Monday, June 1, 2009

When The Cat's Away

Alright, I’m back after a week spent at Walt Disney World, reveling in the Disney magic. It was great, thanks for asking, and I was rejuvenated and excited to get back to work today. That’s why it was such a disappointment to watch the latest of our Mickey shorts, the 1929 short When The Cat’s Away.

It’s not that this isn’t an entertaining short. It is. But it’s not original, and it features no real story or character animation. Many people I have read reviewing the early Mickeys complain about the musical interludes. I see now what they are saying. Nearly this entire short consists of a song, followed by a brief interlude, then another song. It’s rather mind numbing if you watch it multiple times, as I tend to do when doing these posts.

The “story” such as it is involves a cat leaving his house behind, with Mickey and his mice pals, including Minnie, taking the opportunity to party. That’s it. I think that’s really where the problem lies. In the Oswalds, Walt and his team created a real sense of story in each short. There was conflict, and you rooted for Oswald to overcome the odds and succeed.

In this short, though, there is nothing of that kind. The simple addition of the cat coming back would work wonders with the story, but that’s seemingly not the point. Instead, the idea is simply to revel in the musical party that Mickey and friends are throwing. It’s fine if you haven’t seen something like it before.

The problem is, I have seen it before. Both Alice the Piper and Alice Rattled By Rats feature similar ideas with rats taking over a house. In fact, the rat sequences in those films are very much the same as this, with the rats dancing and playing to music. There’s even a similar “rats turning themselves into a record player” sequence in this short like in the previous ones.

This is just not an original short, and that’s where I feel let down. Again, it was the standards of the Oswald shorts that raised my expectations. The phenomenal work done on Plane Crazy, The Gallopin’ Gaucho and Steamboat Willie kept expectations high.

Not to say that there are not some good points in this short. There are some neat gags, like Mickey turning one of his rat friends into a key to open the lock to the door, or the way his tail comes around to pick him up when he’s about to fall on a mouse trap. Unfortunately, moments like these are few and far between.

Instead, most of the short is spent with Mickey and Minnie dancing on top of a piano. The score of the short is outlined from the piano, and the rats dance to that. There is one cute bit about the score, as the rats march in whistling the same tune that the cat is whistling as he marches away from the house. It is a nice touch.

Overall, though, I have to say that I hope When The Cat’s Away is a brief departure for the Disney animators, but from what I’ve read, I fear that it’s the beginning of a long stretch of these musical cartoons. If that’s the case, just bear with me, because more reviews will be like this.
All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.


  1. You are looking at these films through the eyes of someone who has spent YEARS with Bugs Bunny and Tex Avery.
    In a way that can't be avoided.
    How about adding some then- current reviewer's comments to your posts, to put these shorts into their proper historical context?
    As Ward Kimball tells Richard Williams on page 18 of Williams' "Survival Kit": "You can have NO IDEA of the impact that having these drawings suddenly speak and make noises had on audiences at that time. People went crazy over it".
    This is LITERAL----Disney, at this time, was the DARLING of the avant guard and was widely viewed as the best that the cinema had to offer.
    NOT the best CARTOONS had to offer---the best that CINEMA had to offer.

  2. WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY is a rather unique case: a short for which an impressive ending was planned—and then discarded prior to animation, for reasons at which I can only guess.

    In the early drafts of the story, the mice and rats take time out from their music to torture the parrot, who only appears briefly in the finished film. For the windup, the parrot grabs the phone, calls the police, and reports an intrusion.
    The cops rush to the house, guns a-blazing, just in time for Mickey and the gang to disappear into holes and crevices—leaving the police to jump the parrot and beat the hell out of him instead.

    WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY has a crude musical score, too, by the standards of the tracks that came before it. I wonder whether the crude score and omitted ending represent an effort to keep costs down? But that's just speculation; I haven't researched it.

  3. Kevin makes a good point, that I totally agree with, about how popular these early sound cartoons were at the time and how fresh and new they were. However, I think that Steamboat Willie and the sound versions of Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho use of catchy music better than the following ones we have seen so far. In the first three, the music flows really well the whole time. However, in this one the music only seems to start if a character initiates it, leaving some almost eerie silences. As a sound cartoon, I think Steamboat Willie is still the best we've seen so far.

    As for the story, a much better climax for this one was planned. How do I know this? I learned it from David of course! (on the Golden Age Cartoons forum) I hope he doesn't mind me quoting him here:

    "In fact, a lengthier and more satisfying ending WAS originally planned for WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY, but it was jettisoned in early 1929 as being too expensive to animate. I don't have the original synopsis with me here, but I remember it pretty clearly.
    Notice that the parrot from STEAMBOAT WILLIE reappears as a pet in the cat's house? As I recall, the parrot gets increasingly worried by the mouse mayhem going on around him. He phones in a riot call to the police, and the whole force charges out of the station in horse-drawn wagons.
    The cat returns from the hunt, enters his house and sees devastation. But Mickey and the mice have vanished into holes in the wall and floor. Cue the police, who entering the house see the wreckage, too, and assume the cat is the guilty party. They jump him all at once and the cartoon ends in a blaze of flying fur.
    Sound good? Yeah, I'd rather have seen it that way, too."

    One of the weirdest things for me is that suddenly Mickey is a normal-sized mouse. It's a big surprise when he suddenly pops out from a hole in the floor early in the short!


  4. Oops! You read this and beat me to it anyway! Interesting to read that it was planned for the mice to bully the parrot too!

  5. Yikes! I shouldn't have commented on the original plotline from memory. I see I referenced the police mistakenly jumping the parrot in my comment above, whereas Mac shows that I referenced the police mistakenly jumping the *cat* back on the GAC forum.

    I'll try to dig up my copy of the pre-production synopsis ASAP and see who the cops' real victim was. Apologies for the inconsistency.

  6. Kevin, I would include the historical context, but that's sort of different than the intent of the project. I agree that at the time these were the height of the new, but that's not how I'm viewing them.

    It's tough, but my requirements when doing this were to view only the Disney cartoons, from start to finish and react to them as to how they work for me. The secondary goal of this project is to see what we can read into Walt's biography from viewing the cartoons, so that's something that I am working at as well.

    It's not to say that just because I didn't care for this cartoon that it's bad. Everything is subjective here, and should be treated as such. I will be the first to say that I am not an expert, and leave the historical context to David and my other commenters like yourself. To me, that's the fun of this, is building a community of folks who are following along as we go.

    David and Mac, great info about the planned ending. I think that would have made a big difference. We'll see going forward if the same issues are present.

  7. That parrot seems to have been a regularly recurring character in the early Mickeys - he's in Staemboat Willie, The Barn Dance, this short (albeit only briefly), and The Gorilla Mystery later on. A parrot appears in Mickey's Parrot in 1938, but it's probably not supposed to be the same one (unless he was given a very drastic redesign). The Encyclopedia of Disney Animated Shorts has more on the subject:


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