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Rise of an Icon: A Pictorial History of Mickey Mouse

by Matt Miller on Oct 09, 2009 at 10:46 AM

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Most of the gaming generation grew up with Disney’s most famous character. Whether through viewing old cartoons, carrying a lunchbox with the iconic mouse ears, or playing one of his many video game incarnations, it’s hard to slip through childhood without some knowledge of Mickey Mouse. However, Mickey’s legacy extends several generations before the gaming world rose to prominence; the character has been an enduring cultural icon since the early 20th century.

In the coming days, Game Informer readers will learn all there is to know about Mickey’s triumphant return to video games. Disney Epic Mickey is firmly entrenched in the rich history of the character, so we thought it appropriate to look back at the long history of the Mickey’s life, both as a reminder of his presence in our culture over the years, and as a sneak peek at some of the characters and settings that show up in Warren Spector and Junction Point’s dramatic reinvention. To help illustrate our trip back in time, we went straight to the Disney Archives and Photo Library to find rarely seen photos, sketches, animation stills, and other illustrations from Mickey’s history. In addition, we asked Warren Spector, a Disney expert himself, to share his thoughts on the character.

Birth of an Icon

Mickey might never have been born were it not for another character that emerged from the early work of Walt Disney and his animation studio: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. If you’ve never heard of him, you’re not alone. Few remember Walt Disney’s original cartoon star. Oswald appeared in several silent black and white films in the 1920s, only some of which have survived to the present day. This rabbit, not the now-famous mouse, might have taken the road to stardom were it not for a dispute between Walt Disney and his film financier.

In the cold winter of 1928, Walt Disney was in New York trying to get a small raise from his distributor, Charles Mintz, so that the Oswald cartoons could continue production. Disney hoped to increase the price per cartoon from $2,250 to $2,500. Mintz would have none of it – instead chopping the production budget down to $1,800 and demanding that Disney continue work or the character (who technically belonged to Mintz) would be taken away. Prior to this brutal ultimatum, Charles Mintz had even stolen away several of Disney’s key artists and animators.

“[Disney] lost Oswald because he refused to compromise on budget. So they fired him, found somebody who would do it cheaper, and guess what? Nobody remembers Oswald after Disney stopped doing him.”
               -Warren Spector

Walt Disney wouldn’t be bullied, so this bitter negotiation signaled the end of Disney’s involvement with his beloved cartoon rabbit. It’s not clear exactly where and when Mickey Mouse came in to the picture, but the common story relayed by Walt Disney was that the idea of a mouse came to him on the train ride home to California after the disastrous meeting in New York. Disney collaborator Ub Iwerks had at least as much to do with the creation of the character as Disney himself. While much of the acclaim in later years would be heaped on Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks is the artist who gave form to the character. Most accounts relay that Disney first named the little guy Mortimer Mouse, but his wife declared that a terrible idea, and suggested Mickey instead. A star was born.

The Early Years

Mickey Mouse came into the public eye for the first time in Steamboat Willie, which premiered in New York in late 1928, only months after Disney’s loss of Oswald. The well-remembered cartoon was significant not only because it was the first appearance of one of the world’s most familiar fictional characters, but also because it had synchronized sound – a first for cartoons and a revelation for American audiences.

What many people don’t know is that Mickey actually had two cartoons that predated Steamboat Willie. Both Plane Crazy (1928) and Gallopin’ Gaucho (1928) debuted first, though they didn’t see wide public release at the time. Without sound, neither was deemed exciting enough to draw in the crowds. Both would later release with sound added in.

“The thing that I think set Disney apart more than anything else was his unwavering commitment to quality. He would not cheap out on anything. Animation at that point was this little backwater. No one cared about it. Disney really paid attention.”
               -Warren Spector

Mickey’s first few cartoons, and those that followed in the early 1930s, reveal a dramatically different Mickey Mouse from the one we’ve become familiar with in recent years. Mickey was originally mischievous, petulant, and misbehaved. It’s an aspect of the character that has lain dormant for years, which begs the question: Why has this funny and scrappy version of the character been abandoned? “He was a guy who smoked and drank and shot guns, skewered people with swords, threw Minnie Mouse out of a plane when she wouldn’t kiss him, and abused farm animals,” Spector explains. “He was a badly behaved little guy. As he became more popular, I think Walt started saying, ‘Let’s make this guy more realistic. We don’t want to do things with this guy that the world isn’t going to like,’ so they started taming him and taking different parts of his personality.”

“Mickey is critical to both animation history and film history,” Spector continues. “He was absolutely and demonstrably the most recognizable and popular film star in the world for about three or four years in the early ‘30s. He was huge at the box office. It’s not an overstatement to say that he gave hope to an entire generation of people living through the Depression. He was a little ray of sunshine. He seems kind of sweet and innocent, and his films don’t seem as anarchic and crazy and maybe relevant as today’s films do, but at the time it was exactly what the country needed, what the world needed. So he was there to provide it.”

The early 1930s saw an explosion of adoration for Mickey Mouse, both through his cartoon shorts and a long-lived comic strip. Though the comic strips started out playing on sight gags, the serialized format of the newspaper allowed for more complex stories, sometimes across months and dozens of individual strips. The comics were originally drawn by Ub Iwerks, though Floyd Gottfredson eventually became the chief creative voice behind the strip. After ostensibly taking over as a temporary replacement, Gottfredson ended up crafting the comic for the next 45 years.  

By 1932, only a few years after his initial appearance, the world was in love with Mickey Mouse. The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences even awarded Walt Disney a special Oscar that year for his creation of the adored mouse. Mickey Mouse was also one of the earliest fictional characters to hit it big with merchandising. Watches, stuffed toys, bedside lamps, phones – Mickey Mouse branded items became unavoidable, a rarity during the dark days of the Great Depression.

The 1930s represent the height of popularity for the character. Disney’s studio pumped out 18 cartoons per year on average, and the character garnered international acclaim. By the middle of the decade, Mickey had his own magazine, comics, toys, movies, and regular coverage in newspapers and other media.

All Grown Up

Mickey Mouse’s rascally and rambunctious behavior became a victim of his success. With such broad appeal across the world, Disney inevitably chose to scale back Mickey’s more mischievous activities in favor of more friendly behavior. Many of Mickey’s more dangerous and questionable activities were either eliminated or shunted off to his many cartoon buddies. Spector elaborates: “They took his mischievousness and his anger and need for revenge and gave it to Donald. At some point they took his naïve simplicity and gave it to Goofy. They took his loyalty and infinite affection and gave it to Pluto of all things. They took his character and just shattered it, and all of a sudden he’s kind of a straight man for the gang.” Interestingly, during this transition in the late 1930s and into the 1940s, Donald Duck began his rise to popularity, which in many ways eclipsed Mickey in the following years.

The later 1930s still saw a wealth of great cartoons for Mickey – now mostly presented in color. One of the best was Brave Little Tailor (1938), which garnered an Academy Award nomination. Interestingly, it lost the award to another Disney film called Ferdinand the Bull (1938). Brave Little Tailor was one of the last shorts that depicted Mickey Mouse in his original, simplistic design.

With the release of The Pointer (1939) and Fantasia (1940), Mickey Mouse’s look evolved into his familiar modern appearance. Most notably, his eyes developed pupils and changed in shape and size. His body also grew less rat-like; his head grew larger, and his limbs slightly pudgy. In many ways, Mickey Mouse was made more overtly childlike in appearance.

The 1940s started off big for Mickey, with his appearance in the feature film Fantasia. For many, his role as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is an overwhelming favorite. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” saw hints of the troublemaking personality that the character first had, but it was the scope and grandeur of the feature film that amazed audiences. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” had originally been planned as a short, but the incredible expense involved in its production led to an expansion of the original ambitions for the project, and other pieces of music and animation were added to create Fantasia in its final form. Though the film did not do particularly well at the box office upon its initial release, Fantasia continued to garner more and more affection as the years passed, especially for its stylish integration of music and animation. Today, Fantasia is regarded as one of Disney’s (and Mickey’s) greatest triumphs.

Much of the world’s attention in the early 1940s turned towards the momentous and terrible events of World War II. Mickey showed up in propaganda shots and other imagery supportive of the American war effort, and his presence in the cultural landscape of the war was apparent. Famously, the Allied command word on D-Day was “Mickey Mouse.” On the other side, a well-circulated German newspaper quote from the 1930s declared: “Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed... The dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom cannot be the ideal type of animal. Down with Mickey Mouse!” Harsh words for such a beloved American icon.

“By the ‘40s, he was so successful and so popular that taking any risks with him threatened the entire future of the company. Who’d be crazy enough to do that? Wait, other than me. No one’s nutty enough to do that.”
               -Warren Spector

Mickey’s appearances in comics and film outside of the war effort in the 1940s depicted an increasingly suburban Mickey Mouse – playing golf and polo, coming home from work to toss his hat onto the stand by the door, and enjoying the occasional date with longtime sweetheart Minnie. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of these ideas and life experiences reflected those of creator Walt Disney at the time.

Great cartoons like Lend a Paw (1941) and The Nifty Nineties (1941) were highlights among Mickey’s increasingly sparse roles of the period. Mickey showed up in six cartoons in 1941, three in 1942, but only eight more throughout the rest of the decade. By the early 1950s, his film career was mostly non-existent.
Aging Gracefully

Though Mickey’s film stardom was on the wane, the character was far too recognizable and beloved to disappear from popular culture. The 1950s saw two major new steps for the mouse, each of which helped set the stage for the way following generations would meet him.

The first was The Mickey Mouse Club, which first aired in 1955. Filled with musical numbers and cartoons culled from Mickey’s vast catalogue of shorts, the show was a tremendous success, and expanded Mickey’s media presence to make him a television mainstay until 1959. The cast of talented young actors and singers would tackle special themed days, like Guest Star Day, Circus Day, Talent Roundup Day, and the always popular Anything Can Happen Day. The variety show for children, with its familiar theme song and joyous celebration of all things Disney, spawned a follow up series decades later in the form of The All New Mickey Mouse Club, which premiered in the 1970s.

The 1980s and early 1990s saw yet another attempt at bringing the property back to life with the MMC. This popular Disney Channel program is most notable for being the starting place for many current pop culture icons. Cast members included Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Keri Russell, JC Chasez, and Ryan Gosling, among others.

Back in the 1950s, the second major new project for Mickey Mouse was Disneyland. The California theme park featured Mickey in its many attractions, most notably as park visitors were able to interact with a costumed Mickey character. The park was the first of many – Walt Disney World opened in 1971, five years after the death of Walt Disney in 1966. More parks across the world, notably in Europe and Japan, released in later years.

Mickey’s presence in the media continued to scale back, but occasional cartoons have released over the years. The year 1983 found him in the role of Bob Cratchit in a remake of the Dickens’ classic entitled Mickey’s Christmas Carol. The Prince and the Pauper debuted in 1990, based on the 1882 Mark Twain story, where Mickey plays double duty as both the royal prince and his poorer look-alike. Finally, Runaway Brain (1995) explores a strange Frankenstein-inspired story where Mickey’s mind is exchanged with a monster named Julius.

Around the same time, Mickey found a home in a brand new medium: video games. Though the many games bearing his name vacillated wildly in quality, they succeeded in bringing Mickey Mouse to a new generation. The early Nintendo release Mickey Mousecapade (1988) helped to begin a long line of Capcom-published Disney adventures. Around the same time, Sega enjoyed great success with Castle of Illusion (1990) and its sequels. More recently, Mickey made memorable guest appearances in the Kingdom Hearts series.

The 21st century has seen little of Disney’s once-ubiquitous mouse, which is on the threshold of changing in some dramatic ways. Warren Spector has taken the reins of the classic character, and is targeting a new game for release on the most widely owned system of this hardware generation: the Wii. Disney Epic Mickey reveals a major new direction for the character, but one that is rooted in his earliest birth and history. “The irony is I think the best way to rejuvenate or revitalize the character, whether in a game or in a movie or anywhere else, is to return him to his roots,” Spector says.  “Mickey used to be a character who about whom kids could say, ‘He’s acting out for me,’ and I think he could do that again.” For the full story on the new game, read this month’s issue of Game Informer, and then check back here after throughout the month for expanded articles, videos, interviews, and details on what might be the biggest and most ambitious third-party Wii game yet created.

If you’d like to learn more about the history of Walt Disney, his animation studio, and Mickey Mouse, then you’ll love the following books. The meticulous research found in each was invaluable to this article.

  • Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast; by Bob Thomas
  • Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters; by John Grant
  • Mickey Mouse: Fifty Happy Years; edited by David Bain and Bruce Harris
  • Mickey Mouse: My Life In Pictures; by Russell Schroeder

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