"The Haunted House"
Directed By Walt Disney


Synopsis

.....A fierce storm batters a house, and an unlucky traveler-Mickey Mouse.

After the storm destroys Mickey's umbrella, he notices the house and heads for it, hoping that the inhabitants will give him a place to stay. Mickey walks to the front porch, and knocks on the door. After receiving no answer, he tries to open the door, and the entire porch collapses! The front door opens, seemingly by itself, and Mickey peers into the interior, and is immediately frightened. However, the branches of a nearby (and quite dead-looking) tree rub against the seat of Mickey's pants, and he instinctively jumps right into the house.
.....Inside, Mickey receives a fright when the door closes itself, and the large barricade and padlock secure themselves.

Then, a number of bats emerge from the house's decrepit superstructure, and Mickey retreats inside a spittoon out of fear. A big spider causes Mickey to dive back into the spittoon, head first. Mickey has a delayed reaction to the discarded chew he was just in, and then runs out of the room when he hears something rattling.
.....Mickey stops in a hallway for a moment to catch his breath, and receives another shock when the lights above him shake and go out. After shouting, "Mammy!" three times in the darkness (a la Jolson), Mickey lights a match in the darkness while looking around nervously. Mickey's shadow turns into that of a looming figure, which Mickey runs from in terror when he notices it.

.....Mickey runs into a room with an organ, and heads for a door to the left of the organ. However, a steel door comes down on the second doorway, and a mysterious figure in a robe stops Mickey from leaving the room.

The figure then closes in on Mickey,

and it opens its hood.....

revealing the face of a skeleton!
.....The skeleton dives at Mickey and misses, but Mickey's progress is stopped by five more skeletons. Now stuck between a rock and a hard place, Mickey is picked up by the robed skeleton, who places Mickey between it and the organ.

The robed skeleton then gives Mickey a one-word ultimatum: "Play!"

Mickey, however, doesn't know how, and speaks, telling him just that.


"I-I-I-I c-c-c-can't play!"

The skeleton doesn't care, and repeats its ultimatum.


"Play!"

Realizing he has no choice, Mickey nervously agrees.


"Y-y-y-y-y-yes, Ma'am!"

Mickey heads for the organ, tripping in front of the stool. He gets up, and after the skeleton prods him on one last time, he begins playing.
.....After the robed skeleton helps Mickey get started, all of the skeletons in the room (which now totals eight, including the robed skeleton) begin dancing to the music, as well as a clock. First, the lead skeleton picks up his robe and begins kicking up its bony heels to the beat of the music. Next, a skeleton in one corner of the room plays a heater and a section of the wall like a xylophone before playing the heater like an accordion.
.....In another corner, two skeletons dance in tandem. The xylophone-playing skeleton plays himself, using his ribs and vertebrae as the keys before playing his ribs like a guitar.

The two dancing skeletons don hats while they dance as the final four skeletons dance together in a circle and then a line before their bodies are blown away by the wind from an open window.

Their legs, however, continue dancing, which lasts until the song ends.
.....Mickey slinks away from the organ after he finishes playing, but is soon noticed by the skeletons. Panicking, he runs out of the room and turns a door handle to another room. When the handle turns out to be connected to the arm of a skeleton, Mickey freaks out and runs upstairs, into a room, where he opens a closet door. Inside the closet is a bed, which falls down to the floor. A door near the floor opens, and a hand appears, placing a spittoon on one side of the bed. Then, two skeletons sit up in the bed and snap at Mickey.

Frightened out of his wits, Mickey jumps out the window and into a barrel, which collapses upon contact. The contents spill out and surround Mickey, revealing four more skeletons.

Mickey runs away to an outhouse and tries to open it. Instead, yet another skeleton emerges, and Mickey runs away from the house in terror as the skeleton slams the door on the outhouse as Mickey disappears from sight.

Commentary

.....The early days of Mickey Mouse (1928-1932) are always fascinating to watch, as they show off, in addition to the talents of the sorely underrated and forgotten Ub Iwerks, the development of Mickey from a sassy and sometimes crass (but still eminently likeable) character into the friendly, sophisticated icon that he is now. Perhaps chief among the black and white Mickeys that fascinate me is "The Haunted House". Promoted by Disney (in the history of Mickey short seen in 1984's Limited Gold Edition series of videos) as the first cartoon where Mickey spoke (in truth, it's not-"The Karnival Kid" featured Mickey's first words, and "Mickey's Choo-Choo" was when Walt signed on as the voice of his creation), "The Haunted House" is a big turning point in how Mickey was portrayed.
.....This short, however, remains a bit of an orphan among Disney shorts. It was produced and released at the same time as "The Skeleton Dance" (the first Silly Symphony), and is rarely mentioned in animation circles amongst Disney's dark black and whites, where the rarely-screened "Hell's Bells" (an early Silly Symphony that has been in suppressed distribution pretty much since the Hays Code was invoked because of Satanic imagery) and "The Mad Doctor" (the 1933 Mickey Mouse short that, in addition to having spent six decades in suppressed distribution, is considered to be one of the greatest shorts of Mickey's black and white career) are king. In fact, the shaky distribution status of "Hell's Bells" and "The Mad Doctor" is likely the reason why "The Haunted House" made it to home video in the 1980s on a collection of hair-raising shorts that included "The Skeleton Dance", "Pluto's Judgement Day", and three truly creepy Donald Duck shorts: "Donald Duck and the Gorilla", "Duck Pimples", and "Donald's Lucky Day".
....."The Haunted House" begins quite earnestly enough, as the short's variation of "Minnie's Yoo Hoo" (the original Mickey Mouse theme song) ends with a horrific note, unlike "The Mad Doctor", which starts with triumphant fanfare, but is essentially a straight playing of the theme. Additionally, the title gets blown off the screen by the wind, a rare touch for Disney titles of the time.

However, since the only available print is a reissue print (and possibly the only existing version of the cartoon, given that the reissue print seen in Scary Tales is from the '40s), it's not certain if this effect was part of the original release (the title card shown above is a recreation from the 2004 DVD release, and the title on that platter fades out exactly like the other pre-1930 Mickey shorts).
.....The short itself begins interestingly enough, with a shot of the haunted house itself. This shot is really nice, as the house looks alive.

Mickey also looks good, with a nice crying animation after his umbrella gets destroyed by the storm.

This is followed by a great "cartoon" moment, as Mickey adjusts his shoulders as if they were the collar to a jacket.

.....The sequence at the porch is wonderfully spooky, as Mickey stands there alone, receiving no answer as he knocks on the door. There's also a subtle breaking of the fourth wall as Mickey turns to the audience in surprise after the porch collapses.

Walt provides some great crying effects here as Mickey peers inside the house, and as the tree rubs up against Mickey's behind, which helps to sell this creepy sequence. Suffice to say, the voice work of Walt Disney in this short makes it obvious why he was the voice of Mickey Mouse for some 18 years, because it's nothing short of excellent.
.....The initial sequence inside the house is great, with nice animation as Mickey trembles to great effect in his spooky surroundings. What's better, though, is the music, or the lack of it. Outside, the only score a was an atmospheric tympani roll (largely because the tympani is the coolest percussion instrument ever, and wonderful for creating a dark atmosphere), but inside nothing but silence. The reason for the effective music is Disney's first musical director.....Carl W. Stalling. Stalling, who is best known (and rightfully so) for his work at Warner Bros. on the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, was equally important in establishing the music style at Disney, in addition to having suggested the idea for the Silly Symphonies to Walt Disney, who had wanted a similar series for some time at that point. While he left Disney along with Ub Iwerks in 1930, Stalling made his presence felt at Disney, and showed the genius that he would later perfect for Warner Bros.
.....The spittoon gags here are certainly dated, but still work (provided you know what a spittoon is). One of the great cartoon sound effects, that of a bell sounding as something lands inside a spittoon, is used effectively as Mickey jumps back into the spittoon. And anyone who has been exposed to chewing tobacco knows that Mickey looking sick after he gets out of the spittoon is very true, because chew is fucking nasty. (And that f-bomb is probably an understatement of the severity of my disgust for chew.)

.....Mickey looks great while panting in the hallway-a wonderfully tense moment in the short.

However, this is followed by what is likely the most dated moment in the short as the lights go out.


"Mammy! Mammy! Mammy!"

While I am far from an apologist for the racially insensitive moments in Golden Age cartoons, I certainly won't ever berate their use in cartoons of that era, provided that they aren't malicious in nature. The blackface gags were a nod to minstrel singers, a relic where white performers would put on grease paint and act like they were black singers. The Mammy line is a reference to what is now one of the most notorious scenes in The Jazz Singer, the 1927 film that was the first "talkie". It also made Al Jolson (who, in a story that mirrors his own life, played a singer who rises to prominence on the minstrel circuit) a star, in part because of the song, "Mammy", where Jolson appears in blackface and sings an ode to his mother, or "mammy". So, we can blame animators for latching onto a famous moment in a then-popular movie, or we can understand that such gags are a reflection of the world at that time. This site will choose to do the latter.
.....The lighting when Mickey has the match lit is impressive, a great feat at such an early juncture for Disney.

Mickey's face stays white, an idea Disney would revisit in "The Gorilla Mystery", and a move that prefaces the classic cartoon method of making only a character's eyes visible in the darkness. A nicely realistic touch is how you can see the details of the hall after Mickey drops his match, which is unique and more stylistically effective than the standard loss of all detail.

.....The scene inside the organ room is wonderfully tense, and a fitting centerpiece for this short. The approach of the skeleton is truly frightening, as is the reveal. What helps sell it, though, is the music, which is truly macabre. A strange bit of animation can be found with the help of freeze-framing as the robed skeleton and his lackeys have Mickey surrounded.

It's one of those bizarre looking in-between frames that makes up a good-looking sequence, a sure-fire signal of just how early on this cartoon was produced.
.....Mickey also does the nervous hand-flapping motion here that he did early on in "Steamboat Willie", which is a nice little bit of continuity.

This is followed by yet another great cartoonish moment, as Mickey pulls at his neck as if he had a shirt on.

Mickey's reply to the (very male sounding) skeleton, "Yes, ma'am," would become a running gag over the next few years, lasting as far as 1937's classic Mickey/Donald/Goofy effort, "Lonesome Ghosts". It's not terribly funny here (it's more of an error, really), but the references would always be worth a smile, as the Disney artists seemed to really hone in on the mistake in this short and capitalize on it.
.....The musical sequence here is like the companion piece to the one in "The Skeleton Dance". However, the music is different, and the skeletons do different things. What really damages this sequence is some glitchy animation in a pair of the sequences. The xylophone and accordion-playing skeleton's sequence is marred by a part of the heater winking out as the skeleton plays it like an accordion, and the wall fixture also winks out at least once.

.....The hat wearing skeletons (who fascinate me, as they bark out unintelligible gibberish a mere three and a half minutes after Walt Disney's first lines as Mickey officially signal the death knell for that technique in Disney cartoons) are a joyful experiment in synchronized character movement. Their exit, unfortunately, features botched animation that seems to be the result of some cels that were photographed out of order (proving yet again that the photography process in animation is the most potentially disastrous part of the production of a cartoon).
.....The final part of the song borrows greatly from "The Skeleton Dance".

However, instead of trying to sell this off as an original part of this short, Carl Stalling's score quotes "March of the Dwarfs", the song used as the music for "The Skeleton Dance". The reason for this could very well be because Walt anticipated the reaction that "The Skeleton Dance" received from theatre owners in 1929, as many owners refused to buy that short because it was thought to be too macabre. However, the popularity of the Mickey Mouse series was so great in 1929 that the same theatre owners who rejected "The Skeleton Dance" would likely buy a similarly-themed Mickey simply because they couldn't afford not to. So this insertion could very well have been intended as a tie-in to a short that was ultimately more important to Walt.
.....Mickey's escape is wonderfully frantic, and filled with neat gags, many of which are similar in nature to those in "The Mad Doctor". Of particular note is the little hand that deposits the spittoon under the bed.

The truly funny part is that the spittoon is on the female skeleton's side of the bed! There's a nice effect outside as Mickey looks at the four skeletons.

While the blurred heads effect is common enough in cartoons, I've never before seen a grayscale version of it, even in the many black and white shorts I've seen over the years. The final outhouse gag is a good, "What the-!?!" moment, as there's just no real logical reason for a skeleton to be making its home in an outhouse. There's a story there, and I'm certain no one wants to hear it.

Final Verdict

.....There's no question that "The Haunted House" fascinates me like no other Mickey Mouse cartoon. Not only is it a rare excursing into horror for the series, but it's a unique short character-wise for Mickey. For lack of a better word, Mickey seems young, especially when compared to shorts like "Steamboat Willie" and "Plane Crazy", where Mickey is very confident-cocky and arrogant, even, at times. However, the Disney animators, Carl Stalling, and Walt himself are at their peak form. Mickey has a range of expressive, detailed emotions and Stalling's score is impressively haunting. Walt Disney, to his credit, delivers not only a superb vocal performance, but a tightly directed cartoon that I can't help but strongly recommend.

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