Animated Shorts: Mickey Mouse Turns 80

Fatwa Placed on Mickey Mouse

Eighty years ago, a small rodent steamed onto the silver screen and took over the cinematic world. You might even say he was the Mouse that roared.

November 18, 1928 was the date “Steamboat Willie,” starring a new animated character named Mickey Mouse, made its theatrical debut. It wasn’t the first Mickey short Walt Disney, his brother Roy and their soon-to-be legendary team of Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harmon, Rudolf Ising and Friz Freling created. The first was called “Plane Crazy,” and was produced May that year. The problem was no distributor picked it up, or its sequel, “The Galloping Gaucho.”

It wasn’t even the first cartoon Disney and company ever did. Disney, Iwerks and Harmon worked on three series of shorts “Newman’s Laugh-Grams,” “Alice In Cartoonland,” and “Oswald The Lucky Rabbit,” before then.

It wasn’t even the first cartoon to feature sound. According to many sources, just go to the Wiki or check out Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice & Magic, that honor belongs to Max and Dave Fleischer. Their “Phonofilms” series way back in 1924 (three years before Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer!).

Mickey didn’t even say a proper word throughout the entire short. He mainly whistled, spat, got his tail handed to him by an old Alice character named Black Pete and played a tune on a goat for Minnie. His first words would come a year later, in the short “Karnival Kid.” He would be voiced by no less than Walt himself, a job Disney kept until 1946.

The Mouse’s original name wasn’t even Mickey. It was Mortimer. According to Maltin, the name change happened when Disney’s wife Lillian suggested it.

Yet there were more than a couple things going for Walt. First of all, even though Ub Iwerks is now credited with designing the Mouse, one should not knock Disney’s own talents. Walt was an illustrator himself, but he was also a great storyman. As renown animation historian and L.A. Times critic Charles Solomon once said, “Ub designed Mickey's physical appearance, but Walt gave him his soul.”

It didn’t hurt that Disney was an independent studio, either. This gave him room to experiment, refine and actually charge theaters for his shorts, a rarity back in the day. Disney, after nearly a decade in the business, had also learned his lessons well from his predecessors; among them Pat Sullivan/Otto Messmer (Felix The Cat), the Fleischers (Out of the Inkwell) and Paul Terry (Farmer Al Falfa).

Another thing about Disney that set him apart was he probably was the first to realize that to truly succeed in animation, one needed to become a master of three different disciplines; art, finance and technology. For instance, when “Steamboat Willie,” which was a parody of a Buster Keaton short entitled “Steamboat Bill Jr,” Disney immediately pulled “Plane Crazy” and “Galloping Gaucho” out of the vaults and added sound to them, re-releasing them that December. One thing Disney picked up from Sullivan was he also struck a number of licensing deals, and soon Mickey stuffed and action figures, coloring books and the immortal wrist watches were national obsessions.

On the technological front, “Willie” was the first animated short to ever use a click track, thus giving Disney a serious edge over the Fleischers. His sounds actually synched to the action going on the screen, making Mickey and Minnie’s actions a lot more believable. Most important, Disney kept plowing money back into the firm, constantly refining the art aspects. In fact, when he started losing his original crew to deals that were far more lucrative (to them anyway), he set up his own school begetting his equally legendary Nine Old Men.

One could also say that Disney also benefited from the times. Jolson’s Jazz Singer made theater owners realize “talking” motion pictures were a great way to bring in an audience. There just weren’t that many theaters capable of handling the Fleischers’ works when they first came out. In other words, one could say that if Walt didn’t take advantage of the situation, someone else with equal talent would have, sooner or later.

The thing is, Disney had the talent; as an artist, technician and businessman.

Disney would soon populate Mickey, Minnie and Pete (every good hero deserves a good villain) with a crew of equally memorable characters. It wasn’t long before Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto would spin off into their own shorts, further expanding the reach of the rapidly growing Disney empire. The innovations didn’t stop there. Another key hire Disney made was music arranger Carl Stallings. When Disney realized that the audience loved the music in those shorts, he ordered Stallings and Iwerks to create a new series of shorts entitled “Silly Symphonies.” Their first effort, the very spooky “Skeleton Dance” would again make humongous waves.

Disney and Mickey would dominate the theaters for nearly the next decade, until the Fleischers finally came up with the first true animated superhero, Popeye. Disney’s dominance of the Oscars would last even longer, until two Harman-Ising proteges, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, created a cat-and-mouse team called Tom & Jerry. Finally, as Mickey’s more ornery aspects were processed out of his character, one gray hair named Bugs appeared and took that element to all new levels.

Most historians say Mickey’s supremacy of the theatrical short lasted until 1937. Then again, by anyone’s standards, an eight year run is one heck of an accomplishment, especially in Hollywood. Besides, Disney had bigger fish to fry. His and Roy’s Walt Disney Productions were on the verge of blowing everyone’s minds again. They were putting the finishing touches on the first American feature-length film, Snow White.

Not that the Mick would ever fade into the background. Basically, as the years passed, he would become targeted to younger and younger audiences. Walt had actually set up a Mickey Mouse Club back in the early 1930s, and used that incredible fanship to launch a TV series back in 1955. Again, Mick would introduce kids to a number of other successful spin-offs, among them the TV series Hardy Boys and Spin & Marty. It would also launch the career of 60s bikini movie star Annette Funicello. A later incarnation of the series included such young talent as Britney Spears, Christina Aguillera and Justin Timberlake.

Mickey is still on the air today, now the host of a very pre-school oriented show, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on the Disney Channel.

So was Mickey the most original character to ever enter the world of cinema? Obviously no. At the same time, try to now imagine how different animation would have been without him or his creator, Walt Disney. Say what you will, but without the Mouse, future groundbreaking work such as Fantasia, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and even Toy Story would probably be very different beasts, if they were to exist at all.

That he “officially” turns 80 today is something all animation fans, and quite frankly all film fans, should truly celebrate.

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