Personality of the Early Cartoon

By David Johnson





In his striving for a separate and well-defined personality of every character his artists created, Walt was supreme but not alone. The following is a short overview of personality in the early cartoon and an insight into the perennial charm of Mickey Mouse, still remaining the most potent of all cartoon characters.

Personality in the cartoon probably began with Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur in 1913. As the original advertisement declared: "She eats, drinks and breathes! She laughs and cries! Dances the Tango. Answers questions and obeys every command!" Not bad for a twenty million plus year-old reptile. But what passed for personality, or lack of any, over the next several years, was overshadowed by the simple delight in seeing drawings come to life on the screen. Cartoons were new. Besides, fantasy was their forte - things that couldn't possibly happen in real life. If one wanted personality, Mary Pickford had more than enough to go around of that.

So, with J.R. Bray's series starring Col. Heeza Liar (whose first film, Colonel Heeza Liar in Africa [1913], quickly made him cartoon's first popular character) and Earl Hurd's more sophisticated Bobby Bump, the accent was novelty. The Colonel was based on Teddy Roosevelt and his exploits emphasized exotic locales and predicaments. The nearly contemporaneous Bobby Bump series of Earl Hurd is noteworthy in that several cartoons display a sense of plot - a definite beginning, middle, and end - unique for the time. (incidentally, Earl Hurd was one of the original story sketch men on Snow White.) But other cartoons, like Mutt and Jeff and especially Krazy Kat, while popular comic strips, clearly suffered in comparison with their still-life's spark and originality. Even Koko the Clown and Farmer Al Falfa, though serviceable, were memorable mainly for the technical achievements in the milieu of the former and the story settings of the latter. Something was missing.

Then, in 1919, came Felix the cat, and audiences were finally treated to a cartoon character whose personality had a public popularity far greater than anything known heretofore. To quote Leonard Maltin in his book Of Mice and Magic - a History of the American Animated Cartoons: "Felix had a mind, and he used it to think his way out of a tough spot. From this foundation came the trademarks of this series: Felix's pensive walk, with head down in a thoughtful position and hands clasped behind his back, and his unique gift for turning his tail into any implement necessary at the moment - an or, a baseball bat, a fishing hook, a telescope." He could even become something else, metamorphosing into a suitcase to take his next free trip. Felix had everything and was even honored by thought to have affinities with Chaplin. In this comparison, however, he would more than meet his match in a character soon to put him, and all others that came before or after, into the shade.

With the debut of Mickey Mouse, something extraordinary happened. Suddenly an ungainly rodent with a falsetto voice squeaked his way not only into his own newly-created niche but soon had an entire world waiting to cheer on each new exploit. This unprecedented phenomenon, whose impact and popularity continues to this day, defies any simple solution.

Both the advent of sound as well as the Great Depression have been cited as possible explanations. Certainly, the squeaking did help. For the first time, an audience could hear as well as see a cartoon character, just as they did those in live-action films. But there is certainly more to it than that, as Felix and other formerly strong and silent types, instead of following in the same footsteps, began their final fade-out. Also the effects of the Depression were only gradually felt from 1930 onwards by which time Mickey was already well established (although perhaps not the world-wide draw he would soon become). There are other, fundamental differences, however, between these new Disney films and their predecessors.

Prior to the Disney sound cartoons, audience response was, outside of laughs, at a minimum of emotional involvement. Of course, humor is an emotion but to quote the writer Horace Walpole, "To those who think, life is a comedy; to those who feel, it is a tragedy." You laughed at Felix but you never cared deeply about him. With sound and even the very first Mickey Mouse films, the audience suddenly became emotionally involved for the first time and began caring about a character and what happened to him. That was because Mickey, in spite of some early rude and insensitive behavior (common, it should be noted, to cartoons of that period), was a personality who himself felt and cared. Minnie, his life-long sweetheart, was his first foil to evidence this. Mickey loved Minnie and his actions showed it. We, too, felt the same, with her over-sized high heeled shoes and her long eyelashes blinking away their feminine charm. Here was something truly irresistible and something the public was totally unaccustomed to from a cartoon. There had been cartoon romances but this was really a match made in heaven and it put you there as well.

The simplicity of these emotions made them universally recognized and accepted. Even the Japanese became entranced. Mickey's basically good qualities and his "Ah shucks" attitude provided great possibilities for a friendly and dependable source of world-wide entertainment, now increasingly in need of such a constant spirit.

But while the above are all important factors, perhaps the single key ingredient to his success and what made him unique was that he had vulnerablity. Like Chaplin, this was a personality trait, not simply the result (as in prior characters) of some situation. For all his bravado, Mickey Mouse is really just human. This is what not only sets him apart but can been seen as a basic strain throughout the Disney product. Someone always feels deeply about something and their real or imagined loss imparts in us a similar response. The tension and resolution of a cartoon story now had an emotional basis in reality, without which, however brilliant might be its other components, all would be as flat as the poor man's champagne then offered as legal draft.

It has often been claimed that Mickey's personality is limited and that he became increasingly dependent on other characters to buoy interest in something inherently less than fascinating. While there is truth to this it is not the whole story. Only in retrospect does Mickey sometimes appear less than satisfying in the company of his usual cohorts. At the time, he was fresh and invigorating. How else could something so supposedly bland capture the world's attention and hearts as well? His swashbuckling antics ŗ la Douglas Fairbanks or his Lindbergh-like bravery were usually in the service of chivalry - another identification with the fantasies most of us share in our more romantic moments. Mickey, whose size always seems disproportionately small to the larger problems he is forced to confront, would come to symbolize the triumph of faith and determination over any obstacle. Also, as often pointed out elsewhere, Mickey became Walt's own alter ego - more than once finding himself in similar circumstances.

Thus in Walt can be found Mickey and probably vice versa. And although this cannot be said with the same assurance regarding Mickey's soon-to-be retinue, it provides a handy starting point for a faithful menagerie whose worldwide appeal shows no signs of receding: Peg-Leg Pete (voiced to perfection by free lance artist Billy Bletcher); Pluto - "no mere dog, but a creature with an independent stupidity that would do credit to any man," - whose famous first look at the audience (in the 1930 short The Chain Gang) was a preview of the new dimensions yet to come; Goofy (again, blessed with the voice of a lifetime in Pinto Colvig), more human than dog but really more idiot than human; and, of course, Donald Duck (Walt in a snit), to name only the most popular.

None of these characters, it should be noted, were conceived in the forms we are now accustomed to seeing but arrived there through a very distinct honing process. By this is not meant only the drawing but the actual personalities themselves which, under Walt's guiding eye, were even early on intended to behave within well defined limits unique to each one. "Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, Pluto, and Goofy all had very definite character structures. Many funny gags were disallowed because Walt felt that they were not within the limits of a given personality. Such restrictions were almost unheard of in the other studios in the 1930s."

Such groundbreaking concepts that soon would be taken for granted in all cartoon studios were among the many things that set the Disney Studios apart in the early days of the sound cartoon and would provide a firm basis when the time came to tackle the industry's most ambitious project to date: "Disney's Folly."

This article is Copyrighted © 2000 by David Johnson, and have beed printed here for the first time in Animation Artist Magazine with Johnsonís permission. David Johnson is a regular columnist for Animation Artist Magazine, and we thank him for his insight and willingness to contribute his knowledge and talent to the animation world.