Saturday, July 4, 2009

As American As The Fourth Of July: Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse And Steamboat Willie

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.


Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

I can think of no better way to celebrate the 4th than a look at the birth of popular American animation, and kudos for giving Iwerks his due. The guy was truly a visual genius, and so few people even know his name -- I doubt Disney would have been able to pull so much off without him.

Incidentally, my favorite Iwerks/Disney collaboration is the infamous short linked below, which the former reputedly animated nearly in its entirety by himself (!). I still have odd dreams where skeletons do the eldorado, the watusi and the twist...

Katie-Bar-the-Door said...

For some reason I've always had the impression that Ub Iwerks (gotta love that name) was the true creative genius and that Disney was the wheeler dealer marketing genius.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

For some reason I've always had the impression that Ub Iwerks (gotta love that name) was the true creative genius and that Disney was the wheeler dealer marketing genius.

You are correct. This was spoofed hilariously in an episode of the Simpsons where the true creator of Itchy and Scratchy was found living on the streets like a derelict. Disney never mistreated Ub quite that pointedly, but Iwerks does seem to have been slipped into the dustbin of history.

At one point in that Simpsons episode, an old letter from the real Itchy and Scratchy creator to the "marketing genius" reads "Keep drawing: your moxie more than makes up for your lack of talent". I could definitely see Disney being appraised as such. The man had moxie...and money...if not necessarily Ub's knack for drawing.

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Mythical Monkey said...

Personally, I live for the spam.

Re: Ub Iwerks, I cannot tell a lie -- it was Katie-Bar-The-Door who clued me into his role at Disney. One of those conversations you have at some point in twenty years of marriage and it stuck in my head.

I wonder if there's a YouTube of "Steamboat Itchy," one of my favorite Simpsons spoofs ...

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

One of those conversations you have at some point in twenty years of marriage and it stuck in my head.

Interesting, because I tend to spout off on these things with my spouse as well, though she's pretty good at tuning them out... ;)

Steamboat Itchy can be seen at some slavic youtube-like site:

And who could forget that controversial Itchy and Scratchy classic, "Nazi Supermen are our superiors"?

Mister Parker said...

I could have sworn I'd seen all The Simpsons. Katie-Bar-the-Door and I just watched this and laughed -- picture Bart and Lisa laughing at an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon.

Well done, sir!