The Bootleg Files: Circus Capers

BOOTLEG FILES 755: “Circus Capers” (1930 animated short).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A copyright infringement lawsuit, coupled by a lapsed copyright on the film.


Everyone’s heard of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, but did you ever hear about Milton and Rita Mouse? If not, that’s because Walt Disney heard about them first and put a stop to them before they caught on with the public.

Mickey and Minnie Mouse were introduced by Disney in the late 1920s and became a sensation with audiences. By the time 1930 rolled around, Mickey and Minnie Mouse were pop culture icons.

Disney’s rivals at the Van Beuren Corp. were concerned that the popularity of the Mickey and Minnie Mouse cartoons would eclipse their animated short offerings. Thus, they decided to come up with their own cartoon mouse couple, dubbed Milton and Rita. The only problem was that they were a near identical visual copy of Disney’s creations – but in terms of the content of their first film, the 1930 “Circus Capers,” they were eons removed from the charm and humor that Disney put on the screen.

Van Beuren plopped Milton and Rita Mouse into its series of “Aesop’s Sound Fables” cartoon – the joke, however, was that these shorts had nothing to do with the original Aesop and his wickedly warped morality tales. Instead, these cartoons featured zoomorphic characters in cutesy situations.

As the title of “Circus Capers” might suggest, the film takes place in the three-ring environment. The action opens with a parade of the circus performers, with dancing elephants, syncopated giraffes and Milton and Rita Mouse – she is a bareback horse rider and he is dressed in a clown’s costume. They are clearly in love, as they wave and blow kisses at each other.

At the circus fairgrounds, an obese lady in a revealing costume shakes her stuff upon an open platform, driving the crowds wild and causing them to pile into the big top. In the center ring, Rita and horse dive from an elevated platform and spin in gravity-defying circles before landing on the ground. Rita gets out of the spotlight and kisses Milton before he goes into his act, which involves holding his arms in a circle while leopards jump through the space he creates. He then creates a hole with his thumb and index finger for a leopard to penetrate – the big cat squeezes through, but loses his spots in the process, which Milton restores to the feline.

The star of the show is a lion tamer, whose initial antagonism with his leonine co-star unexpectedly leads to the duo engaging in a jaunty dance. But the lion kicks the would-be dominant out of the tent, and Milton observes this and laughs uproariously. The lion tamer gets his revenge by overstuffing gun powder into a cannon that is supposed to shoot Milton across the big top – the excess of gun powder causes the unsuspecting rodent to go into a John Glenn-worthy orbit.

With Milton out of the way, Rita hurries off to the lion tamer’s wagon for some heavy petting. Milton falls back to Earth and discovers his Rita has been unfaithful. Brokenhearted, Milton stalks the ground outside of the lion tamer’s wagon and launches into an operatic edition of “Laugh, Clown, Laugh.”

But Rita becomes uncomfortable with the lion tamer’s carnal appetite and spits in his face before beating a hurried exit. She finds Milton and seeks reconciliation, but after a few seconds thought he blows a nasty raspberry at her. The shocked Rita’s panties fall down and bounce up, and then she turns a somersault and faints, with her panties flying off her lower body and then resuming their position. (Hey, it was the Pre-Code era!) Milton winks at the camera as his face goes into a grotesquely oversized close-up that ultimately covers the screen.

Does any of this sound funny? Well, it ain’t. “Circus Capers” is pretty dismal, even by the low standards of the Van Beuren animators. The artwork is crude, the sight gags prior to Rita’s comeuppance are flat, and Milton’s musical lament goes on for what seems like an interminable period. While Rita’s panty-losing denouement is nicely saucy, it is much too little and far too late to save the cartoon from a state of monotony.

According to animation historian Jim Korkis and the Cartoon Research website, the Van Beuren artists were using Milton Mouse as a character prior to Mickey Mouse’s debut, but Milton’s appearance was altered to resemble Mickey once Disney’s invention gained popularity. Disney was livid with “Circus Capers” and two subsequent cartoons with the ripoff rodents, “Hot Tamale” and “The Office Boy,” and had his lawyers obtain a temporary court injunction against Van Beuren. In April 1931, a federal court issued Van Beuren a formal decree preventing the studio from using any characters that either directly resembled or could be mistaken for the Disney entities. Oddly, Disney never sought financial compensation for Van Beuren’s chicanery.

Van Beuren obeyed the court order and Milton and Rita disappeared. By 1936, the studio was shut down. Over the years, “Circus Capers” and other Van Beuren cartoons lapsed into the public domain, becoming the victim of endless and careless duping.

Prints of “Circus Capers” can easily be found online, with visual quality varying between postings. To date, there has been no great demand for Milton and Rita Mouse to come out of retirement – which is fine, as they belong in their mouse hole of obscurity.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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