The most famous mouse cinema in history, Mickey Mouse, probably began life as a rabbit! As long ago as 1927, Walt Disney made a cartoon series about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, whose black and white features and big ears, thin legs in round-toed shoes, big round eyes and button nose really do look a lot like his more famous mouse cousin.
The early Mickey, who emerged in 1928, was a simple fellow who was easily constructed out of a few circles to make head, body, ears and so on. Animation was in its infancy then, of course, so it was important not to add too much detail to the characters. The process of turning them into a cartoon was very long and tedious without the huge teams of animators that produce such movies today.
With the help of fellow artist, Ub lwerks, Walt developed the new mouse character to appear in a series of adventures. But as he was planning these short movies, something remarkable happened: ‘talking pictures’ arrived! The very first ‘talkie,’ The Jazz Singer, had all Hollywood buzzing and Walt caught the bug along with everyone else.
All through his working life, if the technology wasn’t there for Walt to do what he wanted, he would invent it himself. Once he had made up his mind that Mickey must have a soundtrack, there was no stopping him. He first tried out the music and sound effects by projecting his Mickey Mouse film to an audience of family and friends, while someone played a harmonica and others used whistles, pan lids and so on for the sound
After a few false starts, Walt found a way to indicate to the musicians where and how they should play during the recording, and the first Mickey Mouse short with sound, Steamboat Willie, was made. It is still
entertaining today, even though it was made in black and white, and has many of the comic sounds, animated objects and slapstick action that we have associated with Disney ever since. Minnie Mouse turns a goat into a hurdy-gurdy, using its tail as a handle, so music comes out of its mouth. Later, Mickey plays the cow’s teeth like a xylophone! You can see this early Disney classic on YouTube and judge for yourself.
In 1929 more Mickey Mouse cartoons appeared and Mickey changed a little in character and appearance. His wardrobe extended to red shorts, white gloves and yellow shoes, and somehow he became a bit more lovable. Even though he remained quite mischievous, he could do good deeds too. The soundtracks were now recorded before the movies were made, so the animators could fit the action to the music and that worked much better.
Walt wanted a certain kind of squeaky voice for Mickey, but couldn’t find an actor to do it so he ended up speaking Mickey’s lines himself – for twenty years! That made him grow very fond of the little fellow. The Disney studios went on producing Mickey Mouse movies until 1953, by which time they were working on many other full-length movies, both live action and cartoon. However, Mickey returned to the screen in 1983 with ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol.’ Around 120 movies were made about him in all, including the famous ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ scene in Fantasia.
The Mickey Mouse shorts were very successful from the start, and as early as 1930 his fame had spread world-wide. In Italy he is known as Topolino; in Germany as Mickey Maus; in Chinese Mi Lao Shu and in Swedish Musse Pigg. By the 1950s Mickey was so famous he had his own TV show: The Mickey Mouse Club, where fun and games were mingled with short cartoons and a serial, and the cast members were called Mouseketeers and wore big black ears.
It didn’t take the Disney corporation long to realise that their most famous character was so popular with children everywhere that they could sell Mickey Mouse products of all kinds. From the early 1930s, cartoon strip stories were read about Topolino in Italy, and Le Journal de Mickey in France as well as in comic books in the USA and UK. Factories made Mickey goods and toys under licence from Disney, such as the famous Mickey Mouse watch, which first appeared in 1933. In 1978, Mickey became the first cartoon character to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
It could be said that Mickey Mouse is reinvented for each new generation, and that is certainly true today. Pre-school kids can enjoy Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, which first appeared on the Disney TV channel in 2006, but children of all ages can easily relate to the cheeky little mouse, along with his friends such as Minnie and Pluto. They are happy to sleep in Mickey Mouse sheets, and wear Mickey or Minnie Mouse T-shirts. They love to eat off Mickey Mouse plates and drink from Mickey Mouse cups, or browse in one of the Disney chain stores where Mickey Mouse and Friends take pride of place and you can still buy the original Mickey Mouse watch. Mickey is always a welcome guest at children’s parties and other celebrations, all around the world. He is also one of the most familiar images, with over 7,500 items bearing his face.
Of course it is the dream of many children – and, it has to be said, their parents – to visit one of the Disney theme parks. The first of these, Disneyland, was built near Los Angeles in 1955 and Mickey Mouse was there in person to greet the guests. In 1993 Mickey was given a whole new land’ for him and his cartoon chums, called Mickey’s Toontown, but it is sadly there no more
The video games industry has also been quick to use the familiar Disney character in a wide range of games for Nintendo, Wii, Xbox and other platforms. All the qualities that made Mickey Mouse fun to watch in the cartoon movies have been successfully transferred, along with the other Disney characters, to modern games. Right now, you too can play Mickey Mouse games here
So as you join Mickey in his various adventures, remember his very long history and just how far he has come since those early ‘Steamboat Willie’ days. Enjoy!