With his unfailing good cheer, Mickey Mouse--who marks his 60th birthday Thursday--appears to be one of the last dependable figures in a world beset by turmoil and confusion. His celebrated smile, rivaled in fame only by the Mona Lisa's, seems to suggest a gentler, more certain time.
But Mickey has actually undergone more incarnations than Shirley MacLaine. The genially hip mouse in the tuxedo and tennis shoes who smiles from Disney's 60th anniversary logo neither looks nor acts the same as the blocky rodent who played "Turkey in the Straw" on a cow's teeth in "Steamboat Willie" 60 years ago.
Hundreds of animators, designers, writers, voice actors, model makers and artists have worked with this character, and each contributed to the evolution of the entity that audiences all over the world now recognize as Mickey Mouse.
Ub Iwerks designed Mickey's physical appearance and animated the first three Mickey cartoons almost single-handedly. But it was Walt Disney himself who initially supplied the key elements of Mickey's personality--and his voice until 1947. Sound effects man Jimmy Mcdonald took over the voice when Disney became too busy to spend the necessary time in recording sessions (and after years of heavy smoking had roughened Disney's voice considerably).
The artists who knew Disney personally feel that Mickey functioned as a kind of alter-ego for Walt. Ollie Johnston, one of Disney's celebrated "Nine Old Men," says: "Ub made the drawings, but Walt gave Mickey his soul."
Mickey is "quite a bit like Walt, and has stood in for him many times," added artist John Hench, who drew the official portraits commemorating Mickey's 25th, 50th and 60th birthdays. "Walt was optimistic. He was also, when he started out, a kind of little guy in the business. He certainly had enormous faith in himself, and so does Mickey--who takes on giants and whatnot."
In 1970, Iwerks wrote that he gave Mickey certain qualities taken from none other than Douglas Fairbanks Sr. "He was the super-hero of his day, always winning, gallant and swashbuckling," Iwerks noted. "Mickey's action was in that vein. He was never intended to be a sissy, he was always an adventurous character. I thought of him in that respect, and I had him do naturally the sort of thing Doug Fairbanks would do."
There were other influences, as well. Otto Messmer's animation of Felix the Cat, the most popular cartoon character of the silent era, contributed to the early Mickey's versatility and imagination. And, as Disney greatly admired Charlie Chaplin's films, traces of Chaplin's irrepressible Little Tramp could be spotted in the use of mime and, again, in the appeal of the small character up against a world full of bullies.
In any case, the original Mickey was a rambunctious, mischievous imp, who stole a kiss from Minnie in mid-air in "Plane Crazy." Iwerks based the character's design on circles, because they gave an appealing look and were relatively easy to draw. Some of the early animators traced around a quarter for Mickey's head and a nickel for his ears.
Mickey's development took a major leap during the mid-1930s, when Fred Moore refined his proportions and introduced a freer style of animation. A small, well-coordinated man, Moore imbued the character with his own physical dexterity. His influence can be seen in the eager, appealing Mickey of "Brave Little Tailor" (1938) and in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence of "Fantasia" (1940).
Ironically, Mickey's enormous popularity limited his range of action. If he behaved in any way that seemed untoward, parents would write and complain about the example he was setting for children. Mickey's identity as the corporate symbol of the Disney studio contributed to this ossification. The young artists who are working with him today look to the past for inspiration but hope to expand the character's range.
"Working with Mickey, I've always felt I had some really big shoes to fill," says Mark Henn, who animated the character for the Academy Awards broadcast earlier this year. "I wanted to be sure that what I drew came off as Mickey. The nicest compliments I've received are the ones that say, 'He looks just like the old Mickey.' "
But "there are definitely some limits to the character--he's not awkward like Goofy or hot-tempered like Donald," Henn explained. "I try to get nice, simple, fluid poses and shapes when I draw Mickey, and not lock him down--even though he's basically a circle with more circles attached.
"The side of Mickey as corporate symbol has kind of handcuffed him as to what he can and can't do--he can do a lot more. I think of him as the kind of person who's good at anything he does: If he were an athlete, he could play just about any sport; if he were an actor, he'd be good in any role."
Award-winning sound-effects editor Wayne Allwine currently provides Mickey's voice (a job he compares to holding a coveted title: "You know you have it only for a short time and that one day you'll give it up."). He, too, has found that "Mickey's certainly limited in range--if you go too high or too low, it doesn't sound like him.
"But we've discovered in the recording sessions that when Mickey doesn't sound like himself, it's usually because he's being given things to say that really aren't in character for him. Like any actor, I think he's capable of doing almost anything--so long as it's kept in the context of what he would and wouldn't do."
While the animators were developing Mickey's on-screen personality, Floyd Gottfredson was taking the character in a different direction in the daily comic strip.
The Mickey Mouse strip debuted in January, 1930, a little more than a year after the premiere of "Steamboat Willie." Disney wrote the first installments; Iwerks and his assistant, Win Smith, drew the panels. A few months later, they turned the strip over to Gottfredson, who spoofed the detective adventure strips of the era by pitting Mickey against an array of thieves, swindlers and spies.
Gottfredson's Mickey was more resourceful and mature than Moore's boyish, upbeat character. "There's always been a big difference between the animated Mickey and the comic strip Mickey, but it doesn't seem to bother anybody," says Floyd Norman, one of the writers of the strip. "You've got almost two different characters, yet they're one and the same and it still seems to work."
After World War II, the continuing adventures were replaced with a simple, gag-a-day format, in keeping with a general trend in the comics of the time. The shrewd private eye became a docile bachelor the artists compare to Ozzie Nelson. His physical appearance was redesigned and he periodically was given an updated wardrobe.
"I think Mickey never dies or goes out of date because different artists draw him, and they bring a fresh look to him," says Roman Arambula, who has drawn the strip since 1975. "I'd compare working with him to performing a role that's been done by many actors, like Hamlet. If you get that part, you won't copy, say, Richard Burton's interpretation--you have to do it your own way. And that's how I feel about Mickey: He's your character when you're doing him."
Beginning in 1929, still other versions of Mickey appeared on thousands of products ranging from diamond-and-platinum bracelets to plastic bath toys. Probably the most famous piece of Mickey merchandise is the wristwatch that the Ingersoll-Waterbury Clock Co. introduced in mid-1933. More than 2.5 million of them were sold over the next 2 years; Macy's sold more than 11,000 of them (at $2.98) in a single day, as part of a special promotion.
Mickey remains the most widely licensed character in the world, with his likeness appearing on about 7,500 different products, excluding publications. (Snoopy appears on about 5,000 items; Garfield on
The comic strips and licensed products helped keep Mickey in the public eye when his cinematic career languished. Disney gradually phased out the production of cartoon shorts during the '50s, and most of the post-World War II films starred either Goofy or Donald. No Mickey shorts were made between "Pluto's Christmas Tree" (1952) and "Mickey's Christmas Carol" (1983).
The host of the Mickey Mouse Club during the '50s was a mild-mannered, avuncular Mickey, more like the later comic strip character than the rowdy scamp of "Plane Crazy" and "Steamboat Willie." A new generation of fans discovered the wonders of early Disney animation--including the classic Mickey shorts--when Annette, Tommy, Cubby & Co. gave the incantation, "Meeska, Mooska, Mouseketeer/Mouse Cartoon Time Now Is Here!"
But Mickey's film career may be moving back into high gear. Disney is building a new animation facility in Florida, as part of the Disney/MGM Studio Tour, to produce featurettes starring the familiar cartoon characters. The animators hope to revive the more energetic Mickey of the late '30s in the new films.
"We're going to back up and try to get something closer to the Fred Moore version of Mickey, who was pert and cute and a little on the sassy side," says Roy Disney, Walt's nephew and vice chairman of the Walt Disney Co. "The kind of stories we'll be doing call for Mickey to be more forthcoming and gutsy.
"I think he kind of faded away because people really didn't know what to do with him. We want to get back to a Mickey who can instigate action without turning him into something too modern.
"Mickey really is Walt in a lot of ways," Disney concludes, "And we want to keep the 'Waltness,' the core of niceness that makes Mickey what he is."