The Tanglefoot Chronicles: A Case Study

by J.B. Kaufman

Image courtesy of J.B. Kaufman.
© Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The explosion of Walt Disney character merchandise in the 1930s redefined the practice of character licensing. Cartoon characters, both Disney and otherwise, had been merchandised before, but the popularity of Mickey Mouse released an unprecedented flood of watches, toys, storybooks and other products. By the mid-'30s these items featured not only the Disney "stars," but also such peripheral characters as Red Riding Hood from The Big Bad Wolf, Peter Pig from The Wise Little Hen, and the anonymous title characters from Funny Little Bunnies. Then there was a floppy, lovable horse named Tanglefoot. Such was the power of the studio's merchandising activities that Tanglefoot achieved some modest recognition as a Disney character--without ever appearing on the screen.

Tanglefoot's basic inspiration did spring from a film: The Steeplechase, a Mickey Mouse short released in September, 1933. However, the horse in the film is called Thunderbolt, and is represented as a prize racehorse. Plot complications in The Steeplechase arise not from the horse's ineptitude, but from a jug of gin he finds in his stable just before the big race. (One of the film's highlights is the horse's extended drunk sequence, animated with loony grace by Fred Moore.)

A Horse is Born
Like many Disney films of this period, The Steeplechase inspired a story line in the concurrent Mickey Mouse newspaper comic strip. As in most cases, there was only a loose connection between the film and the strip; the demands of a one-reel film differed considerably from those of a newspaper continuity lasting, in this case, over three months. Accordingly, as was his custom, comic-strip artist Floyd Gottfredson went his own way with the story. Some elements from The Steeplechase--the character of "the Colonel," an attack by a swarm of hornets, and Mickey's stammering victory speech (along with a storekeeper character borrowed from the film The Pet Store) did reappear in the strip. But before they did, Gottfredson introduced a new character: Tanglefoot the horse.

At first, as his name suggests, Tanglefoot appears to be a one-joke character; he is simply a clumsy, broken-down horse, purchased for $3 from a glue factory by unscrupulous characters who resell him to Mickey for $5000. But as the strip progresses, Tanglefoot follows the contemporaneous trend of the Disney films and develops a personality. He may be hopeless as a racehorse, but he has a heart of gold. He and Minnie are instantly attached to each other, and he evinces a special affection for Pluto and follows him everywhere. At one disastrous race, Tanglefoot is smitten with one of the other horses. When the race begins and he sees her running away from him, he is hurt and bewildered--but then reverses direction, running the wrong way so that he can meet her as she comes back around the track. All this notwithstanding, Tanglefoot's ultimate triumph in the climactic race is no fluke; he exerts a mighty effort for Mickey's sake and wins a genuine victory.

The invention of this new character was necessary because the horse who had appeared in such early Mickey films as The Cactus Kid had, by 1933, evolved into a full-fledged character: Horace Horsecollar, who stood upright and spoke English. This makes for some odd moments in the comic strip, as Horace joins the mocking chorus in ridiculing Tanglefoot. (In one strip Mickey asks to borrow a watch so that he can clock Tanglefoot's speed. "Shucks, Mickey! You don't want a watch!" Horace scoffs. "What you need is a calendar!") The obvious analogy is to Pluto and Goofy, who similarly coexisted in the Disney universe--two dogs, one recognizably canine, the other anthropomorphized. As if to underscore the parallel between Pluto and Tanglefoot, Gottfredson devised another racing story in late 1934, this time featuring Pluto.

June 20, 1933. The very first appearance of Tanglefoot: the "Mickey Mouse" comic strip. Image courtesy of J.B. Kaufman. © Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Storybook Appearances
Through this first comic-strip appearance, Tanglefoot found his way into the world of storybooks. Among the most popular Disney storybooks of the 1930s were Whitman's series of "Big Little Books," which generally retold stories from the comic strips, illustrated with art from the strips themselves. A typical Big Little Book would run over 400 pages and would synopsize an entire continuity from the Mickey Mouse strip. In 1934 the "Tanglefoot" continuity was given a curious variation on this treatment: it was divided into a series of six "Wee Little Books," packaged in a slipcase. Each book was written like a chapter in a serial, summarizing the preceding action and leading up to a cliffhanger ending. When read in sequence --Mickey Mouse At the Carnival, Mickey Mouse's Misfortune, Mickey Mouse and Tanglefoot, Mickey Mouse's Uphill Fight, Mickey Mouse Will Not Quit, and Mickey Mouse Wins the Race -- they retold the entire story of Tanglefoot's adventures.

As luck would have it, another 1934 publication provided an ideal showcase for Tanglefoot's talents. The Mickey Mouse Waddle Book, published by Blue Ribbon Books, was a storybook with a gimmick. Inserted among its pages were heavy cardboard pages with three-dimensional characters that could be punched out and assembled. The book came packaged with a cardboard runway, and after assembling all the components, the reader could watch the characters "waddle" down the runway. A racing story was an obvious subject for such a book, and accordingly Tanglefoot was given another storybook role.

In the Waddle Book story, Mickey and Minnie buy Tanglefoot and are soon ridiculed by farmer Gideon Goat for doing so. Angrily springing to Tanglefoot's defense, Mickey accepts the Goat's challenge to race his own stout horse, Bromide. Preparations for the race are complicated by a facet of Tanglefoot's personality which Gottfredson had only briefly suggested: playfulness. He refuses to take running seriously. The race itself (before an audience which includes Horace Horsecollar) borrows a comic twist from the strip when Tanglefoot puts on an early burst of speed, only because he is terrified by the starter's gun. More comic mishaps follow, but they pave the way for a "legitimate" climax in which, once again, Tanglefoot wins the race by an honest effort of will.

Meanwhile, in May-June 1934, Tanglefoot was making another appearance in the comics, this time in the weekly Mickey Mouse Sunday page. This story served to flesh out Tanglefoot's personality still further, for it had nothing to do with racing; the story was driven not by the need to win a race but by Tanglefoot's well-meaning mistakes. This time the story begins with Mickey, already the owner of the horse, trading him for a car over Minnie's objections. (The car's owner is, more or less, the same goat who had appeared in the Waddle Book story.) The car promptly falls apart, and Mickey is obliged to buy Tanglefoot back again. The two then embark on various business ventures --delivering, respectively, ice, groceries, and milk-- all of them ruined in some way by Tanglefoot, who tries earnestly to follow directions but never quite understands them. The horse redeems himself when he accidentally foils an attempted bombing by three "dangerous Reds," and in the last installment both Mickey and Tanglefoot emerge as heroes.

By now Tanglefoot was accepted as a candidate for further merchandising efforts. In 1935 the N.N. Hill Brass Company advertised a pull toy which featured Mickey Mouse, in a little cart, being pulled by Tanglefoot. The toy came with interchangeable parts so that the cart could also be pulled by Horace Horsecollar (on roller skates!), Donald Duck or Pluto--but Tanglefoot was featured in the company's ad. The International Silver Company had already produced a child's silver plate engraved with Mickey Mouse aboard a bucking horse which may or may not have been Tanglefoot. (The other possibility was the unnamed horse who appears in the 1934 film Two-Gun Mickey, and whose resemblance to Tanglefoot ends with his gangly build.)

In 1936 yet another storybook was devoted to our hero: McKay's Mickey Mouse and His Horse Tanglefoot. This was a retelling of the story from the 1934 Sunday comic pages. Like the Big Little Books, it was illustrated with the original comic art, but this book was produced on a more elaborate scale, with full-color illustrations.

Thunderbolt, the horse in The Steeplechase (1933), was a prize racehorse who merely happened to get drunk just before the big race. Image courtesy of J.B. Kaufman. © Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Behind the Scenes
Around the same time, Tanglefoot's career came full circle when, once again, he didn't appear in a film. In November 1936, a story outline titled "Mickey's Race Horse" was circulated in the studio, with an appeal for gags and story material to be developed into a new short. The title character was identified as "like Tanglefoot they use in the comic strip" and described as "a clumsy, useless looking type--anything but a race horse." Thus, reversing the usual procedure, a character originating in the comics was to be brought to the screen. The proposed plot called for Mickey and Donald to compete in a sulky race against Pegleg Pete, who would indulge in various dirty tactics to defeat them. With Tanglefoot's help, Mickey and Donald would manage to turn one of Pete's own ruses against him, and so win the race. (A film along these lines would essentially have been a loose remake of the silent film Alice's Brown Derby, which Disney had released in 1926.) Nothing substantial came of the idea at this time, but numerous gags were submitted and collected in a file.

In the spring of 1938, the file was reopened for another story outline, this one simply titled "Tanglefoot" and, once again, built around a sulky race. This time Tanglefoot was to suffer from hay fever--the idea of a horse with hay fever clearly appealed to the artists involved--and a new character, a horsefly designed like a horse, was suggested (along with Mickey and Goofy). But these were mere embellishments; the comedy in the film was primarily to spring from Tanglefoot himself. Under the leadership of story director Tom Armstrong, a crew worked for several weeks at developing this idea into a film.

Transcripts of the story meetings confirm that Walt Disney was intrigued with the project. By now Tanglefoot had existed, in one form or another, for nearly five years, and Armstrong wanted to know how Disney envisioned the character's personality: "There have been so many ideas as to using the horse that nobody seemed to know." The answer: Disney was interested in the idea of Tanglefoot as a playful character. Just as in the Waddle Book, Mickey's attempts to prepare Tanglefoot for the big race were to be frustrated by the horse's inability to concentrate on anything serious. By this time the studio's evolving style had phased out shallow characters like Horace Horsecollar, but Disney saw possibilities in Tanglefoot. "Ferdinand was a bull that didn't want to fight," he commented. "Tanglefoot is the horse that can't take things seriously."

Of course numerous gags were suggested for the "Tanglefoot" story: a wheel might come off the sulky just before the race, causing Goofy to run frantically alongside; or Tanglefoot might bear down on the finish line in a dead heat with another horse, sticking out his tongue to win the race. Throughout the conferences, however, Disney consistently vetoed gimmicky gags in favor of those stemming from personality. "Strive for the personality of the horse rather than relying on props for gags," he said at one meeting. "You can hang everything around him instead of depending on an assortment of slapstick gags."

In the end the story was abandoned, and Tanglefoot was put out to pasture. Some of his playful traits were later passed on to other cartoon horses in the Disney stable, notably those who appeared with Goofy in How to Ride a Horse and El Gaucho Goofy. But during his brief moment of glory in the 1930s, Tanglefoot served as a symbol of the remarkable creative energy generated by Disney's enterprises--and the way they built upon each other.

The author would like to thank Bill Blackbeard, Gary Hamilton, Margaret Kaufman and Russell Merritt; Howard Green of the Walt Disney Company; and Dave Smith, Robert Tieman, Rebecca Cline and Collette Espino of the Walt Disney Archives, for their help in assembling the information in this article.

J.B. Kaufman is an independent film historian who has written extensively on early Disney animation. He is co-author, with Russell Merritt, of Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney, and the two are completing a second book on the Silly Symphonies.

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