The Walt Disney Family Museum

Walt Disney Collection

Special Exhibit Articles
The Golden Age of Mickey Mouse
By Charles Solomon

"Mickey Mouse, to me, is the symbol of independence. He was a means to an end. He popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad 20 years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when (the) business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb and disaster seemed right around the corner. Born of necessity the little fellow literally freed us of immediate worry. He provided the means for expanding our organization to its present dimensions and for expanding the medium of cartoon animation towards new entertainment levels."
--Walt Disney
The world's most famous animated character, an international ambassador of goodwill and a universally recognized corporate symbol, Mickey Mouse has been analyzed by scientists and psychologists, praised by writers and directors, and depicted by artists in every medium. Mickey has survived this attention with unflagging good cheer: His smile, more famous than the Mona Lisa's, beams from the printed page, from movie screens and televisions, and from three-dimensional figures, including plastic toys and bronze statues.

According to the well-known story, Walt based the character on a mouse he had adopted as a pet while working in a Kansas City studio. Animator Ub Iwerks reworked Disney's sketches, making the new character easier to animate, but Walt supplied his personality and, for many years, his voice. As many of the old animators have commented, "Ub designed Mickey's physical appearance, but Walt gave him his soul."

Mickey's popularity skyrocketed during the early '30s, and he soon eclipsed Felix the Cat as the world's favorite animated character. "A Mickey Mouse cartoon" appeared on theatre marquees with the title of the feature, and "What, no Mickey Mouse?" entered the popular lexicon as a synonym for any disappointment. Between 1929 and 1932, more than one million children joined the original Mickey Mouse Club. Mary Pickford, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, the Nizam of Hyderabad and King George V of England were all Mickey fans. Novelist E.M. Forster wrote in 1934, "Mickey is everybody's god, so that even members of the Film Society cease despising their fellow members when he appears." In 1935, the League of Nations presented Disney with a gold medal declaring Mickey "an international symbol of goodwill."

The Mickey Mouse comic strip debuted in January, 1930, and he began appearing in other forms. In 1929, Disney had licensed the use of Mickey on a writing tablet; in 1930, the Studio began authorizing other Mickey Mouse merchandise. In 1932, Herman "Kay" Kamen, a former hat salesman who had built a successful advertising business in Kansas City, called Disney about developing character merchandise. Walt and Roy had been unhappy with the quality of some of the earlier merchandise and were interested in Kamen's offer. He came to Los Angeles, a deal was struck, and the number of products bearing Mickey's likeness expanded rapidly. Mickey appeared on everything from a Cartier diamond bracelet ($1,250.) to tin toys that sold for less than $1. In 1933 alone, 900,000 Mickey Mouse watches and clocks were sold, along with ten million Mickey Mouse ice cream cones. By 1934, Disney was earning more than $600,000 a year in profits from films and merchandise.

Not surprisingly, Mickey's extraordinary success, spawned a host of imitators. During the '30s, the Charles Mintz Studio produced a series of "Krazy Kat" shorts in which the title character was redesigned: With a large, round head and white gloves, Herriman's cat resembled Disney's mouse. The mice in some of the Van Beuren studio's cartoons, including "The Office Boy," "Stone Age Stunts" (1930) and "College Capers" (1931), looked so much like Mickey and Minnie that Disney took legal action and won recognition of his ownership of the copyrighted characters.

Although Mickey Mouse may be the most immediately recognizable figure on the planet, he exists in a variety of forms. The animated Mickey was unlike the comic strip Mickey. Mickey the corporate symbol and Mickey the hero of the Big Little Books were as different from each other as they were from the animated and comic strip versions. The various Mickeys changed over the years, but it was the animated Mickey who changed the most.

The earliest Mickey Mouse, as animated by Iwerks, was a weightless, blocky, rubbery scamp. When he picks up a sow and her piglets in "Steamboat Willie," his arms stretch like rubber bands--and return to their proper length when he sets down his burden. In the first films, the Disney artists gradually added many familiar touches: Light-colored shoes replaced his square black feet in "The Gallopin' Gaucho" -- his trademark white gloves appeared in "When the Cat's Away." He spoke for the first time in "The Karnival Kid" (1929) and the wedge-shaped cuts in his pupils were introduced in "The Jazz Fool" (1929). The early Mickey is also the rowdiest: In "Plane Crazy," he pesters Minnie for a kiss until she bails out of the airplane in annoyance.

As the Disney animators polished their skills and reworked the character's design, Mickey was transformed into a flexible, slightly mischievous charmer. The rounder, more appealing Mickey of "The Band Concert" (1935, his first Technicolor short) displays an irresistible élan that still delights audiences. The rubbery character of 1928 has given way to a more solid, cleanly drawn figure capable of executing the most complicated movements. His tap dance with a deck of playing cards in "Thru the Mirror" (1936) is performed with a stylish grace Fred Astaire might envy.

Fred Moore, whose animation of Mickey set the standard for charm and appeal, wrote in his analysis of the character, "Mickey seems to be the average young boy of no particular age; living in a small town, clean living, fun loving, bashful around girls, polite and as clever as he must be for the particular story. In some pictures -- he has a touch of Fred Astaire, in others of Charlie Chaplin, and some of Douglas Fairbanks, but in all of these there should be some of the young boy."

The Studio artists continued to refine Mickey during the '30s. By the end of the decade, the character assumed his most appealing proportions in "Brave Little Tailor" (1938), "The Pointer" (1939) and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence of "Fantasia" (1940). Mickey is basically a construction of circles and ovals, but the size of the circles and their relationships--the position of his ears on his head, the size of his eyes, etc.-- make the difference between a visually appealing character and an awkward one.

The story of Mickey Mouse continues with the article "Mickey in the Post-War Era," also in this month's special exhibit.

This article was excerpted from the essay "Mickey Mouse and the Disney Repertory Players" by Charles Solomon.



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