WASHINGTON - Mickey Mouse was created almost by accident: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was Walt Disney's first cartoon character, but when Disney lost the rights to Oswald in 1927, he returned to the drawing board.
Eighty years ago, one of the world's most beloved stars was born, Mickey Mouse whistled his way onto the silver screen, "Steamboat Willie" screening at the Colony Theater in New York. Now, Nov. 18, 1928, is widely considered as the iconic mouse's official birthday even though Walt Disney had dreamed up the cartoon character months before when Mickey Mouse had featured in a short animated ***** "Plane Crazy."
"'Steamboat Willie’ is the most famous of the early Mickey Mouse films because it had a soundtrack," Eric Smoodin, professor of film studies at the University of California, Davis, said.
"Mickey Mouse, within a year or two after Steamboat Willie, became the biggest star in the world," Smoodin said. "So even though it is not the first Mickey Mouse ***** it really was the beginning for this great celebrity," he said, adding in the 1930s, only Charlie Chaplin came close to Mickey Mouse in terms of global super-stardom.
Created by accident
Mickey Mouse was created almost by accident; Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was Walt Disney's first cartoon character, but when Disney lost the rights to Oswald in 1927, he went back to the drawing board.
He came up with "Mortimer the Mouse." Popular legend has it that his wife preferred the name Mickey and Walt Disney deferred to her choice. "Steamboat Willie" has a flimsy, politically incorrect storyline and features little, if any, comprehensible dialogue.
But the cartoon marked an animation landmark with its synchronized sound track where Mickey whistles and blows raspberries at the irascible ship's captain, a large tobacco-chewing cat called Captain Pete.
In roughly seven minutes, Captain Pete kicks Mickey Mouse out of the steering room of a riverboat. The hero then hoists Minnie Mouse on board using a crane that grabs her by the knickers, swings a cat by the tail, strangles a goose and plays a keyboard on some suckling piglets as the American folk song, "Turkey in the Straw," plays from a goat's innards. "Mickey Mouse was both a great star of Hollywood and the world and a symbol of Disney's technological innovation," said Smoodin.
Walt Disney recorded the "Steamboat Willie" soundtrack with, "the bootleg Powers Cinephone process ... using a 15-piece band and his own squeaks for Mickey," according to the Disney Web site.
"It was an early sound film when there were not that many sound-films being made. Disney committed to making only sound-films after that," explained Smoodin.
The Disney studios pioneered the use of color cinematography and 3-D films in the 1930s. Disney also made innovative use of stereo audio technology in "Fantasia," a movie starring Mickey Mouse, first released in 1946.
Just over a year after his appearance in "Steamboat Willie," on Jan. 13, 1930, Mickey Mouse got his own comic strip, drawn by artist Ub Iwerks.
He made it into the Sunday comics on Jan. 10, 1932, the same year Walt Disney won a special Academy Award for creating the friendly rodent.
Star of 120 cartoons
Mickey Mouse has gone on to star in over 120 cartoons and had his own television show, "The Mickey Mouse Club," in the 1950s. The show's theme song engraved in the minds of a generation of Americans how to spell M-I-C, K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E.
These days, children watch Mickey on the mouse's eponymous "Clubhouse," which airs on Playhouse Disney.
His trademark morphology, the ears above all, appears on merchandise ranging from T-shirts to cuddly toys, most often sporting his white gloves, red shorts and yellow shoes. Mickey has also been featured in museum exhibits from New York to Helsinki, and Tokyo.