Today marks the 90th anniversary of the premier of “Steamboat Willie”, which Disney marks as the birthday of one Mickey Mouse. Mickey is a bit hard to write about, because what do you say? Walt was very good at writing a story, and his story about Mickey is more or less the story of the company itself. With Mickey as the company mascot, the two are so entwined that to tell the history of one precludes the other. Mickey is such an iconic symbol he is recognized across the world, as recognizable as the Buddha, Jesus, and the Coca-Cola logo.
But he’s also a character.
He’s been in shorts, in films, on TV, on radio, in comics– if Disney could make it, Mickey was on it. Lunch boxes. Toothbrushes. Gas masks. There is a definitive character to him, a distinctive “Mickeyness” that he has no matter where he is.
So let’s delve into that.
Brief sidenote: I’ll be using the word ‘Disney’ to indicate the company and ‘Walt’ to indicate the person. I’ll try to stick to that.
“I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.” – Walt Disney
Walt was right. He was also wrong, but he was right. The Walt Disney company would not be the Walt Disney company without Mickey Mouse. But it actually all started with a rabbit– Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. While he might be best known today as Mickey’s older brother, he and his shorts were immensely popular in the 1920’s. He was a black rabbit with a white face and shorts. The only thing that would have distinguished him from Mickey back then were his long rabbit ears. Walt, of course, wouldn’t get to keep Oswald– Universal decided that they owned him, and hired most of Walt’s animators to continue to make Oswald shorts without Walt.
There was one animator that Universal didn’t get though. One of Walt’s best and longest working animators was still there– Ub Iwerks. If Walt was the head of the company, Iwerks was the hands. And there would have been no Mickey without Iwerks.
Here’s how the story is normally told: Walt is sitting on the train from New York to LA after losing Oswald. He needs a new character. He sketches a mouse on a piece of paper named Mortimer. His wife suggests that “Mickey” would be a better name. From that moment, “Steamboat Willie” bursts forth fully formed from Walt’s head and started printing money which let Walt built himself a literal castle in Anaheim. Okay, maybe I made up that last bit, but odds are that Walt made up the rest of it.
In reality, Walt, his brother, Roy, and Ub did a lot of brainstorming once Walt got back from New York (yes, he did take a train, but only because commercial airlines weren’t really a thing in the 20’s). They tried several different animals– cats, dogs, a frog, a cow, a horse. It was Walt that settled on a mouse, but it was Ub that finalized his design and animated his first cartoon, “Plane Crazy”. “Plane Crazy” was poorly received, and Walt couldn’t find a distributor. The next Mickey cartoon, “The Gallopin’ Gaucho”, didn’t fare much better. Mickey needed something that would make him stand out from Oswald and Felix the Cat and all the other funny animal cartoons.
So the stats that I normally put in the Disney Princess Profiles aren’t going to work as well (seeing as Mickey isn’t a Disney Princess), so I’ve replaced some of the standard stats with new ones.
- Release Date: November 18, 1928
- Exactly 90 years ago, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon to air in theaters was premiered.
- Voice: Walt Disney
- Several people have voiced the Mouse over the years, most recently by Brett Iwan and Chris Diamantopoulos, but originally when Walt was auditioning actors to voice his new character, he accidentally found that he was the only one that could do the voice he wanted to his satisfaction.
- Age: 90
- While Mickey’s birthdate has changed over the years, and he stays pretty much ageless from cartoon to cartoon, his age has always been calculated starting from the year 1928.
- Franchise: Mickey and Friends
- While they might not be the Princesses, Mickey and Friends include not only what Disney fans call “the fab 5” of Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto (no relation to either generation of the Fab 5 from Queer Eye), but also Daisy, Pete, Chip & Dale, Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar, Max Goof, Scrooge McDuck, and Huey, Louis, and Dewey. Mickey also has a sister, Felicity Fieldmouse; two nephews, Mortie and Ferdie; a sometimes rival named Mortimer Mouse; and of course once Disney bought back the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Mickey’s brother finally came home.
- Colors: Red, Yellow, and Black
- While Mickey himself is a black mouse, his franchise colors use mainly red, for his shorts, and yellow, the buttons and shoes. Mickey is one of the easiest characters to Disneybound (a style of dress to emulate a character’s design without cosplaying, a way to get around the “no costumes” rule at the Disney parks)– you just need a black shirt, red pants, and yellow shoes.
This is going to be a “greatest hits” parade, because Mickey has been in so many different productions, it’s hard to keep track of all of them
“Steamboat Willie” (1928)
It turned out that the missing ingredient to Mickey Mouse was sound. 1927 was the year that a film by the title of The Jazz Singer was released, and sound was the new hotness in Hollywood. “Steamboat Willie” wasn’t the first synchronized sound cartoon, but it was the first successful one, and the first to have the synchronized sound really synchronize. Disney has done everything it can to keep the copyright to this cartoon, but Disney eventually had to pay $150 in 1932 because they never got permission to use “Turkey in the Straw” for the short.
“The Band Concert” (1935)
“The Band Concert” was Mickey’s first foray into color. The short uses a 3-strip Technicolor production, meaning that the film was passed through three filters (green, magenta, and blue) to color it. This short also features Goofy, who had been introduced in “Mickey’s Revue” in 1932 and Donald Duck, who had been introduced in “The Wise Little Hen” in 1934.
Mickey’s first film was, almost appropriately, a series of shorts. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was originally intended to be a stand-alone short, but when the costs started ballooning, Walt decided to make it part of a series of shorts in a “Symphonic film” with other shorts based off famous classical works including “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by J. S. Bach, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (the Pastoral Symphony), and The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. The crown jewel of the film, however, is still “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, which introduced the sorcerer character appropriately named “Yensid Tlaw”.
The Mickey Mouse Club (1955 – Present)
There had been Mickey Mouse clubs across the country since Walt and Roy realized that they could make some extra cash off the endeavor. But the television offered new opportunities for Disney that Walt was very excited about. The Mickey Mouse Club show was a variety show that featured Mickey’s “Mousketeers”, which over time have come to include such famous names as Annette Funicello, Keri Russel, Brittany Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Ryan Gosling. Mickey Mouse himself appeared in every episode.
Disneyland opening was a watershed in entertainment and vacations. Mickey was there day one to open the park as part of a live television event that included such noted guests as Frank Sinatra, Art Linkletter, and some actor named Ronnie. Popular thought has it that while Mickey was at Disneyland, the park’s mascots would end up starting out as Jiminy Cricket and Tinker Bell as the shareholders didn’t want the “inevitable” failure of Disneyland to tarnish Disney’s biggest star.
Walt Disney World
Keeping Mickey away from the park was a mistake that Disney would repeat with the opening of Walt Disney World’s second gate, the EPCOT Center. The idea would be that while the Magic Kingdom would be Disneyland part II, EPCOT would be a place of learning, a permanent World’s Fair, and eventually they might be able to build the City of Tomorrow that Walt had dreamed of before he died. This was where the “Hidden Mickey” Easter eggs of Imagineering really took off– a way to keep Mickey close without actually having him there. However, while you couldn’t find Mickey and the other Disney characters in EPCOT, you could find them if you went to Magic Kingdom, so, to quote Tony Goldmark, they did. It was Disney CEO Michael Eisner that eventually brought Mickey and Co. into the second gate (which let them also be included in the third and fourth gates, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios).
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? brought together some of the biggest names in film– Disney, Warner Brothers, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis. While Disney owned the film rights, it was Spielberg that convinced all the other studios to let them “borrow” their characters to make the world of the toons to seem like it wasn’t made up of just one group of characters. Warner Brothers specifically was sought out for its Loony Tunes characters. The deal was this– they could use the Loony Tunes, but only if Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, their two biggest stars, got just as much screen time as their counterparts: Donald and Mickey. The solution to just have each pair in one scene together was ingenious.
Disney’s House of Mouse (2001 – 2003)
Disney’s House of Mouse was a show about Mickey and friend running a club for the other Disney characters. It is not particularly notable in terms of history or technical achievement other than it was my personal introduction to these characters. Mickey himself was the owner and host of the club, Minnie ran operations, Donald was in charge of the front of house, Goofy was the head waiter, and wackiness never failed to ensue. In between the hijinks of the episode were Mickey and friends shorts (old and new) and you could spot characters in the crowd from Snow White to Tarzan. It was a fun show.
Mickey Mouse (2013 – Present)
Since 2013, new Mickey shorts featuring Mickey and friends have been premiering on the Disney Channel. Notable for it’s updated “retro” style, these shorts have been nominated and won several Emmys and Annies (the awards given out by the International Animated Film Association) every year since their premiere. The shorts are also going to be the basis for the 2019 Hollywood Studios ride “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway”, marking the first Mickey Mouse themed ride at any Disney park.
Impact and Legacy
What is the impact of Mickey Mouse? I mean, what is the impact of the Disney Company? Do we talk about the long struggles with copyright law? The homogenization of culture that it represents? The Disnification of any story that it touches? On the one hand, the Mouse and the Company are going to leave behind a tremendous legacy, one that is not always good at times. Mickey himself, being the watered-down version of Oswald that he is, represents the inherent truth to what the Disney company really teaches us– ownership comes and goes, but stories and characters are what people remember. I think Lindsay Ellis put it best in her video essay on the Disney film Saving Mr. Banks: “And even if corporate-approved Tom Hanks movie!Walt says that Mary Poppins is going to make people happy while dollar signs literally spin out of his eyes, just look at this three-year-old child on her Make a Wish trip to Disney World meeting Mary Poppins.” Mickey, for better or worse, is the face of the company that, with one hand, alienates stories from its source material and copyrights them to kingdom come, and with the other, creates cultural touchstones that inspire, motivate, and engage people.
And as for Mickey? He’ll be okay. He never let Pete get him down, he’ll always come back.
Just wait for the spectacle they’ll have ten years from now.
What is your favorite Mickey short, show, or movie? Do you think they’ll ever let him into the Public Domain, or at least onto DuckTales? Let me know in the comments. Also, like if you can, and subscribe– or follow us on Facebook!— so you don’t miss any new content.