Yes folks, it’s true: there was a time when Mickey Mouse was actually an interesting cartoon character and not a corporate icon.
The Klondike Kid has long been a favorite of mine, a delicious blend of comedy and pathos in the classic Disney mold, back when Disney was a studio hungry for to pioneer the art form and try new things. It owes a lot to Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, from its Yukon setting to the general atmosphere and tone.
Though Mickey Mouse cartoons of the pre-code period were never as naughty as say a contemporary Betty Boop or Flip the Frog, The Klondike Kid has a bit of grit to it which gives it a distinct pre-code flavor, especially in comparison to the later, more sanitized Mickey Mouse outings. The bar where Mickey works is populated with provocatively dressed sows dancing on tables and drunken revelers singing along to a jazzed up cover of the classic ballad of murder and infidelity, “Frankie and Johnny.” This creates a great contrast with the innocent Mickey and Minnie, everyman outsiders trying to find happiness in this dog-eat-dog setting.
Of course, Pete shows up to do our heroes wrong in one of his most sinister incarnations to date. It’s strange to compare the old-school Pete with his modern incarnation in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or even the Kingdom Hearts games. One of my favorite moments in the entire short is when he first struts into the bar and starts raising hell. After harassing Mickey and Minnie, Pete whips out two guns and shoots out the lights. Everything goes black, save for Pete’s successive shots, which briefly illuminate the bar and give off a strobe effect.
The ending confrontation between Mickey and Pete features the heaviest Chaplin influence of all. Their battle causes the log cabin they’re in to slide down a steep mountain, echoing the plight of the Little Tramp and Big Jim in The Gold Rush‘s climax.
The Klondike Kid is not as celebrated as the likes of Steamboat Willie or The Band Concert, but I still love it best of all of them. It showcases what made Mickey Mouse so popular in the early 1930s, how his own comic struggles mirrored the plight of the Depression-era audience in a way, the little guy trying his best to make it in a tough world.