21 June 2012

Mouse, Interrupted

Once upon a time—way back in the 1930s—Columbia Pictures and United Artists released Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoons to theatres. But Columbia and United Artists had nothing to do with the cartoons' non-theatrical distribution. So a few years later, when Disney prepared reissue versions for home and TV use, the original Columbia and United Artists main and end title sequences were replaced.

This led to the birth of the "burlap titles" shown here: so-called due to their cloth-like background texture. The burlap titles were printed on safety film stock and spliced into Disney's nitrate negatives. While appealing, they did have a certain sameness. All used the same logotype for Mickey's name, the same font for each cartoon's episode title, and the same musical notes tossing and turning behind.
The more unique original title sequences seemed to have vanished for parts unknown. Only occasional early release prints were known to preserve them; and in the 1990s, when the vintage Mickey cartoons were restored for laser, VHS, and DVD, only a few such early prints could be found at Disney.

Animation fans know what happened next. In an effort to return to the original style for home video, "faux" original titles were created to replace their burlap precursors. But while the results were a beautiful improvement, they couldn't quell my curiosity. As a contributing scholar when they were created, I still wanted to see the real originals.

Over the eight (in some cases, nineteen) years since the faux titles' creation, I've searched through private collections and film dealers' backstock in an effort to locate as many originals as I could. I even bought a few, despite my not usually collecting sound films. Over time, I've come across roughly two dozen title sequences, several of which I've shared here in the past. I've saved most, though, for this post: where, looking at them in sequence, we can gain a better understanding of how the title designs evolved.

We may even get a few surprises!

The Cactus Kid (1930) shows us how we'll look at most of these titles: with the originals on the left, and the recreations on the right

The first Columbia main title design featured thick white lettering on a dark gray background. Whereas earlier and later Mickey opening titles concluded with most of the card fading out, so only the episode title was seen (as in the recreation)—on the first Columbia shorts, the whole card faded out as one unit, title and all.
The first Columbia end title design cloned the 1928-29 Celebrity Pictures look, with goggle-eyed proto-Mickey and Minnie. Only the text under the figures has changed to indicate Columbia.

The recreated titles for Cactus Kid used later Columbia title cards as design templates. At the time, researchers (myself included) didn't know that the earlier Columbia cards looked any different; thus the understandable discrepancy.
A later Mickey headshot was also added to the start of the recreated Columbia titles; originally, the Columbia Mickey shorts had no headshot.

By the time of The Shindig (1930) things began to change. The better-known Columbia end title was now used, though I don't yet know whether The Shindig was the first cartoon to use it:

Pioneer Days (1930) is the earliest title where Disney itself has publicly released a newly-located original element. It didn't make the American DVD release in 2003, but for the disc's later issue in Europe, it was swapped in.
You'll notice that this time the episode title remains on-screen when most of the title card fades out. I don't know if Pioneer Days was the first Columbia Mickey to use this technique, but it's the earliest example I've thus far seen:

The Castaway (1931) was shown with original titles on the Disney Channel in the 1980s, but cropped tight so the Columbia references weren't visible. Here is the whole image (and its 1990s recreation, very close this time):

Unlike many of the elements I've accessed and studied, the original Delivery Boy (1931) was able to be viewed. Here are its main titles courtesy of my friend and colleague Tom Stathes (compare with the very close recreated version here):

Well into 1932, Columbia's Mickey title cards were still using primitive 1930 Mickey and Minnie character models. Interesting how they hadn't been supplanted with streamlined designs. Maybe a little too interesting... for gosh sakes, what's this?

In spring 1932, when United Artists was preparing to replace Columbia as Mickey distributor, this promo image appeared in a Kay Kamen trade catalog. Drawn unmistakably by Floyd Gottfredson's comics team, it appears to be an intended update of the Columbia title card design.
Nevertheless, I have seen no film elements that include it—Columbia or otherwise. Columbia kept their 1930 design to the bitter end, and then the first United Artists titles looked like this:

The recreated version this time comes from among the first recreations done. At that time, it was evidently preferred not to mention United Artists, thus the omission of their name.
The recreated title sequences for this and other United Artists cartoons tend to feature the episode title zooming toward us as the rest of the card fades away. Original United Artists Mickeys were famous for this technique—but as I've only recently learned, they didn't introduce it until 1933.
Mickey's Nightmare (1932) was the first Mickey cartoon to open with a Mickey headshot on its initial release. The subsequent Trader Mickey (1932) had it too:

The recreated versions here are based on 1974 reissue titles for seven United Artists-era black and white shorts (not including Trader Mickey). The 1974 end title matches the 1974 main title for design and character poses. Both are staged from further away than the original 1932 image—so that 1970s theatres could crop them on the top and bottom for widescreen.
The opening headshot stayed as-is. At this point, we see that it isn't meant to be Mickey's "real" head—but rather a kind of sparkler toy. The beams of light whirl around it wildly and seem to come from within, as well as from behind. And then Mickey's face... well... er, see for yourself!

Somewhere, "Exploding Mickey" sits on a therapist's couch alongside the Lumber-Jack Rabbit Warner Bros shield, asking their mutual shrink how they can apologize to the many kids they've scared.
The recreated titles for Whoopee Party use the original title lettering, though inserted in the new template for understandable reasons.

The Wayward Canary (1932) tries out an odd, wider-than-usual font in the original title box. Maybe the 1932 letterer had heard a few noisy birds too many—and was sad, glad, or a little mad. (I was a little mad, myself: no end title on the only original element I could find.)

By the time of Mickey's Pal Pluto (1933), "Exploding Mickey" was replaced with one of Mickey's most famous headshots, at first seen in the proportionally small size depicted below.
Pal Pluto is also the earliest short I know (though not necessarily the first) to have originally featured the episode title zooming toward us as the rest of the card fades away. This time the "zoom" is hand-drawn, with the text actually animated as it moves.
The headshot in the recreated version here, with its more contrast-y sunbeam background, also comes from the 1974 reissues.

Mickey's Mellerdrammer (1933) boasts a title sequence that epitomizes the "classic" look. It opens with a small-size Mickey headshot; its episode title trucks mechanically toward the camera as the rest of the title card fades away. In essence, this is how we remember all the United Artists Mickeys looking (compare with recreated version here):

But the Disney studio never rested on its laurels. Having reached this "classic" look, the Mickey title sequences kept right on evolving.
With Ye Olden Days (1933), Disney toyed with making the opening Mickey headshot significantly bigger than before. Its thick lines look a bit awkward at the larger size:

Perhaps an entirely new headshot was called for. The earlier "Exploding Mickey" was reinked and repainted without the dynamite action (or third-degree burns). The result was a stunning title card variant that has not been seen by scholars for nearly eighty years.

With this bright new face came other alterations. Instead of zooming toward the viewer, the episode title now fades up to a larger size. The end card boasts a new blurb about the films' recording system.
Puppy Love (1933) was not the first film to effect these changes, but it is the earliest one where I can show you footage in action, here from a silent print in my personal collection. (Update 9/16/13: Soundtrack comes from Mickey Mouse in Black and White DVD [2001], where the opening and ending music cues are not original, but I can't help that—yet!)

Yet the changes to the Mickey titles were still not over. The end of 1933 brought a much more radical transformation in which all of the title cards were completely redesigned!
This new look would persist through the final black and white shorts in 1935. Here we see Giantland (1933), the earliest cartoon I know to have reflected the overhaul:

It is "new news" to me and other scholars that the black and white shorts received this final title card revision. Thus, past recreated titles have carried on using the 1932 design, for understandable reasons. Here is a comparison of the original Two-Gun Mickey (1934; sorry, end card missing) with its recreated equivalent...

And finally Mickey's Service Station (1935). Who woulda thunk? Not me... just a few short years ago. It just proves that there's no limit to these discoveries.

It turns out that the final Mickey black and white opening title was pressed into service one more time later in the 1930s. Several years before the burlap titles, at least some of the early Mickeys got an earlier reissue for which this card became the generic opener. (If you're a film collector and remember these Mickey and Minnie figures, now we know where they started out.)

Speaking of Two-Gun Mickey, our favorite rodent's Wild West prowess is also visible this week in Mickey Mouse: High Noon at Inferno Gulch, the latest volume of Fantagraphics Books' Floyd Gottfredson Library. Locating rare film materials is fun and fascinating—but there is no dearer project to my heart than the Gottfredson Library (Facebook page here), a series I co-edit and that I've waited my whole life to enjoy.

A "true" blogpost on the Gottfredson Library, and on the fellow writers and scholars who have helped make it possible, will hopefully land on Ramapith in the not-too-distant future. For now, allow me to say that if you like the research that appears on this blog, you'll find a mess of it in High Noon at Inferno Gulch. Rare spin-offs; unproduced cartoon relics; ancient foreign comic book covers; and with them, 200+ pages of Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey at his two-fisted, personality-plus comics best.

That's the spirit.


Kevin W. Martinez said...

You are the MAN, David. History marches on faster than we ever could have predicted.

Back on GAC, I had done this semi-definitive look at the various Disney titles. I had assumed that the REAL UA Mickey title probably looked like the one in the mini-cartoon in MICKEY'S GALA PREMIERE. I was wrong.

Thanks for all this work in putting together the puzzle of B/W Mickey titles. If/when Disney gets around to remastering the B/W shorts for high-def, if they can't flat-out use these prints, hopefully they will at least use them as reference for a more approximate recreation.

Chris Sobieniak said...


wundermild said...

Spectacular entry, David!
Regarding the promo illustration from the Kay Kamen catalogue - Mickey holds a crayon in that one like he did in the Columbia titles (implying that Mickey just wrote the catoon title on the blackboard), but in the UA titles the crayon is gone. Did Disney possibly at one time think about animating Mickey writing the title (but eventually settled with the animated headshot)? (The contemporary Flip the Frog openings, or Warner Brothers closings, for example, were animated as well.)

Anonymous said...

It has been somewhat obvious that the bulk of the black and white Disney short titles we've seen since 1974 were recreations of some kind. Aside from minor font shifts and word omissions one thing distinguishes the originals from all later recreations: the erratic exposure on the original animation camera, which later (and improved) animation cameras Disney used did not have. Just compare any of the originals, especially those shot before 1934, with their later versions. The rattle and flicker are absent from the relatively rock solid recreations yet are obviously present in the cartoons themselves, which were of course shot with animation cameras of their time. A few years back when I brought up this point I was shouted down by several bloggers who insisted that what they were seeing in the 1974 Mickey reissue main and end titles was absolutely the real deal. Yet the 1974 titles were shot in 1973 at the earliest on far newer, more stable hardware than existed in the late 1920s, and they lack any discernible flicker. You have proven it beyond doubt with this blog post!

ramapith said...

Anon: I've seen a few near-immaculate prints of mid-30s originals that actually come very close to lacking flicker, so that's still not a 100% foolproof guide.

The easiest clue to finding originals on film is looking for textual references to UA and/or Columbia. If they're not there, you have either a late 1930s retitle (like the later TWO-GUN MICKEY I illustrated) or a 1974 retitle.

The 2004 wave of recreated versions leave in Columbia references, but don't exist on film to my knowledge.

There are also foreign originals from the 1930s floating around. Tom Stathes and I have done some preliminary research (and the foreign title cards are often beautiful), but that's a topic for another day.

Debbie Anne said...

Between the Disney Treasures Mickey Mouse in Black and White sets,Fantagraphics' fantastic Gottfredson series, and posts like this one, I'd like to commend you and everyone involved for keeping the early Mickey Mouse alive.

Valentin said...

Aw... I wanted to see Mickey Rugbyman in motion.

Richard said...

I absolutely LOVE it.

One problem: all the pictures for the titles for "The Cactus Kid" lead to the same picture when clicked on.

Other than that, you da MAN.

ramapith said...

Debbie, I played no central role on the Mickey Black and White DVDs—I "only" contributed research to the improvement of a handful of shorts. We owe the greatest thanks to Leonard Maltin and his colleagues at Disney DVD, who made what were once very rare films into an affordable library that's easy to enjoy.

Richard, I think I've fixed the Cactus Kid problem. #$%@ new Blogger software...
As for whether I'm da MAN—am I a man or a mouse? My Mickey studies would be much more limited without the peerless help of Tom, J. B. Kaufman and other film collectors and researchers.

Kevin W. Martinez said...

I wonder if the change to the last opening from the one before it coincided with the decision to ditch "Minnie's Yoo-Hoo". PUPPY LOVE has it as the theme song; GIANTLAND does not.

Kay said...

Thank you for putting this together. It is always fascinating to learn more about the history of Disney shorts and other animated titles of that time. Thanks for the great article.

Steven Hartley said...

Terrific find!

Now I wonder how much MGM or Warner Bros. original titles are to be found ;-).

Anonymous said...

Lumber Jack Rabbit is 3D hence the odd shield move

Jeff Kurtti said...

Brilliant research, fascinating presentation. Thanks so much, David!

Mark Sonntag said...

Fantastic post David. I think in Mickey's Gala Premier we can see what the titles looked like as the cartoon being screened in the short starts. I wonder why they discarded the titles from the original negs.

Anonymous said...

Amazing, Dave, These Titles look cool and neat, thanks for sharing them, can't wait for more.....