Monday, May 18, 2009

Creating Mickey

There are many stories about the creation of Mickey Mouse, but only one that the Disney company wants you to believe. There’s been a big effort over the years to give Walt all the credit for Mickey. It’s understandable, of course, since the company bears his name. You would imagine that he created the most successful character in the company’s history.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s review the beginning of the story, before we get to the disputed part. With a successful series of Oswald cartoons under his belt, Walt ventured forth to New York to meet with his distributor Charles Mintz, the husband of his Alice distributor, Margaret Winkler. According to the official version, Walt had no idea what would happen.

What happened was that Mintz informed Walt that he had signed away all the animators except Ub Iwerks, and was taking Oswald in house. Walt no longer owned his hallmark character, and rather than Mintz offering him a new contract, Walt would have the choice of a job with Mintz or leaving empty handed and keeping only his brother, Ub and a couple others (including an up and comer named Les Clark) as the remainder of his studio.

Until a few years ago, Disney stuck with the story that it was Walt, on the train ride back from New York to Los Angeles, who came up with the initial sketches for Mickey. The truth, as currently acknowledged by the company, is not so simple. Walt definitely decided to come up with a new character, rather than stick with Mintz, but he didn’t create Mickey from whole cloth on that ride.

As the story goes in the book and film The Hand Behind the Mouse, Walt returned home in the spring of 1928 with a few more Oswald cartoons to complete, but still needing to spend his time creating a new character to keep the studio running. Walt set Ub to work on new designs for a trademark character. After reviewing various animals, like dogs and cats, they ultimately settled on a mouse.

Even there, the story is a little fuzzy. In Walt Disney’s Missouri, the authors imply that Mickey likely came to be out of Walt’s love for a mouse he kept in his office back in Kansas City. Another story says that Walt had a pet mouse on his farm, and Hugh Harman had drawn sketches of mice around a picture of Walt in 1925, prompting Ub’s work in 1928.

Whatever the truth really is, we may never know. Walt himself tended to perpetuate the myth about creating Mickey on the train ride. Throughout his life, Walt preferred to give the press the story, rather than the truth, not just in this instance, but in many others as well. It wasn’t a case of lying, just a consummate storyteller choosing to give people the best story possible.

Everyone agrees on one fact, though, and that’s that Walt’s wife, Lillian, was the one who came up with the name. Walt had chosen to call him Mortimer, but Lilly rejected that out of hand, and came up with Mickey instead.

It’s a longer discussion to talk about why Mickey became so successful – was it sound, his actions, his character, the animation by Ub, the merchandising – but we can all agree that we’re glad it happened.

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