Disney Cartoon #22:
"The Mad Doctor" (January 21, 1933)
by Albert Gutierrez
The best part about writing for Saturday Matinee is that it gives me the ability to revisit favorite cartoons of my childhood, as well as discover a short or two that I may have forgotten or never seen. In addition, since I'm not viewing these shorts chronologically, I'm always able to see how the style of Disney animation changes - and sometimes stays the same - over many years. Plus, there's the added benefit of simply seeing memorable characters time and again, as writing Saturday Matinee guarantees that I visit Mickey and his friends every week. This week, I'll look at "the one that started it all" for me: 1933's "The Mad Doctor", which holds the distinction of being the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon I ever saw.
On a dark and stormy night, Mickey is awakened by the fearful cries of his dog Pluto. He peers out the window and sees the doghouse overturned, and footprints illuminated by the lightning. A hooded figure drags the resistant Pluto to a castle standing atop a skull mountain. As Mickey crosses the bridge towards the castle, the wooden planks all give way, stranding him at the door. He pulls on the knocker, which pulls himself into the castle and locks him in. As the camera pulls back to show Mickey's size diminish amidst the large room, bats fly overhead. Mickey walks cautiously through a corridor, and stumbles down a shaft into another room. Shadowy figures surround him, but they are merely small statues from a fireplace. Mickey then finds himself in a skeletal room, with a skeletal cuckoo clock and a skeleton who blows out his candle.
He walks up several stairs, not realizing there are skeletons underneath each floorboard. The hooded figure, Dr. XXX, straps Pluto to an electric chair, with a chicken also entrapped nearby. Dr. XXX then reveals his plan: he will attach Pluto's head to the chicken's body! As he looms in menacingly towards Pluto, we see the poor dog's heart and bones fall via an x-ray. Mickey hears Pluto's cries, and as he rushes to find his dog, skeletons chase after him, even throwing their skulls to stop him. They rope him into a large web, where a skeletal spider tries to capture him. Back in the lab, Dr. XXX has already cut Pluto's shadow in half, leading to more frightened cries. Mickey opens several doors, each one leading to another, but as he barges in, he ends up strapped to a table, with a saw blade slowly coming down toward him. Mickey does his best to avoid it, and finally wakes up from his nightmare. He yells out for Pluto, who jumps through the window to lick his master. All is well.
"The Mad Doctor" was really one of the few Disney cartoons that directly dealt with the macabre, and there are some very engaging sequences here that reflect that. Right from the beginning, we get that foreboding feeling with the storm, including the importance of only hearing Pluto's kidnapping at first. It puts us directly in Mickey's shoes, as we have no idea what is going on and can only fear the worst. Then, once we reach the mad doctor's lair, the backgrounds and the details are very intricate. You believe that it is a crazy lab, you believe that Mickey is trying to find is way out of the crypts. The cartoon is very effective because it never once falters in the atmosphere.
I may be biased in saying this, but this could very well be the greatest black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon ever made. It has a a very gripping story and the animation - both the characters and the little background bits - is top-notch for the studio. The sequences are both menacing and humorous, allowing the audience to be frightened while still being entertained. Most of all, the short depicts Mickey as the everyman, not just an invincible hero. We get a mouse concerned for the well-being of his dog, and he'll do whatever he can to get to him. It's that ordinary quality that makes him heroic.
As a child, this cartoon scared me like no other. And yet, I would watch it time and time again, not because of how scary it was, but because it was always great to see Mickey win out in the end. Watching Mickey wake up from his six-minute nightmare, it would give me such a feeling of jubilation and satisfaction. I celebrated Mickey's victory and shorts like "The Mad Doctor" truly show the heart of what Mickey Mouse was: the little guy who always prevailed and always won, no matter what the danger was.
"The Mad Doctor" is available in 2002's "Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White - The Classic Collection", a two-disc set that is sadly out of print and extremely hard to find. However, it's also one of the few Disney cartoons that have lapsed into the public domain, and so, I'm legally allowed to share a YouTube upload of the cartoon:
Even though Disney's restored and remastered version of the short is also on YouTube (I won't link to it, though), I intentionally picked a public domain upload of the cartoon. Partly to avoid any legal troubles, but I also want you to experience the cartoon as I did back in 1988. With muffled audio and nth-generation picture quality, the public domain version of "The Mad Doctor" seems even more menacing and ethereal than it really is. Granted, the best way to watch the cartoon is still the officially restored and remastered version. But seeing something in less-than-perfect condition sometimes does wonders to the viewing experience.