Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Just Mickey

In the six months that I have been doing this (has it been that long?), I have not come across a more aptly named short than Just Mickey. It’s a six minute short that features only one action – Mickey playing a violin. How can that possibly be interesting? It is, and that’s a testament to the Disney animators.

It’s first worth noting that this is the first Mickey short not by Ub Iwerks. What’s interesting is the title card is very different as well. For the original Mickey shorts, we had a simple Mickey and Minnie on either side of the title, with the “by Ub Iwerks” credit underneath. This is very different, a more detailed Minnie and Mickey, no credits, and a new “Mickey Mouse” title treatment. This is the Mickey that Floyd Gottfriedson would go on to feature in the Mickey Mouse comic books for many years.

But the true experiment of this short is the idea of having Mickey on stage with a violin, and that’s it. The short begins with a neat gag involving some depth, as the curtain opens to reveal another curtain, which opens to reveal another and another and so on. Mickey is revealed at the very rear of the stage, and stomps up to the front, coming closer and closer. It’s a very nice show of depth in the animation.

The fun begins with Mickey playing a fast paced number, getting a little more frantic with each passing moment. The thing that keeps your interest, though, are the expressions on Mickey’s face. He goes from annoyance at a heckler, to passion for his playing to happiness at a job well done from moment to moment, with natural transitions, not just jumping from expression to expression.

The scene is aided by the switches in perspective. The scene jumps from a wide shot of Mickey straight on, back to a close up on Mickey from the waist up, to a scene of Mickey on stage from slightly left of center. It is an amazing way to see this short. When you think back to the side scrolling model of the Alice cartoons, it’s astounding to see how far we’ve come in only a few short years.

Next, we get Mickey playing a sad number, with his expressions reflecting the sadness of the song. He weeps, blows his nose and frowns, all in perfect style. It’s a true reflection of emotion pulled off by the animators, just the way the first song was.

The final song is the William Tell Overture, which goes from the melodrama of the previous tune to an all out comedy. Mickey loses his balance, scrapes along the floor, pops up and down and does some great acrobatics.

Just Mickey manages to make the single premise interesting and entertaining, even though in theory it probably should not be. That’s not to say it’s the funniest of the Mickey shorts or the best, but I can imagine the animators took this as a challenge to create a new range of expressions and emotions through Mickey. I have to say they succeeded.


  1. I never realized that the new Mickey title card had come just as Iwerks left the studio - I'd always thought it was just a stylistic update. I suspect there might have been an element of that in the transition, because they could easily have just erased Ub's name from the old card, and the new one does a much better job of reflecting the interpretation of the characters they had settled on (at this point in the series, it just doesn't make sense to show Mickey with a trendy 20s-style hat and cane).

    Speaking of things Mickey should never be shown with, it's always disturbed me that in this short, he actually has hair! It's probably just part of the whole "long-haired violinist" style, but still... *ughhhh*...

  2. This was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon to be released by Columbia, which was probably a major reason for the change in title cards. Unfortunately the title we see on the DVD is a recreation and not an accurate one. David once mentioned that the first five Columbia Mickeys featured a unique title card with just Mickey and not Minnie. Maybe David can give us more info, but apparently there are no known surviving prints with this title card.

    One odd thing about this short is the title. Should it be called "Just Mickey" or "Fiddlin' Around"? Patrick notes on the Disney Shorts site that it was copyrighted as Fiddlin' and that's what it's been called on T.V (I assume with the reissue titles I've never seen it other than on DVD). I have seen a Columbia poster which calls it "Fiddling Around" too (it's on the DVD).

    This Mickey cartoon is quite unlike any other. When Iwerks left, Disney's production schedule got pretty messed up and the studio struggled to meet Columbia's deadlines. This caused a lot of cartoons to miss their intended release dates throughout 1930. I wonder if this cartoon, with just one animated character, was an attempt to try and catch up as it may have been quicker to produce than a short like Autumn with tons of effects, characters and details. Of course, Disney being Disney, this cartoon is hardly a complete shortcut and features highly detailed personality animation.

    Maybe I'm wrong. It could be that to kick off the Columbia season, a short with nothing but the star character was wanted (for some reason the already completed Wild Waves from late 1929 apparently wasn't released until later on). Or maybe this was just the idea the stuido had for the next Mickey cartoon and that's what they went with. What do you think?

  3. It wouldn't surprise me if there was a little of Column A and a little of Column B in the answer to your question, Mac. Based on what I've seen so far, there were definitely production timeline issues with the making of the shorts, so I imagine that had something to do with this.

    However, it also makes sense to make a new cartoon with "just Mickey" to showcase the character. Not only for Columbia, but for being without Ub. If Walt pulls off a Mickey short without some Ub Iwerks trademarks (dances, etc.) then he shows the film community that it's him, not Ub that's the creative genius. It wouldn't surprise me if that was part of the deal as well. That's idle speculation, though.

  4. An archive I'm in touch with has recently recovered several of the first Columbia Mickey Mouse shorts in original first-release prints, edge-marked 1930.

    They actually don't turn out to have that unique solo-Mickey title card after all; instead, they have the same title card as was used for the modern recreations (some lettering is white instead of black, but that's the only significant difference).

    Mark Kausler saw and took note of the solo-Mickey card at a 1969 screening of Disney nitrate elements. Sadly, many of these disintegrated and aren't around today, which is how that title card got lost.
    In view of the recent discovery, Mark and I now wonder whether the prints he saw with the solo-Mickey card were prepared for some alternate purpose.

    One interesting find: the newly found original release print of "Just Mickey" gives it its common alternate title, FIDDLING AROUND, which we now believe to have always been its original release title. I'll be blogging about this soon; it seems "Just Mickey" really was just a working title.


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