Go West, young mouse
A sometimes overlooked part of the comedy Western oeuvre (posh word, oeuvre) is the animated cartoon. But it was inevitable, given the popularity of the Western, and especially, pre-war, the more juvenile Western, that Mickey and his confrères would go West. Later in the 30s, all Mickey’s cartoon colleagues would follow his trail, Porky Pig in 1936, Popeye in 1938, Bugs Bunny in 1944, and so on. Later on, cartoon cowboys got their own shows. There was something vaguely Western about Huckleberry Hound, and Deputy Dawg, of course, was pure cowboy. We might return to those masterpieces in future posts.
But today, a Walt Disney magnum opus – indeed two magna opera.
Released in April 1930, the eighteenth Mickey Mouse short to be produced, the third of that year, The Cactus Kid was personally directed (and partially voiced) by Walt Disney. It was the first short with Marcellite Garner as the voice of Minnie, and the first time in a Mickey Mouse cartoon that Pete has a peg-leg. The film is a 7-minute gem.
It’s quite a cross-border Western, for Mickey wears a large sombrero and Minnie, who is a saloon gal in a cantina, speaks with a strong Spanish accent. Of course above the door of the cantina it doesn’t say CANTINA but CAFÉ. Mickey rides to this café on his pal, the boastful show-off Horace Horsecollar (‘voiced’ by Count Cutelli), and once there plays a cheerful tune (España, Rhapsody for Orchestra by Emmanuel Chabrier) on some wine glasses (so I guess it is a cantina after all) and a spittoon. But he is rather too forward with the saloon gal, tweaking her nose, and Minnie biffs him, such that his sombrero loses its crown and descends to waist level, becoming a ballerina-style skirt, prompting Mickey to dance. He also then proves to be a virtuoso pianist on the saloon Joanna.
That’s all fine, and Minnie is placated, but then the villain of the piece arrives, on his ass (perhaps I should say donkey, to avoid misunderstanding). It’s the huge, leering Peg-Leg Pedro and he instantly demands a kiss from the fair Minnie. Naturally, brave Mickey springs to her defense. Both hero and villain have .45s, of course.
The lights go out and there’s much blazing away in the dark (in fact they seem to be machine pistols). Then Pedro emerges from the saloon with Minnie in his grasp, gets on his as- er, donkey, and rides off, while Mickey follows in hot pursuit (they are accompanied by Offenbach’s can-can) on Horace, who is faster.
Now, you know Jeff Arnold’s West doesn’t deal in spoilers (lead, yes, but not spoilers) so I can’t reveal what happens, but rest assured that it does not go well for Pedro.
However, you should be aware, dear e-reader, that The Cactus Kid is actually pretty well a remake, for in 1928 Mickey had starred in The Gallopin’ Gaucho¸ which had distinct similarities. Still, we mustn’t be picky. In Gaucho, Mickey drank beer and smoked a cigarette. That’s all gone. Puritanism has arrived.
Reviews of this epic The Cactus Kid were, naturally, ecstatic. Variety said, “For any house that wants to add novelty, comedy and a sure-fire audience-pleaser here’s a pip rolled into six minutes. They don’t get into the Paramount by mistake and Walt Disney and associates have combined pen and sound effects for beaucoup laughs.” Well, indeed, Variety, indeed. The Film Daily said it was “Another of the first-grade cartoon comedies turned out by Walt Disney, and it’s a pippin of the front rank. Sound effects are blended into the pen-and-ink creations in such a way that the result is sure-fire for laughs, to say nothing of the unique and unusual nature of the performance.” Couldn’t agree more. And Motion Picture News commented, “Mickey is a cowboy in this and rides to a saloon to make love to a rodent senorita. The villain enters and there is considerable fun. It averages well with others of this popular series, and has a sufficient number of laughs to please most audiences.”
Well, OK, maybe not ecstatic, exactly, but still, you know, favorable.
Naturally, with The Cactus Kid a smash hit, a sequel was inevitable, and indeed, in December the same year, Columbia put out the majestic Pioneer Days. Walt himself had withdrawn to the drawing board and direction of this blockbuster was entrusted to the great Burt Gillett, famed for that art film Three Little Pigs.
I should probably have included this film in my recent post on Wagon-Train Westerns, for in Pioneer Days Mickey and Minnie are leading a wagon train. They sing Oh, Susanna! (Minnie on the banjo) as the oxen cheerfully pull their wagon along.
They camp for the night, circling their wagons, of course, and they sing and dance, including an old goat performing a melancholy rendition of Darling Nelly Gray which causes all to weep.
The wagon-trainers are unaware, however, that lupine Indians (they are in fact wolves) have spotted them and are doing a war dance (though it seems to resemble a belly-dance).
The attack comes, with the Indians riding round and round the circle of wagons, obviously, and Minnie is captured. So I should also have included it in my Captivity Narrative essay. Regrets, I’ve had a few. Minnie is tied up by one Indian, and Mickey rushes to her rescue. While Mickey and the Indian are fighting, Minnie settles things by dropping a hot coal down the Indian’s pants. The two mice return to the wagon train, pretending to be the US Cavalry riding to the rescue, the Indians are routed and the settlers celebrate. It’s all pretty gripping.
The Michael Mouse cognoscenti admire this film too. In Mickey’s Movies: The Theatrical Films of Mickey Mouse, no doubt your frequent bedtime reading, Gijs Grob writes, “The [cartoon] features spectacular animation, including a dance with long shadows around a bonfire (animated by Norm Ferguson), and two stunning scenes animated by Ben Sharpsteen: a complex attack scene, and an impressive shot taken from one of the horses circling the encampment, showing a moving background of wagons in perfect perspective. Also spectacular is a piece of animation by Wilfred Jackson: the fight between Mickey and a horrible Indian, who has kidnapped Mickey. The fight is shown in close-up, and contains complex movements between the two. It’s scenes like these that show Disney maintaining his edge in the animation field.”
So there you have it, two landmarks in the evolution of the comedy Western genre, and both essential viewing for any serious Westernista.