Suspended Animation #230
The reason for so many unmade Mickey Mouse animated shorts was not just that a story idea didn’t seem to gel but that Mickey was the victim of his own early success.
When interviewed in a 1949 issue of Collier’s magazine, Walt stated:
“Mickey’s decline was due to his heroic nature. He grew into such a legend that we couldn’t gag around with him. He acquired as many taboos as a Western hero — no smoking, no drinking, no violence.”
Some ideas did, however, progress almost to the final production stage. For example, two unreleased Mickey Mouse shorts from 1951 were close to completion before they were abandoned.
One of them, The Talking Dog, focused more on Pluto than on Mickey, like many other Mickey shorts of the time. Pluto is kidnapped by Pete, a con man selling a fake concoction that he claims is “the medicine that takes warts off frogs, turns hiccups into teacups and guaranteed to cure the Texas tickle!” He demonstrates it to the crowd using Pluto.
Fred Moore did the animation of Mickey Mouse and Norm Ferguson worked on Pluto. Mickey must rescue his canine friend and the short climaxes with Mickey and Pete battling on top of Pete’s runaway medicine show van with Pluto trying to steer with his teeth.
The Plight of the Bumblebee is the other nearly completed Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1951.
Once again, the primary Mickey Mouse animation was done by Fred Moore, with other scenes animated by Cliff Nordberg and Hal King. John Sibley may have been involved as well.
Director Jack Kinney offered his explanation why the short was abandoned before going to ink and paint:
“The best Mickey ever was never finished. It was called The Plight of the Bumble Bee, and it was all finished in animation. It had an awkward length, but Fred and Sib agreed that it could not be cut, so it was shelved.”
Most animation scholars, however, agree that length was not the major factor in the cancellation of the film.
The Plight of the Bumble Bee is not “the best Mickey ever”, but it is a nice cartoon and a little out of the ordinary for Mickey. For one thing, he is dressed in a suit and a hat (think of Mickey dressed as Don Draper from the television series Mad Men) and calls to mind the “look” of Goofy as an office worker from cartoons of the same time period. It was a more suburban look that was common in that era’s daily newspaper strips.
The film has straight voice-over narration. I asked voice expert Keith Scott whether he recognized the announcer’s voice or any of the other voices in the film:
“I think the narrator could be Wendell Niles, Ken Niles’ brother. The singer sounds a bit like the frog singer Bill Roberts in places, and the female sounds like Aileen Carlisle, but I am sure since the film was nearly completed that the Disney Archives could find the payment records from that time period to accurately identify the voices.”
Walt always said that Mickey’s voice, because of its limited range, could not sustain long stretches of dialog, so maybe that is the reason for the narration (just like in the typical suburban Goofy cartoons of the period, which were also directed by Kinney).
In the film, Mickey stumbles into a local bar, where he finds a bee named Hector singing “bebop” (a bee who is jazz bopping), but notices that the bee occasionally hits a beautiful operatic note. Mickey decides the bee is destined for bigger things, and becomes his manager by signing Hector to a contract. However, Mickey soon discovers that the reason Hector is singing in a bar is that he has a weakness for the nectar of flowers.
In fact, whenever he has a drink of nectar, he becomes a sloppy drunk. So, Mickey tries to keep Hector away from temptation. Unfortunately, for Hector’s operatic debut, the stage set is decorated with flowers and Hector overindulges, sending the female opera diva on stage into a fit and a faint. Chaos ensues. After the performance, a defeated Mickey runs across a musical grasshopper outside and decides to try again.
The premise is similar to that of other animated cartoons, like Dixieland Droopy (MGM 1954), One Froggy Evening (Warners 1955), and Finnegan’s Flea (Paramount 1958).
In 1981, Daan Jippes, who was working in the Consumer Productions division of the Disney Studio in Burbank, was browsing though some index cards in the Disney Archives when he found some information about Production 2428 (The Plight of the Bumblebee), including the location of three dusty boxes filled with stacks of animation, layouts, photographed storyboards, and x-sheets (exposure sheets). He also found the recorded soundtrack (with the final voices) on a transcription disc.
In an interview with Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz, Disney Legend Floyd Gottfredson, who did the Mickey Mouse comic strip for decades, pointed at some artwork on the wall above his drawing table and said:
“This big model sheet up here was all made from drawings that [Fred Moore] made for… a featurette, called The Plight of the Bumblebee. Mickey had a bee that could buzz operatic numbers; he was a great virtuoso that way. But the bee had a weakness, he was a nectarholic: he’d get drunk on nectar, so Mickey had trouble controlling him this way. Fred got that picture about 90% animated, I understand, and Walt dumped it because he got scared of the alcoholic connotations.”
The “alcoholic connotations” were probably not the reason the film was dropped because during this time period drunkenness was not considered a disease but rather a weakness and often was used as a springboard for comedic moments in films.
The Fred Moore model sheet was later used as the cover for a 1972 animator recruitment booklet from the Disney Studio entitled What Do You Know About Disney?
Under the supervision of animator and director Bunny Mattinson, and using all the elements that Jippes had been found, a picture reel of The Plight of the Bumble Bee was filmed and shown to Disney executives; unfortunately, Jeffrey Katzenberg (then Chairman of Walt Disney Studios) chose not to complete it.
After the screening, someone walked away with the picture reel—but fortunately, Mattinson had had the foresight to burn a one-quarter inch copy for himself. When Jippes was working on the television series Mickey MouseWorks in 1999, there was talk about finally finishing the short and using it on the series—but nothing came of it.
Perhaps the real reason for these two shorts being abandoned was Walt deciding that he couldn’t generate a good enough story that would properly showcase Mickey Mouse. He told an interviewer in 1951, the same year these shorts were abandoned:
“I’m tired of Mickey now. For him, it’s definitely trap time. The Mouse and I have been together for about 22 years. That’s long enough for any association.”
Those harsh words did not reflect Walt’s true feelings, just his frustration at being unable to find a good vehicle for Mickey.