Eighty-five years ago today, on November 18, 1928, Walt Disney introduced the world to the character that would make his studio an almost unrivaled force in the animation business. The appealing, fun-loving rodent was christened “Mickey Mouse,” and he made his official debut in the groundbreaking animated short Steamboat Willie.
Though Mickey’s cavorting around the screen is carefree and jolly as can be, behind the scenes, the mouse’s origins were fraught with drama and controversy. Mickey was not Disney’s first starring character; he had lost control of his studio’s cartoon star Oswald the Lucky Rabbit earlier in 1928, and the experience left Disney more determined than ever to exercise total ownership of his creations from that point forward. He turned to his main animator and friend Ub Iwerks to create a new face for the Disney company. Iwerks was inspired by some sketches of mice that his former co-worker Hugh Harman had jotted on a photograph of Disney in 1925 (Walt had had a pet mouse in Kansas City of which he was particularly fond). In developing the new character, Iwerks modified the original Oswald design (so as to avoid any accusations of copyright infringement) and created a simplistic, rounded body design for the new mouse character, featuring the big, iconic ears that even today remain an instantly recognizable symbol of the Walt Disney Company. Walt originally intended to name the new character “Mortimer Mouse,” but his wife Lillian thought “Mortimer” to be too pretentious (incidentally, the name “Mortimer” would reappear about a decade later, used as the name for Mickey’s rival for Minnie Mouse’s affection). And so “Mickey” was born.
Iwerks served as the main animator for the first few Mickey cartoons, a daunting job that was made no easier by the shared sense of perfectionism between Iwerks and Disney. While Walt composed the stories for the Mickey shorts, Iwerks was almost solely responsible for the animation, which required his producing an average of seven hundred drawings every day before each short could be completed. With this unheard-of level of production, the first Mickey cartoon was completed in a mere three weeks. That first cartoon, the 1928 silent short Plane Crazy, did not manage to attract a distributor, much to Disney’s disappointment. A second silent short, The Gallopin’ Gaucho, also failed to attract notice from studios. But the third time was the charm: in November 1928, Disney secured a distribution deal with Celebrity Productions, and Steamboat Willie was released to almost instant acclaim. It made its debut at the Colony Theatre on Broadway in New York City, and was such a smash that it was held over a second week–practically unheard of for an animated short. Disney later claimed that he was at the Colony every day during Willie’s initial run there, just soaking in the audience’s laughter and enjoyment from the back of the theater.
Like many animated shorts from the time period, the cartoon does not feature much in the way of a sensical plot. Instead, the action merely serves to set up a number of ongoing visual gags, many of which include the gleeful abuse of any number of animals. (It’s okay, PETA. They’re just pretend.) Mickey is the Everyman, who just wants to enjoy his day and impress his girl by swinging a cat around by its tail and choking a goose, but Pete interferes and makes him actually work. What’s a young mouse in love to do but to try to drown a parrot with a potato?
Steamboat Willie is often credited as the first sound cartoon, but this is not exactly true. Several sound cartoons had been released by Fleischer Studios earlier in the decade under the Song Car-Tunes title (these shorts are notable for the innovation of a “bouncing ball” to help audiences keep track of the melody). One of animator Paul Terry’s Fables series, called Dinner Time, featured a crude and cacophonous soundtrack and was released in theaters a month before Willie, and was in fact seen by Disney during his preparations for Willie. But the sound on these other shorts did not fully adhere to the action onscreen. To avoid this problem in his own cartoons, Disney worked closely with composer/animator Wilfred Jackson (who would later go on to direct a number of Disney features in the 50s, including Cinderella and Lady and the Tramp) to create a sense of timing for the short. Jackson utilized a metronome and prepared a bar sheet that Iwerks could use to time the gags according to the music. Disney then traveled to New York and hired an orchestra to record the score and the numerous sound effects while providing all of the (generally unintelligible) voices in the cartoon himself. While it may not be correct to refer to it as the first “sound cartoon,” Willie is nonetheless widely considered to be the first commercially successful animated short to feature precisely synchronized sound.
After the warm reception of Willie, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho were both synchronized to sound (with scores composed by longtime Warner Bros. musician Carl Stalling) and released on their own, again to much praise and fanfare. Indeed, within mere months, Mickey Mouse would become the most popular animated character in the world. And while he was sometimes overshadowed by other studios’ cartoon creations (the Fleischer brothers’ Popeye briefly ascended to Mickey’s throne in the mid-1930s) and even some of his own animated friends (with Donald Duck, Pluto, Goofy, and Chip ‘n’ Dale all enjoying their own spurts of popularity with audiences), Mickey has remained the Disney company’s flagship character for more than eight decades.
Eighty-five years after the most auspicious of debuts, Mickey has quite a bit of life left in him yet. Not only has he starred in his own CGI-animated Disney Junior series Mickey Mouse Clubhouse for the past seven years (a series which comes to an end next month, though reruns will inevitably continue), but 2013 has seen a rebirth of sorts for Mickey and his gang of pals. Disney animators have given Mickey a retro makeover in a series of new cartoon shorts that air periodically on the Disney Channel, which have the feel of the old Mickey shorts, as well as the broad, slapstick-y humor that originally made him such a beloved figure. [In fact, later today, the newest Mickey short, Potatoland, will premiere on the Disney Channel at 8PM EST.] And even more exciting, a brand-new theatrical Mickey cartoon called Get a Horse! will premiere ahead of Disney’s newest feature, Frozen, which debuts nationwide next week, and by all accounts so far, it’s one that must be seen in 3D to be believed.
So from all of us here at The Retro Set: happy eighty-fifth birthday, Mickey! Might I say, you’re looking swell for your age.
And you’ve still got some killer dance moves.
Selected sources and further reading:
Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Barrier, Michael. Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New York: Plume, 1980.