Friday, November 18, 2011

The Mouse Turns 83 Today

Today is the 83rd anniversary of Steamboat Willie, the Walt Disney cartoon that introduced Mickey Mouse to the world. Here's what I previously wrote about it.

In the summer of 1928, around the time Buster Keaton's latest comedy, Steamboat Bill, Jr., hit theaters, a young animator named Walt Disney was looking for a vehicle to launch his struggling studio's latest creation, a cartoon mouse by the name of Mickey. On November 18, 1928, the animated short Steamboat Willie premiered at New York's 79th Street Theater.

The rest, as they say, is history. Mickey Mouse soon eclipsed Felix the Cat as the movies' most popular cartoon character, appearing in hundreds of shorts, feature-length films and television shows over the next eighty years, as well as serving as the corporate symbol of the largest media conglomerate in the world. But if Disney had had his way, the famous mouse would have been a rabbit and history's most beloved pants-wearing rodent might never have made it off the drawing board.

Disney had only just launched his own studio when he and his chief animator, Ub Iwerks, created a series of animated cartoons centered around a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The series was a smash hit but unfortunately for Disney, distributor Universal Studios wound up owning the character. Universal hired away most of Disney's animators (all but the loyal Iwerks), wrested control of Oswald from Disney and left his fledgling studio on the verge of bankruptcy.

Desperate for a new franchise to fill the gap, Disney and Iwerks quickly came up with an animated mouse they dubbed Mortimer—soon changed to Mickey at the insistence of Disney's wife, Lillian. After two silent Mickey Mouse shorts, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho, failed to find a buyer, Disney produced a short with sound, a loose parody of Keaton's latest film.

Steamboat Willie was an immediate hit and is still considered one of the most important cartoons ever produced. In 1994, a group of one thousand animators chose it as the thirteenth greatest cartoon of all time and four years later, the National Film Registry selected Steamboat Willie for preservation in the Library of Congress.

Walt Disney, by the way, was nominated for fifty-nine Oscars, winning twenty-six of them, including four in one year, all records. Ironically, though, he didn't win for Steamboat Willie, one of the most important works of his career—there simply was no category of "cartoon short" at that time.

We'll correct that oversight now. For creating Mickey Mouse in 1928, I'm giving Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks honorary Katie Awards.

Make a little more room on the mantlepiece, fellas.




Trivia: Maybe you knew this, but I didn't: Walt Disney himself provided the voice of Mickey Mouse until 1946.

4 comments:

Bellotoot said...

Mickey Rooney, in his second autobiography ("Life Is Too Short"), contends that Disney's mouse was named for him, in his Mickey McGuire days, after a chance encounter with Walt Disney in Darmour Studios. Their exchange is described as follows:

"Did you say your name was Mickey?"
"Yes, sir."
"You know what I'm going to do?"
"No, sir."
"I'm going to call this mouse 'Mickey' - after you."

Hmmm . . . not sure what to make of this tale. On the other hand, I wouldn't have believed that he married Ava Gardner, either.

La Petite Gallery said...

Speaking of stories. My Uncle CHARLIE BOWERS did the 1st, MOUSE. He met Disney, not a great meeting and walt as I heard was a tough cookie. Charlie was blackballed
in Hollywood..
He was the guy in OUT OF THE INK WELL Ended up forming a partnership with Muller and went to France.My Daughter picked up a CD for me made by a french company when they found some of his old films. My Dad helped him make the films.
Have a great Thanksgiving
Yvonne

Mythical Monkey said...

Mickey Rooney, in his second autobiography ("Life Is Too Short"), contends that Disney's mouse was named for him

That's one of those stories that sounds absurd on the face of it until, as you say, you wrap your head around the fact that Rooney actually married Ava Gardner -- which also sounds absurd, but there it is, right in the public record.

He was also married to Martha Vickers, by the way, the girl who sucked her thumb and looked coy in The Big Sleep. I can imagine how that courtship went:

"You're not very tall, are you."

"Well, I try to be."

"What are you, a prizefighter?"

"No, I'm a shameless ham."

"What's that?"

"A particularly bad actor."

"You're making fun of me."

"Uh huh."

[she falls backwards into his arms] "You're cute."

"Really? Hot dog! Say, I'm between wives right now -- let's get married!"

"Um, okay."

Mythical Monkey said...

My Uncle CHARLIE BOWERS did the 1st, MOUSE. He met Disney, not a great meeting and walt as I heard was a tough cookie.

I looked up Charlie Bowers -- he starred in a series of slapstick comedy shorts between 1925 and 1928. According to the ever reliable Wikipedia, they mixed live action and animation, which I'm guessing Bowers himself drew since he began his career as an animator on the silent film versions of the Mutt and Jeff comic strip.

How about that.

The fifteen Bowers shorts that survive have been collected on DVD, so I promise to look him when I get there.