It was all started by a mouse
This Article was earlier published by me at Cinemaa Online
Though born in Chicago, Walt spent a major part of his childhood in rural Missouri, which is where he developed his talent for drawing. Later moving back to Chicago as a teen, Walt enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute, and he volunteered for the Army during WW1, but rejected as he was just 16. Disney still took part in the war as an ambulance driver, joining the exalted company of people like Ernst Hemmingway. Post the war, Walt slogged along creating ads for papers, mags and theaters, and then he met Ubbe Iwerks. Disney and Iwerks would become one of movie Dom’s most famous collaboration, but the start was not too impressive. Though Walt did try his hand at animation, creating a series of animated features called Laugh O Grams that became a big hit at theaters, his attempt at running a studio misfired, and he went bankrupt. Along with brother Roy, Walt pooled the money to create their own studio in Hollywood. Their first series of live action animated shorts called Alice Comedies ran fairly well. Their first major success however was the animated feature Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, distributed by Universal Studios. The success of the features enabled Walt to expand his studio, and get people like Rudolph Ising, Hugh Harman, Carman Maxwell and Friz Freleng, with whom he had worked in Kansas City earlier.
It was All Started by a Mouse
In retrospect the entire backstory leading to the birth of Mickey Mouse, looks like a typical Hindi movie tale. The lady with a golden heart, Ms. Margaret Winkler , gives the struggling Walt Disney a break, by distributing his Alice Comedies shorts, and in 1925, Walt dates and ends up marrying Lillian Bounds who was hired by him to paint the studios. A successful franchise, an expanding studio, Ms. Winkler and a new bride, Walt seemed to have it all. Enter the villain of the piece, Charles Mintz, who marries Ms. Winkler, takes charge of her business. Not only does Mintz, cut the fees he paid to Disney for each short, he also has all of Walt’s associates under his contract. Walt refuses to agree to Mintz’s terms, and not only loses the rights over Oswald, he also loses his associates. However Walt’s closest friend Iwerks sticks along with him, aah the eternal dosti angle. That was when Walt asks Iwerks to create the character of a mouse, based on a pet mouse he had on his Missouri farm. While the mouse being named first as Mortimer and then becoming Mickey, is now part of movie lore, Walt’s inspiration for the mouse was some one else:
I think we are rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin — a little fellow trying to do the best he could. When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human; and that is the secret of his popularity. I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.
While Steamboat Willie is quite often regarded as Mickey Mouse’s first feature, in reality it was Plane Crazy, first released in 1928. Steamboat Willie became a landmark for a number of reasons. It was the first time, the sound track was synchronized with the actions of the main character. It also laid created the look for Mickey, which we are familiar with, the large dots representing the eyes. Steamboat Willie took a look at Mickey’s adventures on a steam boat traveling down the Missisipi, and released in 1928, the feature was a runaway success. What accounted for the success was Walt by integrating sound, when most of the other animated features were still in silent mode, took a head start in the race. Mickey Mouse had arrived, and the rest as they say is history. Mickey however spoke for the first time in Karnival Kid(1929) and those famous white gloves made their first appearance in Opry House. Walt also learnt a bitter lesson from the Oswald saga, from now on Disney would own the exclusive copyrights over the characters they created.
Silly Symphonies a series of musical animated shorts launched by Disney in 1929, however was not entirely successful. While Mickey Mouse continued to grow from strength to strength, the other cartoon character Betty Boop, gave a tough fight to Disney. Long time associate Iwerks branched out to form his own studio, which however was shut down in 1936. Walt continued his relentless drive for innovation, in 1932 he took an old B&W cartoon Flowers and Trees and applied Herbert Kalmus 3 strip Technicolor making it the first of it’s kind in the animation world. It also bought Walt his first Oscar for Best Animated Short film. 1933 saw Walt produce one of the most famous animated shorts with The 3 Little Pigs. Walt took the age old children’s tale, and made the 3 pigs musicians, it had the famous song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”. It was a phenomenal success.
That was the first time that anybody ever brought characters to life in an animated cartoon. They were three characters who looked alike and acted differently- Animator Chuck Jones.
Walt again got a special Oscar for Mickey Mouse, and then followed the gang. Donald Duck was the more adult, nasty character, which Walt created as a counterpoint to Mickey. He became hugely popular during WWII appearing in a series of animated shorts used for propaganda purposes. Incidentally the secret code for the American forces during the D-Day landings was Mickey Mouse. Art Babbit, created the gullible, half wit Goofy. And then there was Mickey’s pet dog Pluto that came later.