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The Stolen Legacy of Milton Mouse

Cartoonist and cartoon historian, Koriander seeks to preserve the magic of animation.

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Of Mice and Men

2021 marks the 100th birthday of Milton Mouse, but it also marks the 90th anniversary of his cartoon career being cut short by a rival rodent.

But who is Milton Mouse?

In 1920, Paul Terry started Fables Studios Inc., and subsequently the Aesop's Fables cartoons. The first cartoon, The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs, debuted on May 13, 1921, and it was quickly followed by a slue of titles that year, featuring Farmer Al Falfa from an earlier line of cartoons Terry had drawn for Bray Studios, and plenty of cartoons about a black cat chasing mice.

The main mouse, of course, was Milton.

Tiny, black, and somewhat rat-like in appearance with a pale face similar to minstrel blackface characters cartoons of the day, Milton had a wide range of emotions for a silent cartoon. With just a glance, Milton could emote fear, anger, anxiety, mischief, and humor without a single title card to type out what he was thinking.

Milton was often joined by his love interest Mary Mouse, though in some cartoons, she is known as Rita Mouse, a gender swap of Milton but with a white skirt. Although Mary/Rita was typically put in "damsel in distress" stories, in several cartoons, she was able to fend for herself and use her wits to get out of bad situations, and she was just as adventurous as Milton.

Somewhat scandalous for the time, Milton and Mary/Rita's relationship was rather physical in nature. The two enjoyed kissing sessions that were daring for the day, and to further solidify their union, a few cartoons even featured their five children.

Aesop's Fables shorts were a hit with audiences throughout the 1920s with their rotating mix of cartoon stars and risque blends of violence and romance.

And one such fan was Walt Disney.

One day in 1925, Walt Disney had remarked that he wished he could produce cartoons as funny as Aesop's Fables.

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The Telltale Shorts

Hugh Harman took a picture of Walt, cut it up, pasted it onto a sheet of paper, and proceeded to draw several of the Aesop's Fables characters around Walt.

On the top was Milton in a pair of shorts, the same shorts he would wear off and on throughout the mid and late 20s.

Fast forward to May 15, 1928. Hugh Harman was one of several animators to have left Disney to continue working for Charles Mintz on the Oswald The Rabbit series, but you wouldn't have known that if you were in the test audience for a silent print of a new Disney cartoon called Plane Crazy, which starred a new couple.

They were Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

After losing control of Oswald, Walt had instructed Ub Iwerks to copy and redraw the mouse Hugh Harman had drawn above his head, knowing this was essentially Hugh Harman's fan art of Milton Mouse. The only difference between this new mouse and Milton was that Mickey had two big buttons on his shorts. Even Minnie in her debut looked identical to Mary/Rita, right down to the white skirt.

Initially, Mickey failed to find a distributor. A follow-up short, The Gallopin' Gaucho, gave Mickey and Minnie pronounced shoes and brought back Pete from the Alice Comedies and Oswald The Rabbit shorts as a permanent antagonist to the new series, but still, he felt like a clone of Milton.

On October 14, 1928, the first sound-on-film cartoon in the Aesop's Fables line debuted with the short Dinner Time. By this point, Fables Studios Inc. had been acquired by Van Beuren Studios, owned by Amadee J. Van Beuren, who pressured a reluctant Paul Terry into producing a sound cartoon, which Terry did using his own methods.The cartoon, starring Farmer Al Falfa, was meant to catch up with Fleischer Studios 19 sound Song Car-Tunes shorts, in which they had used Lee De Forest's version of the Case Phonofilm sound-on-film system.

Disney then used Pat Powers and Celebrity Pictures's Powers Cinephone system, which was a bootleg version of the Phonofilm system, and on November 18, 1928, released the third ever Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie. Mickey was changed up again; this time, his face was rounder, his shoes were larger, and he was now much taller.

Because Dinner Time had fallen flat a month prior, Disney was able to buy ads claiming that Steamboat Willie was the world's first cartoon with synchronized sound, a marketing tactic that would go on to work for the rest of the century.

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The Mice Will Play

After a falling out with Van Beuren, Paul Terry left Milton, Mary/Rita, and the entire Aesop's Fables series with Van Beuren while he went to form Terrytoons.

John Foster would take over, just as the Mickey Mouse shorts were gaining popularity. By this point, Milton Mouse had already appeared on a limited number of toys and puzzles with the rest of the Aesop's Fables crew, but nothing to the magnitude of merchandise that Mickey would have. Van Beuren allowed Foster to make some radical changes.

On August 9, 1930, Milton and Mary/Rita appeared in the short Hot Tamale, albeit with a complete makeover. The couple now looked identical to Mickey and Minnie's new design. Hot Tamale, which was a total parody of Gallopin' Gaucho, saw the couple enjoying a steamy make out session while fending off a large, black cat.

This is followed up with the September 28, 1930, short Circus Capers, where Mary/Rita turns up the heat by making out with a ringmaster while a heartbroken Milton watches and later dumps her, before winking at the audience.

Disney fired back with a strangely dark series of comic strips, where Mickey almost commits suicide because he thinks Minnie is cheating on him with Mr. Slicker, a prototype for Mortimer Mouse. The October 15, 1930, strip has Minnie showing Slicker her family album, including her uncle, Milton Mouse, his wife (obviously Mary/Rita), and four of the five children previously seen in Aesop's Fables.

Van Beuren fired back on November 23, 1930, with the short The Office Boy, where Milton and Mary/Rita are back together, but Milton catches Mary/Rita making out with their boss. He gets their boss's wife involved, and as she commits spousal abuse, Milton whisks Mary/Rita away by train.

At this point, Walt Disney decided this was enough.

On March 31, 1931, Disney sued Van Beuren.

Van Beuren had tried to counter an injunction on the merit that Milton predated Mickey by seven years, but because John Foster had changed Milton and Mary/Rita to look like Mickey and Minnie, the courts ruled in Disney's favor, and Milton Mouse was out of the public eye.

Briefly.

In the 1932 short Toy Time, Milton is seen without clothes, while Mary/Rita has traded in the skirt for a bow.

In 1936, Van Beuren would lose their theatrical distribution deal with RKO to Disney, and in 1938, Amadee J. Van Beuren died, leaving RKO to sell off the library to multiple companies, including Official Films.

Quickly, the entire catalog—including Milton's shorts—fell into the public domain.

In the decades since, Milton has appeared on bulk compilation VHS tapes and DVDs on budget friendly sets. The cartoons have aired on "bunny ear" stations and internationally on Cartoon Network in non-English speaking countries.

While a bulk of Mickey Mouse's original shorts remain on expensive DVDs or behind the vault, all of the Van Beuren shorts appear on free Roku channels and YouTube, reaching a wider audience that can't otherwise afford Disney+.

Milton gets the last laugh.

© 2021 Koriander Bullard

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