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Mickey’s Other Mouse-tro: An Interview with Floyd Gottfredson

Jim Korkis speaks with Floyd Gottfredson, who brought Mickey Mouse to the world via daily comic strips.

While Mickey Mouse became a domesticated creature in cartoons (above), Floyd Gottfredson kept the mouses daredevil spirit alive in the daily comic strip he drew and sometime wrote. © Disney Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Mickey Mouse was the most popular cartoon character in the 1930s and an international celebrity. Unfortunately, the Disney Studio bowed to objections that the feisty Mickey was not a good role model for children and this clever little hero with a daredevil spirit became more and more domesticated in his animated cartoons. However, the true spirit of Mickey was maintained for many more years in the daily comic strip drawn and sometimes written by the legendary Floyd Gottfredson.

In the fall of 1979, I had the opportunity to talk with Floyd about the connections between the Mickey of the screen and the Mickey of the newspapers. While many hands worked on the animated cartoons, Floyd was the primary influence on the comic strip for over four decades and had retired four years earlier from this amazing accomplishment.

Jim Korkis: Could you share a little about your cartooning training before you took over the Mickey Mouse comic strip?

Floyd Gottfredson: I was raised in a small town, Sigurd, Utah, about 180 miles south of Salt Lake City. When I was 13 I started studying cartooning by correspondence with the C.N. Landon School of Cartooning and Illustrating of Cleveland, Ohio. In 1926, when I was 21, I started taking another correspondence course in cartooning. This time it was with the Federal Schools of Minneapolis, now known as the Art Instruction Schools, Inc. Since the nearest art schools were in Salt Lake City, correspondence courses were the most practical way for me to go.

JK: Did you have any early training in animation?

FG: No. There were no schools or books about animation at that time to the best of my knowledge and I was really just interested in newspaper cartooning. In Dec. 1928, armed with the samples I had done for various magazines, I brought my family to Los Angeles, hoping to crash one of the seven major newspapers but they didnt want me. I talked with a fellow who told me he had heard that Walt was going to New York the following week to look for artists. I lost no time in putting together my samples and rushing out to the Disney Studios which was then located on Hyperion Avenue.

JK: Did you get to meet Walt?

FG: Walt himself looked over my samples and asked me what sort of work I was interested in doing and I told him I wanted to do comic strips. Well, at that time, Disney wasnt doing any comic strips. Walt was quite a salesman. He told me I didnt want to get involved in doing comic strips because it was a rat race. He said that the future would be animation and he was so convincing that I said, Fine. Do you have any openings in animation? And he said, Sure, well put you in as an in-betweener. Then he said that he and Ub Iwerks were just beginning to put together a Mickey Mouse comic strip for King Features and that it would be good to have me around as a back-up man in case they needed some help.

JK: Did you start working at Disney immediately?

FG: I went to work the following day, Dec. 19, 1929. I was 24 years old and had been married for five years. I had been earning $65 a week as a projectionist and Walt was offering $18 a week but I took it because he had really convinced me that animation was the future.

JK: What did you do as an in-betweener?

FG: I only worked about four months in animation as an inbetweener. I did inbetween work for Johnny Cannon and later Dave Hand and Wilfred Jackson. I even did a few inbetweens for Ub Iwerks. It was all work for the Silly Symphonies. Norm Ferguson and Dave Hand gave me a little piece of animation to do on Cannibal Capers. It was a lion running out of the jungle and a cannibal beating on a drum. That was really the only animation I ever did but it worked out pretty well and I was just fascinated with animation.

Gottfredson Meets Mickey Mouse

JK: How did you finally end up with the Mickey Mouse comic strip?

FG: The Mickey Mouse comic strip debuted in Jan. 13, 1930 with Walt doing the writing and Ub penciled them and an artist named Win Smith was doing the inking. After the first 18 strips, Ub left and Win took over the penciling and the inking. The strip was straight gags adapted from the Mickey Mouse movie cartoons. King Features wanted continuity, that is to say, they wanted the strip to have a story and a plot because other strips like Sidney Smiths The Gumps were very popular being story strips. Walt tried to convince Win to take over the writing and Win kept stalling but I dont know why. Finally, Walt met with him and told him he was going to take over the writing and Win who had a short fuse wasnt going to be told what to do and so he quit. He came by my desk and said, I think youve got a new job.

JK: So it was as simple as that?

FG: About a half hour later, Walt called me into his office and asked me whether I would like to take over doing the strip. By now I had become very interested in animation and was reluctant to change. I told Walt that he was right and that I would prefer to stay with animation. Well, Walt was quite a salesman. He told me to just take the strip for two weeks to give him some time to find another artist. I wanted to help out so I agreed. After all, he had told me that part of my job was to be a possible backup on the strip. At the end of a month, I wondered if he was really seriously looking for anyone. After two months, I began to worry that he might actually find someone because I was enjoying doing it and wanted to continue with it. Nothing more was ever said about it and I continued to draw the Mickey daily strip for about 45 years until my retirement on Oct. 1, 1975.

JK: When did your first strip appear?

FG: My first strip appeared May 5, 1930, and the strip had gone into continuities April 1, 1930. Walt had written a story about Mickey finding a treasure map to a gold mine in Death Valley. To help me get started, Walt continued to write about two weeks worth of strips for me to draw and then I took over the writing on the May 19 in the middle of the story and continued to write the daily until 1932 when five different writers took over writing the continuities.

Newspaper Strip Mickey Versus Animated Mickey

JK: How closely did the comic strip follow the animated cartoons?

FG: We tried to follow the spirit of the Mickey animated cartoons but because we were doing adventure stories we had to go beyond them. The animated cartoons had just a loose story structure where there could be a lot of gags building to a conclusion. That isnt how stories are done in newspaper strips. We had to develop the characters more to help sustain the story. I loved doing these little adventures but keeping them as humorous as possible.

JK: But werent some of your early strips influenced by Mickeys animated adventures?

FG: Walt himself set the precedent for borrowing ideas from the cartoons. The strip was influenced by the cartoons but also the fads and movies of the day. The Mad Doctor influenced the strip story Mickey Mouse in Blaggard Castle although the mad professors in our story were modeled after a Boris Karloff movie I had just seen. Mickey and the Seven Ghosts was inspired by the animated cartoon Lonesome Ghosts. Mickey Mouse Runs His own Newspaper was inspired by the gangster movies of the time like Scarface and Little Caesar.

JK: Did you ever run into the same complaints that Walt was facing with the Mickey animated cartoons?

FG: There was one sequence in the Blaggard Castle story where Mickey grabs a pole and vaults over this alligator pit but as he is leaping, the pole breaks. King Features sent us a frantic telegram that they were going to cut out the entire sequence because the alligators would upset women and children reading the newspaper. I took photostats to Walt and he just laughed. He thought it was a good adventure and was confident that we had a way of making the resolution of the peril humorous. So he contacted the syndicate and they left it in. We also got censored when we did the Monarch of Medioka story because it kind of paralleled what was actually happening in Yugoslavia at that time where the archduke was trying to overthrow the king. Over the years, there was very little censorship because our goal was to try to stay true to the spirit of Disney animation.

Walt Says: Simplify!

JK: Did Walt have to approve your work before it was sent to the syndicate?

FG: Walt checked my work for the first couple of months after I took over the strip, but after that and all through the years, except to pass on an occasional suggestion, he very seldom concerned himself with the strip or the department. He seemed relieved not to have to be concerned with them. He had bigger things to worry about. We were just supposed to follow the general studio rule that any violence was to be done in a comedic manner. And we labored over the artwork to make it the highest quality we could.

JK: So Walt had no direct input into the direction of the strip?

FG: In the early days of the strip, I was always intrigued by details in the background like houses and picket fences and rainspouts. So one of the hardest things I had to learn was to simplify, to streamline. I do know he would still look at the proof sheets closely because sometimes I would get memos, but that was usually about any changes that were going to happen in animation that we needed to do in strips. The only direct input I would get from Walt was that I was putting in too much junk in the strip. Why do you put so much junk in there? Simplify. I dont know if that was to help the storytelling or because of his experience in animation where you didnt want the background too complicated. Looking back on those old strips, I think the old stories were too wordy and overloaded with dialogue.

JK: I notice your Mickey Mouse continues to change his look over the decades. Some people even thought a different artist was doing the strip at times.

FG: Mostly, I tried to keep up with the changes the Studio made to Mickey. I tried hard to match the Mickey I was drawing for the newspaper strip with the Mickey of the films. In January 1933, I dropped the thin white line above Mickeys eyes for simplicitys sake but other than that I just followed the new model sheets of Mickey that would filter down to me. Periodically, Mickey would lose and then regain his tail. He lost his short pants in the Forties and of course got pupils in his eyes with Fantasia. When I first saw the pupils in Mickeys eyes on the model sheets I liked them immediately.

Gottfredsons Favorite Animated Mickey

JK: I am sure you watched the animated cartoons closely. Do you have a favorite?

FG: Fred Moore was the fellow who really streamlined the mouse and some of the other characters. To me, the finest Mickey short cartoon that was ever made was The Nifty Nineties with Fred Moores design of Mickey. Ive said this many times before but I think the best Mickeys ever done were by Fred Moore. I tried to imitate Fred but I dont think anyone could ever copy his style.

JK: Since you worked at the Studio, did any of the animators like Moore drop by to comment on your work?

FG: The animation department didnt even know we existed. We were so small and shoved in a back corner that it was out of sight, out of mind I guess. Our salaries were never as high as the animators. When the union got into it later, it finally was decided that scale for a Class I Comic Strip Artist was about the same as a minimum wage for an animator I think.

JK: The story continuities in the Mickey Mouse strip seem to stop in the 50s.

FG: We began to phase out of continuities and go back to a gag-a-day format at that time because it was a decision of King Features to help counteract the effects of television on newspapers. They felt that with a few exceptions that comic strip stories couldnt compete with television.

JK: What was your impression of Walt Disney?

FG: Walt and Roy were great people to work for. Under them, the creative freedom was unbelievable. Roy was a little warmer to us that Walt. Walt was a tough taskmaster. I dont think he even realized when he was being harsh. He was always just so focused on whatever project he was doing and was passionate that it be done right. That was all that mattered. The rest of us were just the tools he used. If, as you said, I kept the real Mickey alive, I was just doing the best I could as an extension of Walt and his dream. There was only one Walt Disney. There will never be another.

JK: Thank you, Floyd.

Jim Korkis is an award winning teacher, a professional actor and magician and a published author with several books and hundreds of magazine articles about animation to his credit. He is also an internationally recognized Disney historian whose research and writing has been used by The Walt Disney Co. on many projects. Jim is a founding member and contributor to Walts People, a critically acclaimed series of books reprinting interviews with people who worked with Walt Disney. In addition, Jim is a Walt Disney World Resort cast member.