This past week marked the 118th anniversary of a momentary event on December 17th, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, that would grow to rock the world. A pair of bicycle builders named Wilbur and Orville somehow managed to get a spindly-looking winged whatchamacallit to stay up in the air under its own power for approximately 12 seconds. It would be nearly another five years and at least two major redesigns before their gizmo would be taken seriously. However, the stage had been set for the dawn of – the airplane.
Fast forward to World War 1, and the application of the device to the role of a weapon of war begins to make the public really sit up and take notice. Although the devices are still mainly of use for reconnaissance and can generally handle only light payloads or provide generally inaccurate ground strafing, the concept of the “flying ace” rapidly takes form with the immortalization of names like Manfred Von Richtofen and Eddie Rickenbacker. By now, the plane is definitely more than a novelty, and Rickenbacker would continue after the war in a concerted campaign to have the American war department prepare defensively for the notion of true aerial warfare.
Into the 1920’s, aviation design becomes increasingly more refined, streamlined, and horsepowered, as flyers strive to break all manner of records in speed, altitude, and distance flying. A major turning point occurred in 1926, when Charles Lindbergh became a household word by flying from New York to Paris non-stop in his custom-designed “Spirit of St. Louis”. He a was an overnight sensation, becoming as much a part of pop culture as the biggest superstars of modern times, and honored not only in recurring tribute by the film industry (including eventual portrayal by Jimmy Stewart for the big screen recreation of his flight), but in song by every Tin Pan Alley songwriter who could work his name into a lyric – most notably “Lucky Lindy” (a song which one can even find woven into the underscore of Columbia’s first sound cartoon, Krazy Kat’s Ratskin, to accompany a scene where he acquires enough arrows in his rear end to resemble a peacock tail – so takes off like a bird), and “Lindbergh (the Eagle of the U.S.A.)”, both recorded by Vernon Dalhart on several labels as well as by other artists, and popular sellers. The years that followed would further see the development of the commercial airline service, including ocean-hopping “China Clippers” capable of landings and takeoffs from water, and altitude records that would almost reach the stars, soaring into the lower regions of the stratosphere.Animation, as we have well seen by now in various genre explored in past articles of this column, loves to follow and build upon popular trends of the day. The rise of aviation thus would not go unnoticed, and provided new and inventive fodder for high-flying plotlines for virtually every major character, and plenty of minor ones. We’ll begin an exploration of the “wild blue yonder” in this most recent series, documenting cartoonists’ love affair with aircraft. To keep things manageable, we’ll generally stick to films focusing upon powered flight, rather than the alternative sub-genre of various winged fowl or other non-winged creatures trying to “fly like the birds” via their own flapping or soaring power.
To the best of my knowledge, there appears to be little or nothing in the way of powered flight cartoons predating WWI. Starting with said War era, and continuing into the 1920’s, there as usual are a good number of title listings which indicate probability that their films dealt with our topic subject, but are likely “missing in action” as so many silent films tend to be. Among these likely suspects are the following:
Colonel Heeza Liar – Bray Studios:
Colonel Heeza Liar, War Aviator (5/22/15)
Colonel Heeza Liar, Sky Pilot (5/1/24)
Bobby Bumps’ Non Stop Flight (1920)
Mutt and Jeff:
An Ace And A Joker (8/11/18)
Paul Terry – Aesop’s Fables:
The Gliders (1923)
Transatlantic Flight (1925)
Air Cooled (1925)
The Mail Pilot (1927)
Taking the Air (1927)
Flying Hunters (1927)
The Flying Age (1927)
Alaska of Bust (1928) (This is a speculation, as Terry was prone to have anyone who went to the Arctic reach such destination by airplane.)
Max Fleischer – Song Car Tunes:
Come Take a Trp In My Airship (1924 version)
The earliest survivors I can locate dealing with the subject come from the same year as the Lindbergh flight. The Non-Stop Fright (Pat Sullivan. Felix the Cat, 8/21/27) starts out as a typical day in the life of Felix, as usual getting no respect, as a maid sweeps him up along with the dust bunnies in a living room, and disposes of him out the window into a trash can. Having nothing particular to do, Felix encounters a newspaper left on the ground, near a road sign to no discernable destination reading “478 miles”. Removing the numbers off the sign, Felix inverts the open-top 4 to serve as a chair, places the 7 in his mouth to serve as a pipe, and places the 8 upon his nose to suffice for reading glasses. He reads of a $50,000 prize offered to the first to make a non-stop flight to Timbuctoo. Tossing the numbers back onto the sign in random order, Felix puzzles over how to enter the event. The answer presents itself in the form of a passing man carrying a sandwich-sign advertisement reading “Eat at Joe’s”. Noting a nearby manhole, Felix spies a nearby manhole and opens the lid, in hopes the man will fall in – but the man stops just short of the hole, and reverses directions. Felix takes matters into his own hands, grabbing a stick and physically prodding the hole to change its position to a closer proximity to the man’s path. The inevitable fall occurs, leaving the boards of the sandwich sign above ground on either side of the hole. Felix quickly grabs the boards, fastening them to the sides of an old rain barrel next to a building downspout. But what about propulsion? The man’s head emerges from the manhole, with a visible spiral spinning over his head to indicate dizziness. Felix lifts the spiral off the man’s head, and somehow fastens it to the bottom of the rain barrel, turning the barrel sideways to form a fuselage, with the spiral as a whirling nose propeller. And suddenly, Felix is off. (Never mind that his craft has no tail or flight stick – Felix will navigate on pure feline instincts alone.)
Felix spends a good deal of time negotiating a cloudbank, where his plane gets temporarily trapped in one of the puffy moisture balls. To eliminate the problem, Felix places the barrel’s tap spout into the side of the cloud, and opens the valve. Water pours from the cloud, diminishing it to nothing. However, Felix’s plane, once freed, flies off without him, leaving Felix ti fall onto the back of a second cloud, which transforms into the shape of a horse, After some prodding, Felix succeeds in getting his new steed to pursue his aircraft, then produces a lariat from nowhere and lassos the plane, while the “horse” holds the rope steady for Felix to board. Next, Felix faces a lightning storm. Felix grabs one of the passing lightning bolts, breaks off its end, and converts it onto a dueling sword, to fence with the further bolts which follow. A low ceiling drops lower and lower, until Felix is pushed below the ocean waves. Underwater, Felix spots what he believes is a gasoline pump with hose, and decides to refuel. (Do dizziness spirals run on gasoline?) The hose, however, is one of the tentacles of an octopus. Eluding one beast, Felix almost walks into another, with a passing whale almost swallowing Felix. The cat flees past a “Carp” on the beat, who fashions two eels into a police motorcycle to give chase after the cat, blowing a police whistle. A school of other pursuing fish is rounded up as a posse, and they all pile into the cabin of Felix’s craft when the plane gets stuck in a sand bar. A fight ensues inside the barrel, twirling the ship in spirals and loosening it from the sand. The barrel floats to the surface and takes to the air again, with the fish-fight still in progress inside it. A fish emerges, carrying a sword, with Felix ahead of him to “walk the plank” off the barrel’s wing. Felix almost drops into the water again, but stops in mid-air to test the water temperature with his toe, and now finds it too cold for his liking – so he merely climbs back up to the plane via an imagined invisible staircase. Finally, the “tide” of battle reverses, and the fish are ejected forcibly by Felix. Looking down, Felix sees sight of land, and realizes he is nearing his destination. But Timbuctoo is not a friendly place. Jungle animals pursue him. A hippo’s sneeze blows his plane backwards for a rough landing, amidst a cannibal village. Instead of a prize, Felix finds himself on the menu, and only manages to make a last-minute escape by yanking on an elephant’s skin, pulling it off, then blowing into the trunk hole to inflate the skin like a balloon, sailing away for the return flight in the iris out.
Ko-Ko Hops Off (Fleischer/Weiss Brothers, Inkwell Imps, 9/17/27, Dave Fleischer, dir.). In Max’s art studio, a fellow artist at a drawing board is just finishing a pictur of an impressive looking “Flying Cup” being offered as first prize for a “non-stop hop around the world.” At his own easel, Max is impressed by the trophy, and draws in Koko in the shape of a spinning propeller. “I’ll draw you a plane – Then you can be the first one to do it”, Max tells Koko. Max draws an ocean cliff for a starting position, and a reasonably well-designed craft for Koki. However, his pen leaks one ink blot, out from which emerges Koko’s dog Fitz, who, seeing the plane, assumes it is for himself, and hops into the pilot’s seat. Koko is not about to see his prize seat usurped by the pup, and forcibly kicks Fitz from the cockpit. Fitz removes his bruised tail to blow on it and rub it, then reinserts it into his posterior. Spotting what he believes is an egg on the ground, he is about to toss it at Koko, but discovers it is a rolled up live goose. A nearby wooden crate causes an idea to percolate in Fitz’s head, and he traps the goose inside the crate. Carrying it over to Koko’s starting line, Futz seats himself atop the wooden box, while the goose’s head and wings emerge protruding through gaps in the wooden slats. Koko’s going to have competition, whether he likes it or not. In the art studio, Max raises a small pistol to fire a starting shot, not realizing it is a water pistol, which fires right in the face of his co-artist. Max covers for his blunder by ducking the pistol inside his coat, and holding out his hand as if testing the skies for a rain downpour. Meanwhile, our intrepid pair of aviators take off – Fitz into the skies, Koko for a dive into the ocean. Koko briefly rises to the surface, but only atop the head of a huge sea creature instead of his plane. He dives off and sinks to the bottom, managing with some difficulty to light a candle underwater in search of his plane. The plane, taking on the temporary role of a submarine, passes by, and Koko grabs hold of the landing gear and diverts the ship into an upward direction.
When the plane rises above water, Koko uses his weight to flip the plane upside down, emptying the cockpit of a load of fish. Then Koko is in pursuit of Fitz. The two jabber at each other from atop their aircraft, and the bickering develops into an exchange of blows, with the fighters so wrapped up in their battle, they fail to notice their planes forging ahead, out from under them. They both scramble through thin air to barely catch hold of their respective craft, as Max’s co-artist puts them through a terrible night by pulling a ceiling light fixture’s switch on and off to simulate lightning, and spitting water from a cup at them to produce a rainstorm. The scene fades to black, resuming at dawn the next day, over the Eiffel Tower. (Odd that the prize was supposed to be for a round the world flight, while the actual flight merely replicates Lindy’s feat.) Koko and Fitz engage in an aerial dogfight around the tower point to determine who will land first, while the tower sways and even assumes the posture of a tall thin giant to duck out of the way of the planes’ swooping dives. One of Koko’s passes carves the top off the hats of three judges below with the plane’s propeller. Max’s co-artist now decides to play a dirty trick, and while the boys are still battling, he pulls out from under them the background of Paris, and replace it with Max’s original background, placing the boys right back at the starting line. As the boys’ planes crash, depositing them on the bluff below, the laughing co-artist announces that they still win the Flying Cup, handing it to the,. In a cartoon, anything may be taken literally, as the “Flying Cup” sprouts wings, eludes the boys, and takes off out the window into the real world. Fitz just giggles, but furious Koko slaps Fitz into a flattened form, resembling his airplane’s wings, then hops aboard, carrying Max’s fountain pen. He flies Fitz around the artist’s head, jabbing at him every which way with the sharp pen point, leaving his face a tattered mess, then soars into the inkwell for his usual exit.
Lindy’s Cat (Van Buren/Paul Terry, Aesop’s Fables, 10/16/27) presents an animal version of the famous flight. From a hangar in New York emerges the title character, to the cheers of an admiring crowd, as he, and his primitive plane, take respective bows. The plane is of unique design, with four mechanical human-like legs instead of wheels, and a small American flag fastened to its rudder. The cat mounts an automatic staircase that emerges from the nose of the craft, and takes the pilot’s chair, while a groundcrew man attempts to spin the propeller for engine contact. The crewman pushes one way on the prop several times, but it won’t turn over. Then, the prop flips a notch in the opposite direction, and the engine kicks into gear, spinning the crewman dizzily into a whirlwind and spinning him out of the scene. The strange craft proceeds down the runway, running like a quadruped at a gallop, and then the fuselage severs from the legs altogether and rises into the sky, the legs remaining on the ground to perform a little happy dance. (So how exactly is this device supposed to make a landing at its destination?) The cat performs a few needless loops and barrel rolls for the crowd before pointing the plane toward Paris. Now he gets down to business, performing in-flight maintenance by squirting the prop and tail with oil, then stepping out onto the wing surface to polish it like a floor. As he is doing so, a little mouse appears from under the wing and takes a seat atop it. “Stowaway!” shouts the cat, and chases the mouse over and under the wing and around the fuselage. The mouse finally bails out, and produces from an invisible pocket a ripcord, which, instead of a parachute, opens a pair of ladies’ bloomers which serve the same purpose. (Similar gags would become a recurring staple in later cartoons, including Minnie Mouse below, and later Jerry Mouse, using a brassiere for a double parachute in “The Yankee Doodle Mouse”.) Now, flapping its wings like a bird, the plane ascends up to the clouds.
Noah’s ark, piloted by Farmer Al Falfa in his often-assumed role of Noah, has been chartered as an observation ship for the halfway point of the journey. Happy passengers perform a vigorous hornpipe in anticipation of spotting the history-making event, while a parrot in the crow’s nest tries to quiet them down so he can concentrate on maintaining a lookout for the flight. Below decks, Farmer Al Falfa engages in a game of billiards to pass the time, with an ostrich as his competitor who makes things difficult by periodically swallowing the balls. Al is no expert in his own right, as he stands atop the table to try an unusual angle shot upon the three balls clustered together, and drives a gaping hole right through the table with his shot. Meanwhile, the plane is hitting some heavy weather, avoiding rain torrents by climbing over the top of clouds, and battling snow flurries by carving tunnels through the icy clouds with its prop. The parrot makes visual contact with the craft, and calls out to the passengers below. The animals all run from one end of the ark to the other as the plane passes, tipping the ship drastically with the bulk of their shifted weight. As the flight continues in a winding path over and under the clouds, the animals below are not content with letting the plane escape their view, and kick the ark into high gear in attempt to follow the flight’s progress. Several cats decide more speed is needed, and partner up with pelicans, who open their beaks to provide a passenger seat in their bill for the cats, then take off to follow te tail of the aircraft ahead. Another group of birds dive into the hold of the ship, emerging in twos, carrying by ears and tails long dachshunds upon whose bodies are draped long banners with the word “Welcome” on them. One bird overextends himself, carrying an elephant waving a small American flag with his trunk, and almost loses his passenger from the sheer weight. As the Parisian shore looms ever closer, a school of local ocean occupants also swims along to follow the climax of the flight. The cat performs a few more loops and rolls to please the crowd, then uneventfully lands in long shot below the Eiffel Tower (we never see how he compensates for having no landing gear). Without any closing gag, the cat receives a ticker tape parade for the iris out, as a sign fades in reading, “2600 years ago, Aesop said: You can’t keep a good cat down.” (A missed opportunity which might have been exploited a few decades later – What if Mighty Mouse had had to pursue the aviator cat across the ocean to rescue a load of mice he was smuggling to Paris?)
The Ocean Hop (Disney/Universal, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, 11/14/27), gives Disney his first set of wings (despite one previous airborne effort of a different nature in “Alice’s Balloon Race”). Oswald and Putrid Pete are rivals in an air race, where a $25,000 prize is offered for the first “hop” from New York to Paris. At the hangars, a row of planes prepare for the race by keeping in shape like a line of athletes performing calisthenics, with various animals serving as exercise coaches while the planes flex their wings, hop in place, and jump up and down. Pete performs a maintenance check on his pot-belled craft by performing a task that Mickey Mouse would later repeat in “Mickey’s Choo Choo”, shooting curving shots of oil from an can into the “armpits” of the landing gear and below the rudder, with a final shot into an obligatory “belly button” on the lower fuselage. A caption tells the audience that “The dark horse” is approaching. Yes, it appears to be a horse, but it is actually Oswald under a horse blanket and with a fake horse’s head on a pole, wheeling out to the field his super-secret craft underneath. The strange device looks like it is fashioned from a frying pan with wheels and a prop attached, and a broom tied to its handle to serve as a tail. Despite the secrecy of its entrance, its rev-up is no secret, emitting loud metallic clangs and bangs, which immediately attract the attentions of Pete. Pete laughs uproariously at the outrageous invention, while Oswald struggles to replace a wing which is falling off. Oswald and plane give Pete the raspberry, and Pete retaliates by squirting Oswald in the face with the oil can. But the plane has the final say, turning its tail to Pete and shooting a cloud of sooty exhaust at him, turning Pete black. (Oh, is that how he became Black Pete.) Time for a typical Pete dastardly deed, as he reaches into his pocket for a stick of chewing gum. Chewing the wad vigorously, Pete sticks the stuff between the pavement of the field and the plane’s front wheels. As the starting gun is fired, Oswald is left at the post, his plane desperately struggling to rise from the sticky chicle holding it down. In the air, Pete easily passes the other competition, including various flying machines fashioned out of soap boxes, bathtubs, and even a submarine torpedo. The struggle continues on the runway, and something has to give. It does, as the wings and motor od Oswald’s plane break free from the fuselage, and fly off by themselves over an ocean bluff, leaving Oswald briefly in mid-air in pursuit, and scrambling back to the cliff’s edge to keep from falling.
Three nephews of Oswald (I assume they are nephews, as they have Oswald’s long ears – however, they also queerly have the line-tails of mice (??)) show up late to watch the start of the race, riding aboard a dachshund. They find uncle Oswald at the cliff, and wonder what they can do. Oswald hatches an idea, and issues instructions to them, while he himself grabs some boards, and ties a long plank atop the shoulders of the dachshund to serve as a wing. The boys concentrate on inflating a pair of toy balloons, One is inflated in an unusual manner, as one nephew lies down on his back, while the other leaps upon his tummy to use him as an air pump for the balloon which has been placed over the prone rabbit’s snout. To tie the inflated balloon off, the second nephew yanks out the other’s tail, and uses it as a string. Oswald takes the balloons, tying one around the dog’s rear torso, and another to the dog’s tail, to serve as a rudder system. The dog’s rear rises, but his front drags. In a gag following the style of Felix the Cat, Oswald’s thoughts are projected in a comic-strip balloon with a question mark in it. Oswald removes the question mark to hook under the dog’s neck, then fastens the thought balloon to it, and the dog’s front also rises aloft. For forward thrust, Oswald instructs the dog to flap his long ears. (This flying device is nearly a direct lift from one fashioned bu Alice’s cat Julius in “Alice’s Balloon Race”,) Ahead, Pete loses all the other racers by redirecting a mile-tall road sign so that its pointing arrows to “Paris” and “South Pole” are reversed (since they’re over the ocean, what’s holding this sign up, a floating buoy?) Night falls, in the form of raindrops that accumulate and black out the sky for Oswald following at a distance behind. Dawn breaks to find Pete asleep in nightshirt inside his plane, rising as a dream cloud of wood being sawed saws the log through, to land with a conk on Pete’s head (an oft-repeated gag that Ub Iwerks would use again in “Jack Frost”). Meanwhile, Oswald, in the darkness of night, has appaently missed the switched road sign, and is still in the race – but barely. His dog’s ears are all pooped out. As Oswald rants and yells at him, the rabbit gets a better idea. Removing his detachable long ears, Oswald takes a seat facing backwards upon the dog’s torso, and uses his ears as a pair of oars, mimicking the moves of a rower in a racing scull. He overtakes the surprised Pete, who turns on some speed and catches up to Oswald’s tail. Producing a rifle, Pete takes a series of pot-shots at the balloons supporting Oswald’s craft. All are popped, and Oswald and the dog plummet. Disney doesn’t seem to care what happens to the dog, who presumably falls to his doom. But Oswald has a secret parachute attached inside the tail-patch of his trousers, and drifts slowly downward – landing right in the heart of Paris, where he is greeted and kissed by several dignitaries for the iris out.
The Stork Exchange (Charles Mintz/Paramount, Krazy Kat, 12/17/27 – Ben Harrison/Manny Gould, dir.), finds Krazy driving along in an old Jalopy. Suddenly, a small sprinkling of what appears to be rain hits Krazy’s car – but there’s not a rain cloud in the sky. Krazy looks up, to find a stork flying overhead, carrying a new bay in a bundle. This is an interesting gag, as one wonders if it’s funnier if we imagine the downpour as coming out of the baby, or out of the stork itself. Krazy’s auto is dual purpose – he merely pushes down on the collapsible roof, and it acts as a lever to make the chassis doors sprout wings. Then, Krazy revs up his tail to serve as a pusher-prop (a gag which would be passed down well into the 1950’s, used every week by Muttley in “Dastardley and Muttley in Their Flying Machines”) and takes off. In mid-flight, he conducts a little maintenance by squirting some oil from a can on gis tail to obtain greater speed. The trick works, but Krazy begins to outrace the autoplane, inching ahead of it in mud-air without winged support. Krazy looks over his shoulder, and waves his arm to signal the plane to get a move on. The vehicle uses its wings as if doing swimming strokes, propelling itself gradually forward until it is comfortably under Krazy again. Krazy witnesses the stork’s delivery of the infant, then follows the stork to his headquarters in the clouds, where babies are mass produced on an assembly line, and storks dispatched for deliveries by a stork supervisor. The rest of the film chronicles Krazy’s induction as a baby sitter to watch the shop while the supervisor goes to lunch, and his efforts to quiet a room full of wailing brats. Remade a few years later as “The Stork Market” (7/11/31).
Disney would find himself up in the air again, with the landmark Plane Crazy, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon off the production line, initially produced as a silent with a test screening on 5/15/28, though its wide release was delayed for lack of a distributor until after the debut of Steamboat Willie with soundtrack added. Carl Stalling receives credit for the post-syncing, though we have no record of whether any visual reference film for a beat-pattern “baton” (similar to the rising and falling pattern used by George Rufle at Van Bureu) was prepared for the task as with the scoring of “Steamboat Willie”, or whether Stalling conducted the music by hand. An unusual coincidence that Carl was chosen to score a film about an unsuccessful flight – after all, “stalling” is never a good thing for an aircraft.
A typical Disney barnyard is a flurry of excitement, as various species of animal perform the final stages of construction of Mickey’s revolutionary flying machine. Mickey strolls into frame and surveys the wing installation with a cocked-eye to ensure that things are level. It is unknown whether any removal of intertitles was necessary for conversion of the film to sound, but possibly one may have originally appeared at the end of the first shot, as there is a noticeable continuity break in the animation. From being alone in center frame, Mickey is suddenly at a wooden podium, on which is propped a book titled “How to Fly”. One can only dream how Disney might have summed up the personality or aspirations of his new character in an introductory caption. As currently seen, Mickey flips pages of the book, stopping at an illustration of “Ace of Aces, Lindy”. Looking in a mirror, Mickey is uncertain if he has the right look to assume this title himself, and musses his hair to give his coiffeur just the right look to match his hero. The crowd cheers as Mickey mounts his completed plane – a combination of a long open crate turned sideways, without even a hole cut in it for a cockpit, leaving the unbelted pilot to stand up all the way (not good for long trips, Mickey, so don’t try crossing the Atlantic with it, or your knees will give out), with a broomstick nailed on for a tail, and a couple of boards nailed to the sides for wings, having no streamlining for lift whatsoever. To make the gizmo even more undependable, its sole source of propulsion is a dachshund placed inside the side of the crate, who clamps his teeth upon the shaft of the propeller, then is wound up like a rubber band by a pig twirling the prop. As can be expected, the takeoff is entirely out of control, with Mickey immediately losing his footing atop the crate and left clinging to the broomstick tail, as the plane twists and turns, then crashes into a tree without ever having left the ground. (We are not supposed to give a second thought to what happened to the dachshund in the wreckage.)
Mickey is thrown clear of the crash, landing hard on his posterior, and utters one of his few vocal sounds of the cartoon – a disgusted, “Eh!” But there’s no keeping an aerial genius earthbound, and Mickey’s inventive mind is soon percolating again. Spotting an old “tin lizzie” under a lean-to roof next to the barn, Mickey wheels the vehicle out, discovering that Ford’s new model features metal so thin, it has elastic properties that permit the chassis to be stretched to desired length, allowing Mickey to extend the body to desired fuselage shape. He is also able to stretch the forward springs vertically to raise the engine to an inclined angle, and to yank out the rear suspension to remove the needless rear wheels. For wings, Mickey merely extends sideways the side panels of the hood, then straightens out the engine crank to form a propeller shaft, jamming onto it the salvaged propeller from his previous craft. Only one thing missing – a tail. Well, this is a barnyard, and there’s plenty of those to go around, with an excellent specimen just strutting by on the end of a proud turkey. A quick job of plucking, and the tail is removed from bird and added to craft, somehow automatically engaged with the steering column, so that the feathers extend and fold with a turn of the wheel. Not a bad job for a field improvisation – and even better than the original, as this model provides two genuine seats, for pilot and one passenger.
An historical aside is in order at this point. While lost to the memories of the modern viewer, the gag of creating a plane from a Model T was likely not an original concept of Disney or Iwerks, and in all probability stemmed from recent current events of the day – which, placed in their proper chronological context, would classify the Mickey gag as chosen in pretty poor taste. It so happens that the creator of the Model T, Henry Ford, had been thinking along the exact same lines. Having achieved an aeronautic success with a larger plane known as the Ford Tri-Motor (a plane which had considerable longevity, both as a passenger plane and in military and mail service), Ford had displayed at air shows as early as 1926 a single seat plane, small enough to fit in Ford’s office, which Ford touted as the popular man’s aircraft, intended to be the aerial equivalent of his Model T, and quickly dubbed the “Ford Flivver”. Lindbergh himself was invited to fly one of the prototypes, and reported it to be one of the worst aircraft he ever flew. On February 25, 1928, the pilot of one of the prototypes, in an air race attempt, suffered engine failure over the Atlantic, and fatally crashed. The loss would cause Ford to abandon the Flivver project. Was Disney and his small staff aware of this tragedy while “Plane Crazy” was in production? Or was the film already in the can, and too costly to change to avoid the poorly-timed commentary upon Ford’s venture? Perhaps it may have softened the blow to delay the film’s widespread release until almost a year later, but, even with the popularity of the mouse to boost public appeal, it can only be wondered how the transformation sequence played to a first-run audience, and how many with knowledge of the incident may have caught the reference and wondered at Disney’s sensibilities in taking cheap shots by poking fun at an aviation nightmare.
Anyway, back in the barnyard, Minnie Mouse makes her debut by handing Mickey a horseshoe for good luck. Mickey pantomimes to her an invitation to join him in a flight into the wild blue. While only mouthed in the silent version, the sound edition allows Minnie to utter the first line of spoken dialogue for a Disney cartoon: “Who, Me?” She joins Mick in the passenger seat, as the dachshund miraculously reappears unscathed from the crash, to wrap himself around the propeller shaft and spin the prop for “contact”. The plane is off – but still not upwards. Instead, it hits a rock, ejecting Mickey. Now, pilotless, it begins to twist and turn out of control, with Minnie as a helpless passenger, and doubles back to pursue its pilot on foot through the barnyard. In typical rural Iwerks humor, Mickey tries to take refuge in an outhouse that is already occupied, and when the occupant finally opens the door, he is chased full circle around the farmyard by the runaway plane, his tail still protruding all the while out of the open drop seat of his trousers. The plane next pursues the as yet nameless prototype of Clarabele Cow, seen in a point of view shot from the pilot’s seat as the plane tunnels between her legs and under her udders, leaving Clarabelle clinging to the plane’s tail. Mickey finally catches up, grabbing hold of Clarabelle’s udders (resulting in a milk bath), then grabbing Clarabelle’s tail, but merely succeeds in pulling the cow off the plane instead of boarding the aircraft. By some creative shifting of Claabeelle’s tail bones into her neck line, Mickey extends Clarabelle’s head to use as a boarding ramp to regain the pilot’s seat. Minnie, still in a panic, grabs hold of the mouse’s ears from behind, tugging violently at Mickey, until the steering column gives way, and disconnects into Mickey’s hands. In an uncharacteristic moment of surrealism, our hero conveys a shock take by having his ears fly off from his head briefly (a trait he would not reacquire again until the new Mickey cartoons produced for Disney television beginning in 2013). In 3D point-of-view animation as only Iwerks could then convey, the plane nearly crashes into numerous telephone poles and oncoming autos, then finally takes to the skies, turning full circle and leaving the camera behind, then zooming straight at the lens, allowing the shot to disappear into the blackness of Minnie’s screaming throat.
But things begin to calm themselves, and level off, as Mickey somehow gets the steering column to re-engage, and turns to Minnie to indicate that everything is fine. Now that the craft is flying smoothly, Mickey gets dwn to more serious business. He tickles Minnie under the chin, then pits his arm around her. Minnie rebuffs him, removing his arm, and waving a finger at him to pantomime “Uh Uh”. The creators of the soundtrack miss the first opportunity to give their star an actual line of dialogue, as it is clear from the animation that Mickey delivers the line, “Aw, come on”, but we hear nothing on the track. Perhaps Disney still hadn’t gotten up the courage to take a crack at performing lines. Mickey proves to be no gentleman, descending into tactics that one would generally expect out of the likes of Bluto. He puts a scare into Minnie by accelerating violently, then putting the plane through a series of dives ad loops that tie the plane into a literal knot, drop Minnie from the passenger seat, then catch her again by a dive underneath her. Laughing at Minnie’s fear, Mickey insists on a kiss again, and when Minnie still refuses, he forcibly takes one from her anyway. Outraged, Minnie slaps Mickey a good one on the face, walks to the tail of the plane, and jumps. Mickey, shocked at this development, walks out onto thin air to see what has become of his love. Minnie continues to fall, face first, but pulls a belt-string upon her lace panties, which expand to form a parachute, allowing her to gently sail down. Not such a comfortable fate faces Mickey, who realizes there is nothing between him and terra firma, and grabs out to catch the tail of the plane. Of course, a rudder is not the best place to grab an aircraft, and the move quickly forces the plane out of control, into a spiraling power dive. The plane crashes through tree branches, painfully depositing Mickey amidst a shower of debris from his shattered aircraft, followed by him getting hit on the head by Minnie’s horseshoe. Minnie gently lands beside him, but is a bit humiliated when she finds her panties have stretched, and will not pull up properly, but droop around her ankles. Mickey laughs at her predicament, but Minnie gathers up her lace as best she can, turns tail to Mickey, and walks off, preserving what dignity she has left. Disgusted at the way the day has turned out, Mickey tosses the supposedly lucky horseshoe over his shoulder. The horseshoe catches in the wind and boomerangs back, scoring a “ringer” around Mickey’s neck that knocks the mouse cold, as the stars emitting from his head envelop the frame for a quick black out.
Sky Skippers (Van Buren/Pathe, Aesop’s Fables, 2/16/30 – John Foster/Harry Bailey, dir.) – Farmer Al Falfa takes to the skies himself, this time without the assistance of Paul Terry, who had left Van Buren in a dispute over adapting to sound. It seems that everyone it the barnyard wants to be airborne. A quartet of cats and dogs sing “Come, Josephine, In My Flying Machine” aboard a plane that incorporates portions of its design from the cartoons of others that preceded it. This one uses Felix’s barrel and Oswald’s broom-tail, but a real propeller and a pot-bellied stove to provide steam propulsion (very impractical!). All manner of flying devices appear. Another dachshund becomes a fuselage as with Oswald. Devices are powered by bicycle pedals and paddlewheels. Some opt for balloon-style devices, one created by feeding a pig a cake of yeast, then merely grabbing onto his tail when he inflates. Another device resembles a rickshaw, with a propeller shaft fastened to two piston-like uprights propelled by the slow dancing movements of a man atop them. Various additional modes of transportation adapt to the flying craze by merely sprouting wings and taking off, including a cargo ship, and a steam locomotive and its entire trainload of cars.
Farmer Al views things enthusiastically from the ground below. “Do you wanna fly?”, asks a little dog. His idea: wind up Al’s legs like rubber bands propelling a toy airplane, then let Al’s big feet propel him skyward. The trick amazingly works, but Al’s elasticity doesn’t last long, and his feet sputter to a standstill, as Al sweats in realization of what will happen next. He begins to fall, and lands in the cockpit of another group of animals’ passing plane, knocking them all out of the driver’s seat. Al’s weight on impact doesn’t help the condition of the plane, as the tail instantly droops, one wing falls off, and the propeller shaft falls out. Al produces from nowhere an umbrella and a little wooden chair. Hooking the umbrella handle to the chair back, he attempts to fashion a parachute ejector seat. But as he tries to sit upon the seat, he forgets that the curved handle allows it to pivot, and slides off the seat into thin air, scrambling back to the plane against the laws of gravity. Steadying the chair again, he leaps off, holding onto the sear. But the umbrella pole disconnects from the handle, and Al finds himself falling again, reacting with a surprised “Wow!” He grabs at the nearest passing thing – an aerial ladder suspended below the landing gear of a stunt plane from an airshow. The cat pilot is not taken with Al’s unwanted company and extra weight, and climbs down to cut away the rope ladder. Al tries to climb the falling ladder, over and over, as its top drops as fast as he can climb it. Al finally passes the ladder rungs altogether, with nothing left around him but air. As Al resigns himself to his fate, falling in resolute drooping fashion, a quartet of angel trumpeters dissolve in around him, to sound a fanfare for their soon-to-be new arrival. Al crashes, but miraculously does not die, and merely hears the twitter of birds around him, then lapses into a dazed chorus of Mendelsohn’s Spring Song as passing dogs strew flower petals upon him, for the iris out. A reasonably advanced sound Aesop installment, with good animation closely resembling the quality of comparable Terrytoons Foster would produce upon rejoining the character and Paul Terry later in the decade.
You can watch it HERE.
The Haunted Ship (Van Buren/Pathe, Aesop’s Fables, 4/27/30 – John Foster/Mannie Davis, dir.) – Waffles and Don (the early cat and dog prototypes for Van Buren’s Tom and Jerry) are intrepid aviators, who seem to be bound for nowhere in particular. Their aircraft is of the pot-bellied variety with only a single seat – so little Don is left to sit on the elevator surfaces of the tail (a pretty precarious place to sit if you’re trying to maintain elevation) and occasionally take exercise by practicing his dancing steps, while Waffles plays a tune on the engine’s many exhaust pipes like a xylophone. A black cloud overhead begins to threaten, by forming into a face and taking an undignified spit at them. Another bulges at the top to form the silhouettes of a three-man team, two manning a water pump, and the third taking filled buckets of water pumped from the cloud and tossing them overboard at our heroes’ plane. The boys are adaptable to such weather changes, and pill out pairs of oars to row their craft through the sky. Suddenly, lightning strikes Don, who reacts with a yowl. Another bolt forms into the figure of a man and takes a seat on the wing, forcing Don to eject him with a swift kick. The lightning is angered, and pursues them in a cloud-hopping race through the sky. All three dive inside a black cloud and fight it out, with the plane the loser. As the plane falls toward the ocean, the boys for no reason lower a ladder from its belly hatch, and dive into the water a few seconds before the plane – then use the ladder to climb back into the plane again just in time to accompany it as it sinks bet\low the waves, where it is serenaded by a walrus, singing “Many brave hearts lie asleep in the deep.” The rest of the film follows our heroes through an undersea adventure in the sunken ship of Davy Jones, developing into a musicale that awakens the skeleton of Davy himself for an end-of-reel pursuit that never really resolves itself with any coherent ending.
Check out this version with live musical accompaniment:
Hawaiian Pineapple (Terrytoons, 5/18/30 – Paul Terry/Frank Moser, dir.), has been visited by this column before. Its island themes are of no particular interest to this column, but its side-story of an aviator mouse making an ocean hop over the Pacific definitely falls into the category. The mouse tries to spin the prop to start the engine, then climb into the cockpit in time to keep the engine in gear, but it repeatedly conks out just as he reaches his seat. The mouse returns to the ground, and gives the tire an aggravated kick – which immediately starts the engine, leaving the mouse to chase after the plane, and even swim through the air to catch its tail and regain his seat inside. A flock of ducks (their leader inexplicably pedaling a bicycle through the sky) decides to roost on the plane’s tail. The mouse shoos them, but eventually has to perform a loop to dump them off, then intercept them with his propeller to chop them into feathery fragments. The film presents one of the only cartoon examples of mid-air refueling, provided by an elephant who flies with his ears like Dumbo, waiting at a mid-ocean halfway-point atoll, who sucks and expels fuel through his trunk. The mouse arrives at the islands the hard way – crashing into the side of a volcano, right into its lava chamber. The fiery results upon his backside are much too graphically presented for the CBS censors to have let this film air on television, but he is eventually saved after over a minute of uncontrolled burning by a local mouse and her rescue brigade, and comes out of the ordeal without a scratch, to sail away with her aboard the back of a whale.
We’ll be cleared for takeoff again next week. In the meanwhile, scan the skies for a much more primitive mode of transportation, entirely non-aerodynamic but “more rapid than eagles”, with skids instead of landing gear, and a very bright red light at its nose. Merry Christmas, and to all a good night!