When people think of Mickey Mouse, they think of many things–a cartoon character, a childhood watch, a corporate icon or a stuffed toy. Although he is undeniably the world’s most famous mouse, most people do not know how Mickey became one of the most beloved characters of all time.

In 1923, Walt Disney and his brother Roy founded The Walt Disney Company. Their first major endeavor was the “Alice Comedies”–a series of silent cartoons featuring a live girl acting in Cartoonland. After their success, Walt made a deal with Charles Mintz, a distributor for Universal Pictures, to create the “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” series. Oswald was a likable little bunny who found himself caught up in inventive and well-constructed adventures. With Oswald, Walt equaled, and perhaps surpassed, the best product of his competitors.

There was just one snag. Walt had a one-year contract with Mintz for the Oswald series. The advertising announced “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, created by Walt Disney,” but Oswald’s name belonged to Mintz, who had apparently picked the name out of a hat. As the first year of the series moved to a successful conclusion, Walt and his wife Lillian, embarked for New York, where he expected to renegotiate the contract with provisions for a modest increase in income. But when Walt arrived in New York, things did not go how he had planned. Mintz proposed a contract that would reduce the income for The Walt Disney Studio. Since Oswald had been very profitable, Walt couldn’t accept the deal. Mintz repossessed Oswald and hired away one of Walt’s best animators to continue the series.

It seems appropriate that the birth of Mickey Mouse should be shrouded in legend. Walt is said to have conceived of Mickey on the train, returning to Hollywood from his angry encounter with Mintz. There is no reason to suppose that this story is essentially untrue, but over the years the story became so polished by repetition that it began to lose its sense of reality and to take on the character of an official myth. In addition, Walt had managed to tame a mouse in his old Kansas City studio, a mouse that he had nicknamed Mortimer. That name now became his first choice for the new character, but Lillian proposed the less-pretentious name Mickey. Somewhere between Chicago and Los Angeles, the young couple concocted the plot of Mickey’s first cartoon short, “Plane Crazy,” co-starring Minnie Mouse and capitalizing on 1927’s Lindbergh craze.

Ub Iwerks draws Mickey
Ub Iwerks draws Mickey Mouse circa 1929

Although Walt had drawn an initial sketch of Mickey on the train, Ub Iwerks, easily the best animator of the day, was largely responsible for defining Mickey’s physical characteristics. Mickey did bear a family resemblance to Oswald, but Ub–either on his own initiative or Walt’s suggestion–made him more compact. Mickey was design for a maximum ease of animation–it had been discovered that simpler forms were easier to animate effectively–but beyond that, Mickey’s identity had a dimension that was quite new to cartoons–he had a real personality. Probably Walt’s own contribution to Mickey, this identifiable personality was allowed to develop through Walt’s control over the situations in which Mickey found himself. Even at this early date, Walt had grasped the notion that cartoon characters should seem to think for themselves.

The Disney brothers had managed to save enough money to go ahead with the first Mickey Mouse cartoons without a distributor. Work began at once, in secret at first, because the Oswald contract had not yet expired. But, on October 23, 1927, a bombshell hit the film industry. Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer and the sound ear of motion pictures became a reality. Although a practical film sound system had existed for a number of years, the Hollywood production chiefs had ignored the new development. Now they had to confront it head on.

As the first Mickey Mouse cartoons went into production, the industry was still in chaos. “Plane Crazy” had already been completed and “Gallopin’ Gaucho” was on the drawing boards when Walt made what was perhaps his most important decision ever. Walt wanted Mickey Mouse to have a real impact, and he saw that the future lay with sound. Walt’s idea was to create a cartoon in which music, effects and action would be completely synchronized. So, Walt and his team began to develop a third Mickey Mouse story, one that was conceived specially for sound. After completing the animation, Walt took the short film to New York to add the sound. Unable to make a deal with established sound outfits including RCA and Western Electric, he turned to Powers Cinephone to get the work done. The orchestra recording from the initial session was unusable, forcing Walt and Roy to scrape up enough money for a second, last-ditch recording session. Walt provided Mickey’s mouselike squeaks himself and “Steamboat Willie” finally had a soundtrack. Mickey Mouse was ready for his debut.

“Steamboat Willie” opened at the Colony Theater in New York on November 18, 1928. When audiences roared with laughter at Mickey’s first adventure, Walt quickly busied himself with adding sound to “Plane Crazy” and “Gallopin’ Gaucho.” The legend, and his sweetheart Minnie, were born.

The Mickey Mouse who appeared in movie houses in the late twenties was not quite the well-behaved character most of us are familiar with today. He was mischievous, to say the least, but his personality prevented him from seeming to be just another cartoon animal. At times, when confronted by Peg Leg Pete, or forced to defend Minnie’s honor, Mickey was capable of heroic behavior. Mickey’s heroism was reminiscent of the sporadic nobility of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. Mickey and his gang provided for the sound era the same kind of entertainment that Chaplin and the Mack Sennett comedians had provided a generation before.

More so than any other cartoon character that preceded him, Mickey Mouse remained the same, basic, well-defined character in each film. He could adopt a variety of occupations and engage in outrageous adventures, but the steady, well-meaning, straight-shooting Mickey always shone through. Walt saw to that. Story men who engaged in flights of fancy suffered Walt’s withering comment, “Mickey wouldn’t do that.”

The thirties were Mickey’s conquering decade. Iwerks created Mickey Mouse comic strips, which King Features began distributing to newspapers in January of 1930. The image of Mickey Mouse quickly circled the globe. In Africa, tribesman painfully had tiny mosaic Mickey Mouses inset into their front teeth, a South African tribe refused to buy soap unless the cakes were embossed with Mickey’s image, and a revolt of some native bearers was quelled when the safari masters projected Mickey Mouse cartoons for them. No one was immune to Mickey’s elemental appeal–King George V and Teddy Roosevelt insisted that all film showings included a Mickey Mouse short. But as other popular characters, like Felix the Cat, have faded, Mickey has settled into the collective consciousness. Mickey Mouse is well known throughout the world. In Italy, he is known as Topolino, in Germany he’s Mickey Maus, Raton Mickey in Spain, Musse Pigg in Sweden and Mi Lao Shu in China.

For seven years, Mickey had been a star in black-and-white, but in 1935, Mickey made his debut in Technicolor in “The Band Concert.” In perhaps one of his greatest roles, Mickey appeared in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, premiering on November 13, 1940 at the Broadway Theater in New York–the theater was called the Colony when Mickey made his debut there in “Steamboat Willie” only a dozen years earlier. In a 1964 interview, when asked about the film, Walt said “Well, Fantasia was made at a time when we had the feeling that we had to open the doors here; this medium was something we felt a responsibility for, and we just felt that we could go beyond the comic strip; that we could do some very exciting, entertaining and beautiful things with music and pictures and color.” If he hadn’t deserved it before, this majestic screen work labeled Walt Disney the master craftsman of his medium.

Once Mickey Mouse was firmly established, Walt looked to new horizons. It was a pattern that would dominate the rest of his career–having achieved one goal, he needed another, more challenging one. But Walt never lost his concern and affection for the star who made him famous. He always referred to him as “Mickey Mouse” where as Donald was dismissed as “The Duck.”

“The Duck” from the credits of “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s
Disneyland Art Corner Postcard
Disneyland Art Corner Postcard from 1950s

In all, Mickey made over 120 cartoons, with a 30-year-gap between “The Simple Things” in 1953 and “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” in 1983. He starred in “The Mickey Mouse Club” television series in the 1950s and has acted as a host at the Disney theme parks since Disneyland opened in 1955.

Mickey Mouse Merchandise
Mickey Mouse merchandise circa 1950s

Mickey merchandise has literally flown off store shelves since Ingersoll produced the first Mickey Mouse watch in 1933. Today, Mickey maintains an extremely active schedule between special events, theme park appearances, film and television roles, media interviews and, of course, spending time with his best girl Minnie.

Shanghai Disneyland Parade
Mickey’s Storybook Express Parade at Shanghai Disneyland in 2016

Walt was always fond of saying, “I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing–that it was all started by a mouse.” And so, Main Street Art Corner is proud to present a special collection of prints featuring the big cheese himself.

One thought on “The Birth of a Disney Legend

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *