Sunday, 18 November 2012

TAKING THE MICKEY

Since today is Mickey Mouse's 84th birthday (he made his screen debut in Steamboat Willie on 18 November 1928), I was trying to think of a way to mark the Mouse's special day. 

Then I remembered...

Back in the 1980s there was a great magazine called
Animator, edited by David Jefferson who, in just a handful of years, took it from a cyclostyled fanzine to a highly polished publication containing reviews and articles on many aspects of animation and the work of legendary animators.

Having written regularly for
Animator, I was delighted to discover that David is now busily uploading the magazine onto a dedicated section of his website.

Now, it so happens that in issue No. 23 of Animator, published in Summer 1988, I filed an exclusive interview with Mickey Mouse to mark his then 60th birthday.

Quite a lot has changed in the Mouse's life in the succeeding 22 years (he's made two more movies –
The Prince and the Pauper and The Runaway Brain – and is currently making a foray into the world of computer gaming with Epic Mickey. Nevertheless, as a snapshot of how he viewed life then, it may still be of interest – or, at least, amusement!

So, as Mickey enters his 85th year, here's a bit of celebratory nostalgia...


THE MOUSE'S TALE


On 18 November 1988, Mickey Mouse celebrated his 60th birthday
and granted a rare interview to Brian Sibley


He stands beside the pool, looking rather taller than I had imagined and casually dressed in slacks and a Hawaiian shirt. "Hi, there!" he calls in a sharp Brooklyn accent that takes me somewhat by surprise.

As I walk to meet him, he extends a white-gloved hand in welcome and gives me a broad, beaming smile. That famous Mickey Mouse smile. He grasps my hand with a firm grip and I can’t help noticing that he wears a Ronald Reagan wrist-watch.

"Come over to the yard, and I'll fix you a drink," he smiles and leads the way across a neatly manicured lawn to an Italianate patio behind the imposing pseudo-gothic villa that has never been listed in The Starland Guide to Hollywood. Motioning me to sit in one of the white cane loungers dotted around beneath the palm trees, he goes to the drinks-trolley.

"Too early for a Sorcerer’s Apprentice?" he asks. I have to confess that I've never heard of the drink. He gives me a faintly patronizing smile and begins emptying the contents of various bottles into a cocktail-shaker. "They invented it for me at Musso & Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard, back in 1940," he explains and pours out a large glass of vivid lilac-coloured liquid and hands it to me.

I take a sip and experience a sensation not dissimilar to a heavy blow on the back of the head. "Helluva kick, hasn't it?" Incapable of reply, I catch my breath and loosen my tie. "Have to watch them though," he adds, "I introduced Goofy to them and ever since it's been like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend over at his place. Tragic!"

Sadly shaking his head, he tops up my glass. "I suppose you'll be wanting the usual sixtieth-birthday interview?" he asks, and I glimpse a hint of boredom behind the smile. Not waiting for a reply, he opens a can of Coke and goes on: "I bet I can even guess what questions you're going to ask! 'How does it feel to have been a star for six decades? What's the formula for your success? Have you a recipe for a happy life?' etc, etc."

Undaunted, I open my notebook. Perhaps we might start with his first great movie? "You really want to talk about Steamboat Willie?" he asks.


"God, that was a terrible picture! It was a rip-off of a Buster Keaton movie if I remember rightly; and when I wasn't steering the paddle-steamer up-stream – which I did with a kind of reckless abandon – I was improvising a musical revue in the hold, using live animals for instruments! It's a wonder the Animal League didn't try to get it banned! If I'd been rather more established, I'd have told Walt just how crass and vulgar I thought it was. But the fact is, I needed the break. I'd probably have never got started at all if there hadn't been some kind of dispute going on at the Disney Studio. I never knew all the ins and outs of it, but there was this guy called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who was making pictures for Walt at the time. They were pretty crude really and no sound, of course. But Oswald got to be a bit of a star and began having run-ins with the Boss. The upshot was he quit and went to work for Walter Lantz – you know, the fellow with the woodpecker – and that made way for me." He pauses and looks thoughtful. "I wonder what happened to Oswald?"

Shrugging off the thought, he offers me a dish of Mickey Mouse jelly-shapes. I refuse. "Hideous, aren't they? Still, I get free supplies for doing an endorsement. Sometimes I think I've sold out too much to Disney, I mean, you wouldn't believe some of the things I've done for money. Do you know, in 1938, I was even advertising Latexeen Baby Pants – 'The most comfortable I've ever worn, says Mickey Mouse!' Isn't that gross? I've never been proud though, probably because I can still remember what it was like to go barefoot and hungry. But the money I've made for people, and not just Disney, either."

"Look at all those Mickey Mouse watches: it's said that Macy's sold 11,000 in just one day! You name it, I've appeared on it – breakfast cereal cartons, milk bottles, toffee-wrappers (I read somewhere that a guy in your country sold 150 tons of Mickey Mouse toffee in a week – that's one hell-of-a-lot of toffee!) And I once posed for a Cartier pin, studded with real diamonds they tell me. I didn’t get one, just a few dollars sitting-fee. Still, my philosophy is: 'Be grateful for what you can get!' After all, this Beverly Hills lifestyle doesn't come cheap you know, and – contrary to what you might think – Disney have never been very good payers."

I express some surprise at this; after all, surely they owe their success to Mickey? "Oh, yeah, I know that now, but back in 1928 when I signed the contract, I didn't think much more ahead than wondering where the next meal was coming from! I'm not complaining. I had a lot of fun. But I worked damn hard too. We did long hours in those days. And we did all our own stunts! When I look back, I don't know how I didn't end up in Forest Lawn! In one picture I'd be fighting fires, in the next I'd be hunting big game – with real big game!"

"I remember in one of my earliest pictures, Plane Crazy, I was supposed to be imitating Charles Lindbergh, who'd just made the first solo flight from New York to Paris. True I only had to fly round the farmyard set on the Disney back-lot, but the plane turned out to be a real death-trap built out of old orange-crates and powered by a tightly-wound sausage-dog! Even Lindy would have had his work cut out flying that! Yes, sir, mountain-climbing, whaling, trapping, ghost-busting; you name it, I did it!"

His eyes sparkle, and I know that – for a moment – he's back there, in front of the cameras and loving every moment of it. Then he sighs. "I used to think I was pretty well set up for life – especially when I won the Oscar in 1932 – but then along came this aggressive bit-player called Donald Duck and, before I knew what was happening, he was getting star-billing, number-one dressing-room, the lot! Don't get me wrong, Donald's got talent all right, if you like that kind of anarchic comedy, which I guess the public did – but, well, it's not what I call acting…"

He offers me another drink which I decline, but which he pours anyway. "I suppose I should have seen the signs… I began having to share movies with Goofy and the Duck. Before I knew where I was, they were getting all the real comic business. Take a picture like Tugboat Mickey. Name in the title, right? So what do I have to do? I'll tell you, I have to hurl buckets of water overboard – wait for it – into the wind! No one would think I began my career as a river-pilot!"


With an ironic laugh he bites the ears off a Mickey Mouse jelly-shape. "Anyway, all that's blood under the bridge, and I wasn't the only one to suffer. In fact, I hung in there longer than some. Remember Horace Horsecollar? And Clarabelle Cow? They were the first to go, along with Clara Cluck the Operatic Hen. Perhaps you don’t know her, she was the Kiri Te Kanawa of her day. She still does the odd commercial. If anyone wants a singing chicken, they send for Clara. But it's a far cry from Aida!"

I ask if he still sees any of the other members of the Disney stock- company? "Oh, sure. I play poker once a week with Pegleg Pete, who got out on parole last year – though he cheats like hell! I get the occasional round of golf with Horace (who's running a stud-farm) and the Goof (when he’s sober). And once in a while I shoot a game of pool with Jiminy Cricket. I’m afraid I still find him a bit Billy Grahamish, if you know what I mean, but there's no doubting his heart's in the right place."

What about the other Disney mice? "To be honest, we don't mix much. Jaq and Gus are quite amusing, I suppose, but I can never understand a word they say and they’re pretty thick with Cinderella and that royal set, which was never my scene. As for Timothy Mouse, well I always felt that if there'd been any justice in the world, I'd have got that part in Dumbo, so there's not a great deal of love lost between us."

And Minnie? Are they, I enquire, just as happy as ever? He laughs. "Well, of course, it’s only a professional relationship. 'Very good friends', as they say. But nothing romantic. Minnie's not really my kind of girl – I go more for the Daryl Hannah type."


But was Minnie a good actress? "One of the best, I mean the best. Ever see one of our pictures where she was terrorized by Pegleg Pete? God, could she scream! Fay Wray hadn't got a patch on her! But we've always tried to keep our private life, private. Actually, Minnie's happily settled with a guy called Jerry, who used to be in a cat-and-mouse act over at MGM."

And what about Mickey? "No comment!"

He pours me yet another Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and I summon up the nerve to mention something I've been wondering about for some time – the voice. "Not quite the falsetto you expected, eh?" he laughs. "No, well, you see I never used my own voice in films. Walt didn't think it sounded 'mousey' enough.

When I started out, of course, movies were silent, so no one cared a hoot what sort of voice you had. Then that idiot Jolson opened his mouth in The Jazz Singer and it was all-singing, all-talking from then on. I'd made three pictures by that time, but Walt decided to make them over for sound, starting with Steamboat Willie. Since he wasn't too keen on my voice, he came up with that crazy squeaky accent and dubbed it himself. These things go on all the time in Hollywood – take Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady – and, anyway, it's the acting that counts. After Walt packed it in, a guy called Jimmy Macdonald did the voice. We worked together for years. Nice man.

So who provides Mickey’s voice now? "Some kid named Wayne Allwine who keeps ringing me up to ask my advice on how to say certain words and phrases. As if I knew! I couldn't speak like that to save my life!" A Snoopy telephone on the pool-side table rings. "That’s probably him now!"

While he answers the phone, I browse through an old cuttings-album he hands me. It is packed with pictures of Mickey in some of his many roles: song-and-dance man, ring-master, magician, explorer, conductor, flying-ace, car-mechanic and giant-killer. The phone-call ends and he replaces the receiver. "I was wrong. It was the City Dog Pound. They've picked up Pluto again. Dumb mutt's always in some sort of trouble. This time he was digging up Joan Collins' flower-beds! I'll have to go down and bail him out when we're through here. Was there anything else you wanted to ask?"

I mention a picture in the album showing Mickey with Dopey and Grumpy outside the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. "Oh, that must have been 'thirty-seven, the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I gate-crashed! Walt and I were going through a rather rocky spell around then. Donald was making picture after picture and I was lucky if I made one or two a year. So I got a bit crabby and Walt tried to placate me with a part in this musical extravaganza he was working on at the time. Personally, I wasn’t keen."

Would he rather not discuss it? "Heck, no! I'd already done several musicals for Disney, of course. One of the best was my first film in colour, The Band Concert, made in 1935. That was really wild! I had to conduct an open-air performance of the 'William Tell Overture' in the teeth of a raging tornado that carried us all over the place before dropping us in a tree! At the end, I wanted to say: 'Pluto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!' but Walt wouldn't hear of it."


"This other musical, however, was something else altogether! I had to wear an outrageous costume that, frankly, made me look a bit of a faggot, and do a kind of aquatic ballet with several hundred extremely temperamental broomsticks. They got in some Polish guy with a funny name to conduct the music – all hellishly highbrow – and there was a lot of other weird stuff in the film as well. I haven't seen it in years, but I remember a bunch of extras from The Lost World, some knock-kneed ostriches, a lot of very unpleasant goblins from Russia – this was long before Gorbachov, of course – and a troupe of midgets who looked like toadstools! Walt called it Fantasia. I never did find out why. They tell me it's considered a classic today. No accounting for tastes!"

I ask about his eventual retirement from movies in 1953. "I'd made a picture called The Simple Things, it was set in Cape Cod or somewhere, with Pluto and I on a fishing trip. Sure was a boring movie! Pluto got most of the laughs, of course, and even the seagulls were funnier than I was! I just knew it was time to chuck the whole thing in."

"I did work in television for a few years in the 'fifties, hosting The Mickey Mouse Club five nights a week. Mostly it featured a mob of frighteningly talented kids wearing Mickey Mouse-eared hats. What was really cranky was the end of the shows when they all sat round singing a kind of hymn to me: 'M – I – C (See you real soon!) K – E – Y (Why? Because we like you!) M – O – U – S – E !' I mean that’s bizarre!"


So what brought him back to movies in the 'eighties? "What d'you think? Money! It was 1983 and the picture was called Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Same old story: name in the title, next to nothing to do on screen. Really it was a vehicle for Donald’s Uncle Scrooge McDuck."

And how like his Dickensian namesake was he? "A tight-wad, you mean? Hell, no! It's just an act – he modelled himself on Jack Benny, I think; and like Jack, he's generosity itself. Rich as Croesus – made his money in comic books, I believe – but he’d give you the earth. This cocktail set came from him and that’s a real ruby on the end of the swizzle-stick. Anyway, the best thing about the film was that for the first time I got more lines than Donald Duck. He was livid! Didn’t speak to me for a whole year. Best year of my life!"


What does he think of present-day movies. "Not much. But then I guess I'm just getting old. A lot of it seems to be the kind of Spielberg-Lucas space-fantasy stuff, which I'm afraid I don't go for at all. I guested in the latest Disney-Spielberg movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but I even thought that was a bit off-the-wall. Heaven only knows how that Rabbit's become such a mega- star. Seemed like a bag of nerves to me. Even Bugs Bunny found him difficult to get on with him. Perhaps he's a distant relative of Oswald!"

And will Mickey be making more movies? "Who knows? Maybe. McDuck would like to invest in a picture, so I could probably raise the cash. I've talked with Willie the Whale about a remake of Moby Dick – Ray Bradbury would write the screenplay for us like a shot – but it's probably a non-starter. After I saw Ruthless People, I did think of doing something along similar lines – Mean Mice or whatever – but, let's face it, Minnie is no Bette Midler!"

Mickey looks at his Ronald Reagan wrist-watch and sighs. "You’ll have to excuse me now, but I really do have to get down to that Dog Pound." I point out that we haven't talked about his birthday. "Who cares? After all, what's so special about being sixty? I've got more than a touch of rheumatics – Doc's recommended me to try green-lipped mussels, would you believe? – my eyesight's not what it was and if it wasn't for Grecian 2000 I'd be greyer than John Forsyth! Why not come back when I'm seventy or eighty or as old as Bob Hope?"

As I rise to leave, I hesitantly ask whether I might have a signed photograph – for my children, of course. He smiles, but shakes his head. "It's not allowed, I'm afraid. Studio rules. Besides, I've lousy handwriting – one of the problems of having to wear these stupid gloves all the time! Anyway, the kids wouldn't appreciate it. A signed photo of C3PO maybe, but not Mickey Mouse! We might as well face it, kids aren't what they were!" Then, with the flicker of a smile, he adds, "But then, who is?"



3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Mickey!
mg

Doz Hewson said...

I forgot today is Mr Mouse's birthday!!!! But he's 84, not 83.
Thanks.

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks, Doz! Good job somebody out there can count!