Sunday, 18 November 2018

Happy 90th Birthday Mickey! The Early Years of the World's Most Famous Mouse

He is one of the most instantly recognizable characters in the world, if not the most recognizable. Today, on his 90th birthday, November 18, 2018, he is largely seen as an innocuous, even banal, corporate icon whose famous visage adorns theme parks and consumer goods the world over. But there was a time when he was just an up-and-coming young Hollywood hopeful. His rise to fame is, in fact, a microcosm of Hollywood's own ascendancy. I'm talking, of course, about Mickey Mouse.

I've long been a fan of vintage Mickey Mouse and his milieu. The turnaround point from seeing him as merely a banal corporate icon to becoming a genuine fan was the first time I saw the very first episode of the Walt Disney's Disneyland television series. Originally airing in 1954, the first half of the episode was devoted to setting up Disneyland as a mixed multi-media franchise. Walt, assuming a new role as weekly host and corporate icon himself, showed off the plans for his concept of a new kind of amusement park of multiple "lands" and attractions themed to different films, places in the world, and periods of American history (including the future). He introduced places like "Frontierland" and "Tomorrowland" as conceptual, imaginative spaces to be fleshed out and reinforced throughout the series, in episodes like the Davy Crockett trilogy and Man in Space. The second half of the episode was devoted to the story of Mickey Mouse. It is from this segment that Walt first uttered the famous quote "it all started with a mouse." What endeared me to Mickey was Walt's treatment of him as a genuine personality: a diminutive actor he first met when he was a shoeless farm mouse, but with whom he found success and made it big in Hollywood. It also helped that I'm a fan in general of silent and early sound films, of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and of early animation. To consider the era of Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin but not include Mickey Mouse (who began essentially as an amalgam of the two) is to leave a very important piece out.

The official origin story of Mickey is that Walt Disney was on the train back from New York to Los Angeles after he was informed that he was losing the rights to his character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and most of his studio along with. Then a flash of inspiration came, which shaped itself into Mortimer Mouse. On the recommendation of his wife Lillian, Mortimer was changed to Mickey, and the rest is history. Of course, the real story is somewhat more complicated.

Mickey was actually a latecomer to the market of animated characters. The first was Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur in 1912. The first animated superstar was Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat, who became the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade character balloon while Walt was still churning out dentistry commercials in Kansas City. After the Great War, Walt and his friend Ub Iwerks were in the commercial illustration business when the former was inspired by Paul Terry's Aesop's Film Fables. Those cartoons compelled him to try his own hand at animated fairy tales. Incorporating as Laugh-O-Gram Studios in 1921, the pair oversaw production of a handful of crude animations. Financial troubles dogged them, and a $500 payment for a dental hygiene picture titled Tommy Tucker's Tooth was used to fund an experimental short rather than pay off creditors. That short, Alice's Wonderland, blended animation with live-action to marvelous effect. Laugh-O-Gram Studios went Chapter 11 in 1923, Walt sold his movie camera for a one-way ticket to California, and left with hardly anything but the clothes on his back and Alice's Wonderland under his arm. 

Alice's Wonderland by Disney's Laugh-O-Gram Studios.

Walt sold Alice to Margaret Winkler, and with his brother Roy (who already lived in Los Angeles) created the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. Winkler Pictures had recently fallen out with the producers of Felix the Cat and needed a quick replacement. Walt and Roy stepped in, along with Iwerks, ultimately making 57 of the films between 1923 and 1927, refining their animation with each successive picture. They were so successful that the brothers could afford to renovate a property on 2719 Hyperion St. to become a company studio.  

Costs ran high on the technologically sophisticated shorts, so when Universal Studios came knocking at Winkler's door in 1927, Disney and Iwerks jumped at providing them with a more traditional animated character. Thus was created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Though not as technologically innovative, Oswald was a pioneer in genuine character animation. Prior to him, most animated characters were defined more by their appearance than their personality. Oswald was, instead, given a distinct personality and the gags developed from that (in the vein of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton, all of whom were studied by the Disney Studio). Unfortunately, a legal loophole gave ownership of Oswald to Winkler Pictures. Simultaneously, Walt began shopping Oswald around to other distributors as Winkler Pictures began hiring away Walt's animators. The stalemate ended when Walt demanded more money and was offered a 20% cut. He walked away from the character and his animators. 

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit's first public appearance in Trolley Troubles
(the very first Oswald short, Poor Papa, was rejected by the producer).

It was at this point that Mickey Mouse enters the picture. The idea for Mickey did indeed enter Walt's head during that dismal train ride back home, but the development of the character's look fell mainly on Ub Iwerks, who remained loyal to Walt. The two worked in secret to produce the first Mickey short, Plane Crazy, behind the backs of the other animators now working directly for Winkler. The pair covertly premiered Plane Crazy to limited success. Though its barnyard hijinks inspired by Charles Lindbergh's recent  transatlantic flight aboard The Spirit of St. Louis were funny, there was no real distinctive draw to the character. A second short, The Gallopin' Gaucho (a satire of the 1927 Douglas Fairbanks film The Gaucho) failed as well, with one owner telling Walt and his "stupid mouse character" to get out of his theatre. Now with Oswald firmly behind them and desperation setting in, Walt lit on a technological breakthrough that could catapult Mickey to the spotlight: synchronized sound.

Technically Mickey's first cartoon, Plane Crazy.

Movies had always had sound... So-called silent films were invariably accompanied by a soundtrack performed by live musicians in the theatre, usually based on selections or entire scores drafted by the film's producers. But synchronized sound was something different. With its development, uniform "canned" music would ensure the exact same experience for filmgoers across the continent. If canned music could be provided for films, then so could canned voices. The "Talkies" weren't far behind.

The first animated cartoons to feature this pre-recorded sound were actually the Song Car-Tunes produced by Max and Dave Fleischer, the creators of Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, and the Popeye cartoons. The series began in 1924 as silent films, but in 1925 they became synchronized using the primitive Phonofilm system for recording sound directly onto film. Unfortunately, the quality of Phonofilm was not very good and regularly failed to keep the sound synched up. After the bankruptcy of Phonofilm's American division in 1927, the last Song Car-Tune was released in 1927.

Contributing to Phonofilm's bankruptcy was Pat Powers. The already famous film producer bought an interest in Phonofilm and eventually attempted a company takeover. When that failed, he hired away one of the company's most important technicians and developed a superior copycat system called "Powers Cinephone." When Walt was farming around for a means to add synchronized sound to his Mickey Mouse cartoons, Powers convinced him to use Cinephone. The result was Steamboat Willie, released on November 18, 1928. This riff on Buster Keaton's 1928 feature film Steamboat Bill Jr. was difficult to produce (Walt had to sell of his roadster after a disastrous first recording so that a second could be funded) but proved to be lightning in a bottle. It aired in front of the feature film Gang War, which was all-but forgotten, as was Van Beuren Studio's synchronized sound cartoon Dinner Time released only a month before Steamboat Willie. Disney's film was an unmitigated success.

Disney's Steamboat Willie.

Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho were synched with music and re-released to much greater success. Through 1929, Mickey's cast and characteristics developed, building on success each time. Often the cartoons recycled plots and gags from previous Disney cartoons, like The Opry House, which borrowed from the Oswald short Bright Lights, or When the Cat's Away, which took from the Alice short Alice Rattled by Rats. Horace Horsecollar - Mickey's closest chum before Donald and Goofy came on the scene - first appeared in The Plow Boy. Mickey first spoke in The Karnival Kid, where his gruff, smoker's voice belted out "Hot Dogs! Hot Dogs!" from his cart. Mickey was a much more rough and tumble, harder living, smoking and drinking kind of mouse back then. The voice was provided by Disney composer Carl Stalling, but Walt quickly took over with the more squeaky voice we're accustomed to today. Stalling and Walt worked together on writing the song "Minnie's Yoo-Hoo" for the cartoon Mickey's Follies, which was the first ever original song written and distributed by the company. Even after Ub Iwerks himself was hired away by Pat Powers during a vengeful falling out with Disney in 1930, Mickey was unstoppable.

Mickey's first words: The Karnival Kid.

The quality of Mickey's cartoons suffered after the loss of Iwerks (some of the ones released in 1930 and '31 really are just awful), but Mickey's star was still skyrocketing into the stratosphere. One of the fascinating phenomena of Hollywood's Golden Age are children's clubs. The original Mickey Mouse Club was created in 1929 by Harry Woodlin for the Fox Dome Theatre in Ocean Park, California, as a marketing tool to draw young viewers into the theatre on Saturdays. Clubs of this sort, based around a character with some drawing power like a Mickey Mouse or a Popeye the Sailor Man, were popular with both kids and theatre owners. The kids loved the opportunity to see their animated hero and win prizes, while the owners loved the radically increased patronage and profits they brought with them. Within a year, 150 theatres organized Mickey Mouse Clubs with some 200,000 members. By 1932, the number of members inflated to a million kids spread over 800 theatres. "Minnie's Yoo-Hoo" was used as the club's theme song, with Mickey's Follies edited down into a sing-along to kick off club meetingsSome of the first Mickey merchandise items were cheap freebies used to entice membership in the Mickey Mouse Club and attendance at the theatre of choice.

A selection of original Mickey Mouse Club materials. Click to embiggen.
Trade ad for the Mickey Mouse Club.
Blank membership card for the Carteri Theatre branch.
Pinback membership button. These buttons could also be
inscribed with the name of the theatre hosting the club.
A slightly unsettling meeting of the Mickey Mouse Club.

The popularity of Mickey (and the new Silly Symphonies series started in 1929 with The Skeleton Dance) helped Walt to weather the onset of the Great Depression. Towards the end of 1929, Walt Disney Productions was split into four subordinate companies for film production, film recording, real estate holdings, and a licensing division. The first item of Mickey merchandise - a child's writing tablet - was produced in 1929. In 1930, a plethora of goods were licenced by George Borgfeldt included tin toys and tea sets produced and imported from around the world. Discontented with the quality of these goods, Disney hired the sharply-dressed and smooth-tongued Kay Kamen in 1932, and Disney's merchandising empire entered its first Golden Age.

Kamen, who had earned respect with his marketing of the Our Gang film series, formalized Disney's merchandising department, setting up everything from uniformity of artwork to offices for network sales. With the proper groundwork laid, they could begin licencing things like the first Mickey Mouse watch by Ingersoll in 1933, the Mickey Mouse Magazine in 1934, Charlotte Clark Mickey cloth dolls (which were first made in 1930 but the licence continued and expanded in Kamen's reign, available both as finished dolls and a sewing pattern for at-home construction), the Mickey Mouse Handcar toy by Lionel in 1934 (which was credited with saving the famed toy train manufacturer), and more. Mickey also became the first character to ever appear on a cereal box, in 1934.

Mickey Mouse starred in the very first promotional campaign for bread. Certainly we have all seen a commercial for one or another brand of sliced bread, but it seems strange to think about how, at one time, the concept of buying bread itself was relatively new. In the depths of the Great Depression, it was also a tenuous business. Mickey Mouse did his best to help with his "Globe Trotters" club. Members could proudly wear their button and with every loaf of bread their parents bought, they would receive a set of trading cards to paste onto their full-colour map of the planet. This 1936 campaign was followed by Snow White bread in 1938 and Pinocchio bread in 1939. For the latter, bakers could set-up a paper display of "Pinocchio's Circus" in their windows, and members of the club would receive a "Ringmaster's Guide Book" and a Ringmaster hat, then collect trading cards of Pinocchio doing circus tricks.

Collectibles from the Mickey Mouse Globe Trotters campaign. Click to enlarge.
Ad for the campaign, inscribed with Meyer Milk.
The world map one receives with club membership, inscribed with Mitchell's Milk.
The weekly story and cards to cut out and add to your map.
Membership application card.
Two pin back buttons for members, inscribed to different bakeries.

Mickey's success got the attention of King Features Syndicate, who were beating down Walt's door to produce a daily newspaper strip starring the Mouse. In 1930, shortly after Disney's merchandising department was created, Walt personally scripted a strip drawn by Ub Iwerks. These very early strips were almost exact adaptations of the early cartoons, particularly Plane Crazy. However, Walt's responsibilities as the head of a growing company and the sudden departure of Iwerks led to a shakeup from which a new hire in the animation department - Floyd Gottfredson - was given the "temporary" assignment of "filling in." That assignment lasted until 1975.

The quality of the cartoons in the wake of Iwerks' defection posed a problem for Gottfredson. A simple string of gags and songs and barnyard animals dancing around worked well enough as the cinema's bread-and-butter, but couldn't sustain itself in a newspaper strip. Instead, he took his cue from the very earliest Mickey cartoons: the hard drinking, hard living, playful smart alec and adventurous hero. Into the mix he threw a lot of great puns and quick wit, with Mickey's apparent default mode being biting sarcasm. He wasn't mean or surly and he was patient with his friends, but this Mickey tended not to take much s**t from people, and didn't do it with the strange vacuous grin he would in his later cartoons in the Forties and Fifties. Just a couple samples from the strip will suffice to set Gottfredson's tone.

Enduring Clarabelle Cow in Race to Death Valley.
Horace Horsecollar reminiscing about his days as an actor in The Great Orphanage Robbery.

These were still the days before Donald Duck and Dippy Dawg (later known as Goofy) joined Mickey entourage. Instead we get good old Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow sharing adventures, intrigue, and pointed barbs with our heroes. Mickey also developed his own gang of villains and supporting characters unique to the strip. For the Circus Roustabouts storyline, Mickey's companion was an ex-con named Butch, and his perennial enemies were the dastardly duo of Peg-Leg Pete and the crooked lawyer Sylvester Shyster.

Gottfredson's process began with the cinematic cartoons for inspiration, but took off in their own direction in a manner that could support an action-adventure-comedy newspaper strip. The Race to Death Valley storyline - Gottfredson's first - begins with Minnie inheriting her Uncle Mortimer's mansion, with a series of gags and settings derived from Haunted House (1929). The Blaggard Castle storyline borrows heavily from The Mad Doctor (1933), and The Mail Pilot fleshes out the cartoon of the same title. But as the cartoons tended to rely on these strings of gags for its story, Gottfredson crafted a story which he fleshed out with his borrowings. The settings of deserted islands and spooky mansions serviced the gags in Mickey cartoons, but provided a stage for adventure in the strips. These stories weren't necessarily carefully scripted beginning-to-end (for example, a character early on in Race to Death Valley clearly comes across as a villain, and is only revealed as a hero at the end... Gottfredson was working him out on the fly), but they do provide more substance than the cartoons. They had to, running day after day rather than a few short minutes every other week.

Mickey Mouse in Haunted House (1929).

And again in The Mad Doctor (1933)

Part of Mickey's success was how he was positioned in the bright lights of Hollywood. Most cartoon characters were cartoon characters... A Felix the Cat or Farmer Alfalfa were just who they were in their animated shorts. Mickey, however, was different. Mickey Mouse was an actor in animated cartoons. He could be chasing down Pete across the Argentinian Pampas in one picture or rescuing Princess Minnie in Mediaeval Europe in another because Mickey was a Hollywood star on par with a Fairbanks or Chaplin. Mickey's marketing machine even published advertising pieces for newspapers in the form of a reporter visiting Mickey Mouse at the studio, to find that the debonair Hollywood actor melts away in private to reveal the same light-hearted country mouse who enjoys cheap cigars and smelly cheese in his little hole in the wall. 

The zenith of Mickey's early fame came with his first feature film appearance. According to official Disney files, the first feature film appearance of Mickey Mouse was Fantasia in 1940. That may be his first feature film appearance in an official Disney film, but his first appearance in full-length movies came six years prior. In 1934, Walt rented is creation out for a cameo in the MGM film Hollywood Party.

Starring comedian Jimmy Durante, Hollywood Party is one of the many variety films that came out during Tinsel Town's Golden Age. Purporting to show the hi-jinks of the glamorous and well-to-do, these mixes of comedy, production numbers, romantic vignettes and cartoon shorts provided entertainment, diversion and escape during the depths of the Great Depression. The year before, Disney provided his own version of it in the short Mickey's Gala Premier, which featured caricatures of Hollywood's Who's-Who... Everyone from the Marx Brothers to the Barrymore family to Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff to Douglas Fairbanks to Charlie Chaplin to Clark Gable to Joan Crawford to Greta Garbo to Jimmy Durante himself. 

Mickey's Gala Premier (1933).

In Hollywood Party, Durante stars as Schnarzan the Conqueror, a satire on the popular Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films of the early Thirties. It seems that film-goers are getting tired of him fighting stuffed lions, so the studio head hatches a plot for Durante to host a grand party for Baron Munchausen, freshly arrived from Africa with a horde of vicious man-eating felines. They hope that they can entice the Baron to sell them his menagerie and, consequently, rescue the Scharnzan franchise.

This fig leaf of story is really just set-up for the variety of skits and production numbers. We get a romantic dance number with Eddie Quillan, the Three Stooges are introduced in their nascent form when they were still second billing to Ted Healy, a classic routine with Laurel and Hardy, and Mickey Mouse introducing the Technicolor cartoon The Hot Choc-late Soldiers. The cartoon is more notable for being in Technicolor (when that was still a rarity) than for any really distinctive traits of its own. It describes a war between the chocolate soldiers of candy land against the gingerbread soldiers of pastry land. Why they're doing this and whether it is a war of aggression is never articulated, and the strange ending could leave it open to any variety of interpretations for those inclined to give it that kind of thought. Mickey's appearance is the more charming part, with some nice special effects integrating the Mouse and Mr. Durante. 

Original theatrical trailer for Hollywood Party.

Unfortunately the film did not do well at the box office, and suffered greater indignity by having many scenes excised for foreign audiences. Mae West had filmed a scene, as did Johnny Weissmuller, but both were discarded to the cutting room floor. Only 68 of the original 75 minutes remain. Neither Mickey nor practically the entire roster of MGM's contracted actors could save the film. Today it stands as an interesting artifact of Hollywood's Golden Age and an example of how Mickey Mouse himself matured in his early years. 

Though only a cameo, the fact of Mickey's presence in this film demonstrates the animated character's cachet as a legitimate Hollywood star. It was a role Mickey was warming into in shorts like Mickey's Gala Premier and the 1936 short Mickey's Polo Team, where the team from Disney (including Mickey, Donald, and the Big Bad Wolf) faces off against a team of Hollywood comedians including Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Harpo Marx. In 1934, Mickey cartoons were on the verge of going to colour, his newspaper comic strip had fully transitioned to Mickey as an action hero, and his face could sell just about anything. He began as a combination of sorts between Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, and by this time was a bigger star than either. Most significantly, Walt Disney received an Honorary Academy Award in 1932 for the creation of Mickey Mouse. Unlike any animated character before - or since - Mickey had arrived. 

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