Happy 89th Birthday, Mickey Mouse

United States - Scott #4025 (2006)
United States – Scott #4025 (2006)

On November 18, 1928, the short cartoon Steamboat Willie premiered featuring the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, a funny animal cartoon character and the long-running official mascot of The Walt Disney Company. He was created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks at the Walt Disney Studios in 1928. An anthropomorphic mouse who typically wears red shorts, large yellow shoes, and white gloves, Mickey has become one of the world’s most recognizable characters.

Mickey first appeared in a test screening short (Plane Crazy). Mickey officially debuted in the short film Steamboat Willie (1928), one of the first sound cartoons. He went on to appear in over 130 films, including The Band Concert (1935), Brave Little Tailor (1938), and Fantasia (1940). Mickey appeared primarily in short films, but also occasionally in feature-length films. Ten of Mickey’s cartoons were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, one of which, Lend a Paw, won the award in 1942. In 1978, Mickey became the first cartoon character to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Beginning in 1930, Mickey has also been featured extensively as a comic strip character. His self-titled newspaper strip, drawn primarily by Floyd Gottfredson, ran for 45 years. Mickey has also appeared in comic books such as Disney Italy’s TopolinoMM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine, and Wizards of Mickey, and in television series such as The Mickey Mouse Club (1955–1996) and others. He also appears in other media such as video games as well as merchandising and is a meetable character at the Disney parks.

Mickey generally appears alongside his girlfriend Minnie Mouse, his pet dog Pluto, his friends Donald Duck and Goofy, and his nemesis Pete, among others. Though originally characterized as a mischievous antihero, Mickey was rebranded over time as an everyman, usually seen as a flawed, but adventurous hero. In 2009, Disney began to rebrand the character again by putting less emphasis on his pleasant, cheerful side and reintroducing the more mischievous and adventurous sides of his personality, beginning with the video game Epic Mickey

Mickey Mouse was created as a replacement for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an earlier cartoon character created by the Disney studio for Charles Mintz, a film producer who distributed product through Universal Studios. In the spring of 1928, with the series going strong, Disney asked Mintz for an increase in the budget. But Mintz instead demanded that Walt take a 20 percent budget cut, and as leverage, he reminded Disney that Universal owned the character, and revealed that he had already signed most of Disney’s current employees to his new contract. Angrily, Disney refused the deal and returned to produce the final Oswald cartoons he contractually owed Mintz. Disney was dismayed at the betrayal by his staff but determined to restart from scratch. The new Disney Studio initially consisted of animator Ub Iwerks and a loyal apprentice artist, Les Clark, who together with Wilfred Jackson were among the few who remained loyal to Walt. One lesson Disney learned from the experience was to thereafter always make sure that he owned all rights to the characters produced by his company.

In the spring of 1928, Disney asked Ub Iwerks to start drawing up new character ideas. Iwerks tried sketches of various animals, such as dogs and cats, but none of these appealed to Disney. A female cow and male horse were also rejected. They would later turn up as Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar. A male frog was also rejected. It would later show up in Iwerks’ own Flip the Frog series. Walt Disney got the inspiration for Mickey Mouse from a tame mouse at his desk at Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1925, Hugh Harman drew some sketches of mice around a photograph of Walt Disney. These inspired Ub Iwerks to create a new mouse character for Disney. “Mortimer Mouse” had been Disney’s original name for the character before his wife, Lillian, convinced him to change it, and ultimately Mickey Mouse came to be. The actor Mickey Rooney claimed that, during his Mickey McGuire days, he met cartoonist Walt Disney at the Warner Brothers studio, and that Disney was inspired to name Mickey Mouse after him. This claim, however, has been debunked by Disney historian Jim Korkis, since at the time of Mickey Mouse’s development, Disney Studios had been located on Hyperion Avenue for several years, and Walt Disney never kept an office or other working space at Warner Brothers, having no professional relationship with Warner Brothers, as the Alice Comedies and Oswald cartoons were distributed by Universal.

Disney had Ub Iwerks secretly begin animating a new cartoon while still under contract with Universal. The cartoon was co-directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Iwerks was the main animator for the short and reportedly spent six weeks working on it. In fact, Iwerks was the main animator for every Disney short released in 1928 and 1929. Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising also assisted Disney during those years. They had already signed their contracts with Charles Mintz, but he was still in the process of forming his new studio and so for the time being they were still employed by Disney. This short would be the last they animated under this somewhat awkward situation.

Mickey was first seen in a test screening of the cartoon short Plane Crazy, on May 15, 1928, but it failed to impress the audience and to add insult to injury, Walt could not find a distributor. Though understandably disappointed, Walt went on to produce a second Mickey short, The Gallopin’ Gaucho, which was also not released for lack of a distributor.

Steamboat Willie (1928)
Steamboat Willie (1928)

Steamboat Willie was first released on November 18, 1928, in New York. It was co-directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Iwerks again served as the head animator, assisted by Johnny Cannon, Les Clark, Wilfred Jackson and Dick Lundy. This short was intended as a parody of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., first released on May 12 of the same year. Although it was the third Mickey cartoon produced, it was the first to find a distributor, and thus is considered by The Disney Company as Mickey’s debut. Willie featured changes to Mickey’s appearance (in particular, simplifying his eyes to large dots) that established his look for later cartoons and in numerous Walt Disney films.

The cartoon was not the first cartoon to feature a soundtrack connected to the action. Fleischer Studios, headed by brothers Dave and Max Fleischer, had already released a number of sound cartoons using the DeForest system in the mid-1920s. However, these cartoons did not keep the sound synchronized throughout the film. For Willie, Disney had the sound recorded with a click track that kept the musicians on the beat. This precise timing is apparent during the “Turkey in the Straw” sequence when Mickey’s actions exactly match the accompanying instruments. Animation historians have long debated who had served as the composer for the film’s original music. This role has been variously attributed to Wilfred Jackson, Carl Stalling and Bert Lewis, but identification remains uncertain. Walt Disney himself was voice actor for both Mickey and Minnie and would remain the source of Mickey’s voice through 1946 for theatrical cartoons. Jimmy MacDonald took over the role in 1946, but Walt provided Mickey’s voice again from 1955 to 1959 for The Mickey Mouse Club television series on ABC.

Audiences at the time of Steamboat Willie’s release were reportedly impressed by the use of sound for comedic purposes. Sound films or “talkies” were still considered innovative. The first feature-length movie with dialogue sequences, The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, was released on October 6, 1927. Within a year of its success, most United States movie theaters had installed sound film equipment. Walt Disney apparently intended to take advantage of this new trend and, arguably, managed to succeed. Most other cartoon studios were still producing silent products and so were unable to effectively act as competition to Disney. As a result, Mickey would soon become the most prominent animated character of the time. Walt Disney soon worked on adding sound to both Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho (which had originally been silent releases) and their new release added to Mickey’s success and popularity. A fourth Mickey short, The Barn Dance, was also put into production; however, Mickey does not actually speak until The Karnival Kid in 1929 when his first spoken words were “Hot dogs, Hot dogs!”

After Steamboat Willie was released, Mickey became a close competitor to Felix the Cat, and his popularity would grow as he was continuously featured in sound cartoons. By 1929, Felix would lose popularity among theater audiences, and Pat Sullivan decided to produce all future Felix cartoons in sound as a result. Unfortunately, audiences did not respond well to Felix’s transition to sound and by 1930, Felix had faded from the screen.

Throughout the earlier years, Mickey’s design bore heavy resemblance to Oswald, save for the ears, nose, and tail. Ub Iwerks designed Mickey’s body out of circles in order to make the character simple to animate. Disney employees John Hench and Marc Davis believed that this design was part of Mickey’s success as it made him more dynamic and appealing to audiences.

Mickey’s circular design is most noticeable in his ears. In animation in the 1940s, Mickey’s ears were animated in a more realistic perspective. Later, they were drawn to always appear circular no matter which way Mickey was facing. This made Mickey easily recognizable to audiences and made his ears an unofficial personal trademark. The circular rule later created a dilemma for toy creators who had to recreate a three-dimensional Mickey.

In 1938, animator Fred Moore redesigned Mickey’s body away from its circular design to a pear-shaped design. Colleague Ward Kimball praised Moore for being the first animator to break from Mickey’s “rubber hose, round circle” design. Although Moore himself was nervous at first about changing Mickey, Walt Disney liked the new design and told Moore “that’s the way I want Mickey to be drawn from now on.”

Each of Mickey’s hands has only three fingers and a thumb. Disney said that this was both an artistic and financial decision, explaining “Artistically five digits are too many for a mouse. His hand would look like a bunch of bananas. Financially, not having an extra finger in each of 45,000 drawings that make up a six and one-half minute short has saved the Studio millions.” In the film The Opry House (1929), Mickey was first given white gloves as a way of contrasting his naturally black hands against his black body. The use of white gloves would prove to be an influential design for cartoon characters, particularly with later Disney characters, but also with non-Disney characters such as Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Mighty Mouse, and Mario.

Mickey’s eyes, as drawn in Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, were large and white with black outlines. In Steamboat Willie, the bottom portion of the black outlines was removed, although the upper edges still contrasted with his head. Mickey’s eyes were later re-imagined as only consisting of the small black dots which were originally his pupils, while what were the upper edges of his eyes became a hairline. This is evident only when Mickey blinks. Fred Moore later redesigned the eyes to be small white eyes with pupils and gave his face a Caucasian skin tone instead of plain white. This new Mickey first appeared in 1938 on the cover of a party program, and in animation the following year with the release of The Pointer. Mickey is sometimes given eyebrows as seen in The Simple Things (1953) and in the comic strip, although he does not have eyebrows in his most recent appearances.

Some of Mickey’s early appearance, particularly the gloves, and facial characteristics, evolved from blackface caricatures used in minstrel shows.

Besides Mickey’s gloves and shoes, he typically wears only a pair of shorts with two large buttons in the front. Before Mickey was seen regularly in color animation, Mickey’s shorts were either red or a dull blue-green. With the advent of Mickey’s color films, the shorts were always red. When Mickey is not wearing his red shorts, he is often still wearing red clothing such as a red bandmaster coat (The Band ConcertThe Mickey Mouse Club), red overalls (Clock CleanersBoat Builders), a red cloak (FantasiaFun and Fancy Free), a red coat (Squatter’s RightsMickey’s Christmas Carol), or a red shirt (Mickey Down UnderThe Simple Things).

In Mickey’s early films he was often characterized not as a hero, but as an ineffective young suitor to Minnie Mouse. The Barn Dance (March 14, 1929) is the first time in which Mickey is turned down by Minnie in favor of Pete.

The Opry House (March 28, 1929) was the first time in which Mickey wore his white gloves. Mickey wears them in almost all of his subsequent appearances and many other characters followed suit. The three lines on the back of Mickey’s gloves represent darts in the gloves’ fabric extending from between the digits of the hand, typical of glove design of the era.

When the Cat’s Away (April 18, 1929), essentially a remake of the Alice Comedy, “Alice Rattled by Rats”, was an unusual appearance for Mickey. Although Mickey and Minnie still maintained their anthropomorphic characteristics, they were depicted as the size of regular mice and living with a community many other mice as pests in a home. Mickey and Minnie would later appear the size of regular humans in their own setting. In appearances with real humans, Mickey has been shown to be about two to three feet high. The next Mickey short was also unusual. The Barnyard Battle (April 25, 1929) was the only film to depict Mickey as a soldier and also the first to place him in combat.

The Karnival Kid (1929) was the first time Mickey spoke. Before this he had only whistled, laughed, and grunted. His first words were “Hot dogs! Hot dogs!” said while trying to sell hot dogs at a carnival. Mickey’s Follies (1929) introduced the song “Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo” which would become the theme song for Mickey Mouse films for the next several years. The “Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo” song sequence was also later reused with different background animation as its own special short shown only at the commencement of 1930s theater-based Mickey Mouse Clubs. Mickey’s dog Pluto first appeared as Mickey’s pet in The Moose Hunt (1931) after previously appearing as Minnie’s dog “Rover” in The Picnic (1930).

The Cactus Kid (April 11, 1930) was the last film to be animated by Ub Iwerks at Disney. Shortly before the release of the film, Iwerks left to start his own studio, bankrolled by Disney’s then-distributor Pat Powers. Powers and Disney had a falling out over money due Disney from the distribution deal. It was in response to losing the right to distribute Disney’s cartoons that Powers made the deal with Iwerks, who had long harbored a desire to head his own studio. The departure is considered a turning point in Mickey’s career, as well as that of Walt Disney. Walt lost the man who served as his closest colleague and confidant since 1919. Mickey lost the man responsible for his original design and for the direction or animation of several of the shorts released till this point. Advertising for the early Mickey Mouse cartoons credited them as “A Walt Disney Comic, drawn by Ub Iwerks”. Later Disney Company reissues of the early cartoons tend to credit Walt Disney alone.

Disney and his remaining staff continued the production of the Mickey series, and he was able to eventually find a number of animators to replace Iwerks. As the Great Depression progressed and Felix the Cat faded from the movie screen, Mickey’s popularity would rise, and by 1932 The Mickey Mouse Club would have one million members. At the 5th Academy Awards in 1932, Mickey received his first Academy Award nomination, received for Mickey’s Orphans (1931). Walt Disney also received an honorary Academy Award for the creation of Mickey Mouse. Despite being eclipsed by the Silly Symphonies short the Three Little Pigs in 1933, Mickey still maintained great popularity among theater audiences too, until 1935, when polls showed that Popeye was more popular than Mickey. By 1934, Mickey merchandise had earned $600,000.00 a year. In 1935, Disney began to phase out the Mickey Mouse Clubs, due to administration problems.

About this time, story artists at Disney were finding it increasingly difficult to write material for Mickey. As he had developed into a role model for children, they were limited in the types of gags they could make. This led to Mickey taking more of a secondary role in some of his next films allowing for more emphasis on other characters. In Orphan’s Benefit (August 11, 1934) Mickey first appeared with Donald Duck who had been introduced earlier that year in the Silly Symphonies series. The tempestuous duck would provide Disney with seemingly endless story ideas and would remain a recurring character in Mickey’s cartoons.

Mickey first appeared animated in color in Parade of the Award Nominees in 1932, however, the film strip was created for the 5th Academy Awards ceremony and was not released to the public. Mickey’s official first color film came in 1935 with The Band Concert. The Technicolor film process was used in the film production. Here Mickey conducted the William Tell Overture, but the band is swept up by a tornado. It is said that conductor Arturo Toscanini so loved this short that, upon first seeing it, he asked the projectionist to run it again. In 1994, The Band Concert was voted the third-greatest cartoon of all time in a poll of animation professionals. By colorizing and partially redesigning Mickey, Walt would put Mickey back on top once again, and Mickey would reach popularity he never reached before as audiences now gave him more appeal. Also in 1935, Walt would receive a special award from the League of Nations for creating Mickey.

However, by 1938, the more manic Donald Duck would surpass the passive Mickey, resulting in a redesign of the mouse between 1938 and 1940 that put Mickey at the peak of his popularity. The second half of the 1930s saw the character Goofy reintroduced as a series regular. Together, Mickey, Donald Duck, and Goofy would go on several adventures together. Several of the films by the comic trio are some of Mickey’s most critically acclaimed films, including Mickey’s Fire Brigade (1935), Moose Hunters (1937), Clock Cleaners (1937), Lonesome Ghosts (1937), Boat Builders (1938), and Mickey’s Trailer (1938). Also during this era, Mickey would star in Brave Little Tailor (1938), an adaptation of The Valiant Little Tailor, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

Mickey was redesigned by animator Fred Moore which was first seen in The Pointer (1939). Instead of having solid black eyes, Mickey was given white eyes with pupils, a Caucasian skin colored face, and a pear-shaped body. In the 40’s, he changed once more in The Little Whirlwind, where he used his trademark pants for the last time in decades, lost his tail, got more realistic ears that changed with perspective and a different body anatomy. But this change would only last for a short period of time before returning to the one in “The Pointer“, with the exception of his pants. In his final theatrical cartoons in the 1950s, he was given eyebrows, which were removed in the more recent cartoons.

Fantasia (1940)
Fantasia (1940)

In 1940, Mickey appeared in his first feature-length film, Fantasia. His screen role as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, set to the symphonic poem of the same name by Paul Dukas, is perhaps the most famous segment of the film and one of Mickey’s most iconic roles. The segment features no dialogue at all, only the music. The apprentice (Mickey), not willing to do his chores, puts on the sorcerer’s magic hat after the sorcerer goes to bed and casts a spell on a broom, which causes the broom to come to life and perform the most tiring chore—filling up a deep well using two buckets of water. When the well eventually overflows, Mickey finds himself unable to control the broom, leading to a near-flood. After the segment ends, Mickey is seen in silhouette shaking hands with Leopold Stokowski, who conducts all the music heard in Fantasia. Mickey has often been pictured in the red robe and blue sorcerer’s hat in merchandising. It was also featured into the climax of Fantasmic!, an attraction at the Disney theme parks.

After 1940, Mickey’s popularity would decline until his 1955 re-emergence as a daily children’s television personality. Despite this, the character continued to appear regularly in animated shorts until 1943 (winning his only competitive Academy Award—with canine companion Pluto—for a short subject, Lend a Paw) and again from 1946 to 1952.

The last regular installment of the Mickey Mouse film series came in 1953 with The Simple Things in which Mickey and Pluto go fishing and are pestered by a flock of seagulls.

In the 1950s, Mickey became more known for his appearances on television, particularly with The Mickey Mouse Club. Many of his theatrical cartoon shorts were rereleased on television series such as Ink & Paint Club, various forms of the Walt Disney anthology television series, and on home video. Mickey returned to theatrical animation in 1983 with Mickey’s Christmas Carol, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which Mickey played Bob Cratchit. This was followed up in 1990 with The Prince and the Pauper.

Throughout the decades, Mickey Mouse competed with Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny for animated popularity. But in 1988, the two rivals finally shared screen time in the Robert Zemeckis Disney/Amblin film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Disney and Warner signed an agreement stating that each character had the same amount of screen time in the scene.

Similar to his animated inclusion into a live-action film on Roger Rabbit, Mickey made a featured cameo appearance in the 1990 television special The Muppets at Walt Disney World where he met Kermit the Frog. The two are established in the story as having been old friends. The Muppets have otherwise spoofed and referenced Mickey over a dozen times since the 1970s. Eventually, The Muppets were purchased by the Walt Disney Company in 2004.

His most recent theatrical cartoon short was 2013’s Get a Horse! which was preceded by 1995’s Runaway Brain, while from 1999 to 2004, he appeared in direct-to-video features like Mickey’s Once Upon a ChristmasMickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers and the computer-animated Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas.

Many television series have centered on Mickey, such as the ABC shows Mickey Mouse Works (1999–2000), Disney’s House of Mouse (2001–2003), Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (2006–2016), and Mickey and the Roadster Racers (2017–). Prior to all these, Mickey was also featured as an unseen character in the Bonkers episode “You Oughta Be In Toons”.

Mickey has recently been announced to star in two films. One is being based on the Magic Kingdom theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort, while the other is a film idea pitched by Walt Disney Animation Studios veteran Burny Mattinson centering on Mickey, Donald, and Goofy.

Since June 28, 2013, Disney Channel has been airing new 3-minute Mickey Mouse shorts, with animator Paul Rudish at the helm, incorporating elements of Mickey’s late twenties-early thirties look with a contemporary twist.

Since his early years, Mickey Mouse has been licensed by Disney to appear on many different kinds of merchandise. Mickey was produced as plush toys and figurines, and Mickey’s image has graced almost everything from T-shirts to lunchboxes. Largely responsible for Disney merchandising in the 1930s was Kay Kamen who was called a “stickler for quality.” Kamen was recognized by The Walt Disney Company as having a significant part in Mickey’s rise to stardom and was named a Disney Legend in 1998. At the time of his 80th-anniversary celebration in 2008, Time declared Mickey Mouse one of the world’s most recognized characters, even when compared against Santa Claus. Disney officials have stated that 98% of children aged 3–11 around the world are at least aware of the character.

Mickey was most famously featured on wrist watches and alarm clocks, typically utilizing his hands as the actual hands on the face of the clock. The first Mickey Mouse watches were manufactured in 1933 by the Ingersoll Watch Company. The seconds were indicated by a turning disk below Mickey. The first Mickey watch was sold at the Century of Progress in Chicago, 1933 for $3.75. Mickey Mouse watches have been sold by other companies and designers throughout the years, including Timex, Elgin, Helbros, Bradley, Lorus, and Gérald Genta The fictional character Robert Langdon from Dan Brown’s novels was said to wear a Mickey Mouse watch as a reminder “to stay young at heart.”

In 1989, Milton Bradley released the electronic talking game titled Mickey Says, with three modes featuring Mickey Mouse as its host. Mickey also appeared in other toys and games, including the Worlds of Wonder released The Talking Mickey Mouse. Fisher-Price has recently produced a line of talking animatronic Mickey dolls including “Dance Star Mickey” (2010) and “Rock Star Mickey” (2011). In total, approximately 40% of Disney’s revenues for consumer products are derived from  Mickey Mouse merchandise, with revenues peaking in 1997.

Mickey Mouse star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Mickey Mouse star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Mickey Mouse (as well as the entire Disney line-up of characters) has appeared on numerous stamps since his debut on a 90-lira stamp from San Marino released on December 22, 1970 (Scott #744). Indeed, certain countries in the Caribbean Sea and Africa seem to derive most of their overseas income from the sale of Disney-themed stamps. From the sheet volume of output alone, it seems to be a very popular topical subject amongst younger collectors.

In 2004, the United States Postal Service got into the act with the first of a multi-year series of stamps under the banner “The Art of Disney,” with each year revolving around a different theme. For the set issued on April 21, 2006, in Orlando, Florida, the theme was “Romance” and so Mickey appears on Scott #4025 along with his love interest, Minnie Mouse, who is planting a grateful kiss on her hero’s cheek.

With help from some of Walt Disney’s famous animated characters, Postal Service art director Terrence McCaffrey joined with a Disney team, including artist Peter Emmerich and creative director David Pacheco, to create four stamps that featured the following characters: Cinderella and Prince Charming, Beauty and the Beast, Lady and Tramp, Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The 39-cent self-adhesive stamps were printed by Ashton-Potter (USA) Ltd. by off-set lithography in panes of twenty stamps and perforated with die cuts in a gauge of 10½ x 10¾. The release comprised 175,000,000 stamps.

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