November 18, 1928 is considered the birthday of Mickey Mouse. On that day, the first Mickey Mouse sound synchronised cartoon, Steamboat Willie was released in theatres. It ran for 13 days at a New York theatre. It is also the day that firmly placed its creator in the annals of entertainment history. Walter Elias Disney is now seen as the father of Mickey Mouse (with Disney doing the voice himself) and of the animation world in large, but Mickey was not the first animated character that Disney developed. That distinction goes to Oswald, The Lucky Rabbit. In collaboration with Universal Pictures, a series of 26 films featuring the rabbit were produced in 1927 and saw major success. But as Disney’s contract came to an end, he painfully realised that he did not own the character legally – a mistake he did not repeat with Mickey. The Disney corporation would have to wait until 2006 to regain rights to the Oswald cartoons.
It is said that Walt Disney thought of Mickey on a train journey back to California from New York, after learning that he had lost Oswald to Universal Pictures. He asked his loyal animator Ub Iwerks, who is co-credited for creating Mickey Mouse, to draw up the first sketches of the character. Steamboat Willie, like Oswald’s cartoons, showcased one of Disney’s greatest contributions to animation – ‘personality animation’. The concept showed that the characters acted less like a mouse or a rabbit and more like humans. They didn’t just move but had distinct characteristics that affected how they interacted with other characters. It became a noted Disney animation characteristic. Soon after, Plane Crazy and The Galloping Gaucho, all of which saw Mickey paying homage to great silent motion picture stars of those times. By 1930, Mickey had taken off, and became a cultural phenomenon. Many analysts tried to decipher his meteoric rise – seldom believing that a cartoon character could rival human stars. The power of an icon like Mickey is his flexibility – that he seems to satisfy the very requirements each critic demands. He could be funny and silly for kids, and suggestive and a good anarchist for adults. Over the years, Mickey became a model for children, a role that ended up limiting his adventures and behaviour, also partly due to the censorship of the movies that began in 1930s.
Mickey earned Disney an honorary Academy Award in 1932 and The League of Nations awarded him its highest honour in 1935 for the goodwill he spread around the world. In 1929, a theatre in California started holding Mickey Mouse Club meetings, which became formalised in theatres across the nation and within a few years one million kids were its members. The community of kids created a market for merchandise and Mickey became one of the first animated characters to appear on a wide range of merchandises, and the Disney studio developed standards that all media production companies now emulate. This is often considered as Disney’s most brilliant move, since it not only poured revenues into the company but also helped establish Mickey in an unprecedented scale. Soon, there were comic strips, magazines and tie-ups with companies to use the Mickey logo. He also became the first cartoon character to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1978.
Walt Disney, during these years, moved onto other major works including Silly Symphony cartoons, animated feature movies and birth of other characters like Donald Duck, Pluto and Goofy. Though Mickey now does not play a dominant part in Disney’s promotions or movies and is more of a mascot for the company, for many, the mouse with its big black ears conjures up memories and a steadfast dedication that few can rival.