Tuesday, November 18, 2008

MICKEY MOUSE AND JOHNNY MERCER




Today is Mickey Mouse's 80th birthday. What a grand career the grand old mouse has had and what a goldmine he has proven to be for The Walt Disney Company. Mickey has a lot of dreams possible. I wrote a great song once called "What Do We Love About the Mouse? that really tells it all. I have of course a great affection for this amazing creation. He is so simple and so amazing.Steamboat Willie was first released on this date (November 18, 1928. It was co-directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Iwerks again served as the head animator, assisted by Johnny Cannon, Les Clark, Wilfred Jackson and Dick Lundy. This short was intended as a parody of Buster Keaton s Steamboat Bill Jr., first released on May 12 of the same year. Although it was the third Mickey cartoon produced, it was the first to find a distributor, and thus has been cited as Mickey's debut. Willie featured changes to Mickey's appearance (in particular, simplifying his eyes to large dots) that established his look for later cartoons.
But the cartoon was not the first to feature a soundtrack connected to the action. Fleischer Studios, headed by brothers Dave and Max Fleischer, had already released a number of sound cartoons using the DeForest system in the mid-1920s. However, these cartoons did not keep the sound synchronized throughout the film. For Willie, Disney had the sound recorded with a click track (that same great device that we use in the recording studio, today) that kept the musicians on the beat. This precise timing is apparent during the "Turkey in the Straw" sequence, when Mickey's actions exactly match the accompanying instruments. Animation historians have long debated who had served as the composer for the film's original music. This role has been variously attributed to Wilfred Jackson, Carl Stalling and Bert Lewis, but identification remains uncertain. Walt Disney himself was voice actor for both Mickey and Minnie.The script had Mickey serving aboard Steamboat Willie under Captain Pete. At first he is seen piloting the steamboat while whistling. Then Pete arrives to take over piloting and angrily throws him out of the boat's bridge. They soon have to stop for cargo to be transferred on board. Almost as soon as they leave, Minnie arrives. She was apparently supposed to be their only passenger but was late to board. Mickey manages to pick her up from the river shore. Minnie accidentally drops her sheet music for the popular folk song "Turkey in the Straw". A goat which was among the animals transported on the steamboat proceeds to eat the sheet music. Consequently Mickey and Minnie use its tail to turn it into a phonograph which is playing the tune. Through the rest of the short, Mickey uses various other animals as musical instruments. Captain Pete is eventually disturbed by all this noise and places Mickey back to work. Mickey is reduced to peeling potatoes for the rest of the trip. A parrot attempts to make fun of him but is then thrown to the river by Mickey. This served as the final scene of this short.Audiences at the time of Steamboat Willie's release were reportedly very impressed by the use of sound for comedic purposes. Sound films were still considered innovative. The first feature-length movie with dialogue sequences, The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, was released on October 6, 1927. Within a year of its success, most United States movie theaters had installed sound film equipment. Walt Disney apparently intended to take advantage of this new trend and, arguably, managed to succeed. Most other cartoon studios were still producing silent products and so were unable to effectively act as competition to Disney. As a result Mickey would soon become the most prominent animated character of the time. Walt Disney soon worked on adding sound to both Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho (which had originally been silent releases) and their new release added to Mickey's success and popularity. A fourth Mickey short, The Barn Dance, was also put into production; however, Mickey does not actually speak until The Karnival Kid in 1929 when his first spoken words were "Hot dogs, Hot dogs!" After Steamboat Willie was released, Mickey became a close competitor to Felix the Cat, and his popularity would grow as he was continuously featured in sound cartoons. By 1929, Felix would lose popularity among theater audiences, and Pat Sullivan decided to produce all future Felix cartoons in sound as a result. Unfortunately, audiences did not respond well to Felix's transition to sound and by 1930, Felix had faded from the screen. But Today is also the birthday of one of the greatest lyricists of all time: the late great Johnny Mercer who died in 1976 -- three whole years before I ever really wrote my own song, myself. It also was on this date in
1928. that Johnny Mercer came to New York City where with a roommate he existed by eating oatmeal (sound familiar?) His very first song was "the little ditty "I'm Out Of Breath And Scared To Death of You" followed closely by I'm Building Up To An Awful Let Down" for Fred Astaire. Those songs failed, but in 1932, he had his first big hit in a song that he wrote both music and lyrics for called "I'm An Old Cowhand, On The Rio Grande.) Of course he wrote such amazing songs as Moon River", "Jeepers Creepers" and Frank Sinatra's big hit "Goody, Goody". It's also the birthday of another great lyricist: the one and only W.S. Gilbert and today would have been the 100th birthday of an amazing comedienne who I actually got to meet (I'm showing my age, here) during a performance of my Christmas musical "A Moment With Mister "C" way back in 1984 at the late great, Gio's Cabaret in Hollywood-- where Broadway On Sunset was born. I continue writing with John Nugent as we edge up to our big deadline on November 30th. He has finished the opening number to our new musical "THE REVENGE OF ICHABOD CRANE" and it's simply amazing. We open the show with the ending of the famous Washington Irving classic story, but we soon discover that Ichabod was not killed at all, but was saved by a most surprising character. The script and lyrics are all finished as well as one other new song sung by Ichabod's character called "After All". Well, more later. Today is a most beautiful sunny day.

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