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Saturday Matinee

Disney Cartoon #23: "The Birthday Party" (January 7, 1931)

by Albert Gutierrez

Continuing with last week's trend of covering black and white Mickey, this week at Saturday Matinee, I'll cover 1931's "The Birthday Party."  I hadn't seen the cartoon until the "Vintage Mickey" DVD came out, and it's since become a treasured favorite of mine.  In addition, I opted to cover this cartoon instead of my originally scheduled short (Donald Duck's "Modern Inventions") as tribute to the most excellent birthday celebration I had this week in Walt Disney World.  It was a magical three-day excursion throughout the Magic Kingdom, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Epcot.  But enough about me, let's see how Mickey celebrated his birthday seventy years ago!

As the short opens, Mickey is walking along the road to Minnie's door.  She hears him and prompts all the guests to hide before he gets there.  They scatter around and hide, with one particularly rotund guest crouching down with a tablecloth over the back, pretending to be a table.  Mickey arrives, and everyone surprises him.  Another guest brings out the cake, and Mickey blows out his two candles, resulting in the cake ending up all over the guest's face.  Minnie then tells Mickey to open his gift: a piano!  The two of them sing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" - a popular song of the time.

As they sing and play, the other characters dance about, before Mickey and Minnie get their own opportunity to cut a rug.  This is followed by Horace and Clarabelle also showing off their dancing skills.  Mickey then gets a solo on the xylophone, and we get various gags with this particularly memorable sequence.  He masterfully strikes each note with his mallets, and the song evolves from Mickey's own playing to a battle between him and the xylophone, who attempts to evade him before becoming a bucking bronco.  Mickey rides around on the xylophone, who eventually throws him off.  As Mickey lands, his head gets lodged into a goldfish bowl, as the others laugh on and the goldfish swims around to a smiling birthday guest.

Like many of Mickey's early shorts, the focus is on music, and thus, the shorts are a celebration rather than a specific story being told.  This is not a hindrance to the short at all, especially as it's all about Mickey's birthday.  It actually makes it superior to the 1942 remake, which was updated to include Donald and Goofy, who got his own subplot involving the cake.  Don't get me wrong, I love the remake too.  But in the 1931 original, we get a better feeling of camaraderie among the characters.  For instance, take Mickey and Minnie's repetitive conversation of "I'm fine, how are you?" and "I'm are you?" from the 1931 short.  To me, it feels more natural than the 1942 version, in which Mickey tries to get a kiss out of Minnie when she opens the door.  He seems like a romancing lothario in that short sequence, and feels rather out of place.

The song used in the cartoon, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" is from 1928, and was a popular jazz standard of the time.  For me, I always associate the song with this short cartoon, as well as 1938's classic, Bringing Up Baby, which I highly recommend watching as well.  Thanks to its own screwball comedy nature, Bringing Up Baby itself feels like it would work extremely well as a black and white Mickey short.  Can you imagine a Paleontologist Mickey running around Connecticut with Socialite Minnie, digging around for an intercostal clavicle?  Or even Mickey and Minnie out on the golf course, arguing about running boards and cars?  And there certainly would be a wink-winky meta-reference when Mickey tells the cop his associates are "Mickey the Mouse and Donald the Duck"!

The short is available in two sets: The much-rarer and more-valuable is "Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White - The Classic Collection", which was mentioned last week as well.  However, that set is near impossible to find now.  While I generally stay away from the cheap compilation discs, I was actually surprised when Disney released "Vintage Mickey" in 2005.  It's a single-disc set that contains nine of his black and white cartoons, including "The Birthday Party" and the cartoon that introduced Mickey to the world, "Steamboat Willie."  And, even though it's not Disney, if you want to see Bringing Up Baby, there's an excellent two-disc DVD from Warner Bros., but it's also available in the "TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romantic Comedies" set.


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