Mickey was originally created as a replacement for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an earlier star of the Studio. Oswald had been created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks for Charles Mintz of Universal Studios. In fact, Mickey closely resembled Oswald in his early appearances. However, Disney received an unpleasant lesson when he asked Mintz for a larger budget for his popular Oswald series: in reply, Mintz fired Disney and Iwerks and hired others to draw Oswald, to which Mintz and Universal owned the rights. From that point on, Disney made sure that he owned all rights to the characters produced by his company.
In order for Walt and his older brother and business partner Roy to keep their company active, new characters had to be created to star in their subsequent animated shorts. So, Mickey and Minnie Mouse (Mickey's flapper girlfriend) debuted in the cartoon short Plane Crazy, first released on May 15, 1928. The short was co-directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Iwerks was also the main animator for this short and reportedly spent six weeks working on it. Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising were credited for assisting him; these two had already signed their contracts with Charles Mintz, but he was still in the process of forming his new studio and so for the time being they were still employed by Disney. This short would be the last they animated under this somewhat awkward situation.
The plot of Plane Crazy was fairly simple. Mickey was apparently trying to become an aviator in emulation of Charles Lindbergh. After building his own aircraft, he proceeds to ask Minnie to join him for its first flight, during which he repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempts to kiss her, eventually resorting to force. Minnie then parachutes out of the plane. While distracted by her, Mickey loses control of the plane. This becomes the beginning of an out-of-control flight that results in a series of humorous situations and eventually in the crash-landing of the aircraft. A non-anthropomorphic cow that briefly becomes a passenger in the aircraft is believed to be Clarabelle Cow making her debut.
Mickey as portrayed in Plane Crazy was mischievous, amorous, and has often been described as a rogue. Modern audiences have occasional commented on this version of Mickey as being somewhat more complex and consequently more interesting than his later self. At the time of its first release, however, Plane Crazy apparently failed to impress audiences. Though understandably disappointed, Walt proceeded in putting to production a second Mickey short: The Gallopin' Gaucho.
The Gallopin' Gaucho was again co-directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks with the later serving as the sole animator in this case. The short was intended as a parody of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr's The Gaucho, a film first released on November 21, 1927. Following the original film, the events of the short take place in the Pampas of Argentina. The gaucho of the title was Mickey himself. He is first seen riding on a Rhea instead of a horse as would be expected (or an ostrich as often reported). He soon encounters Cantina Argentina, apparently serving as the local bar and Restaurant. Mickey proceeds in entering the establishment and taking a seat. He apparently just wants to relax with some drinking and tobacco smoking. Also present at the establishment are Black Pete, a wanted outlaw and fellow customer for the time being, and Minnie Mouse, the barmaid and dancer of the establishment, at the time performing a Tango. Both customers soon begin to flirt with Minnie and rivaling each other. At some point Pete proceeds in kidnapping Minnie and attempts to escape on his horse. Mickey gives chase on his rhea. He soon catches up to his rival and they proceed in swordfighting each other. Mickey emerges the victor of this fight. The finale of the short has Mickey and Minnie riding the rhea into the distance.
In later interviews, Iwerks would comment that Mickey as featured in The Gallopin' Gaucho was intended to be a swashbuckler, an adventurer modeled after Fairbanks himself. This short marks the first encounter between Mickey and Black Pete, a character already established as an antagonist in both the Alice Comedies and the Oswald series. Based on Mickey and Minnie acting as strangers to each other before the finale, it was presumably intended to feature their original acquaintance to each other as well. Modern audiences have commented that all three characters seem to be coming out of rough, lower class backgrounds that little resemble their later versions. Consequently the short has been argued to be of some historical significance.
At the time of its original production though, Walt failed to distribute it at first. It would be first released on December 30, 1928, following the release of another Mickey short. Reportedly Mickey was at first thought to be much too similar to Oswald and this resulted in the apparent lack of interest in him. Walt would soon start to contemplate ways to distinguish the Mickey Mouse series from his previous work and that of his rivals. The result of his contemplations would be the third Mickey short to be produced, the second to be released and the first to really draw the attention of the audiences:Steamboat Willie.
Steamboat Willie was first released on November 18, 1928. It was co-directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Iwerks again served as the head animator. He was assisted by Johnny Cannon, Les Clark, Wilfred Jackson and Dick Lundy. This short was intended as a parody of Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr, first released on May 12, 1928. But more importantly was an early animated film with synchronized sound, and the first to achive wide commercial success. Animation historians have long debated who had served as the composer for the film's original music. This role has been variously attributed to Wilfred Jackson, Carl Stalling and Bert Lewis but identification remains uncertain. Walt Disney himself acted as voice actor to both Mickey and Minnie.
The script had Mickey serving aboard Steamboat Willie under Captain Pete. At first he is seen piloting the steamboat while whistling. Then Pete arrives to take over piloting and angrily throws him out of the boat's bridge. They soon have to stop for cargo to be transferred on board. Almost as soon as they leave, Minnie arrives. She was apparently supposed to be their only passenger but was late to board. Mickey manages to pick her up from the river shore. Minnie accidentally drops her sheet music for the popular folk song "Turkey in the Straw" (alternate versions include "Natchez Under the Hill" and "Old Zip Coon". The lyrics are thought to have been added to an earlier tune by Bob Farrell who first performed them in a minstrel show on August 11, 1834). A goat which was among the animals transported on the steamboat proceeds in eating the sheet music. Consequently Mickey and Minnie use its tail to turn it into a phonograph which is playing the tune. Through the rest of the short, Mickey uses various other animals as musical instruments. Later audiences have often described those scenes as humorously exaggerated examples of animal cruelty. Captain Pete is eventually disturbed by all this noise and places Mickey back to work. Mickey is reduced to peeling potatoes for the rest of the trip. A parrot attempts to make fun of him but is then thrown to the river by Mickey. This served as the final scene of this short.
Audiences at the time of Steamboat Willie's release were reportedly impressed by its use of sound for comedic purposes. Sound films were still considered innovative. The first of them to become a commercial success was arguably Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer, first released on October 6, 1927. Following its success most United States movie theaters had installed sound film equipment. Walt apparently intended to take advantage of this new trend and arguably managed to succeed. Most other cartoon studios were still producing silent products and so were unable to effectively act as competition to Disney. As a result Mickey would soon become the most prominent animated character of the time.
It should however be noted that Steamboat Willie was arguably the first animated sound film to become commercially successful but not the first to be produced. In fact Fleischer Studios, headed by Max Fleischer and his brother Dave Fleischer had already produced over a dozen cartoons with synchronized soundtracks.
Such earlier attempts would soon be more or less forgotten. Walt Disney soon worked on adding sound to both Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho and their new release added to Mickey's initial success and popularity. A fourth Mickey short was also put into production. It was The Barn Dance.
The Barn Dance, first released on March 14, 1929, would be the first of eleven Mickey shorts released during that year. It was directed by Walt Disney with Ub Iwerks as the head animator. The Barn Dance of the title is the occasion that brings together Minnie and her two suitors: Mickey and Pete. The later two and their vehicles are first seen arriving at Minnie's house in an attempt to pick her up for the dance. Mickey turns up in his horse-cart while Pete in a newly purchased automobile. Minnie initially chooses the later to drive her to the dance but then the automobile unexpectedly breaks down. She resorts to accepting Mickey's invitation. They are later seen dancing together. But Mickey proves to be a rather clumsy dancer as he repeatedly steps on Minnie's feet. She consequently turns down his invitation for a second dance. She instead accepts that of Pete who proves to be a better dancing partner. Mickey then attempts to solve his problem by placing a balloon in his shorts. That apparently helps him to be "light on his feet" and he proceeds in asking Minnie for another dance. She accepts and is surprised to find his dancing skills to have apparently improved. Pete soon discovers Mickey's trick and points it to Minnie. Minnie is visibly disgusted by this attempt at deception. Consequently she leaves Mickey to resume dancing with Pete. In the finale Mickey is reduced to crying on the floor.
This short was the first to feature its three main characters as parts of a love-triangle. It is notable for featuring Mickey turned down by Minnie in favor of Pete. It is also an unusual appearance of the later. Pete was depicted as a rather well-mannered gentleman instead of a menacing villain as before. On the other hand, Mickey was not depicted as a hero but as a rather ineffective young suitor. In his sadness and crying over his failure, Mickey appears unusually emotional and vulnerable. It has been commented however that this only serves to add to the audiences' empathy for the character.
The Opry House, first released on March 28, 1929, would be the second short released during the year. It casted Mickey as the owner of a small theater (or Opera house according to the title). Mickey performs a vaudeville show all by himself. Acts include his impersonation of a snake charmer, his dressing in drag and performing a belly dance, his caricature of a Hasidic Jew and for the finale a piano performance. Minnie did not appear in person in this short. Instead a poster of her can be seen which introduces her as a member of the Yankee Doodle Girls, apparently a group of female performers. The only other reccuring character to appear in the short is known as Kat Nipp (apparently a play on the word catnip). This would be his debute. He would appear in two more shorts during the year as a minor antagonist. This short featured no dialogue and consequently its humour relies in a long series of visoual gags. The musical pieces accompanying them notably included Yankee Doodle and Georges Bizet's Carmen. More notably this short introduced Mickey's gloves. Mickey can be seen wearing them in most of his subsequent appearances.
When the Cat's Away, first released on April 11, 1929, would be the third Mickey short to be released that year. It was essentialy a remake of one of the Alice Comedies, Alice Rattled by Rats that had been first released on January 15, 1926. Kat Nipp makes his second appearance though his name is given as "Tom Cat" (this describes his being a tom cat and the character should not be confused with the co-star of the Tom and Jerry series). He is seen getting drunk on alcoholic beverages. Then he leaves his house to go hunting. In his absence an army of mice invade his house in search of food. Among them are Mickey and Minnie who proceed in turning this gathering into a party. This short is unusual in depicting Mickey and Minnie as having the size and partly the behavior of regural mice. The set standard both before and after this short was to depict them as having the size of a rather short human being. On another note, it has been oftenly commented that since this short was released during the Prohibition, the alcoholic beverages would probably have been products of bootleging.
The next Michey short to be released is also considered unusual. It was The Barnyard Battle, first released on April 25, 1929. As the title implies it featured a battle between an invading army of cats and an army of mice trying to defend their homes and farms. Pete was depicted as a leading soldier of the former army and Mickey as a conscript of the later one. Before joining the army, Mickey has to pass a physical examination. This scene depicts Mickey becoming the subject of physical and emotional abuse. After passing the examination, he is given a machine gun and is sent to battle. Mickey's combat efforts are comical in depiction but proove effective enough in forcing the enemy to retreat. Mickey is hailed as a hero by his fellow soldiers and then the short ends.
This short is notable as the first to depict Mickey as a soldier and the first to place him in combat. The physical examination scene has since often been edited out as being somewhat disturbing. However modern viewers have often pointed to this scene as being the most memorable of the short. The short did not clearly identify the war it depicted. But it has been noted that the cats are depicted as wearing military helmets similar to those used by the German Empire during World War I (1914 - 1918). On the other hand, the mice are marching in battle to the tune of "Dixie's Land", a song written in 1859 by Daniel Decatur Emmett (October 29, 1815 - June 28, 1904). The song is known to have been popular among the forces of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War (1861 - 1865). The victory of the mice is celebrated in the tune of "Battle Cry of Freedom". Both the music and the lyrics to this song were written in 1862 by George Frederick Root (August 30, 1820 - August 6, 1895) and it known to be popular among the forces of the United States during the same conflict. In any case both wars were still within living memory of the audiences at the time of release and so it is possible that the details mentioned were intended as recognizable references to both of them.
Mickey returned to civilian life with The Plow Boy, first released on May 9, 1929. As the title implies he was depicted as a farmer alongside Minnie. He is first seen with his horse while ploughing a field. Then Minnie comes along with her cow. She has Mickey milk the cow for her. As he does , the cow starts licking him in an apparent sign of affection. Mickey does not seem pleased and replies by rolling up its muzzle with its own tongue. Mickey eventually manages to present Minnie with a full bucket of milk and proceeds in kissing her. Minnie's reply to this sign of affection was knocking his head with the bucket. At some point the horse is stung by a bee, panicks and starts galloping. By the time the horse calms down again, the plough has been broken. In the finale, Mickey resorts to using a pig as a plough. Curiously the short is considered mainly notable for the livestock it featured. Minnie's cow is considered to be Clarabelle Cow making her second appearance. And Mickey's plow horse is considered to be Horace Horsecollar making his debute. Though depicted as non-anthropomorphic animals during this short, later that same year both would become as anthropomorphic as their former owners.
During his first eight appearances Mickey would whistle, laugh, cry and otherwise vocaly express himself. But he would not actualy speak until his ninth appearance. This short was The Karnival Kid, first released on May 23, 1929. Mickey's first spoken words were "Hot Dogss!". The short featured Mickey selling hot dogs at a carnival. Much of the humour in this short came from the interaction between Mickey and his hot dogs, with the later tending to act like actual dogs in relation to their owner/trainer. Three other recurring characters of the series also appear. The first of them was Clarabelle Cow in a cameo. The second was Kat Nipp, making his third and last appearance. A barker at the carnival, he briefly gets into an argument with Mickey. The third was Mickey's reccuring love interest: Minnie Mouse "the Shimmy Dancer" of the carnival. Having purchased one of Mickey's hot dogs, she is surprised to see it run away. The short ends at night time. Mickey apparently attempts to draw Minnie's attention by playing guitar singing outside her window. He only manages to draw the attention of two alley cats who decide to join him and then that of an irrate neighbour of Minnie's who starts throwing things at these three annoyances in an attempt to silence them. This marks the finale of the short.
This following Mickey short to be released was Mickey's Choo Choo, first released on June 20, 1929. As the title implies Mickey is depicted as the engineer in charge of an unusualy anthropomorphic locomotive. His only passenger seems to be Minnie, casted as a fiddle player for this short. At some point Mickey looses control of the locomotive. Clarabelle has another brief appearance as a cow running out of its way. It was soon followed by Mickey's Follies, first released on June 26, 1929. The short featured a barnyard show including various numbers. A female pig singing opera is considered to be Patricia Pig making her only animated appearance. She would be a reccuring character early in Mickey's comic strip series. But the short is more notable for Mickey's main act. It has Mickey singing Minnie's Yoo Hoo for the first time. This humorous little song is considered to have a historical importance of its own. For one thing "the guy they call little Mickey Mouse" for the first time adresses an audience to explain that he has "Got a sweetie" who is "Neither fat nor skinny" and proudly ploclaims that "She's my little Minnie Mouse". For another this would serve as the new theme song for the series. The music to the song was written by Carl Stalling and the lyrics by Walt Disney. Finally, animation historians have pointed that it seems to be the first song with original lyrics created by Walt's Studio.
The first few Mickey Mouse cartoons were mostly or entirely drawn by Iwerks; some animation historians think that Iwerks should be considered the actual creator of Mickey Mouse. Advertising for the early Mickey Mouse cartoons credit them as "A Walt Disney Comic, drawn by Ub Iwerks". Later Disney Company reissues of the early cartoons tend to credit Walt Disney alone.
In his earliest cartoons Mickey was often mischievous and the cartoons sometimes used outhouse humor. As the series became more popular, Disney decided to change his best-known character into a well meaning everyman, and creating mischief was thereafter left to other characters.
From 1930 till 1950, though the numbers of the comic creators that worked on Mickey increased, the most popular version (considered the "classic" version today) was that of Floyd Gottfredson, who developed Mickey's character, adopted characters from the cartoons, and created many others. Since 1950 the most popular version of Mickey has been that of Italian creator Romano Scarpa, who has further developed Gottfredson's characters and has added many of his own.
Many television programs have centered around Mickey, such as the recent shows Mickey Mouse Works and House of Mouse, in addition to special features such as Mickey's Christmas Carol and the Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence in the movie Fantasia (1940). In 1929, Disney created the Mickey Mouse Club for fans of his character and cartoons, which later formed the basis for a popular 1950's television show (with follow ups of the same name in the 1977 and 1989).
The Walt Disney Company has become well known for protecting its copyright over Mickey, whose likeness is so closely associated with the company, with particular zeal. Disney has lobbied for and achieved repeated copyright term extensions from the United States and the European Union that have prevented the character from entering the public domain. Disney's lobbying efforts have contributed to the ability of other copyright owners to extend their copyrights as well, causing the United States, once known for its disrespect for copyrights, to develop one of the most restrictive copyright policies in the world.
On November 14, 2002, the following image was discovered during restoration of a church's outside wall in the town of Malta in Austria. It is part of a 14th century fresco depicting Saint Christopher of the Catholic Church, who is often shown accompanied by fabulous creatures:
Mickey Mouse bears a striking resemblance to this image.