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The Birth of Mickey

By Charles Apple

Call Goofy! Call Donald! Call Pluto, Uncle Scrooge and Chip 'n Dale! Everybody's favorite cartoon rodent, Mickey Mouse, officially celebrates his 95th birthday Saturday!

Mickey's — and Minnie's — first successful cartoon short, “Steamboat Willie” began showing in a theater on Broadway on Nov. 18, 1928.

The Beginning Of Mickey

In October 1923, young animator Walt Disney, left, and his brother, Roy, opened Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in Hollywood and began making short, silent cartoon comedies. One of Walt's first hires: his good friend Ub Iwerks, right.

Walt Disney and Iwerks.

After four years of “Alice Comedies” featuring a live-action Virginia Davis against animated co-stars and backgrounds, Disney and Iwerks set out to expand their output. Walt and Roy Disney changed the name of their company to the Walt Disney Studio.

By 1927, Disney and Iwerks had created a new cartoon hero: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Over the next year, Universal Pictures would distribute 27 silent Oswald cartoon shorts but when Disney learned Universal was poaching his animation staff, he walked away from his creation, determined to create a character he would own.

Iwerks then created a mouse character who looked very similar to Oswald. At first, Disney wanted to call him Mortimer, but Disney's wife, Lillian, talked him into changing that to Mickey.

Disney's newly restaffed animation studio, led by Iwerks, created two silent Mickey Mouse cartoons — most notably “Plane Crazy,” test-screened on May 15, 1928 — but the two shorts failed to attract a distributor for Disney Studios' work.

Oswald, one of Disney's first characters.
Oswald Rabbit in his signature pose!
Mickey and Minnie in a plane.
Mickey and Minnie, in one of the first two animations created of them.

Mickey's First Appearance, Steamboat Willie

By that time, the first sound movie, “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson, had been released to great acclaim. Inspired by the success of that release, Disney and Iwerks decided to make their third attempt at a releasable Mickey Mouse short cartoon a musical piece starring Mickey as a riverboat pilot who finds increasingly inventive ways to amuse himself.

Disney traveled back home to Kansas City to ask an old friend and theater organist Carl Stalling to compose music for “Steamboat Willie” and his previous two Mickey Mouse shorts. Stalling would later go on to become the composer for Warner Bros.'Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts in the 1930s and 1940s.

Disney and Iwerks developed a system in which Iwerks animated a bouncing ball to which musicians could later keep time. The ball would later be cropped out. As a result, “Steamboat Willie” included a full, post-produced soundtrack that was synchronized with the moving action — the first true “talkie” cartoon that didn't actually talk.

In “Steamboat Willie,” steamboat pilot Mickey Mouse is a playful, fun sort who whistles, dances and plays the boat's whistles to the tune of the old vaudeville standard “Steamboat Bill.” At a cargo stop at “Podunk Landing,” however, a passenger — Minnie — misses the boat's departure requiring a rescue from Mickey. They then begin playing music on farm animals.

While Minnie plays another standard of the day — “Turkey in the Straw” — by turning a goat's tail like it was a hand-cranked Victrola, Mickey joins in by accompanying Minnie on a washboard, a trash can, sets of pans hanging on a wall, squeezing a goose like a bagpipe, pulling the tails of baby pigs and, finally, using a cow's teeth like a xylophone.

Mickey closes with yet another familiar standby — “Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits” — before his overbearing captain sends him below to the galley to peel potatoes for the rest of the cruise.

By Sept. 30, 1938, sound recording for the seven- minute-and-23-seconds film was complete. Disney's next task was to find a place to showcase “Steamboat Willie” that would help it receive the notice he felt it deserved.

The manager of the Colony Theatre at Fifty-Third Street at Broadway in New York City, saw the film and offered to show “Steamboat Willie” on Sunday, Nov. 18, 1938. Trade journals as well as the New York Times praised the work. Disney wired back to Hollywood to get his animators working on outfitting the two unreleased silent Mickey Mouse shorts for sound.

Mickey Mouse Shorts

Over the next decade and a half, Mickey and his animated world rapidly developed as Disney, Iwerks and their animation staff perfected their art.

Mickey spoke his first words — “Hot dogs! Hot dogs!” — as a carnival vendor in 1929's ”The Karnival Kid.” Supplying Mickey's voice: the man who composed the music for the short, Carl Stalling. Before long, Walt Disney himself would take over voicing Mickey.

Peeved at Disney's increasingly heavy-handed managerial style, Iwerks left Walt Disney Productions in 1930 to open a rival animation studio. Disney responded by having Iwerks' name removed from the credits of the dozens of films he had overseen.

Walt Disney Productions would make 124 Mickey Mouse shorts before putting the series on hold in 1953. New Mickey Mouse shorts would be released in 1983, 1990, 1995 and 2013.

Horizontal chart of productions. Vertical chart of productions.

This edition of Further Review was adapted for the web by Zak Curley.