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Saturday Matinee

Disney Cartoon #56: "Clock Cleaners" (October 15, 1937) - published January 28, 2012

by Albert Gutierrez

Mickey is a lovable everyman. Donald is a short-tempered loudmouth. Goofy is a clumsy dimwit. Separately, they can approach a common task and provide different results. Together, they will face a common task with results that leave you laughing. The three are wholly unique personalities, and when they come together in a cartoon short, a great sense of camaraderie grows between them. They seem to work together as a single unit, even while maintaining their own individual characteristics and quirks. It's quite apparent in the subject of this week's Saturday Matinee: the 1937 classic "Clock Cleaners."

Our favorite trio are high atop a skyrise with the newest job for their resume: clock cleaning. The three are cleaning parts of a clock tower, from the gears to the face to the bells. Outside, Mickey is mopping the numbers on the face, riding along the second hand as it passes each number. Inside, Goofy uses a large brush to clean the teeth of various gears. Donald cheerily ignores a "Main Spring: Keep Off" sign in order to mop the surface. His mop gets caught in the spring, causing the whole thing to tangle itself up. Mickey returns inside, where he finds that a stork has set up a nest on some gears. He keeps trying to get rid of it, but the stork always manages to find its way back to its nest, even though it's asleep. The stork ends up dropping Mickey out the window, but he fortunately catches onto a rope.

Back on the main spring, Donald is hammering the spring back together. An errant end springs up towards him. It seems to echo everything Donald says, starting with "What's the big idea?" and continuing with "Aw, shut up" and "Oh, yeah." When Donald shouts in frustration, "Says you!" the spring retorts, "Says I!" Donald has a fit and throws his mallet at the spring, which shoots it right back at Donald. He goes flying and gets his head caught in a gear. When he frees himself, his body keeps shaking back and forth to the beat of the gear. Every time he stops one part of his body, another one starts shaking. Eventually he holds his entire body still, only for his hat to shake back and forth.

Goofy, meanwhile, has gone outside to work on the bells. He sings, "Loudly the bells in the old tower ring," just as the clock reaches the top of an hour. Two statues roll out to ring the bells, causing a great vibration that surprises Goofy. He goes out, hoping to confront whoever is ringing the bells, and sees the female statue. Since Goofy's standing between her and the bell, she hits him on the head. Goofy gets loopy, losing his balance and walking about, falling several times, but landing on various support beams and ropes that keep him from falling.

Mickey notices Goofy walking, and does everything he can to keep him from plummeting to his death. He tosses a swing, balances a ladder, anything. All seems lost, though, when Goofy walks along the ladder and falls down where a rung should have been. Mickey covers his eyes in shock, but Goofy lands on a pole, bouncing himself back up. He grabs Mickey on the way and flies inside the clock tower. They crash into Donald, who has finally fixed the main spring. The crash knocks all three off the spring and into the gear that Donald was caught in earlier. This time, all three of them shake back and forth as the cartoon comes to an end.

The trio of Mickey, Donald, and Goofy provide excellent and varied reactions to their problems when clock-cleaning. Had only one of the three been tasked with carrying the whole cartoon, we might not see some of the situations arise. Mickey might still miss the "Keep Off" sign, but would never grow frustrated with an echoing spring. Donald might get too caught up battling a sleeping stork that he might never do any balletic stumbling across ropes and beams. Goofy, being Goofy, likely would have done everything seen in the short, but with a lot more absent-mindedness than Mickey and Donald. That's why it was always great to see the three of them together. Each one brings something different to the situation and provides great variety to the short.

"Clock Cleaners" was directed by Ben Sharpsteen, who directed several other of the "Mickey, Donald, Goofy" shorts, such as the classics "Moving Day" and "Boat Builders." Sharpsteen often had a keen eye with the camera, resulting in "Clock Cleaners" containing some impressive shots that treat the animated world as a live-action one. Disney always strived for animation to look like more than the stationary or level shots, and "Clock Cleaners" is animated with a moving eye. When the camera pans down from the gears to Goofy, a lot of intricate animation is at work here. It's an excellent use of the multi-plane camera as well as animation. In addition, when Goofy walks on the rope, we see him in the background, with the dangling rope in the forefront. It is an uncommon perspective that is not usually common in the shorts I've seen.

The short is one of the most critically acclaimed in the Disney canon. Jerry Beck's The 50 Greatest Cartoons (1994) polled a thousand animators, resulting in "Clock Cleaners" being voted as twenty-seventh greatest cartoon overall. Of the nine Disney shorts that made the list, "Clock Cleaners" was eighth. Shorts with a * were previously covered here on Saturday Matinee:

3: "The Band Concert" (1935)

11: "Three Little Pigs" (1933)*

13: "Steamboat Willie" (1928)*

14: "The Old Mill" (1937)

18: "The Skeleton Dance" (1929)*

22: "Der Fuehrer's Face" (1941)

26: "Brave Little Tailor" (1938)

27: "Clock Cleaners" (1937)

29: "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom" (1953)*

For a time, "Clock Cleaners" was subject to an audio edit in one of the scenes. When the spring echos what Donald says, Donald gives up and shouts "Says you!" It's been misconstrued that Donald was saying another phrase (simply substitute "says" with another word), and so Disney responded by dubbing over Donald's line with "Aw, nuts!" (taken from 1935's "On Ice"). It completely ruins the echoing joke, especially as the spring responds with "Says I."

Disney's included the edited version of "Clock Cleaners" (with the dubbed line of "Aw, nuts!") on three DVDs: "Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Living Color" (2001), The Great Mouse Detective (2002, not on 2010's "Mystery in the Mist" Edition), and "Funny Factory with Goofy" (2006). It's quite unfortunate that the version on Walt Disney Treasures was edited, as that line was geared toward the adult collector and not children. Fortunately, "Clock Cleaners" was intact and unedited in Disney's 1950 Christmas Special "One Hour in Wonderland." That special has appeared on Alice in Wonderland's DVD and Blu-Ray versions since 2004: 2004's "Masterpiece Edition" DVD, 2010's "Special Un-Anniversary Edition" DVD, and 2011's "60th Anniversary Edition" Blu-Ray.


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