By JOHN BILLINGER
Tiger Media Network
Do you like Mickey Mouse? Do you also like Halloween? Then today’s film is for you.
Despite Disney’s legal efforts over the years to keep Mickey Mouse’s copyright, he will finally become public domain on January 1, 2024. However, it’s important to note there is one short featuring him that is already public domain – 1933’s “The Mad Doctor”, also known as the Banned Mickey Mouse Cartoon. By the way, I know that it seems like I’ve been spotlighting 1933 a lot with “Son of Kong”, “The Invisible Man”, and this but I swear this wasn’t intentional. I forgot that this short was made in 1933.
Directed by David Hand (who would later helm “Snow White” and “Bambi”), the short follows Mickey Mouse, who is trying to save Pluto from an evil mad scientist. He goes to the scientist’s castle, and comical hijinks ensue. That’s really about it. It’s seven minutes long and is a pretty good time around.
During this time, Disney was on a roll. Five years prior, they released “Steamboat Willie” which introduced the world to Mickey Mouse and quickly became the most popular cartoon star. In 1932, they released the short “Flowers and Trees”, a technical innovation as it was the first film of any kind to use three-strip Technicolor. Later on, in 1933 Disney released “The Three Little Pigs”, which became a smash hit and was influential to further works. “The Mad Doctor” was not a technical innovation in any way, but it still was pretty good in its own right.
Unlike “Flowers and Trees” and “The Three Little Pigs”, this short is in black and white (the Mickey Mouse series wouldn’t go full color until 1935) but regardless it’s still a very nice looking short. Its black-and-white look isn’t too out of place compared to what everyone else was making at the time. The animation is really smooth, and there are some really good gags. It’s pretty much a parody of the horror and monster movies of the era, in particular those being made by Universal Studios. The horror aesthetic of the piece might turn off some people (especially when it goes pretty hard for a cartoon from back then) because it’s not your usual Mickey Mouse stuff but for me anyway, that’s what makes it fun and unique.
Something else that makes it unique is that it was banned in certain territories. Some theater owners felt it had too many more scares than laughs, thus they refused to show it at their venues. Some countries banned it from release entirely, such as England (who later in 1938 tried to give “Snow White” the 1930s British equivalent of an R rating) and Nazi Germany (who pretty much banned most things during that time). Because of the controversy, it never saw a re-release.
I’m not sure as to why and how it ended up being public domain. I’m going to assume that it was probably a mistake, but this actually helped the short in the long run. As a result of its status as copyright-free, it saw many rerelease on low-budget VHS and DVD compilations as well as internet uploads. This helped it gain something of a cult following. The titular Mad Doctor has even made appearances in other Disney properties, most notably in the “Epic Mickey” video game series.
Overall, “The Mad Doctor” is a fun cartoon. It’s not great, but it wasn’t intended to be. It was intended to just be a fun cartoon but ended up gathering controversy and much later cult status. I am sure though that some of it could probably be scary to children, but in my opinion there’s far scarier Disney content out there. For anyone else, this is a good cartoon to watch for the Halloween season. A review of the short from 1933 published by “The Film Daily” described it best, saying it was “one of the liveliest animated cartoons to come along, and plenty comical.”
And I agree with them. It’s good spooky fun.