Vintage View: The world’s most iconic and influential mouse

Kya deLongchamps gives a birthday hug to the world’s most iconic and influential mouse.

It’s high time I got around to the most influential and important Mus musculus of all time – Mickey Mouse, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

With his satellite dish sized ears, buttoned lederhosen and rat-like rudder of a tail, Mickey has featured in 100 shorts, two feature films (Fantasia and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) plus countless television series, and in the process has achieved unsurpassed branding superstardom.

He is still, without argument, the most recognisable cartoon character in the whole world.

In a worldwide survey, reported by Time magazine in 2008, 98% of children aged between three and 11 knew Mickey through his screen and television face or simply via the merchandising of the mouse.

Walt Disney (1901–1966) is often assigned sole creative credit for the development of the original Mickey and received an Oscar from the Academy of Motion and Picture Arts for the character in 1932. However, the tale of Mickey involves a wider cast.

He was actually conceived under the pen of Walt Disney with important refinements and styling by chief Disney animator, Ub Iwerks (1901-1971).

From just the sort of family that made America truly great, Iwerks was the son of immigrant parents from northwest Germany.

He was involved with Walt from as early as 1919 when the two worked at a commercial art company together in Kansas and Iwerk stuck with the visionary entrepreneur through the rigours of starting out in the fledgeling arts of live animation in Los Angles.

Another big cheese in this story was artist and animator Hugh Harman (of the iconic studio Harman & Ising who later worked with MGM).

Harman (1903–1982) made a sketch of mice with distinctive white masks frolicking around the borders of a photograph of the seated Disney in 1925 for Disney Brothers Studio.

These lively imaginings were discovered and further worked up by Iwerks during the period of the Alice Comedies (cartoons) and the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series of shorts in the mid-1920s.

Walt Disney was an extraordinary and irrepressible person, a true American pioneer – interpreting failure and rejection as heady motivation to make his mark and to strike that mark as soon as possible.

Doodling on a train ride having lost his most lucrative character stable and animators to his distributor Charles Mintz — Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (1927) — he started working up another animal personality with three fingers and a thumb to each hand.

Taken from the work of Iwerk on Harman’s sketches, Mortimer Mouse, as drawn by Walt Disney was re-dubbed by Disney’s wife Lillian, with the catchier alliteration of Mickey Mouse. With further tweaks by Iwerk, this mouse was close to the cute commercial creatures we know today, and was put straight to work.

Mickey’s energy, exaggerated features and open smile proved utterly irresistible to an audience of any age. He was destined to become the most beloved ambassador of the Walt Disney empire and was assigned copyright by Walt Disney, by then a little less trusting of the less-than-funny business of LA.

Mickey starred in three films in 1928, starting with Plane Crazy (1928) and The Gallopin’Gaucho (1928). However, it was his third adventure in Steamboat Willie which premiered in the Colony Theater in New York on November 18 that made animation history and propelled the young Mickey to unheard of fame for a hapless, happy rodent. In early posters, he was dubbed – A Sensation in Sound and Synchrony!

Steamboat Willie, just seven minutes long, featured sound in both speech (voiced by Walt Disney himself) and, even more delightful, whistling from both the mouse and the boat as it skittered along in fluent line drawings. Sparkling with familiar vaudeville style stunts and gags, the short, also featured Mickey’s squeeze, Minnie Mouse.

Look it up on YouTube – it’s still utterly delightful, and the other two earlier films are also there, both with sound as added in 1929. Plane Crazy features Mickey as a mousey take on aviator Charles Lindbergh.

In the coming years, Mickey’s adorable appearance, great writing by the Disney team and his trademark, never-say-die attitude seemed to encapsulate the best of the 20th century American spirit. He was the good guy — a Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks — the underdog who always did the right thing in the end.

By the mid-1930s Mickey was now in colour and wearing red shorts. The last artist to lay hands on Mickey in terms of his look was Fred Moore (1911 – 1952) who gave the actor a rounder tummy and a shorter nose.

This delivered a less ratty more teddybear-like shape. Mickey’s formerly blank black eyes now had pupils and his hands (paws) were put into dashing (inexplicable) white gloves.

In terms of collectables, early tinplate Mickey Mouse characters (or his intimate pals) are very hot, and extremely expensive given his popularity not only in America and Europe, but also in the Far East, where cartoons, comics and animation is a major cultural division of the market.

Charlotte Clark’s super-sized Micky and Minnie stuffed toys in velveteen made in the 1930s in LA under license to Disney, achieved €130,000 at sale in 2002.

A 2008 US postage stamp celebrating 80 years since the cinematic release of Steamboat Willie (1928) , the short movie that introduced Mickey Mouse talking to the world. It would cost €3-€5 today from a specialist dealer.

The most expensive Mickey ephemera ever sold is an early poster for Celebrity Productions Inc., shorts with a full figure of Mickey, which achieved over €87,000 at auction in 2012. Look out for any promotional material from Mickey’s first 40years.

Hand-drawn and coloured film cells are a great way to buy a piece of animation history, but with the corporation and parks producing hundreds of thousands of honest reproductions, be wary of anything dating from the 1930s-1950s – presume it is later.

For the mouse connoisseur, you can also find Mickey’s iconography in everything from screen-prints by Andy Warhol (Myths Series 1981), to Moschino fashion wear and Pantoflex chairs by Verner Panton for Mobel (1994) – that’s how far and wide those little gloves reached into the world of art and design.


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