Monday, June 26, 2006

STEAMBOAT WILLIE (1928)

Seeing as how our girls are both Rescue Dogs, and since Jen will not cave in to my request to own a lizard, snake, frog or tarantula which might rely on the icky dispatching of crickets or mice for sustenance, I have taken up a search for another pet of the warm-blooded variety. Since a mistress was clearly out of the question, I had to take my search to various animal rescue societies in the local area. My quest led me to a shelter in Hollywood which specializes in mammals and birds which were either neglected or abused by their previous owners, and as it turned out, the first few animals that I checked out had a similar story behind their abuse.

First, I was shown a billygoat whose tail had been shaped into a handcrank and then callously turned to allow the goat's stomach, which was full of music sheets, notes and guitar remnants, to emit noises much like a grinded organ would do. A black cat cowered and hissed in a corner, its tail stretched and shredded from not only the pulling it encountered when its assailant attempted to turn the feline into a yowling musical instrument, but also from the fiend's swinging of the cat several times about his head until letting it fly without a concern for where it would land. A duck, who had been on the scene for the cat's abuse, had been leapt on next and encountered a squeezing of its stomach as if it were a bagpipe, while at the same time, its neck received a harsh strangling for the same "musical" intent. A cow had to undergo much dental surgery after its teeth were pounded on with a pair of xylophone mallets, and also had developed a swollen tongue from the same attack.

In a most disgraceful savaging that only the most icy-veined of sociopaths could possibly commit, six tiny piglets had their tails sprained by constant "musical" pulling by the assailant, and then their mother was picked up and the babies were shaken loose of their hold upon her teats. The last baby was roughly kicked from his toothy grip on his loving mother, and then the sow was held upside down in the air while the cad groped and pinched each of her six teats for his own, allegedly, musical pleasure (though there are hints that the reason for the molestation may have sprung from a far darker urge.) Finally, a parrot, of decidedly callous nature himself, also limped along the fringes of the room, with large lumps on his head from not just being crowned with a bucketful of water, but also from a large flung potato which resulted in the bird's near-drowning incident in the river outside the boat where all of this abuse occurred. The most heinous detail of the attacks was the fact that all of it, except the parrot's experience, happened during the playing of the inexplicably popular tune Turkey in the Straw. And though it was all captured on film, a near-platoon's worth of lawyers managed to keep the abuser from paying for his horrible crimes upon his fellow animals.
The single element that ties the attacks together? They were all the fault of an abnormally sized mouse wearing short pants and shoes.

And it all happens before our eyes in Steamboat Willie, the historically revered "first" synchronized sound cartoon starring the soon-to-be world famous Mickey Mouse, which was neither the first sound cartoon (Max Fleischer had done several of them four years earlier in 1924) nor the first Mickey (two others, Plane Crazy and The Galloping Gaucho, were made first and shown in test screenings to potential - and nonplussed - distributors, and Plane Crazy was released as a silent, until sound came in and Willie turned into a boffo success; then the other two films were retrofitted with soundtracks). Mickey was actually created by Ub Iwerks, who quickly sketched out the initial drawings of a mouse character after he and Walt needed a star to replace the swindled Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And with the timely introduction of revised sound engineering, Mickey whistles his happy tune, and doing so, he wins over the world.

It is fascinating to realize that one of the most iconic of animated sequences (though this may be partly because Disney has made it impossible to not see its imagery from time to time) actually only takes up less than fifteen seconds in Steamboat Willie. Mickey, wearing a pilot's cap and whistling happily as he taps his foot and steers the steamboat, isn't even the captain of the ship, and he is swiftly supplanted by the gruff skipper Pete (he of later "Pegleg" fame), a large, grumpy cat who stretches Mickey's torso out from the rest of his body so that Mickey has to pull in and stuff his torso back into his pants. Pete hisses at Mickey to leave the pilot's house, but Mickey can't help himself and blows a raspberry back at a very surprised Pete. The grouch swings his leg to take a kick at the rodent, but Mickey avoids it, and the leg wraps over Pete's shoulder so that he ends up booting himself instead. Mickey, however, still falls down the stairs, falling end over end onto each step, lands on the deck, slips on a bar of soap, and ends up with his rear stuck in a pail of soapy water. (It is this point where he first abuses the taunting parrot by smashing the bucket over its head.)

Once Pete assumes command of the vessel, he commences to tear off a large chaw of tobacco, and spits out a nasty loogie from between his teeth. To aid him in this task, two of his teeth actually slide open like doors and then closes again when he is done spitting. The loogie hits the wind and sails right behind Pete, splashing nastily on the ship's bell. Pete, like any idiot, thinks this is great fun and tries it again. Only on the second try, he times it wrong and gets a sticky black face full of odious chew. The ship pulls up to Podunk Landing where a variety of barnyard animals (many of them descibed in the opening paragraph) are waiting to be shipped to distant towns. Mickey's job is to load the animals, but when he puts the lifting belt of his crane around the cow (who wears a tag reading "FOB"), she is far too skinny about the waist to pick up. She does, however, have an enormous udder, and when Mickey first attempts the lift, he gets sprayed full on by a year's supply of unpasteurized milk. Mickey runs off to get a pitchfork of hay, and when the cow obligingly opens up for the tasty stuff, Mickey shoves the fork all the way into her body, bloating it to its full potential. The loading goes easy after that, and the ship takes off again.

Only problem is, they left behind a passenger: Minnie Mouse, to be precise, and she chases the ship along the river for what must be a half mile before Mickey gets the bright idea to pick her up with the crane. As she continues to run, famously yelling her trademark "Yoo-Hoo!", the crane's hook nicely lifts Minnie's skirt and picks her up by the undies. It drops her on the deck, sending her sheet music for Turkey in the Straw (subtitled "Hey! Hey!") and her guitar sprawling to where the billy goat is standing, eager for an easy meal. As the crane politely puts Minnie's skirt back into place, the goat eats every note of the music and the guitar, and after Mickey fails to wrest the guitar from the goat's gullet, he notices the chiming of the instrument as it bounces around the goat's stomach. Mickey inspects the inside of the goat and then signs to Minnie to turn the goat's tail into a crank. She does so, and the Turkey song springs into bloom. Let the abuse begin!

Mickey doesn't spring immediately into the torture. First he bangs on some pots and pans (and even his own head) outside the kitchen, and then does a mean solo on a washboard. He runs out of inanimate objects too quickly, and the passing black cat is the first to get it. From there, as described earlier, he tortures the duck, the piglets and their mother, the sow, and the cow. Some would point out that a couple of animals seem to be enjoying the music and are smiling, most noticeably the bovine, but this is merely a case of the abused not realizing their danger, or becoming used to it, perhaps even accepting it as a sign of love and acceptance. Pete breaks up the party soon enough, and banishes the rebellious upstart to the kitchen, where he is ordered to peel a giant pile of potatoes. Mickey starts to carve each one with a knife, peeling away roughly about 75 percent of each spud, and then dropping the tiny remains in a bucket. The parrot flies into the window and taunts him again, so Mickey wings his next spud right at the bird's skull, and the parrot drops into the drink yelling "Help! Man overboard!" Mickey laughs, and we have iris out.

For a film that is often described to visually be on a par with other films of its period, I find the world that Mickey and his friends occupy to be remarkably well-developed. Not that there is much depth to either the backgrounds or the characters, but what is there is fully rounded and complex enough to make us believe in the situation. The knock against Mickey has always been that he is not all that funny, but I don't believe that such a thing was ever the point. Donald and Goofy came along to provide that at their various levels, though never to a Warner Bros. degree where that was the concentration, but I think Mickey really was meant from the start to be a sort of Everymouse, where anyone in any situation could readily identify the mouse's soul as their own, or at least, that of their secret self that they yearned to spring upon the world. Mickey may have been idiotically happy from the start (though you might notice that he does not actually speak in this cartoon - he only whistles and laughs), but he was also heroic, true blue, and courageous. Not necessarily qualities that I admire, but enough people have over the years to make Mickey a truly distinct prescence in history. Almost 80 years since his creation, I think we have forgotten about how much Mickey changed over the years, and also how much he didn't. His look evolved with the times, but most of the main components of his personality were instilled in him from that very first film: the gutsy, plucky little guy who gets the job done.

Of course, getting the job done here, aside from piloting and loading the ship, includes the unwarranted groping of piggie teats, the dropping and kicking of babies, and the strangling and general misuse of innocent animals. That he is a mouse is no excuse for such behavior, for he is essentially portraying a recognizably human and modestly clothed character to their furred and feathered animal ones, and thus, his crimes must also be determined to be recognizably human. The torture of small animals is often an early sign of a future serial killer, so it is a great sign that Mickey's misuse of the animal kingdom soon goes away altogether. (Eventually, his pets, such as the hapless Pluto, take to basically torturing themselves.) But, the evidence is here in this film, and to top it off, Mickey flirts musically with an underwear-revealing hottie like Minnie, throwing her "Yoo-Hoo!" around for all to see and hear.

Let's seem them build a park around this theme. I'd buy an E-ticket ride for that one...

Steamboat Willie (A Walt Disney Mickey Mouse Sound Cartoon, 1928)
Director: Ub Iwerks
Animators: Ub Iwerks, Wilfred Jackson and Dick Lundy
Music: Bert Lewis and Wilfred Jackson
Cel Bloc Rating: 8

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