Saturday Matinee #139: "The Jazz Fool" (October 15, 1929)
Published August 31, 2013
by Albert Gutierrez
I had so much fun hanging about with black-and-white Mickey Mouse, that I decided we'd visit him again this week. "The Jazz Fool," a late 1929 short, doesn't really offer much in story. In fact, it's a rather mindless "song and dance" piece that exists solely to entertain. Not to say anything is wrong with that, but it's to be expected during this stage in Mickey's life. While Walt was still striving for innovation in the cartoon field, he still had budgets and deadlines to follow, which meant every once in awhile, we'll get a cartoon that's not too memorable today, but popular enough in its time. Let's take a look at just how "The Jazz Fool" fits that description.
Mickey Mouse and Horace Horsecollar embark on a world tour. Well, a tour. Okay, they've got a wagon and a few friends to follow. But at least the "Big Road Show," as it's called, offers exciting calliope music. Mickey's at the helm, while Horace is in an unnatural position as a four-legged creature pulling wagon. Several resident cows at a barn dance along to the music, as do some laundry hanging on the line. The music should sound familiar, public domain relics we all know and love.
The road show stops in the town, with Mickey and Horace now having a twofer with calliope and drums. Horace seems to impress a very statue-esque spectator, who soon becomes part of the show when Horace grabs him and uses him as a makeshift drum. After he's had enough of that, Horace uses his own dentures as drums, mimicking Mickey's more well-known use of a cow's teeth ("Steamboat Willie").
Now, it's time for Mickey to play. He sits by his piano, playing a little ditty with passion, energy, and verve. Sometimes, he gets mad at the ivories, pounding them out of their place. But they seem to fall back into melody. And this song seems to go on for awhile. But Mickey's so adept at the board that he can sometimes take time to look away from the keys and to the audience. He gets so passionate at playing that he'll hum along with a "Do-dee-do," jump up and down on his stool, and the piano itself. Really, Mickey's turned piano-playing into a very intricate piece of performance art. Albeit, this is art that nearly kills the piano, who cowers in fright at the damage Mickey puts it through.
One thing we have to remember is that synchronized sound was still a novelty in this era. The motion picture business did see a boom in sound pictures after The Jazz Singer, some great, some terrible, but with the new fad that everyone had to go see. Even Mickey's own creation came about out of both the loss of Oswald and the opportunity afforded to Walt by creating a synchronized sound cartoon. Thus, though we would argue that story should be important to these cartoons, the technological prowess of marrying picture and sound was already a huge enough selling point for the audiences. Musicals often showcased this synchronization best. 1929 even saw the first musical take home the Academy Award for Best Picture. The winner, MGM's The Broadway Melody, is a bit of a chore to watch today whenever anyone's just talking, but the musical sequences still are fun to watch.
With "The Jazz Fool," we have no dialogue to worry about. This is strictly music, and Mickey's occasional "do-dee-do." Thus, synchronization would be better studied by the beats on Horace's drum, or Mickey's strumming of the piano keys. Truthfully, the animators did the best with those sequences. They made the piano-playing look both accurate to the music, and believable even amidst some of Mickey's more strange methods of playing. Then again, I've been playing the piano for about twenty years myself, so I probably was able to recognize how it "should" be played better than the average viewer. (Not that I'm tooting my own horn about my piano playing; I doubt I could play by ear what Mickey did based on sight of the keys alone. I'll leave that to experts in the field, as I play piano recreationally.)
On re-visiting the film's technological synchronization, perhaps I was a bit too harsh in calling it mindless. After all, I'm certain the animators put plenty of time and effort in studying the art of piano playing. And with Carl Stalling at the helm for music, they already had a master on which they could follow. It's just that "The Jazz Fool" exists more to fulfill the needs of its time, rather than as a cartoon that's meant to last beyond its years. You don't remember it as much as you would other "song and dance" cartoons, because we have little that is remarkable about it, beyond the extensive "Mickey playing the piano" bit.
"The Jazz Fool" is only available in 2004's "Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White, Volume Two."