Sunday, June 14, 2009

Another Mickey Mystery

I am reading Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master by Michael Sragow, and Sragow discusses Around the World in 80 Minutes, a 1931 documentary starring Douglas Fairbanks and directed by Fleming.

What's interesting is that the film apparently contains an original animated segment with Mickey Mouse. There is no mention of this in Disney biographies by Bob Thomas, Neal Gabler or Michael Barrier. There's no mention of it either in Leonard Maltin's Of Mice and Magic or Barrier's Hollywood Cartoons. Here's what Sragow has to say about this film.
While Fairbanks and company visit Siam, they watch a performance of a classical Siamese dance troupe; Fairbanks says that the rhythm beneath the exotic moves and music is the same as the fox-trot, then tries to demonstrate that notion by twirling a Siamese gal around a ballroom. Out of nowhere, he announces, "Now, here's Hollywood's most famous star dancing to Siamese music. C'mon, Mickey!" The film turns into a cartoon and Mickey Mouse prances out from a doorway on the right side of the screen. Against a temple backdrop, the mouse pulls off a mix of traditional Oriental choreography and American folk dancing. His hands try to pull off elegant courtly gestures, but his feet can't help tapping or clogging. He slants his eyes for a second or two, in a mixture of frustration and homage -- no slur intended, all in good fun -- then does a series of keep-on-truckin' clogs that would make R. Crumb proud.

It's a genuine novelty: the rarest Mickey Mouse cartoon. How it ended up in Around the World in Eighty Minutes remains anybody's guess. United Artists (of course) released the movie, and UA had agreed to distribute Disney's cartoons after the animator had fulfilled his still-running contract with Columbia. But no Disney cartoon received an official UA release until the summer of 1932; Around the World opened in December 1931. And Disney kept no record of any contract or correspondence between him and Fairbanks. Disney must have known that Fairbanks and Fleming were big fans of his. By then Doug had told the press that only Mickey Mouse fully exploited the capacity of the sound film: "These cartoons get their tremendous appeal from the perfect rhythm, in comedy tempo. of the little characters and of the accompanying sound. It is not merely synchronization; it is more than that; it is a rhythmic, winging, lilting thing, with what musicians call the proper accent-structure." So Disney might have simply done Doug a favor and cooked up that Mickey cameo for a renowned, vocal supporter.
Barrier's The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney reports that Disney signed with United Artists in December of 1930, so while Around the World in 80 Minutes predates the start of releasing his cartoons through UA, the deal was already in place at that time. Furthermore, my assumption is that because the animation was included in a feature, it fell outside the shorts distribution contract that Disney had with Columbia, as did the animation in MGM's Hollywood Party, made while Disney was releasing through UA.

The Museum of Modern Art has a print of Around the World in 80 Minutes and there is another copy at the Library of Congress. To the best of my knowledge, the film is not available on VHS or DVD. Has anyone seen this sequence or have more information to add?

UPDATE: You can read more about this clip thanks to Didier Ghez and JB Kaufman.

UPDATE 2: If you want to see the animation from the film, go here.


Thad said...

I think I know what David Gerstein's going to watch on his next MOMA trip!

Anonymous said...

I have, in fact, seen the MM sequence in AROUND THE WORLD at the Library of Congress. It's on Reel 1208 of the library's preservation copy.

The film will never be released on video or aired on Turner Classic Movies, because it's a plotless curiosity. The MM segment is the most interesting part, but again, only for hardcore Mickey fans.

Jenny Lerew said...

I'd never assume that any film will "never" be shown on TCM, because they've shown some damned esoteric stuff over the years(thank goodness). With the handsome if older Doug and MM, it would have some appeal for hardcore film buffs.

I know people who are familiar with this film and I've put someone on the trail to hopefully provide their own descriptions of Mickey's segment. This happens to be a D. Fairbanks year btw, thanks to the Academy's scheduling of some screenings, an exhibit and a beautiful book on him.