Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Steamboat Willie’

Celebrating the Spirit of Mickey Mouse

Mickey Breaks the PaperI 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.

mickey and oswald

Oswald &  Mickey

Walt & Ub

Walt and Ub

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

 

The_Band_ConcertOr, 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.

disney and mickey on disneyland tvThe 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.

Walt Norman Rockwell

 

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse – Inseparable

walt and mickeyWe recognized some major calendar milestones in the months of November and December. The birth of Mickey Mouse in November as well as the birthday and anniversary of the passing of his creator Walt Disney. Walt was, without a doubt, always the creative driving force behind all the Disney successes and failures during his lifetime. But, the idea of Mickey and the amazing animators and artists who gave him life were not responsible for his meteoric and continued success. For that, Walt left nothing to chance and imprinted himself on the character.

Mickey and Walt are forever linked. Mickey was created out of an act of business

Mickey_Mouse_concept_art

Earliest known drawing of Mickey Mouse

survival. Losing Oswald the Rabbit to a sneaky film promoter, which, while it might have led to the end of Disney brother’s company, lit the fires of Walt’s imagination, leading to the creation of the mouse that still roars. It’s likely that the spark of creation that was Mickey Mouse would keep the character close to his heart for many years. It’s not surprising that Walt couldn’t find a suitable voice for the character. And, he didn’t relinquish the role until 1946. Even though, by then he was incredibly busy overseeing many films in development and production, he knew he was the only one who could give voice to a character that was really an extension of himself – an alter ego, perhaps.

Early Mickey Mouse

It isn’t surprising, then, that the many of the early shorts are full of many settings and situations that show Walt’s fingerprints. Farms and farm animals are well represented in shorts like The Barn Dance, The Plowboy and Musical Farmer.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that trains, something close to Walt’s heart, figured prominently in Mickey’s Choo Choo.

And, while Walt never showed any particular musical abilities, the films make judicious use of music, to drive the action and the gags. Anything became an instrument from animal teeth, spaghetti, train tracks, boat and train whistles, even ducks, chickens, animals and more traditional instruments. Walt clearly understood the importance of music and he continued to use to maximum effect in all of his films.

We can be assume that since Walt probably approved every script and frame of the early shorts, it’s interesting how the early Mickey had many of Walt’s personality characteristics. Like Walt, Mickey is forever optimistic, whether he’s trying to build and fly do-it-yourself airplanes, courting Minnie, or cheering her up after rescuing her from the ocean. Mickey’s also a problem solver. Many of the problems he encounters are of his own making, but he always finds a way to get things done. Walt was always creating problems for himself and his staff, creatively and technologically. Many of the difficult situations arose because Walt was always pushing the limits of what could be accomplished in the mediums of animation, film and theme parks. But, he always managed to match the right person to the difficult tasks whether it was making X Atencio a songwriter or recognizing Bob Gurr’s wizardry with wheeled machines.

Walt also instilled Mickey with his own brand of small town, childish humor. Many of the shorts include situations that involve cow’s udders, Minnie’s bloomers, and the use of outhouses. I’ve read that, even though he gave a kind of buttoned up image, Walt was very fond of what we would call today, bathroom humor. Other accounts told of him adding many of those kinds of gags to early animated shorts, much to the chagrin of some of the other creatives on the staff.

In his own way, this early Mickey is a take charge guy who doesn’t hesitate to ask Minnie to get on stage and play an instrument, or want to drive the steamboat. All accounts describe Walt as someone who wanted things his way or not at all. Even though the company started out in 1923 as Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, in 1925 Walt informed his partner and brother that the studio would henceforth be called Walt Disney Studio. He said that it was his name that they were building the company around. I don’t think he wanted any audience doubt about who was in charge. The lack of credit accorded to the people doing the heavy lifting part of the work was the reason why his long time friend and collaborator Ub Iwerks left him to work elsewhere. Given how important Iwerks was to the fledgling Studio’s success, many in Walt’s shoes would have done anything to keep such a valuable asset. But, Walt hardly missed a beat.

As Walt got further away from hands on work with Mickey, you can see changes in the character that practically built the Studio. The changes may have been due to others taking over primary responsibility for story and character. Not only did Mickey’s look change, certainly approved by Walt, but he began to mirror more of contemporary society.

mickey-mouse-gallery-03

No longer the chaos creating scamp of the early shorts. Mickey settled in as a more dapper and conventional man of the 40s and 50s. Pluto is the ever present man’s best friend and we often see Mickey in more indoor settings. Instead of stealing kisses from Minnie by scaring her with loop the loops in a plane, he courts her with flowers and gallantry. It’s possible Walt thought that the symbol of his company should be more accessible and politically correct. But, it’s also possible that Mickey had a personality transplant.

The image of Mickey today is that of a corporate ambassador. He’s someone you want to hug or expect to obediently ride atop a parade float rather than execute a practical joke with him. With the occasional excursion into something more like the old days as we recently saw in Pixar’s Get a Horse.

Mickey is a model citizen showing off a very large wardrobe at the Parks and other public appearances. There’s nothing wrong with the Mickey that recent generations have come to know and love. We may not want to admit it. But we all age and slow down.

In the wake of the spectacular success of the animated features, by the 1040s Mickey was no longer starring in his own shorts. Fantasia had originally been considered as a feature that would star Mickey. Walt changed direction and created a ground breaking art piece. But, Walt kept Mickey in there. And, as his last contribution to the legend of Mickey Mouse, he left us with what may be one Mickey’s most iconic images – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with his oversized robe and the wizard’s hat. That Mickey lives on in many forms including being adopted as the mascot of Disney Imagineering.

Walt_Disney_Imagineering

It’s only natural that future generations may gravitate or identify more with characters in the Marvel and now 21st Century worlds. I think everyone will still have a soft spot for the Mouse that started it all, even if they don’t understand the important role that Mickey played in making everything we associate with Disney in the 21st century possible. I do hope that as long as Mickey is the symbol of the Disney Company, we will continue to be reminded of Walt Disney himself.

 

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