LUKE RIX-STAND­ING pro­files the world’s most fa­mous mouse as he turns 90

Uxbridge Gazette - - Past Times -

ONE of the great cul­tural phe­nomenons of the 20th cen­tury, Mickey Mouse broke ground in an­i­ma­tion, be­came syn­ony­mous with the car­toon short, and forged a ca­reer as a truly in­ter­na­tional star.

As he cel­e­brates his 90th birth­day, we find out more about the su­per­star ro­dent that charmed chil­dren, amused adults, and made Dis­ney a house­hold name.


‘I ONLY hope’, Walt Dis­ney once said, ‘that we don’t lose sight of one thing. That it all started with a mouse’.

Mickey Mouse was Dis­ney’s break­out star but, were it not for a con­tract dis­pute and an in­ter­ven­tion by Walt Dis­ney’s wife, he might have been nei­ther mouse nor Mickey.

Dis­ney’s first com­pany – the ill-fated ‘laugh-o-gram’ – had cham­pi­oned the pon­der­ous­ly­named Os­wald the Rab­bit and, only af­ter los­ing the rights to the rab­bit, did he be­gin work on a mouse.

A few tweaks to the Os­wald model – an elon­gated nose, shorter, rounder ears – and Mor­timer Mouse was born. Af­ter a con­ver­sa­tion with wife Lil­lian, Dis­ney re­named his cre­ation Mickey.

Mickey was a labour of love – with a heavy em­pha­sis on labour. Each car­toon re­quired 15,000 draw­ings on some 30 dif­fer­ent back­grounds, and took Dis­ney’s team of an­i­ma­tors any­where from six months to two years. Un­til 1946, Dis­ney pro­vided Mickey’s squeaky voice him­self.

Their first recorded car­toon was Plane Crazy – an ae­rial ca­per fea­tur­ing bloomers used as parachutes – but the first to screen was 1928’s Steam­boat Wil­lie. Mickey non­cha­lantly chugged down a river, whistling while he worked, get­ting up to Tom & Jerry-es­que mis­chief with the bear-like Cap­tain Pete, the ship’s par­rot, and a pass­ing cow. A ma­jor hit, the film cat­a­pulted Mickey into the lime­light, and more re­leases quickly fol­lowed.

Right from his open­ing scenes, Mickey was a mouse with a spouse. Mickey’s 90th birth­day also marks his and Min­nie Mouse’s 90th an­niver­sary, and though their mar­i­tal sta­tus has been the source of some spec­u­la­tion, Dis­ney stated that they were wed ‘in se­cret’.

Mickey was too pure for pol­i­tics, but he made an ex­cep­tion for the Ger­mans. In 1931 he fought off an army of sus­pi­ciously Ger­man­look­ing cats by fir­ing pi­ano keys out of a mounted sub-ma­chine gun. He played a star­ring role in 1944, when his name was used as a code word by Amer­i­can sol­diers ar­riv­ing on the beaches of Nor­mandy. Mickey Mouse car­toons were banned by the Third Re­ich – a feather in the cap for the all-Amer­i­can Mickey.

By this point, the pair­ing of Dis­ney and Mouse had per­ma­nently al­tered the land­scape of Amer­i­can cin­ema. Steam­boat Wil­lie was the first car­toon to syn­chro­nise screen and sound, and Mickey’s first spo­ken lines – “Hot dogs! Hot dogs!” – were some of the first in car­toon his­tory. Mickey earned his cre­ator an Os­car in 1932, and later be­came the first fic­tional char­ac­ter to have a star on the Hol­ly­wood Walk Of Fame.


FAME, how­ever, can change mice just as much as peo­ple, and Mickey’s suc­cess was so mas­sive that his ec­cen­tric­i­ties be­came li­a­bil­i­ties. In or­der to main­tain his ap­peal, Mickey’s neg­a­tive qual­i­ties were stripped away, leav­ing a mouse so straight-laced and saintly, he bor­dered on bland.

Mickey’s per­son­al­ity rested on the idea that he was “a lit­tle fel­low try­ing to do the best he could”. So, what to do with him when he be­came a star? In 1949, Dis­ney him­self ad­mit­ted the prob­lem: “Mickey grew into such a le­gend that we couldn’t gag around with him”.

1934 had brought the de­but of Mickey’s fiery fren­emy Don­ald Duck, whose hare-brained schemes and bois­ter­ous tem­per tantrums picked up where Mickey left off. Be­tween 1941 and 1965, Don­ald starred in 109 Dis­ney shorts; Mickey in just 14.

Mickey’s fil­mog­ra­phy dropped off a cliff (1983’s A Mickey Christ­mas Carol would be his first film in 30 years), but he still had an en­ter­tain­ment em­pire to run. He was there to meet and greet vis­i­tors at Dis­ney­land’s grand open­ing in 1955, won the hearts of a new gen­er­a­tion with his on-and-off chil­dren’s TV show the Mickey Mouse Club, and built up a

40% share in Dis­ney prod­uct sales. Un­sure what to do with him on screen, Dis­ney made Mickey mas­ter of cer­e­monies, fam­ily pa­tri­arch, and mer­chan­dis­ing main­stay.


BY the mid-Nineties, Mickey had be­come a bit of a prob­lem. He was still Dis­ney’s prize as­set – far too big to be dis­carded – but it would be a brave ex­ec­u­tive who tried to mod­ernise or tin­ker with him.

Long gone was the rogu­ish scamp that charmed his way to star­dom – Nineties Mickey was a theme-park mas­cot and nos­tal­gia piece.

When Andy Mooney ar­rived as Dis­ney’s head of con­sumer prod­ucts in 2003, he couldn’t be­lieve how lit­tle the com­pany was us­ing the face of their fran­chise. “Mickey is our swoosh”, he re­marked, re­fer­ring to the om­nipresent tick that Nike uses.

There fol­lowed per­haps the grand­est mar­ket­ing cam­paign in Dis­ney’s his­tory – its goal to make Mickey cool again. Mickey car­toons ap­peared in 3D, the video game se­ries King­dom Hearts gave Mickey a rare ensem­ble role, and a gi­ant graf­fiti mu­ral of the mouse ap­peared on the cor­ner of Sun­set Boule­vard. Some Mickey purists were hor­ri­fied, but Dis­ney’s bank ac­counts purred.

T-shirts made up the thrust of the cam­paign, and Mickey ap­peared splashed across the chests of Jen­nifer Anis­ton, Lenny Kravitz, and Sarah Jes­sica Parker on Sex And The City.

The re­sult was a Mickey for a new age. The re­lease of video game Epic Mickey in 2009 brought a darker, mood­ier Mickey, who could be can­tan­ker­ous and cal­cu­lat­ing. The game ini­tially re­ceived av­er­age re­views, but has since gained a se­quel and a cult fol­low­ing.


MICKEY may have be­gun life just as a mouse (or in­deed, a rab­bit), but for some, he sym­bol­ised the Amer­i­can dream. He rose from the ashes of the Great De­pres­sion (“he has helped us laugh away our trou­bles, for­get our cred­i­tors and keep our chins up”, wrote the Bos­ton Globe), and Walt Dis­ney had en­dured years of re­jec­tions and bank­ruptcy be­fore strik­ing mouse­shaped gold.

But rep­re­sent­ing Amer­ica could be a dou­ble-edged sword. As Mickey moved from films to re­tail out­lets, he be­came known as the cutesy face of cap­i­tal­ism, and shows like South Park pre­sented him as a bul­ly­ing jaded ex­ec­u­tive.

Mickey be­gan life as an al­ter-ego for his cre­ator, but grew to be­come, in the words of nov­el­ist John Updike, “the most per­sis­tent and most per­va­sive fig­ure of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture in this cen­tury”.

Mickey Mouse car­toons were banned by the Third Re­ich – a feather in the cap for the all-Amer­i­can Mickey...

Walt Dis­ney draw­ing Mickey Mouse, the char­ac­ter that launched an en­ter­tain­ment em­pire

Mickey has gone through changes com­pany over the decades, from (l-r) lov­able along­side DIs­ney him­self in the scamp in the early car­toons, 60s, to a post-mod­ern icon in to face of the the Noughties, fea­tur­ing in com­puter games

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