This Old Mouse: Mickey Through the Years

THP welcomes back James for the final segment in our Mickey Birthday series!

As of this writing, The Walt Disney Company is a $75 billion empire.

It is an immeasurably vast conglomerate which includes nearly a dozen major entertainment production and distribution companies, including Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, and Pixar.  The studio entertainment division accounted for $6.4 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2011.  The Walt Disney Company includes 11 theme parks in five distinct resort areas on three continents.  Their timeshare operation, the Disney Vacation Club, boasts over 100,000 proudly paying and fiercely devoted members.  The Parks and Resorts division accounted for $11.8 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2011.The Company also controls the reputable Disney Cruise Line with three (soon to be four) major luxury cruise liners.  The Disney Publishing Worldwide division includes numerous publishing and media imprints which collectively reach over 100 million readers in over 75 countries.  The Walt Disney Company owns both the ABC and ESPN television channels which produced $18.7 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2011.  The Disney Store retail chain accounts for over 300 stores worldwide, as well as the always-open disneystore.com.  The worst performer under the Walt Disney Company umbrella, the interactive media department, accounted for only $982 million in revenue for fiscal year 2011.While all of that information (gleaned mostly from Disney’s most recent earnings report) may sound utterly mind-blowing, the most amazing thing about The Walt Disney Company’s empire is that it would not exist without a playful mouse in red shorts.  As the late, great Walt Disney himself said (long before the Company seemingly owned half the world), “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.”

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Mickey Mouse made his official debut on November 18, 1928, in the short film Steamboat Willie, which was also historic for being the first animated feature to include sound.  He was born when a dejected Walt Disney found out that his first major character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, had been stolen from him by an unscrupulous business partner.  While Walt was on the train ride home from New York to California (this was the 1920s, remember), one of his best animators, Ub Iwerks, was busy sketching out a rough design for a new character to replace Oswald.  He settled on a mouse after one caught his attention in a magazine and he realized there were no leading mice in animation.  As a bonus, the famous tri-circle design of Mickey’s head was an elemental staple of animation design.  Walt originally named this new character Mortimer Mouse, after a real mouse he had grown fond of and named Mortimer earlier in his life, but at the wise urging of his wife (who thought Mortimer was a “sissy name”), he changed it to Mickey.  After Steamboat Willie, Mickey went on to star or appear in over 130 films and shorts andthe rest, of course, is history.

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Before Steamboat Willie debuted, Mickey appeared in two other shorts, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, but neither were well-received by test audiences and never found a distributor.  In these three early scenes, Mickey was quite a bit different than we know him now.  He was a mischievous, playful little rascal who often gave raspberries to his nemesis, Pete; he threw potatoes at birds and pulled the tail of a cat to make music.  In Gaucho, he drank beer, smoked, danced, and sword-fought.  He almost reminded me of the Dos Equis Man (he’s the most interesting mouse in the world!)  He didn’t speak until 1929’s The Karnival Kid, in which his first words – “Hot dogs!” – were delivered in a deep, masculine-type voice that is not the classic Mickey voice we think of now.  In fact, the voice of Minnie in The Karnival Kid is almost spot-on for the high-pitched, slightly hesitant Mickey voice we are now familiar with.  Aside from Willie, many of these early shorts are none too memorable.

The first color short, 1935’s The Band Concert, showed Mickey as a frustrated bandleader trying to pull the orchestra together, only to be constantly interrupted by Donald Duck and his flute-playing.  The sleeves of Mickey’s band jacket keep falling down, Donald won’t leave him alone, a bee pesters him, and then a tornado strikes – yet he still leads the band!  While Mickey may be a determined leader, he is not the star of the short – and that goes for many other shorts as well.

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In the classic 1936 cartoon The Moving Day, Mickey and Donald haven’t paid their rent, and Pete threatens to throw them out of the house and sell their furniture.  The plot then devolves into Vaudeville slapstick comedy featuring Goofy versus a piano and Donald getting stuck in a plunger and a fishbowl.  Yet Mickey is absent for much of the show.

The same could be said for other classic films like The Simple Things (Pluto takes on a spitting clam) and Lonesome Ghosts (Mickey, Donald and Goofy team up to do some ghostbusting).  Mickey never really comes across as the star of the show but as the glue that holds the show together.  He is a natural leader, a playful prankster, and a good-hearted soul (despite his early misdeeds with the cat and the bird).

And maybe that’s why he has endured, and thrived, for over 83 years.  He has remained an indispensable part of Americana, even when he took a 30-year break between 1953’s The Simple Things and 1983’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol.  Mickey’s iconic ears and shorts are as recognizable, if not more so, than Santa Claus.

Why is it that Mickey is so loved?  There are probably more reasons that we could count.  In a nutshell, he’s someone we can all related to.  He is a leader who enjoys spending time with his friends, has a bit of a playful and light-hearted side, and always winds up doing the right thing.  We’ve all been in the shoes of someone like the Sorcerer’s apprentice, Yen Sid, who takes his master’s hat and has a little fun before everything spirals out of control.  After all, it’s human nature.  You may ask yourself, isn’t it ironic that a mouse can teach us so much about human behavior?  Look no further than this quote from Walt: -“When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human; and that is the secret of his popularity.”

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There’s just something magical and child-like about Mickey Mouse which makes him accessible and lovable to all.  And nowhere is that more apparent than at Disney’s theme parks.  When Mickey and the gang ride out to the front of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom on the steam train and welcome everyone in at the park’s opening, his unbridled enthusiasm and joy are hard to ignore.  “Oh boy, that’s swell!” he says.  “Have a Disney day!” he wishes everyone.  He has the same excitement about opening Animal Kingdom, too, as well as for the “really swell” coffee he sells in the gift shops (he’s clearly a very busy mouse) and the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of merchandise bearing his iconic smile.  Even meeting the silent, pantomiming Mickey for a photo op around the park can warm the heart of the most grumpy soul.

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Everyone can relate to Mickey because he is everyone’s inner child.  He is the walking, talking embodiment of who and what we want to be, and what makes us happy.  He is always cheerful even when he’s a little grumpy, and his joie de vie is infectious.  His exuberant and rascally side never consumes him and he always corrects his mistakes.  There’s just something about those distinctive ears and that high-pitched voice that always brings a big smile to my face, and millions of other faces around the world.

This little mouse built a $75 billion media empire by being the most human cartoon character ever put to paper.  Perhaps Walt said it best: “It is understandable that I should have sentimental attachment for the little personage who played so big a part in the course of Disney Productions and has been so happily accepted as an amusing friend wherever films are shown around the world. He still speaks for me and I still speak for him.”

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A book publicist who loves writing about Disney and books, and sometimes Disney books.

One thought on “This Old Mouse: Mickey Through the Years

  1. Interesting article! Learned some things I didn't know … I'm glad Mickey's no longer a smoker, I want him to stay in good health for a few more hundred years! 🙂

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