Mickey Mouse’s 90th Year Sees New Book Published

Author Jeff Ryan surprised a small but faithful audience with some little-known facts about Mickey Mouse and his creators at the Jefferson Township Public Library on Tuesday, August 21.

Yes, creators, plural. Walt Disney had a partner for 10 years, Ub Iwerks. Iwerks was the animating talent while Disney had the ideas.

The two were opposites in personality. Disney was temperamental. His employees said they never knew which Walt they would be dealing with. Iwerks was even tempered.

Ryan’s latest book, A Mouse Divided, explores the early years of the 90-year-old animated icon and the people who created what we now think of as Disney animation.  He’s taking his talk to public libraries.

He began the talk with a clip from Steamboat Willie, which was, while not the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, a familiar short still shown before certain Disney movies.

Steamboat Willie debuted publicly on November 18, 1928, on Broadway in the Colony Theater, making Mickey informally 90 this fall.  In fact, it really debuted in Disney’s garage projected on a bedsheet while Disney and his team attempted to synchronize sound with the action.

Early cartoons were basically radio-style gags with images. They were based on vaudeville, which was based on the old minstrel shows. Reliably synchronizing music and moving pictures was the most important part of the equation.

Early on Disney and Iwerks created Alice in Cartoonland. Alice was a real girl who would interact with cartoons similar to Dick Van Dyke dancing with cartoon penguins years later in Mary Poppins, or Bob Hoskins handcuffed to a cartoon Roger Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. They were able to pull it off because Iwerks invented chroma-key-compositing, commonly known as the “green screen.” The actor is filmed in front of the green screen and the animation is then layered on.

These were the years before Mickey Mouse. They created Oswald the Lucky rabbit, who was not at all lucky. Oswald was owned by the studio and Disney wanted to be his own boss. Disney and Iwerks thought about doing a cat, but Felix the Cat was already an icon. On a train from New York back to Los Angeles, Walt worked on a mouse.

Iwerks standardized Mickey’s look and made him easy for other animators to draw.

Minnie made her first appearance in Plane Crazy, an homage to Mickey’s hero, Charles Lindbergh. Felix the Cat made a cameo in the short.

“Animation was the wild west until Walt Disney,” Ryan said. It was Disney who trademarked his characters so they could not appear in other animation. Although trademarks don’t expire, copyrights do, which means Mickey’s status will change in a few years and could appear in certain places exempt from the trademark, Ryan said.

It was Roy Disney who made sure other studios didn’t produce Mickey lookalikes. When another studio produced a mouse too similar to Mickey, Roy sued, but he didn’t ask for any money, he just asked that they never make any more copies.  

“Everything happened in 1929,” Ryan commented. That was the year Disney employee Charlotte Clark started making Mickey Mouse dolls, which sold for $5, and patterns to make the dolls, which sold for 35 cents. Clark also made Mickey’s shorts red.

The first Mickey Mouse Club was in Santa Monica and Disney visited the kids with giveaways. The “Silly Symphony” was the world’s first music video, Ryan explained. The animals played to a pre-recorded score. It is the genesis of the famous Donald Duck tantrum. Donald wanted to play the recorder in the orchestra and the now expected chaos ensued.

Ryan also noted that animated movies and shorts were not as aware of children’s sensibilities as today. Mickey’s aggressive pursuit of Minnie in Plane Crazy produced complaints from parents. Another series had Mickey attempting suicide in several comic ways when Minnie left him.

Good news came later with the development of techniques in color gradients which led to more sophisticated films and finally to Fantasia. Ryan said originally the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia was to be Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The innovative film came three years after Snow White, and the apprentice was dressed in the same robes as Dopey. Walt wanted Mickey in the role, however, because the mouse was losing popularity to Donald Duck.

Mickey couldn’t be “bad,” Ryan explained. He couldn’t be too angry or mean. Donald was angry and hot-tempered, which was more fun for the audience. As the apprentice to Yen Sid, the wizard, Mickey could be a little less than perfect and very entertaining.

Ryan noted Yen Sid raised an eyebrow when he discovered what Mickey had done. Raising one eyebrow was a typical Walt Disney gesture.

During World War II, Ryan said, both the Nazis and the Japanese used American cartoon figures in propaganda. An army of cartoon characters bombed Paris. Japan set loose an army of animated demons and monsters even before the war.

A Mouse Divided discusses the financial hard times.

“It’s amazing Disney stayed alive through the war,” Ryan said. But Walt was a genius at managing and organizing and he created what we now think of as entertainment for a family audience.

“It never was just for kids,” Ryan said, noting the humor often went over the heads of children.

Iwerks’ techniques ranged far beyond Disney. After he left, he came back to do some later movies, including Mary Poppins.

His techniques even appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The ravens that attack Tippie Hedren were actually seagulls projected in the negative so they appear black.

Ryan is now working on a book about Spiderman and promised a return visit to the Jefferson Library.