Mickey Mouse in Black and White appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on these single-sided, double-layered DVDs; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Actually, the aspect ratio of B&W deserves some explanation. The dimensions varied slightly throughout the program, as the shorts often demonstrated various levels of windowboxing. According to the booklet that came with the Mickey Mouse: The Black and White Years laserdisc, the first seven shorts in this collection – “Steamboat Willie” through “The Fire Fighters” – used 1.17:1 aspect ratios. These required windowboxing to retain their dimensions.
What doesn’t make sense relates to the varying degrees of windowboxing seen in B&W. “Steamboat Willie” showed the heaviest levels, as it presented very thick bars on all sides of the image. For a few cartoons, they displayed thin bars on the sides but none on the top and bottom, while some others featured small bars on all four sides.
Even after “The Fire Fighters”, a few B&W shorts featured windowboxing. “The Chain Gang” and “The Gorilla Mystery” looked like standard 1.33:1, but “Pioneer Days” then displayed mild windowboxing. From “The Birthday Party” through the end of the package, I noticed no signs of windowboxing for any of the cartoons except one; mysteriously, bars show up on all four sides for 1934’s “Orphan’s Benefit”. (A lot of TVs lose windowboxing due to overscan, but I’ve reduced the overscan on my set to virtually nil, so I should see any bars that exist.) I don’t know why the set treated a couple of these shorts in a non-standard way, since I’d expect all of them after “The Fire Fighters” would use the same dimensions. For that matter, I don’t know why the degree of windowboxing varied so much for the first seven cartoons.
With that confusing issue out of the way – or made even more perplexing - I can move to the quality of the cartoons themselves. Not surprisingly, just like the degree of windowboxing varied, the visuals demonstrated erratic images as well. I find it exceedingly difficult to grade the quality of older material such as this, since we obviously can’t expect almost 75-year-old films to look like newer offerings. The farther back in time you go, the worse it gets, especially when you find movies from times prior to the mid-to-late Thirties. We tend to find reasonably good quality for some late Thirties flicks like The Wizard of Oz, whereas I can’t think of anything from the early part of the decade or from the Twenties that remotely approaches that level.
Since all of B&W came from years prior to this era, that meant I didn’t feel surprised by the many problems I saw. As one might expect, print flaws created by far the highest level of concerns. At various times, I noticed examples, of flickering, spots, jumps, tears, marks, grit, specks, grain, blotches, nicks, scratches, and lines. Pretty much any print defect you can name showed up at some point during these shorts. However, I fully expected to see these, and in general the cartoons looked fairly good for their age. Edge enhancement didn’t seem present, though a few shorts – like “Mickey’s Orphans”, “The Klondike Kid”, and “Gulliver Mickey” – showed an odd streaky glow that emanated from the tops of characters’ heads.
In addition, the level of flaws decreased as the series progressed, so the newer clips usually looked cleaner than the older ones. Some exceptions occurred, though. “Steamboat Willie” presented one of the most problem-free shorts in the collection, most probably because of its historical status, which would accord it greater attention than the others. In addition, though the clips slowly improved as the series went on, occasional regressions happened. For example, “The Klondike Kid” looked notably grainier than its immediate predecessors. Nonetheless, the cartoons became distinctly cleaner as they got newer, so the shorts found on DVD Two showed significantly fewer defects than those on the first platter.
Sharpness looked fairly good most of the time. Some of the shorts appeared slightly soft at times, and the material rarely appeared tremendously precise and distinctive. Nonetheless, the cartoons generally came across as reasonably accurate and detailed, so I noticed no real concerns in that regard. Blacks usually seemed pretty deep and dense, and shadow detail looked acceptably appropriate. Some of the darker shots were somewhat too dense, but that issue didn’t cause too many concerns.
Of course, most of the shorts failed to include much information of that sort, especially in the earlier days. As I noted during the narrative portion of this review, the complexity of the backgrounds and sets dramatically increased as time passed. That meant that the oldest shorts seemed either black or white much of the time, whereas as we got into the Thirties, the pieces displayed greater subtlety and literal shades of gray. Contrast occasionally seemed somewhat erratic. The image periodically came across as too bright. However, the images usually appeared nicely clean in that regard. Overall, Mickey Mouse in Black and White showed too many problems to merit a high grade, but it got a “B-“ because the shorts generally looked quite positive for their age.
One disappointment: I got the impression that most of these transfers came straight from the 1990s Mickey Mouse: The Black and White Years laserdisc boxed set. It certainly appeared that way, since they showed the same date cards that marked the transitions between years. While I don’t know if newer transfers of these shorts would improve the quality, I’d have appreciated additional effort put into the visuals. They looked good, but fresher mastering might have made them even better.
As for the monaural audio of Mickey Mouse in Black and White, the audio also demonstrated significant concerns, but the elements remained acceptable for its age. Speech came across as very thin and tinny, and some edginess showed up at times. Given that the Mickey shorts weren’t exactly dialogue intensive, this didn’t create any great concerns, and I felt the lines sounded acceptably intelligible.
Music and effects came across in similar ways. Treble dominated the presentation, as these elements showed virtually no depth or low-end response. They came across as somewhat harsh and unnatural, though they displayed no excessive distortion or other problems. Actually, the material seemed surprisingly clear, as I’d expect greater shrillness from such old audio.
Noise caused concerns, though these occurred erratically. At various times, I noticed signs of hiss, popping, clicking, humming, and clicking. Again, these instances showed up inconsistently. Some shorts sounded fairly clean, while others came across as significantly messier. As with other aspects of the presentation, the noisiness generally decreased as the series progressed, and the quality of the fidelity improved. Ultimately, the audio showed the sort of flaws I expected from roughly 70-year-old films, and I felt the clips generally sounded slightly superior to most material of that era.
One odd note about the soundfields: the collection’s final cartoon – 1935’s “Mickey’s Service Station” – actually seemed to approximate a stereo presence. Unlike the prior 33 shorts, this one used the side and rear speakers to offer reinforcement of the music. The track remained based in the front center, but the other channels broadened the score. I noticed no distinct delineation on the sides, as the spread seemed somewhat vague. Nonetheless, it actually worked quite well, as the music appeared smoother here than on the other clips.
On Mickey Mouse in Black and White, we get a moderate collection of supplements. As with other “Disney Treasures” releases, Disc One of B&W started with an introduction from Leonard Maltin. This clip lasts three minutes, 46 seconds and tells us some historical perspective about Mickey’s debut. Maltin also briefly covers the character’s future developments.
Some of the individual cartoons feature separate Maltin introductions. We find two of these. One of them shows up prior to these shorts: “The Gallopin’ Gaucho”, “Pioneer Days”, and “The Klondike Kid”. That one lasts 47 seconds, as Maltin places the rather “anti-social” Mickey into context. The other introduction appears prior to these cartoons: “Mickey Steps Out”, “The Whoopee Party”, and “Gulliver Mickey”. In this 63-second piece, Maltin chats about the acceptability of stereotypes during the era in which these shorts were created, which sets us up for the blackface segments seen in those cartoons. For most people who will watch B&W, these discussions will be unnecessary, but I applaud Disney’s attempts to educate folks about the nature of the period’s politically incorrect humor. However, it seemed odd that they added no disclaimer before “The Pet Store”, which featured a very broadly stereotypical Italian.
A new featurette called Frank and Ollie... and Mickey appears next. This piece lasts 18 minutes and 17 seconds as it presents a conversation between Leonard Maltin and legendary animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. They go over their early days at Disney Studios and discuss some impressions of early Mickey as well as memories of working on the shorts. Their recollections seem warm and endearing, and they cover a lot of intriguing information during this too-short program.
The next two sections include some cool archival materials. Story Scripts demonstrates an early planning method used at the Disney Studios. Maltin provides a 70-second introduction that gives us an overview of this topic, and we then can check out “story scripts” for two different shorts. These collections show each page of the scripts individually and then isolate the various elements. The scripts mix text and drawings, so after we look at the whole single page, we get close-ups of the other pieces. Presented in a stillframe format, we find story scripts for “Steamboat Willie” (102 frames) and “Mickey Steps Out” (119 frames). These seem very interesting and add a lot to the package.
Next we get a collection of Story Sketch Sequences. This area begins with an 87-second introduction from Maltin and then presents materials related to six different shorts: “Blue Rhythm” (77 seconds), “Mickey Cuts Up” (2:29), “Mickey’s Orphans” (117 seconds), “Mickey’s Nightmare” (2:43), “The Whoopee Party” (2:34), “Touchdown Mickey” (3:25), and “The Klondike Kid” (2:47). The “story sketches” are pretty much the same as what we now call storyboards, and these filmed sequences accompany the art with music. Not surprisingly, the segments get more complex as the years progress, and all of them provide a nice look at the creation of these older shorts.
Also on DVD One we find an Easter egg. Go to the “Bonus Material” page and highlight “Register your DVD”. Click “up” from there, which will light Mickey’s cowboy hat. Press “enter” and you’ll learn about the 1929 start of a group of theater-based “Mickey Mouse Clubs”. Maltin narrates this 14-minute program that tells us about these groups. It also includes a special version of “Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo” created for the Clubs’ roll-call and we also see newsreel footage of a giant Mickey celebration staged in Worcester, Massachusetts. A fun program, this gives us a nice look at the public popularity of Mickey.
Like many Disney DVDs, B&W opens with an ad for “Disney Treasures” line. Oddly, however, it touts last year’s four releases and doesn’t mention the 2002 batch.
When we move to DVD Two, we find another Leonard Maltin introduction. This two-minute piece presents a quick overview of the shorts we’ll find on this disc, with a few specific comments about some of the cartoons.
After this we move to a Pencil Test for “The Mail Pilot”. It provides a 64-second Maltin introduction that describes the origins of pencil tests, and we then see the two-minute, 24-second clip. Maltin states that “Pilot” offers the only surviving pencil test from the era, and it indeed seems very cool to watch Mickey in this rough state.
On DVD Two, we also get more Story Sketch Sequences. We find almost the same 87-second Maltin introduction that preceded DVD One’s sequences; it alters some of the drawings it shows, but Maltin’s comments remain identical; that makes it sound odd when he comments upon the crudeness of the art, since DVD Two’s sketches demonstrate ever-increasing sophistication and depth. We then we launch into the pre-visuals for these different shorts: “Building a Building” (three minutes, 17 seconds), “The Mad Doctor” (2:38), “Ye Olden Days” (3:39), “Puppy Love” (3:09), “The Pet Store” (1:52), “Giantland” (3:22), “Camping Out” (4:04), “Gulliver Mickey” (3:52), “Orphan’s Benefit” (3:27), “The Dognapper” (1:17), “Two-Gun Mickey” (6:17), and “Mickey’s Service Station” (2:51). As with the sequences seen on DVD One, these provide a fascinating look at the planning process and add a lot to this set.
Next we find a Poster Gallery of 21 thumbnailed ads. We can click on these to see fullscreen versions of the images. They present a fun look at Mickey’s early promotion. Four of the stills include audio comments from Maltin, who offers some salient details about those pieces. Finally, the DVD’s booklet includes a short text overview from Maltin as well as some archival images, and an insert card displays a 1978 “Steamboat Willie” poster created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Mickey.
Some folks may wonder how this package compares to the Mickey Mouse: The Black and White Years laserdisc set. The DVD package includes all of the shorts from that box as well as one extra: “The Karnival Kid”. It replicates most of the LD’s supplements too. The two releases share the story sketches and story scripts as well as the “Mail Pilot” pencil test. The LD included “Parade of Award Nominees”, a short created for the 1932 Academy Awards. It doesn’t appear here since it already showed up on 2001’s Mickey Mouse In Living Color; that makes sense, since “Parade” offered Mickey’s first color cartoon. Finally, the LD set also provided a booklet with some brief but nice notes about each of the shorts as well as a general overview of Mickey’s early career and some cool archival images.
Though it’s a shame that booklet didn’t translate to the DVD release of Mickey Mouse In Black and White, given that this package retails for more than $90 less than the original price of the LD package and tosses in one extra short, I think I’ll live. The cartoons found on B&W seem to lack the same enduring appeal of those that appeared on In Living Color, but this edition appears more crucial for the animation historian.
Actually, both should be considered vital for those with an interest in the genre’s formative years, but B&W traces the format’s growth and development in more obvious and radical terms; we see a much greater difference between 1928’s “Steamboat Willie” and 1931’s “Mickey’s Orphans” than we do between 1935’s “The Band Concert” and 1938’s “Brave Little Tailor” from Color, at least in regard to the sophistication of the art and animation. Of course, the field grew immeasurably between “Willie” and “Tailor”, but that’s a different issue.
In any case, many of the shorts on B&W seem crude and may lack much humor for today’s audiences, but they remain reasonably charming much of the time, and it’s very cool to watch the genre develop in front of our eyes. As one might expect, picture and sound quality varied heavily throughout the shorts, but they usually seemed more than acceptable for their age, and I felt no great qualms about either. The package also included a fairly decent roster of supplements. For general cartoon fans, other compilations like Mickey Mouse In Living Color probably will seem more satisfying, but animation buffs – and those with a definite jones for the Mouse – will definitely want to grab this set of seminal shorts.