One of the most prolific and hardest working people behind the scenes at Disney from the 1930s to the 1970s was Jimmy MacDonald, musician, Foley artist and head of Disney’s sound effects department, plus the official voice actor of Mickey Mouse beginning in the 1940s and lasting until the 1970s.
Born in Dundee, Scotland in 1906, John James MacDonald emigrated to America with his parents a month after he was born and was raised in Pennsylvania. He started out wanting to be an engineer but a work accident damaged his legs and forced him away from that career path, instead becoming a drummer who got a job performing on steamships for shipping firms. Musically talented and possessing engineering experience, Disney hired MacDonald as the head of their sound department in 1934, where he created the sounds for various Disney shorts and eventually worked on every single one of Disney’s animated features from Snow White to The Rescuers, so Disney fans will definitely recognize his work when they hear it.
MacDonald not only created simple footsteps and bird chirps for Disney films. One stand-out moment was the scene in the Mickey, Donald and Goofy short Clock Cleaners (1937) in which Donald Duck works on mopping the mainspring inside the clock tower and when the inevitable slapstick begins, the strip of metal literally argues with Donald in a robotic and inhuman-sounding voice, MacDonald’s first articulate sound for Disney and one that proved MacDonald had more to offer than just simple Foley.
Although Jimmy MacDonald was often uncredited, he was the man behind many of Disney’s sound and vocal effects for about four decades. His work on the stormy sounds of the Silly Symphony The Old Mill (1937) amazed Walt Disney so much that Walt gave him a pay raise after that film. His early feature film highlights include providing the vocal effects for the pantomime Dopey in the brief scenes from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) when he hiccups after swallowing a bar of soap and when he cries during Snow White’s funeral, and providing the mechanical-sounding vocal effects of Casey Jr. the circus train in Dumbo (1941) as well as the environmental sounds and the crackle of the forest fire in Bambi (1942).
MacDonald also provided the voice for the chipmunk Chip opposite Dessie (Flynn) Miller’s Dale ever since the chipmunk duo made their screen debut in 1943, with MacDonald voicing the character in every Chip ‘n’ Dale film until 1960. MacDonald also provided the sounds for various wildlife in Disney films, including Humphrey the Bear, Spike the Bee and various growling wolves and roaring beasts, like Lumpjaw from Fun and Fancy Free (1947).
By the way, Fun and Fancy Free marked a turning point in MacDonald’s career because it was his first time providing the voice for Mickey Mouse. Ever since Mickey’s creation in 1928, Walt Disney had always been the voice behind Mickey, but Walt’s busy schedule meant he had to step back from the role and he asked the always reliable MacDonald to take over. The film marked Walt’s final time voicing Mickey and MacDonald’s first time voicing Mickey, with MacDonald voicing Mickey in all the scenes in which Walt was unable to. MacDonald would be Mickey’s official voice actor for three decades until MacDonald’s protégé sound effects artist Wayne Allwine took over the role in 1977.
In the following years, MacDonald provided the uniquely idiosyncratic voices for the mice Jaq and Gus as well as Bruno’s barking in Cinderella (1950), he voiced the Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland (1951), he gave the Crocodile from Peter Pan (1953) its ticking noise, he hummed “A Whale of a Tale” in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) during the scene when Ned tosses messages in bottles outside of the submarine, he howled like a dog in Lady and the Tramp (1955) during the pound scene, he provided the roar for the dragon in Sleeping Beauty (1959), he provided the buzzing noise for the bees in the Winnie the Pooh shorts and he provided the motor-like buzz of Evinrude the dragonfly in The Rescuers (1977).
But that’s only a fraction of his work. MacDonald created the sounds for everything from wind, rain, waves, car motors, mooing cows, croaking frogs, creaking doors, clopping horses and chiming clock towers. And his endless creativity meant he was not only able to create believable and realistic sounds but also unique and exaggerated sounds like slidewhistle drops, cymbal-clashing thunder, the melodic wedding bells of Cinderella or the screeching tires of Cruella de Vil’s car. Even when the time came for MacDonald to create the sound effects for something completely outside the realm of reality like Alice slowly growing inside the White Rabbit’s house or the ominous humming of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, he would somehow know exactly what to do in those situations as well. For much of the studio’s history, Jimmy MacDonald was synonymous with Disney sound.
Oh, the nostalgic memories I get reading your stuff (which is something I would be writing about if I’d still had the time and energy). Especially this one brought back so many classic sounds I will always associate with Disney…
LikeLiked by 1 person
Also, I just realized that Jimmy MacDonald was to Disney as Ben Burtt is to Lucasfilm (Star Wars).
LikeLiked by 1 person
You’re absolutely right about this. And another person I have to write about one day.
LikeLiked by 1 person