and woos Minnie. “Choo-Choo” is the first short in this set to present any real dialogue. No, the patter doesn’t amount to much - “hello!”, “hooray!” - but at least this makes “Choo-Choo” more like a real talkie. Otherwise, it’s too heavy on cute, too light on humor. 6/10.
The Jazz Fool (1929, W, Disney): Mickey performs with his traveling jazz revue. Brief and moderately pointless, “Fool” feels more like part of a short than a complete cartoon. Mickey’s battle with his piano amuses but this one fails to fly. 6/10.
Jungle Rhythm (1929, W. Disney): Mickey goes on safari but ends up dancing and partying with the animals. I don’t expect logic from cartoons, especially not oldies like this. However, this one’s premise seems perplexing. One minute Mickey plans to shoot the animals, but then he starts to boogie with them? It’s odd and not particularly entertaining. 5/10.
Wild Waves (1929, B. Gillett): Mickey and Minnie frolic on the beach. She gets swept away by the ocean and he tries to save her. One difference between the first few shorts and their immediate successors is that the earliest ones attempted some form of plot. Others like “Plowboy” and “Fool” are little more than music videos. “Waves” doesn’t pour on the story, and it abandons this theme quickly, but something’s better than nothing. That helps “Waves” present some humor based on its plot. 6/10.
Just Mickey (1930, W. Disney): Mickey plays a solo violin concert. So much for plot! Earlier shorts with musical elements provided some nicely creative elements such as pianos that attacked the musicians. This one’s oddly pointless. Not much happens, and Mickey seems more like Donald Duck - who didn’t yet exist - in the way he sneers at audience jeers. 4/10.
The Barnyard Concert (1930, W. Disney): Mickey conducts a band comprised of various animals. The assortment of critters adds variety and humor here. Even Mickey gets into the act as he abuses a few piglets for musical elements. It’s a good rebound after the dull “Just Mickey”. I think it’s strange that Mickey cries so much in these early shorts, though. 7/10.
The Cactus Kid (1930, W. Disney): cowboy Mickey tries to woo Senorita Minnie at a bar and competes with nasty Pegleg Pete. Inevitably, this is little more than an excuse for more musical shenanigans, but the expansion of setting is promising. And at least we get a real story this time via Mickey’s fight with Pete. 7/10.
The Shindig (1930, B. Gillett): Mickey, Minnie and other barnyard animals hold a hoedown. Don’t these critters do anything other than sing, dance and party? Apparently not. You can forget the story here, as we just see musical antics. It does present the minor evolution of Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, though, which lets us see some characters other than M&M or Pete in prominent roles. 6/10.
The Picnic (1930, B. Gillett): Mickey and Minnie dine al fresco and contend with annoyances. What a surprise - another short that focuses on leisure activities! We do get our first look at Pluto within this set, though. The short also attempts to place some problems in the characters’ way, so it’s not simply the same old thing. Otherwise, this remains largely an ordinary cartoon when it goes with the usual musical frivolity. 6/10.
Traffic Troubles (1931, B. Gillett): Cab driver Mickey deals with the hassles of crowded streets. There’s not much of a story, and the short inevitably finds time for music, but it presents more cleverness than most. Mickey engages in almost shocking abuse of other critters, especially when he stomps on a pig to use it as an air pump. Fairly wild and anarchic, this short works. 8/10.
The Castaway (1931, W. Jackson): Mickey does the Tom Hanks thing when he gets stranded. It’s sure a good thing that a piano washes ashore - God forbid a Disney short leave out a musical number. Unusual setting aside, this is more of the same as Mickey plays and contends with annoyances from the local animals. 6/10.
Fishin’ Around (1931, B. Gillett): Mickey and Pluto try to reel in some fish. Mickey seems surprisingly inept here, as the fish make him look like a moron. Some creative moments make this one pretty good. 7/10.
The Beach Party (1931, B. Gillett): Mickey, Minnie and others frolic by the seaside. Didn’t we just see this cartoon when they called it “Wild Waves”? Granted, that one included Minnie’s near death, but the two remain pretty similar. Of course, a lot of these shorts use the same stories, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. More situational humor appears here. The cartoon relies more on integrated gags and less on musical shenanigans. I miss the anarchic cruelty of the earliest shorts, though. 7/10.
The Barnyard Broadcast (1931, B. Gillett): Mickey and the gang air a concert on the radio, but some renegade cats interfere. Back to the well we go for more music-related goofiness. Shorts like this demonstrate better art and animation than their earliest predecessors. They’re better made but not quite as much fun. Doesn’t it seem odd to watch a mouse chase cats, though? 6/10.
The Mad Dog (1932, B. Gillett): Pluto accidentally eats a bar of soap, so some folks misinterpret his frothy mouth to indicate the presence of rabies. “Dog” is unusual due to the presence of real danger, as dogcatcher Pete shoots to kill. Mickey’s attempts to save Pluto offer interesting bits and make this a good short. 8/10.
Strange element: As I’ll note soon, this package relegates its potentially offensive shorts to a section called “From the Vault”. Some of those elements are benign, whereas “Mad Dog” presents one of th set’s more blatant stereotypes when we see a crude depiction of a Chinese character. There’s no consistency to the decision to put some shorts in the “Vault” and leave others in the main package. I don’t like the idea of the “Vault” period, but it’s nuts that “Mad Dog” isn’t there.
Barnyard Olympics (1932, W. Jackson): Mickey and others engage in an athletic competition. This presents an amusingly skewered look at the world of athletics, though there’s not any real emphasis on the Olympic concept. 7/10.
DVD Two (one hour, eight minutes, 41 seconds):
Musical Farmer (1932, W. Jackson): Mickey, Minnie and Pluto tend to the farm. Everyone takes notice when Fanny the hen lays an enormous egg. That element seems extraneous, but at least it prevents “Farmer” from turning into yet another unfocused musical short. 5/10.
Trader Mickey (1932, D. Hand): Cannibals capture Mickey and Pluto. As I’ll soon discuss, this era’s more controversial - by today’s standards, at least - shorts ended up in the “From the Vault” domain. It comes as something of a surprise that this one, with its stereotypical portrayal of “uncivilized” folk, shows up in the main body of the disc and without any disclaimer.
Perhaps Disney only worries about cartoons that reflect negative stereotypes of ethnic groups with populations in the US; we don’t have a lot of cannibals on the streets of America. Indeed, I think the exotic nature of the cannibals as well as their extremely goofy portrayal defuses much of the controversy. 6/10.
The Wayward Canary (1932, B. Gillett): Mickey brings Minnie a pet canary. Strangely, a whole host of birds appears from the cage, and they cause havoc in Minnie’s home. Inevitably, some of the usual musical bits appear, but this one focuses more on slapstick, and we get a mix of good gags. 7/10.
Mickey’s Pal Pluto (1933, B. Gillett): Pluto rescues some abandoned kittens but regrets it when he fears he’ll lose Mickey’s affection. “Pluto” offers something new for this series, as we see a character display moral ambiguity. Pluto has to debate various inclinations, though the end’s never in doubt. It’s not a very funny cartoon, but it offers some charms. 7/10.
Mickey’s Mechanical Man (1933, W. Jackson): Mickey builds a fighting robot that battles against the Kongo Killer. It’s hard to dislike a cartoon that pits a foppish automaton against a gorilla. The short gives us an odd premise but includes some good bits. It’s closer to Looney Tunes territory than usual for Disney. 8/10.
Playful Pluto (1934, B. Gillett): Various household catastrophes beset Mickey and Pluto. As time passed, Disney writers found it more and more difficult to come up with stories for Mickey. He became so popular as a role model that no one wanted to see him be anything other than a wonderful guy, and those characters aren’t very entertaining.
As a result, Mickey gradually turned into a guest in his own shorts. That’s not quite true of “Playful”, as Mickey and Pluto really share the lead here. Nonetheless, Pluto motivates most of the action, so we can see the handwriting on the wall. It’s no coincidence that the year in which Disney made “Playful” was also the year of Donald Duck’s debut. 6/10.
Mickey’s Steam Roller (1934, D. Hand): While Mickey woos Minnie, his mischievous nephews commandeer his steam roller and cause havoc. Mickey’s nephews never caught on like Donald’s did, largely because of the factor I mentioned in the last synopsis. Mickey wasn’t allowed to react in a volatile manner, so his nephews’ shenanigans lacked the same force and payoff. There’s little more to “Roller” than generic mayhem, as it lacks cleverness. 4/10.
Mickey Plays Papa (1934, B. Gillett): A mysterious figure leaves a baby named Elmer on Mickey’s doorstep. While shorts such as “Papa” are radically more attractive and better made than the cartoons of the Twenties, I do miss that spirit of anarchy and meanness. “Papa” pours on the cutesy elements as Mickey and Pluto try to entertain their young charge. A few good gags emerge but there’s not enough to make it above average. And whatever happened to Baby Elmer, anyway? 5/10.
Mickey’s Kangaroo (1935, D. Hand): Someone sends Mickey a marsupial. This makes Pluto jealous because Mickey digs the boxing beast. Oddity: we hear Pluto’s thoughts at times; he doesn’t talk, but voiceover demonstrates his notions. “Kangaroo” suffers from less logic than usual, and its bifurcated story makes it jerky. 5/10.
DVD Two includes 10 additional shorts that it places in a section called From the Vault (one hour, 15 minutes, 15 seconds). It appears Disney put these 10 cartoons in a separate area due to controversial elements. Leonard Maltin introduces this domain with a 79-second clip that puts them in historical perspective.
One major annoyance: the DVD makes it impossible to skip this introduction. You can’t chapter search past it, you can’t fast forward through it, and you can’t even return to the main menu! That’s absurd. Are the folks at Disney so worried that audiences will become corrupted or offended by the content that they force us to listen to Maltin’s generic introduction?
The Haunted House (1929, W. Disney): When Mickey enters an abandoned abode to get out of a storm, skeletons come to life and force him to play piano. This makes the spirits less than intimidating; it’s hard to be afraid of prancing skeletons. Why’s it controversial? One quick shot in which Mickey says “mammy” a few times ala Al Jolson. However, he doesn’t appear in blackface and I detect no racial stereotypes, so “House” is an odd choice to segregate. 5/10.
The Moose Hunt (1931, B. Gillett): Mickey and Pluto head to the forest and try to kill animals. This is an odd one, as Pluto speaks, can fly and also displays a slightly sadistic side when he convinces Mickey that the Mouse shot him. It even engages in rare scatological humor. These atypical moments work to make “Hunt” more entertaining than usual. 7/10.
Why’s it controversial? Another minor “mammy” appears here. It seems really strange to me that a simple utterance of that word all of a sudden makes a cartoon potentially offensive. Again, there’s no blackface here, so what’s the problem?
The Delivery Boy (1931, B. Gillett): Mickey and Minnie sing and dance for little apparent reason. It’s just more of the usual generic musical shenanigans. Why’s it controversial? I’m not sure. I guess it’s due to a very short shot of a vaguely Yiddish turtle, though there’s virtually nothing that seems offensive about that quick glimpse. 4/10.
The Grocery Boy (1932, W. Jackson): Mickey brings food to Minnie and she cooks, but Pluto’s mischief ruins things. Some decent gags pop up here but otherwise this is a mediocre short. Why’s it controversial? A bust of Napoleon gets done up to briefly look like blackface. At least it doesn’t say “mammy”. 5/10.
Mickey In Arabia (1932, W. Jackson): Mickey and Minnie travel to the exotic land. A sheik kidnaps her. It’s standard fare and doesn’t make terribly good use of the unusual setting. Why’s it controversial? Plenty of ethnic stereotypes abound in the secondary characters. Finally, the “Vault” segregates a cartoon that almost lives up to its infamy! 5/10.
Mickey’s Good Deed (1933, B. Gillett): Mickey sells Pluto to help some kids whose father is in jail. A Christmas short, this one enjoys a surprisingly creative bent. I like the little touches; for instance, the family’s so poor that their fish is just a swimming skeleton. Why’s it controversial? One of the toys Mickey buys features a stereotypical black girl figure. 8/10.
Mickey’s Mellerdrammer (1933, D. Hand): Mickey stages a presentation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s a mildly amusing parody and that’s about it. Why’s it controversial? It’s a play about runaway slaves with Mickey in blackface and lots of slave dialect - what more do you need to know? Heck, a sign even calls it “assbestos”! 6/10.
The Steeplechase (1933, B. Gillett): Mickey rides in a horse race. Broader than usual, the drunken horse offers some amusement, and Mickey’s solution to this problem is also funny. Why’s it controversial? The stable hands are black stereotypes, though they don’t do much in that vein. 7/10.
Shanghaied (1934, B. Gillett): Aboard a ship, Pete holds Mickey and Minnie against their will. Mickey tries to save the day. Compared to the usual barnyard musicals, this one stands out as more of an adventure short. It’s not particularly amusing, but it’s fun. Why’s it controversial? I’m not sure. One of the sailors is awfully effeminate, and a shark at the end kind of looks like a black stereotype. There’s nothing nearly as potentially offensive as “Mellerdrammer”, though. 6/10.
Mickey’s Man Friday (1935, D. Hand): A shipwrecked Mickey finds himself on an island with cannibals. He scares most of them away but adopts one of them as his assistant. Some clever moments pop up, though as with “Shanghaied”, it’s not one of the funnier shorts. Why’s it controversial? The stereotypical natives, though I remain confused why “Friday” is allegedly offensive and “Trader Mickey” isn’t. They present very similar depictions of the cannibals and I see nothing in “Friday” that makes it more outrageous. If anything, it presents the natives in a better light, since “Trader” featured moronic characters. 6/10.
As I mentioned earlier, I think the idea of the “Vault” is silly. For prior Disney Treasures releases, Maltin would present disclaimers immediately prior to any potentially controversial shorts, but they weren’t isolated from the others as though they’d infect the “clean” cartoons.
Maybe I wouldn’t mind the “Vault” so much if it made sense. As I noted, some of the shorts include no offensive material. Who’s going to get upset because Mickey says “mammy”? And then we have the lack of consistency, since it’s nonsensical that “The Mad Dog” and “Trader Mickey” aren’t in the “Vault”. They clearly have more potential to offend than “The Moose Hunt” or “The Delivery Boy”. If Disney wants to cover themselves, that’s fine, but have the choices make sense.