Like many “overnight successes,” the success of Mickey Mouse did not happen overnight. Audiences and critics were delighted by Steamboat Willie when it opened at New York’s Colony Theater in November 1928, but that and the other early cartoons were distributed in a haphazard way, and moviegoers across the U.S. and around the world gradually began to discover Mickey for themselves during the following months. By the end of 1929, Mickey was becoming a bona fide popular favorite.
This long-awaited success, after years of hard work, brought out an entrepreneurial instinct in Walt Disney. Capitalizing on that early momentum, he sought creative new ways to promote his cartoon star. One such idea came to him in September 1929 when a California exhibitor started a “Mickey Mouse Club” for children at one of his theaters. Walt was delighted with this idea and immediately expanded on it, promoting a nationwide chain of Mickey Mouse Clubs and putting the Disney studio’s support behind them. The studio supplied membership cards and other paraphernalia for club members, and sent a special promotional trailer to theaters hosting the clubs. This trailer could be shown at the Saturday-matinee meetings, and depicted Mickey himself leading the young viewers in singing the club’s theme song.
The song, of course, was “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo,” composed by Carl Stalling for the 1929 short Mickey’s Follies. The highlight of that cartoon was Mickey’s performance of the song for an enthusiastic audience of barnyard animals. “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo” was the Disney studio’s first original song. It was published as a song sheet later in 1929—another promotional enterprise—and became the theme song of the Mickey Mouse film series, played instrumentally under the main titles of every Mouse short for the next four years. Now, in 1930, it logically became the theme song of the Mickey Mouse Clubs as well, and theaters full of young club members sang it as Mickey conducted them from the screen.
Most of Minnie’s Yoo Hoo, the film, is cannily assembled from art that had been created for other films. Most obviously, Mickey’s performance of the first verse and chorus is animation from Mickey’s Follies, the film that had introduced the song in 1929. The opening scene, with Mickey at the piano accompanied by his animal ensemble, is also taken from Mickey’s Follies. The velvet curtain that opens and closes several times during the reel is animation from a later short, Fiddling Around (the film that is sometimes misidentified by its working title, Just Mickey). Only the group “YOO HOO” at the end of the chorus, and Mickey’s spoken addresses to the audience, were animated expressly for this singalong reel—and, in addition, much footage is consumed by title cards reproducing the song lyrics.
The animation of Mickey’s singing action here is noteworthy. His wild gyrations are exaggerated for comic effect—but they’re also exaggerated for another reason. It’s important to remember that in the summer of 1929, when Mickey’s Follies was produced, the idea of an animated character speaking dialogue was still a novelty.
Mickey himself had spoken dialogue on the screen for the first time in the previous cartoon, The Karnival Kid, produced about a month earlier. We know from Walt’s letters to his distributor, Pat Powers, that he was tremendously excited over this innovation—and we know from Powers’s correspondence that he did not share Walt’s excitement. Powers, in fact, actively discouraged Walt from letting Mickey speak dialogue in his pictures. Anxious lest the use of English dialogue make the films less salable in foreign countries, Powers pressed for predominantly visual comedy that would be universally understood.
Walt had always featured visual comedy in his films, and would continue to do so—but it’s significant that he not only refused to abandon dialogue, but actually raised the bar in Mickey’s Follies, letting Mickey sing English lyrics in the film’s key sequence. Mickey’s exaggerated lip movements are part of his enunciation, making the lyrics unmistakably clear to an audience that was unaccustomed to singing cartoon characters. And, of course, when the same animation was repurposed for this singalong reel, that overdone enunciation was useful in helping young viewers follow the words of the song. Production papers suggest that Mickey’s singing scene was originally animated by Ben Sharpsteen, and despite the unusual focus on Mickey’s extreme mouth action, Sharpsteen’s characteristic animation traits do seem to be on display here. In 1930, when the scene was adapted for the singalong film, Sharpsteen was again called on to provide the new bridging animation.
It’s perhaps also worth noting that Minnie’s Yoo Hoo, the film, includes the second verse of the song. The second verse was included in the published song sheet, but was not heard from the screen—apart from this little reel for the Mickey Mouse Clubs.