The Story of Mickey Mouse
A Brief History of Disney: Part 1
WORDS BY RICHARD OUZOUNIAN
On Oct. 27, 1954, Walt Disney paused in the middle of a television show saluting his soon-to-be-realized dream, Disneyland, to make one unforgettable observation.
“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it all started with a mouse.”
One of the most readily recognized and truly beloved icons of our time, Mickey has remained the enduring and endearing rock on which the greatest entertainment empire of modern times has been based.
A 22-year-old Midwestern man named Walter Elias Disney had a dream of making pictures come to life. He gathered together a group of colleagues in Kansas City, Missouri, and they started with Alice’s Wonderland. It led to an offer for a series of short cartoons and Walt and his team relocated to Los Angeles.
In 1927, they started a new series for Universal called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which became a major success. While nearing completion of 26 animated shorts, Walt hoped to increase the budgets for each short in order to elevate the overall entertainment value. He traveled to New York, where producer Charles Mintz had a pair of unpleasant surprises in store for Walt.
He offered Disney not a raise, but a 20% pay cut. When Walt bridled at this, Mintz informed Walt he had already hired away most of his animation team, except for Walt’s oldest friend and lead draftsman, Ub Iwerks.
On the desolate train ride home, Walt showed his optimism and personal resilience. He didn’t wallow in defeat, but started creating a new character upon which he could build a new series of animated short films. He quickly settled on a mouse, who he wanted to call Mortimer, but his beloved wife Lillian wisely suggested another name.
Recalling that intense period nearly 30 years later, Walt revealed that survival was the force that drove the details of Mickey’s creation.
“Mickey had to be simple. We had to push out seven hundred feet of film every two weeks,” recalled Walt.
He described how Mickey was largely created out of circles “so they could be drawn the same, no matter how he turned his head.” They eventually gave him gloves because “he was supposed to be more human,” a crucial decision that set the template for all of Disney’s later anthropomorphic creations.
And, in a final gesture of economy, they took away one of his digits because, “That was just one less finger to animate.”
The first appearance of Mickey was in a 6-minute short called Plane Crazy, which had a trial screening on May 15, 1928. Unfortunately, it didn’t lead to any distribution offers. Ever the optimist, Walt continued production on a second short featuring Mickey Mouse, The Gallopin’ Gaucho (1928).
However, Walt was already watching a shifting of the tectonic plates in the entertainment industry – something at which he would continually prove to be brilliant.
The tremendous success of the first live-action “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, which premiered on October 6, 1927, made him realize that the future of animation would be in sound as well.
His team immediately shifted gears and reconceived their next Mickey Mouse project, Steamboat Willie (1928), for sound synchronized to the action.
Not only would it feature a carefully-written soundtrack that would be synchronized and enhanced in post-production, it would feature a clever use of traditional and popular music—with songs like “Steamboat Bill” and “Turkey in the Straw”—something Hollywood would embrace wholeheartedly in its feature films.
But a “talkie” meant that the characters had to talk, and although Mickey doesn’t utter any recognizable words in Steamboat Willie, he does whistle, squeak, and grunt. He even blows a particularly juicy raspberry to his adversary, Captain Pete.
Although in story sessions Walt had always “spoken” for Mickey, using a charming falsetto with his own Midwestern twang, he thought someone else would have to do it on film.
Walt went through a score of auditions, but he kept telling everyone so specifically what Mickey should sound like that the team finally said “Walt, why don’t you do it?”
So for the next 28 years, Walt would frequently provide the voice of Mickey although – for some reason – the first time Mickey ever actually spoke words (“Hot dog! Hot dog!”) in 1929’s The Karnival Kid, the honor went to the film’s composer, Carl W. Stalling.
Steamboat Willie was a giant success when it was released on November 18, 1928. Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney were here to stay.
On one occasion, animator Frank Thomas persuaded Walt to let the crew film him when he voiced Mickey, which resulted in a truly memorable moment. There was one line where Walt had to say “I’m Mickey Mouse, y’know? Mickey Mouse!” and he reached down his hand to the height of a small child.
“It was the only time,” recalls Thomas, “we ever knew just how big Walt considered Mickey to be.
As Thomas said, “Mickey was Walt and Walt was Mickey.”