Most of my installments in this column have shied away from the studio’s primary bread-and-butter product during the 1930s and ’40s: the series of short cartoons released to movie theaters. The “other” Disney cartoons has meant the curiosities produced outside those series: the advertising, public-service, or nontheatrical educational films which the studio also produced, on the side. I’m breaking that pattern for this column. Squatter’s Rights was a regular entry in the Disney output of theatrical shorts—but it’s often overlooked today, and has so many odd unusual qualities that I think it qualifies as an “other” Disney cartoon in its own right.
To begin with, it marks Mickey Mouse’s return to the screen at the end of World War II, after a virtual absence (except for reissues of older cartoons) during the war years. Immediately before the war the Disney animators had experimented with Mickey’s appearance, giving him dimensional ears that turned in perspective, and trying a loose, rangy style of movement sometimes known today as “drunk Mickey.” Walt Disney had responded favorably to these experiments at first, but had later changed his mind and discouraged such liberties. In Squatter’s Rights Mickey announces his return to an earlier style of appearance and movement—making the point unmistakably with a short block of scenes recycled from The Pointer (1939), a film that had preceded those graphic experiments.
The new Mickey animation in this film is notable in itself: it’s almost entirely the work of Paul Murry, who is remembered today for his work on Disney comic books. Murry had started in the studio’s animation department and had trained under Fred Moore. In Squatter’s Rights, for the only time in his career, he was the lead animator on a Mickey Mouse cartoon short. My colleague David Gerstein has written at length about Murry’s work in comics; for now, suffice it to say that Murry’s distinctive style and poses are on display in most of Mickey’s performance here. It’s also worth noting an exception to this rule: at the climax of the picture—for one scene—Marvin Woodward takes over Mickey’s animation. Woodward was one of the studio’s most experienced Mickey Mouse animators, and the scene in question is a key incident in the story, capturing Mickey in an unaccustomed emotional moment.
7 June 1946 (RKO Radio)
MPPDA certificate 10510
Director: Jack Hannah
Layout: Yale Gracey
Animation: Bob Carlson (chipmunks awaken; chipmunks blow out matches and newspaper; chipmunks give Mickey hotfoot; chipmunks shake hands in closing scene)
Murray McClellan (chipmunk washes face, chipmunks hear approaching sounds and
alarmed at entrance of Mickey and Pluto; chipmunk mimics Pluto and punching-bag gag; chipmunk followed by Pluto’s nose, ducks into milk; chipmunks open catsup)
Paul Murry (Mickey enters cabin, takes off coat; Mickey scolds Pluto; Mickey tries to
start fire in stove; Mickey with hotfoot; Mickey exits cabin; chipmunks shame Pluto; chipmunks hide behind bowl; chipmunks and Pluto jump to mantle; Mickey reenters cabin; Mickey out door with Pluto and runs over horizon)
Hugh Fraser (Pluto enters cabin, brings log to stove and discovers chipmunk; Pluto barks
at chipmunks and reacts to Mickey’s scolding; Pluto brings wood, matches, newspaper, kerosene; Mickey confronts Pluto with match in mouth [with Coe]; Pluto waits for Mickey’s exit and chases chipmunks; Pluto sniffs after chipmunks, looks at milk, sucks milk from bowl; Pluto suspended between gun and table; Pluto lands on floor, doused with catsup)
Hal Ambro (chipmunks hide behind stove leg, imitate Mickey, plant match in Pluto’s mouth; Pluto’s nose jammed in gun barrel)
Al Coe (Mickey confronts Pluto with match in mouth [with Fraser], Pluto swallows match; LS Pluto chases chipmunks around room)
Ken O’Brien (Pluto confronts chipmunk in bowl, chipmunk escapes; chipmunks watch from inside stein)
Marvin Woodward (Mickey sobs with Pluto in arms)
Scenes reused from “The Pointer”:
Norm Ferguson (Pluto rolls over on back, jumps up on Mickey)
Ollie Johnston (Mickey in CU forgives Pluto)
John Lounsbery (Mickey in MS forgives Pluto)
Efx animation: John Reed (gun cocks; toenails slip from table)
Assistant director: Toby Tobelmann
Unit secretary: Mary Satterwhite
Another notable aspect of Squatter’s Rights is immediately obvious: the two mischievous chipmunks, clear prototypes for the little imps who would be developed as Chip and Dale shortly afterward. This was not the chipmunks’ first appearance; they had bedeviled Pluto in the wartime short Private Pluto (1943) and had been proposed for a followup Donald Duck short, eventually abandoned, before making this return appearance in Squatter’s Rights. Here they are animated primarily by Murray McClellan, who had been an assistant in the “animal unit” on Snow White a decade earlier. In 1947 they would turn up again in the “Bongo” segment of Fun and Fancy Free, among the chorus of forest animals mocking the little circus bear when he tried to climb a tree. Later the same year, after a slight redesign, their stardom would be made official in the short Chip ’n’ Dale.
Squatter’s Rights marked Mickey’s first screen appearance after the war, but it was actually started during the war. Production commenced in the spring of 1944, was temporarily suspended, and resumed in September 1944, proceeding slowly and intermittently through the fall of 1945. By late January 1946 Technicolor photography was completed, and the film was ready for release. Note, in the credit list above, the presence of Eloise “Toby” Tobelmann, one of the unit secretaries at the Disney studio. During the wartime manpower shortage, when women were sometimes moved into jobs ordinarily held by men, Toby served as the assistant director of a handful of Disney films. Squatter’s Rights was one of them.
Finally, it’s worth noting one more anomaly in the history of this unique little cartoon. Like many other Disney cartoons, before and after, this one features appearances by both Mickey and Pluto—but the Mickey Mouse series and the Pluto series were two separate product lines at the studio. Even if both characters appeared in a film, it must finally be branded as a Mickey cartoon or a Pluto cartoon. For bookkeeping purposes at least, it must be identified as an entry in one series or the other. Squatter’s Rights is unusual in that it was inconsistently identified, at one time or another, with both series. (This may be one reason it has sometimes been overlooked in surveys of Mickey’s cartoons.)
I am indebted to Kevin Kern of the Walt Disney Archives for pursuing the tangled history of this production: as originally conceived, it was registered with the MPPDA in October 1944 as a Pluto cartoon. By the time the main titles were photographed in the camera department, in December 1945, it was officially a Mickey cartoon, and duly opened with the giant Mickey closeup and the words “A Walt Disney Mickey Mouse.” This was the way movie audiences saw it in 1946—after which it was absorbed into the studio’s backlog of films, identified in company records as a Pluto cartoon. The confusion is embedded in the film to this day: as it begins, we see the Mickey Mouse opening titles—while, on the soundtrack, we hear the main-title theme music from the Pluto series!