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Thursday Treasures

August 22, 2013

Disney and Carroll

A Wonderful Collaboration

By Kelvin Cedeno

After the success of the 'Alice Comedies,' Charles B. Mintz (husband of Margaret J. Winkler and new head of Winkler Pictures) requested that the Disney Brothers come up with a series of fully-animated shorts starring a new character. The 'Alice Comedies' were getting too costly, and Mintz had heard that Universal Studios was interested in purchasing their first cartoon series. Thus Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was born. Disney would be involved in creating 10 Oswald shorts, but there was trouble afoot. Mintz felt Disney should take a 20% pay cut despite the massive success of the character. The Disney Brothers broke their ties with Mintz and Universal and took one sole animator with them: Ub Iwerks. Together, they would create a new cartoon character that would eclipse both Alice and Oswald in terms of popularity and become an icon beloved the world over.

Part 2: Thru the Mirror (1936)

Thru the mirror

After his debut in 1928's Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse was a Hollywood star if ever there was one. His 83rd short was one that proved Disney just could never shake Lewis Carroll off his mind: Thru the Mirror. Released on May 30, 1936, the film shared a similarity with Alice's Wonderland in that while it wasn't a genuine adaptation, the influences were notable. A few years earlier, Disney was attempting a feature film adaptation of Carroll's books that mixed live-action with animation, but the project was not meant to be (more on that in the next part of this series). It obviously didn't stop him from dabbling with Carroll's ideas, however.

Although this is only inspired by the Alice books and not really based on them, the concept of putting Mickey Mouse in a classic story adaptation is very familiar territory. The most obvious examples of these would be 1983's Mickey's Christmas Carol and 1991's The Prince and the Pauper, but Mickey would also appear in similar (if less ambitious) adaptations during Walt's time. In 1936, he starred in Gulliver Mickey, inspired by Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. That short in many ways acts as a companion piece to Thru the Mirror as both feature Mickey reading the source material in question at the beginning and later envisioning himself in a loosely-based version of said story. He would later appear in 1938's Brave Little Tailor based on the 'Valiant Little Tailor' fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. In more recent years, the television series 'Mickey Mouse Works' had segments based on The Nutcracker and Around the World in Eighty Days. Finally, in a more ambitious take akin to his 80s and 90s shorts, Mickey would star with Donald and Goofy in a 2004 direct-to-video version of The Three Musketeers.

The opening shot of Thru the Mirror features Mickey having fallen asleep after reading Through the Looking Glass. Choosing this book as opposed to Alice in Wonderland is an interesting decision for a few reasons. For one, traveling through a mirror feels less tied to Carroll than falling down a rabbit hole does, allowing the short to stand on its own. Second, despite borrowing that method of travel from the sequel, this short has far more in common with the first novel in that Mickey's size is altered by food, and playing cards are a prominent element (as opposed to chess pieces).

Thru the Mirror

Thru the Mirror is essentially broken up into thirds with the first third consisting of a series of gags as Mickey explores the house. In true Carroll spirit, these gags find their humor in either unexpected opposites (eating the shell of a nut after tossing out the interior) or in puns (Mickey finding the aforementioned scenario 'nuts'). All of the objects in Mickey's household are personified, the only other real link to Looking Glass as opposed to Wonderland.

The middle third, likely a nod to Fred Astaire, is where the marriage of visuals and music really comes into play and is perhaps the most memorable portion of this short. Astaire had starred with Ginger Rogers in the Irving Berlin musical Top Hat to great acclaim the previous year, so it doesn't seem out of the question that he was on the minds of the Disney animators and story team. Coincidentally, author Graham Greene had this to say about Astaire in his Spectator review of 1936's Follow the Fleet: 'Mr. Astaire is the nearest approach we are ever likely to have to a human Mickey Mouse; he might have been drawn by Mr. Walt Disney, with his quick physical wit, his incredible agility. He belongs to a fantasy world almost as free as Mickey's from the law of Gravity.'

The whole middle act essentially feels like a Silly Symphony as the music and visuals are tied together tightly and take center stage with virtually no dialogue. Mickey himself has less than 10 lines of dialogue in the entire short, most of it coming from the first third. It further strengthens the notion that film is a visual medium and what you show far exceeds what you say. Looking at the elaborate dance routines calls to mind some of the grandiose numbers choreographed by Buzby Berkley who was behind such films as 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, and would later choreograph the full 'If I Only Had A Brain' scene in The Wizard of Oz which was later pared down. Walt regularly screened live-action films for his team so they could study various filmmaking techniques. With that in mind, they likely viewed some of Burkley's films to get a feel for staging.

The Queen of Hearts, as depicted in this short, is clearly meant to be Greta Garbo. This actually marked her third appearance in a Disney short, the first being Mickey's Gala Premiere from 1931. Her design in that film was done none other by Joe Grant ' his first job at Disney. Just four months before Thru the Mirror was released, Garbo was briefly seen as a spectator in Mickey's Polo Team. Her last appearance would be in the 1938 Silly Symphony Mother Goose Goes Hollywood as See Saw Margery Daw. The King of Hearts, just like his wife, is based on a notable Hollywood name, Charles Laughton in this case. He won the Oscar for portraying the title character in 1933's The Private Life of Henry the VIII, and it's that portrayal that influenced the King of Hearts. A more literal spoof of Laughton's portrayal would be found alongside the aforementioned Garbo cameo in Mickey's Polo Team.

Thru the Mirror

While having Garbo and Laughton appear here was surely meant to be a wink to 1936 audiences, it does actually come with psychological implications. Psychologists have surmised that the human mind doesn't conjure up completely new faces while dreaming. Instead, it will take from real life ones it has seen, even if the results may be distorted. With that in mind, it's possible Mickey had recently watched The Private Life of Henry the VIII along with one of Garbo's films recently, thus their presence in his dream.

The last third of the short, in contrast to the comedic beginning and musical middle, consists of action. It's interesting to note that unlike the heroine of Carroll's books, Mickey isn't just an observer. He more or less is in the beginning, but he becomes a musical star in the middle and then an action hero in the end. This sort of transition in his character was pretty common in his 1930s shorts. Often they would start with him as a simple, well-meaning person who would later be thrust into a situation he would have to fight himself out of (1933's Ye Olden Days is a prime example of this). Mickey doesn't feel too threatened by either the King or the playing cards. In fact, he's smiling through most of it, thus highlighting the fact that this is a dream with no real peril.

The climax of Thru the Mirror calls to mind the climax from 1961's Babes in Toyland. In that film, Disney's first completely live-action one, a shrunken Tom Piper must use his wits to battle the dastardly Barnaby. He uses small items as creative defenses similarly to what Mickey does in this short. There's also a certain level of irony on display here in that Mickey is legitimately mouse-sized during this adventure and is thus experiencing his own house from the perspective of his fellow kin should they exist in this world the same way Goofy and Pluto co-exist.

The lasting nature of this short has not been lost on the Disney Company. The gag with the two gloves would later be imitated by the Genie during the 'Friend Like Me' sequence of 1992's Aladdin, while the equally iconic image of Mickey using the cards as a peacock's tail has been used in several Disney television promos. The music featured during the glove gag may come across as strongly familiar to children of the late 80s and early 90s as it was used for the closing bumper of the 'Walt Disney Mini Classics VHS collection.' Various elements of Thru the Mirror have also been cherry picked for video games such as Disney's Magical Mirror Starring Mickey Mouse in 2002 and Epic Mickey in 2010.

Thru the Mirror DVD

Thru the Mirror, being one of the more popular Mickey Mouse shorts, has appeared on several home video releases throughout the years. It was part of 1988's 'Mickey's Magical World' VHS compilation (part of the Walt Disney Mini Classics collection). A decade later, the compilation 'The Spirit of Mickey' would again utilize this short. Because of its obvious ties to Alice in Wonderland, it has appeared on several releases of the 1951 feature: the 1995 Archive Collection laserdisc, the 2004 Masterpiece Edition DVD, the 2010 Un-Anniversary Edition DVD, and on the 2011 60th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray (the latter of which oddly uses the new title card designed for the 'Get A Laugh' re-edit). Finally, it has appeared on non-Alice DVDs twice: 2001's 'Mickey Mouse in Living Color' (part of the Walt Disney Treasures series) and 2009's "Walt Disney Animation Collection, Volume One: Mickey and the Beanstalk.'

In the next part of this series, we'll be taking a look at the culmination of Disney and Carroll's ideas with the iconic 1951 animated feature film Alice in Wonderland.


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