Nov 182017
 

On this date in 1928 Steamboat Willie, an animated short film directed by Walt Disney and mostly drawn and animated by Ub Iwerks (who rarely gets credit for his substantial part in making early Disney cartoons), was first shown publicly at Universal’s Colony Theater in New York City. Walt Disney Studios considers the cartoon to be the debut of Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend Minnie, although both the characters appeared several months earlier in a test screening of Plane Crazy. In fact, Steamboat Willie was the third cartoon featuring Mickey’s films to be produced, but was the first to be distributed because Walt Disney, having seen The Jazz Singer, had committed himself to producing the first fully synchronized sound cartoon. Because this date is Mickey’s public debut, the Disney corporation considers it to be his birthday, so we should celebrate too. But remember it is Minnie’s birthday as well.

Throughout the earlier years, Mickey’s design bore heavy resemblance to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (an earlier Iwerks and Disney creation), save for the ears, nose, and tail. Ub Iwerks designed Mickey’s body out of circles in order to make the character simple to animate. Disney employees John Hench and Marc Davis believed that this design was part of Mickey’s success as it made him more dynamic and appealing to audiences. Mickey’s circular design is most noticeable in his ears. In animation in the 1940s, Mickey’s ears were animated in a more realistic perspective. Later, they were drawn to always appear circular no matter which way Mickey was facing. This made Mickey easily recognizable to audiences and made his ears an unofficial personal trademark.

Oswald

In 1938, animator Fred Moore redesigned Mickey’s body away from its circular design to a pear-shaped design. Colleague Ward Kimball praised Moore for being the first animator to break from Mickey’s “rubber hose, round circle” design. Although Moore himself was nervous at first about changing Mickey, Walt Disney liked the new design and told Moore “that’s the way I want Mickey to be drawn from now on.” I wonder if at this point the similarity between Disney and Thomas Edison has dawned on you. Both men were skilled in business and marketing, yet get credited with innovations that they did not create. Edison did not invent the light bulb and Disney did not draw Mickey Mouse.

Each of Mickey’s hands has only three fingers and a thumb. Disney said that this was both an artistic and financial decision, explaining “Artistically five digits are too many for a mouse. His hand would look like a bunch of bananas. Financially, not having an extra finger in each of 45,000 drawings that make up a six and one-half minute short has saved the Studio millions.” In the film The Opry House (1929), Mickey was first given white gloves as a way of contrasting his naturally black hands against his black body. The use of white gloves would prove to be an influential design for cartoon characters, particularly with later Disney characters, but also with non-Disney characters such as Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Mighty Mouse, and Mario. Whether consciously or unconsciously, there is no question that Mickey’s early appearance, particularly the gloves, and facial characteristics, evolved from blackface caricatures used in minstrel shows.