For Mickey's a Jolly Good Fellow

BY LEE HAN SHIH
Dec 14, 2006
*Special to asia!

On November 18, 2008, he turned 80. Arguably the most famous cartoon character on earth, everyone knows him as Mickey Mouse but few realise he started his life as a rabbit.

612 Walt Disney and his most famous creation

 

The saga of Mickey began when Walt Disney, son of an Irish immigrant, left Kansas City in 1920 to seek his fortune in Hollywood, armed with only US$40 in his pocket and a half-finished cartoon in his suitcase.

Disney was a great showman, and a genius animator and story-teller. But Hollywood closed its doors on him. It was Margaret Winkler, a New York distributor, who recognised his talent and commissioned a series of short animation stories.

Disney roped in his brother Roy (he had two other brothers and a sister) to start the Disney Brothers Studio. It would eventually grow into The Walt Disney Company, a media and entertainment conglomerate with annual revenue exceeding US$30 billion.

In 1925, Disney hired a young woman named Lillian Bounds to ink and paint celluloid. They began dating. After a drive in the Los Angeles hills, he asked her whether he should buy her a new car or a ring. She chose the latter and they were soon married.

Two years later, Margaret Winkler also tied the knot. Her husband, Charles B Mintz, took control of the business. He ordered a new all-animated series from Disney to be distributed by Universal Pictures. Disney’s partner, a shy cartoonist named Ubbe Iwwerks, created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. It was an instant success.

In 1928, after Oswald turned one, Disney went to New York to negotiate higher fees from Mintz. Mintz dropped a bombshell —  under the terms of contract, Universal owned Oswald. Disney could cut his fee and continue to work on the rabbit, or be cut out altogether. Disney quit.

It was a devastating blow. Oswald was more than the key money-maker for the studio. He was, in a very real sense, Disney’s first child.

Disney wanted many children but Lillian suffered a string of miscarriages. It was only much later, in 1933, that the couple had their first and only child, a daughter named Diane Marie. A year after that they adopted another girl, Sharon Mae.

Disney returned to Hollywood, dejected and desperate to come up with another hit to keep the studio going. Soon a cartoon mouse that looked suspiciously like Oswald’s twin brother, but with round instead of pointed ears, made its appearance. Opinions differed on who was his creator. Some said Disney conceptualised the mouse on his trip back from New York. Others claimed Iwwerks cloned it from his original design of Oswald.

Disney had wanted to call the mouse Mortimer, after a rodent character he created in Kansas. Lillian decided Mickey sounded better.

Mickey Mouse was christened. Mickey’s first two films, "Plane Crazy" and "The Gallopin' Gaucho", bombed. They were silent movies and did not appeal to the public. Disney decided he would add sound – a novel technology – to all his new creations. He himself would supply the voice of Mickey. The next film, "Steamship Willy", was a tremendous hit. The Disney cartoon empire was launched.

A large part of Mickey’s appeal comes from his shy, falsetto voice, in which Disney took great personal pride. For 16 years, he spoke for the mouse. But as a chain cigar smoker who eventually died of lung cancer, Disney gave up the role in 1946 when his rasping voice no longer suited the character. Today Mickey is voiced by Wayne Allwine, who is married to Russi Taylor, the voice of Minnie Mouse.

Mickey was soon joined by others, from Donald Duck and Pluto to the Three Little Pigs and Snow White. Americans mired in the Great Depression flocked to watch the Disney movies to forget their troubles. In the 1930s, with unemployment at record level and long lines forming at soup kitchens, Disney regularly took in 1 million patrons a year. The Mouse soon adorned numerous items, from blackboards to – amazing for those times – diamond bracelets. Accessory sales topped US$35 million in 1934, the worst year of the Depression.

In the 1940s, Mickey marched out of the silver screen to the first Disney theme park, which started as a small amusement park project Disney planned for employees and their children. Today there are Disneylands all over the world, with the newest in Hong Kong.

Mickey Mouse is not only the symbol of The Walt Disney Company. It has become a commonly used phrase to describe something trivial or amateurish (A "Mickey Mouse" business is something small or not quite right). In all, it is an impressive achievement for a character who just celebrated his 78th birthday. (Mickey was officially born on November 18, 1928. His birthday is celebrated every year.)

What about Oswald? The rabbit was popular in the 1930s but started to fade in the 1940s. In 1951, after a cameo appearance in "Woody Woodpecker", he retired.

In February this year, Bob Iger, the new Disney CEO who brought Steve Jobs and Pixar into Disney, bought back all the rights of Oswald from NBC Universal. Many old-timers, including Diane Disney, Walt’s daughter, saw it as a defining moment — after nearly eight decades, Mickey’s elder brother has finally come home.

 

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.

 

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