I usually prepare to watch ABC-TV Disney special events with somewhat low expectations. For the most part, I find them to be very long commercials for whatever Disney is promoting. I’ll give you some other thoughts on Mickey’s 90th Spectacular in a bit. But, that’s not what I want to talk about.
As we continue the celebration of his 90 years, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Mickey. It’s hard not to, since the Disney Company is using the birthday as a major promotion. Who can blame them? There are few characters in the history of print, movies or television that have stood the same test of time. As originally created by Walt and animated by Ub Iwerks, he was no more complicated than, and bears a strong resemblance to Walt and Ubs first successful character, Oswald, the lucky rabbit.
And, while, Ub Iwerks seems primarily responsible for the early design and almost all of the animation of the early Mickey shorts, it was Walt who who not only gave him his voice, but also his spirit. As I wrote in my post “Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse – Inseparable”, it was Walt’s personality, sense of humor, drive to succeed and optimism to which audiences responded and made Mickey popular.
The Mickey of Plane Crazy and other early shorts was a mischievous troublemaker. In many of the shorts, Mickey gets himself into trouble, then finds a way to “save the day”. He gives other characters the raspberry, checks out Minnie’s legs and twirls a cat by the tail.
He was a precursor to many of the movie anti-heroes the world would cheer for decades later in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, On the Waterfront, Taxi Driver, Mad Max, Rebel Without a Cause, the Godfather and Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series. The shorts were driven by putting Mickey in various situations then driving the plot with the kind of gags that Walt loved. I’m more partial to the Mickey we see starting in the late 30s. He’s become more of an “everyman”. Crazy things still happen to him and around him, but he’s generally more of a good guy,role model.
I can’t say for certain why of all the Disney characters created under Walt’s direct supervision , why I’m partial to Mickey. Mickey was literally out of the picture during my childhood. After 1953’s short, Simple Things, Mickey didn’t appear on film again until 1983’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol. It was probably for the best. “Simple Things” Mickey feels stodgy and uninteresting. Pluto gets more screen time than Mickey. And, overall, the quality of the piece feels more like the Saturday morning cartoon lineup of the 60s and 70s right down to the clunky sound effects and skimpy backgrounds.
I got that same feeling of disappointment watching the ABC-TV Mickey Birthday special. It felt more like a long advertisement for everything but Mickey. I understand that Disney, for business reasons, continues to try and stay connected with a young audience. But, as a child of the baby boom era, I felt like a chaperone at a young person’s dance. The musical guests, which I’m sure were loved by the young audience in the theater, were interrupted by brief snippets of Mickey’s history. The character of Mickey seemed more like a museum piece than a symbol of the Disney Company’s continued growth and success. But, enough about that.
My generation got only small doses of Mickey in parades and special appearances and, if memory serves, Disney would occasionally dust off an old short starring Mickey. I have a strong sense memories of going to a 40th birthday party for Mickey in the old Rainbow Club in the Empire State Building when I was 10 years old. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the event and I can’t find any on the internet. Anyone who has photos, I’d love to see them. Does absence makes the heart grow fonder?
Mickey in the 1970s
Or, am I drawn, like earlier generations, to a character that is both timeless, and of a time when audiences marveled at Steamboat Willie’s first of its kind synchronized sound, or the first ever color cartoon, The Band Concert. Behind Mickey, though, was Walt, continually striving for something new. Not just to grab audiences, which he remained focused on for his adult life. But, Walt needed to always move forward. Walt bet his entire studio on the idea that sound would revolutionize animated film. He would do the same with his personal fortune to bring Disneyland to life. Mickey was the messenger for all of this innovation.
The thought I have is, Walt’s inspiration, that lead to Mickey, was created at a low point in his career. The success of his studio depended entirely on the character’s success. So, the “magic” that would lead to Walt’s success would have been concentrated in Mickey Mouse. The character was the seed out of which his empire would grow. Walt never stopped chasing his dreams. That kind of spirit is powerful.
I’ll admit, that I’m a skeptic when it comes to life after death and the supernatural. But I’m not ruling out the possibility that Mickey carries the spirit of achievement and the creative spark that started with Steamboat Willie and continues to this day. The more I think about this brand of pixie dust, the more I like it. It’s comforting and exciting to believe that Walt is still with us. And, it’s great that, in the form of a symbol, Mickey Mouse, he continues to do the things Walt loved most – innovate and entertain. So, Happy Birthday to Mickey Mouse. A creation for the ages.