HAPPENING the other day to stroll past the Disney store that has taken up residence in one of our shopping malls here in Glasgow, I couldn't help noticing an extremely small boy standing just outside its wide entrance. There must have been a parent nearby, but for the moment he seemed by himself. He was completely still, en-tranced, absorbed. And he was talking, quietly.
It's noisy around there - and he wasn't audible to me.
But the Disney attendant, wearing her short outfit and obligatory smile, was watching him with real pleasure: He was so utterly engrossed, so intense and serious, so busy.
I'd like to bet that he was either talking about, or actually to, Mickey Mouse.
SINCE I am one of the many noncartoon characters around who are younger than Mickey Mouse (born 1928), I never knew a world without him in it - just as this small boy will never know a world without computers and videotape. I find it a challenging act of the imagination to think that Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Dr. Johnson, Alfred the Great, and all those guys in the past had such terribly deprived childhoods. Who did they talk to?
Actually, I had a small and essentially private thrill recently, when my wife dragged me to Euro Disney and there, suddenly crossing a bridge, came the real, three-dimensional, living-and-moving Mickey, accompanied by his other half. Never for a moment did I suspect there might be two quite ordinary, though admittedly little, humans somewhere inside; it was unimaginable. I reverted instantly to infancy and couldn't keep my eyes off the redoubtable duo, who by now had crossed to our side and were jauntily striding through the crowd as if their presence were the most unexceptional thing in the world.
Here I have to make a small confession. Although Mickey was as much a part of my childhood as anyone's, I remember wondering why it was that he spoke a foreign language. I could never understand a single word that came out of his expressive and perfectly circular face. I don't suppose British childen today would have a similar problem, reared as they are on American TV and pop songs that, even when sung by people from Liverpool or Stockholm, are sung in American. My wife teaches youngsters, and she says that although they speak with profound Glasgow accents, they sing in American.
My difficulty with Mickey, I presume, was that he didn't speak like the King or a BBC announcer. If I had trouble with Mickey, it was much worse with the appalling duck, and with loose-limbed Pluto. I could, indeed, sit through an entire Mickey Mouse short film and not grasp a single cogent utterance.
In the interest of research and the checking of memories, I went into the Disney store to find out if they had a video of a Mickey Mouse short. I wanted to know whether or not I still find Mickey incomprehensible.
Astoundingly, given Mickey's continuing popularity, the smiling youth I summoned to my assistance thought they only had one. It was on a tape that was mainly ``Peter and the Wolf.'' To fill up extra space, two shorts were appended. The first was a ``Silly Symphony,'' which involved Mickey only as the named ``presenter.'' The second was ``Symphony Hour,'' with Mickey as the star. I'm not sure when this little comedy was made, but the date doesn't matter unless the cartoon is more recent than the ones I watched as a child, and the mouse's voice was therefore spoken by some classically trained actor of our period. Walt Disney himself originated the Mickey voice, and continued to dub his small friend for many years.
FROM this short I learned two things: that at least one Mickey Mouse film has almost no speech by the rodent hero in it at all (his only words, which I understood without difficulty, are: ``Yes, Sir, Mr. Macaroni!'' and ``Goofy!''); and the other is that the reason for this dearth of vociferation is because Mickey's essence has far more to do with action than with words.
But sound is nevertheless central to ``Symphony Hour'' - which is only appropriate since one of the very earliest Mickey shorts was the first animated film with a fully coordinated soundtrack - because in it the mouse is an orchestral conductor: ``Ma-estro Michel Mouse approaches the podium....'' As such, Mickey shows himself to be a mime artist of supreme ability, his white-gloved hands running the gamut of emotions, his face expressing each change of mood in the music. This famous mouse doesn't really need speech, which is probably why I loved him years ago even though he spoke so funny.
Does Mickey Mouse misrepresent mice? Undoubtedly he does. A real mouse is about as far from being like Mickey (who is really just two large circles, two smaller circles, with some bits and pieces added) as liberty is from being a tall lady with a torch. Mickey is a child, a little man, a straight man. He is an actor, a dreamer, ready to impersonate, like Walter Mitty, anyone from Charles Lindberg to Gulliver, from Uncle Tom to Fred Astaire, from a taxi driver to a sorcerer's apprentice to a circus ringmaster. He has aspirations to heroism, yet is generally foiled in his ambitions by either circumstances or a duck.
In ``Symphony Hour'' it is Goofy, however, who is responsible (Gawsh!) for the chaos that Mickey strives valiantly against when all the orchestra's instruments are squashed flat by a falling elevator.
Poor Maestro Mouse! In spite of it all, he doggedly conducts the incredible array of noise that issues (and is broadcast to the nation on the radio) from these fragmented trombones and glockenspiels played (though that's not the right word) by the gang.
The drops of sweat fly from his brow. He knows he is presiding over a shambles, a catastrophic cacophony ... but does he quit? Of course not! This man-mouse has guts. He has moral fiber. No wonder he quickly became in the United States not just a hero-in-spite-of-himself, but the kind of hero who was forced, by the need to maintain his reputation, to forsake some of the small mischiefs and misdemeanors of his youth. If he put a foot wrong, the Disney studios were flooded with protest mail. Mickey had become a national symbol, guardian of the fiber of the country.
It was a mere six years from 1928 to 1934, when Cole Porter included in the musical ``Anything Goes'' a song called ``You're the Top.''
This song is a brilliant procession of lines and rhymes, in which the ``you'' addressed is compared to every conceivable symbol of the very best - the Coliseum, the Louvre Museum, the leaning tower of Pisa, the smile on the Mona Lisa, and so on. And who should be at the climax of this array of flattering comparisons? You've got it:
...a symphony by Strauss
You're a Bendel bonnet
A Shakespeare sonnet -
You're Mickey Mouse!
For a cartoon character with an odd little voice, Mickey Mouse had a stunningly quick rise to ``the Top.''
And since then, for very small persons of whatever age, he has never jumped down again.