Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Gorilla Mystery

The trend in the Disney cartoons for story over song continues with The Gorilla Mystery, a Mickey short that features almost no music, and focuses on a cohesive plot throughout. It makes this a very enjoyable short with some great gags and good character moments for both Mickey and Minnie.

The story features Beppo the Gorilla escaping from the zoo, and coming to menace Minnie, while Mickey rushes in to save the day. That’s the simple description, but there’s so much more here that it’s hard to fit it all in.

First of all, the opening sequence features Mickey reading the paper, but all we see is the shot of the front page, with a whispered narration. Again, we get the camera pulling back to reveal that it’s Mickey holding the paper who is conducting the narration. His whispered voice sounds nothing like the high pitched squeaks that Walt was providing at this point, so it’s a little discordant when he stops whispering and squeaks out “Minnie!” before rushing to the phone to call her.

The scene with the two of them on the phone is very amusing. Mickey is so frightened and frantic that Minnie can’t understand what he’s saying, but then when he slows down, she brushes aside his concerns. Minnie’s character is more developed here just by that notion that she’s not a worrier. She instead begins playing a jaunty tune on the piano, with Mickey listening in over the phone and dancing along. Of course, it’s right that very moment when the gorilla appears to snatch her.

Sure, today we would think of that sequence as a cliché, but that’s because we’ve seen horror movies for decades. In 1930, however, this was a great storytelling sequence of events. Since my wife is a writer and I pretend to be one when not at my day job, I’m always interested in story and the construction of sequences of events. The Gorilla Mystery features some of the best story building blocks of these early Mickeys.

Of course, when Minnie is kidnapped, Mickey goes rushing over to her house to save her. This is where we get a little bit of the animators playing with darkness and light, similar to what they did in The Haunted House. Mickey enters the house and uses a flashlight, his eyes being the only thing visible at some points. Then a window flutters open and we get the square sections of the window reflected on the floor, and he runs outside into the chicken coop. Again, we get the eyes only before Mickey lights things up. The use of shadows, lighting and perspective in this sequence is quite good.

The big finale is Mickey chasing the gorilla and Minnie around the upstairs floors. There’s the old gag of Mickey peering in a room in the foreground while the gorilla crosses the hall in the background, then vice versa. When they finally do meet, Mickey manages to outwit the gorilla by tripping him up when he chases our hero into the room where Minnie was being held.

Truly, this short seems to signal that the Disney company’s work will now be about story, and not the patented Ub Iwerks dances. It’s an evolution of the cartoons back towards where the Oswalds had been moving before sound came along for the Mickeys. While both approaches are entirely valid, it is this story first approach that would eventually allow Disney to move into features.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.


  1. By now, I'd say that the Mickey cartoons are discernibly back up to the quality of the later Oswalds (I'm not so sure about the Silly Symphonies, partly because I haven't seen very many of them and partly because they still seem to be relying heavily on Iwerks-style musical numbers). In a way, it seems that Ub's departure actually helped the studio more than it hurt in the long run, since it forced them to go back to the classic story & gags formula and start phasing out the dances.

    As for the discordance in Mickey's voice at the beginning of the short, I noticed that too the first time I saw this, and the best explanation I can guess is that Walt simply found it hard to whisper in falsetto - I've tried, and it certainly isn't easy! This pops up again later on, in Mickey's Nightmare, though it's a bit less noticeable by then.

    On a more personal note, his has always been one of my favorite early Mickeys - the gags are inventive, the story is unusually well-developed fir this era, and the characters' personalities are solidified. When you think about it, the house in this cartoon is quite creepy on more than just a superficial level - no one lives there, yet there are clothes on the line and a full chicken coop, there's a room containing nothing but a couch, a spittoon, and a parrot, and (possibly creepiest of all) the gorilla just goes there instinctively! It really makes one wonder exactly what he was planning to do with Minnie...

  2. This one's really good. Loads of comical suspension and atmosphere! I wonder where that old gag with the hall of doors originates. I wouldn't be surprised if it had it's origins in vaudeville-type shows, but I have no idea if that's the case.

    A lot of Disney fans call the gorilla in this cartoon Beppo, but I disagree. Beppo was the name of the gorilla in 1933's "The Pet Store" who's a much more gentle creature than the salivating, ferocious beast in this cartoon.


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