Tuesday, 18 November 2008

A MOUSE FOR ALL SEASONS

Today is the 80th birthday of a little guy named---


I have described my first encounter with Mickey Mouse elsewhere, but just as, for me, that meeting was the beginning of a life-long fascination with animation so, for Disney, the birth of Mickey Mouse was the advent of a legendary career and set the cornerstone of a vast, worldwide corporation, symbolised by this radiantly-smiling face...


It was on this day in 1928, that the public first witnessed Mickey's antics in a little film called Steamboat Willie...



The cartoon was a spoof on a recent Buster Keaton silent comedy, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and it caused it sensation! This was hardly surprising as it was the first ever cartoon with synchronised sound.

Fate was kind to Walt Disney, since he had already made - but had not yet released - two silent Mickey Mouse cartoons, Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Goucho, when Al Jolson astonished movie-goers by speaking and singing in the epoch-making 'talkie', The Jazz Singer.

Disney - making a decision that demonstrated his entrepreneurial acumen - immediately decided to make a new film for Mickey's debut and to do so in sound. After numerous trials and tribulations, he succeeded and the result was Steamboat Willie.

Who knows how things would have turned out if Mickey had begun his career in a silent movie - history might have been very different --- just, indeed, as things might have taken quite another turn had he stuck with his original idea of calling the character Mortimer Mouse!

Steamboat Willie looks and sounds crude when compared to present-day cinematic expectations, but, in 1928, sheer novelty made up for any lack of sophistication and for Disney and his Mouse fame were assured!

Mickey's original appearance was rather different from the character people are familiar with today from the Disney studio's corporate logo, the walk-around figures in the Disney theme parks and a zillion cuddly toys and other items of merchandise.

Over the years, Mickey has gone through many changes: he lost his tail, became less spiky and more rounded...

He also matured from the impertinent, irreverent little scrap of thing that frequented barnyard and back-alley and became - like Chaplin - a symbolic Everyman character. As such he could, and did, do anything and everything...



In 1940, he even dared to enter Art's Temple and gave - in Fantasia - what is arguable the finest performance of his career as 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'...


Over the years, Mickey's screen popularity was eventually overtaken by that of Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, Chip 'n' Dale and the characters from Disney's feature-length animated films, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but Walt - who, for many years, provided Mickey's piping falsetto - always acknowledged his indebtedness to the character: "I hope we never forget," he often said, "that all this started with a mouse!"

Such was Walt Disney's attachment to Mickey that he constantly found ways to rejuvenate his career: appointing him, in the '50s, the genial host of both his newly opened Disneyland park and the weekly '50s television show, The Mickey Mouse Club...


Even though Disney himself is long gone, the studio has continued to keep Mickey's reputation alive: casting him in 1983 as Ebenezer Scrooge's put-once clerk in the Dickensian fantasy Mickey's Christmas Carol...


And, in 1995, once again coaxing him back in front of the cameras for a wild little pseudo-science-horror film, entitled The Runaway Brain...



The Mouse simply keeps on going and a digitally-animated Mickey is now entertaining pre-schoolites in the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

So, 80 years on - without a sign of a white hair on his little round head - what can we say, but...

Happy Birthday, Mr Mouse!



I was on Radio 4's Today programme this morning talking about Mickey's career. You can listen again here; and you can read a lot more of what I said about the Mouse on the Today website - a page that, apparently, received 50,000 hits on its first day...


Images: © Disney



15 comments:

Boll Weavil said...

It's just awful ! That grinning cutsie face just epitomises a sort of sweet sacharin OTT cartoon world that is just too much for me. Yes, I watch Fantasia and know it's a work of sheer brilliance and I'm sure that the early cartoons are groundbreaking and great but I really can't do the larger-than-life persona portrayed by the mouse.There are a million things that Walt did that were much better.Sorry !

Brian Sibley said...

You and Donald Duck are in total agreement!

Eudora said...

80!!, and he looks fine, as allways, is marvellous.

If you have some curiosity to know the spanish voice of Mr. Mouse come to my blog...

Sheila said...

It was good to hear you on the Today programme this morning, Brian - though a bit of warning would have been good, as I was in the shower at the time!

For anyone who missed Brian being interviewed, there's a chance to listen to the piece on today's Today website

http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_7734000/7734774.stm

Here's the intro:

0825
It's Mickey Mouse's birthday - and the cartoon character has turned 80. The first time Mickey Mouse hit our screens was in Steam Boat Willie - the first completely synchronised sound cartoon, shown in 1928. Brian Sibley, the author of the Disney Studio Story and Mickey Mouse: His Life and Times, explains the enduring appeal of Walt Disney's most famous creation.

Sarah said...

Hey, just heard you on Radio 4! I was hoping they'd make you do the Mickey Mouse voice, but no luck. ;-)

Andy J. Latham said...

Regarding Boll's comment, aren't "cartoons" OTT by definition?

Those early Mickey Mouse cartoons (and similar output from other studios) contained elements of brilliance that are missing from today's animation. Those old animated adventures WERE cartoons. They played with motion in the way that Shakespeare played with words. They weren't bound by reality or by physics, but were pure unconstrained imagination.

Walt did many wonderful things throughout his life. He took art in new directions, he conjured up new technology, but none of the things he did have changed the world quite as much as this little mouse.

Happy Birthday Mickey, I make no exaggeration in saying the world would be a much sadder place without you!

Brian Sibley said...

EUDORA - What a linguist!

SHEILA - Thanks for the plug! In the interests of historical accuracy I should point out that I was the co-author (with Richard Holliss) of those books...

SARAH - You're right I should have said "Goodbye" in Mouseese!

ANDY - Well said! We've rather forgotten just how graphically inventive those early cartoons were. As for Mickey, his smile - however 'cheesy' - and his open-handed gesture of welcome are iconic!

Eudora said...

Excuse me, the URL os Sheila is a bit short, the link is:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_7734000/7734774.stm


Ciao.

Muir Hewitt said...

Mickey Mouse eighty years old how can it be? It certainly doesn't seem twenty years since we celebrated his 60th in Disneyland in July 1988!

I loved the earlier naughty anarchic Mickey Mouse persona before he became the Middle America Mickey that is more familiar to most moviegoers!

Happy 80th Birthday Mickey Mouse - here's to Many Happy Returns or Comebacks even!!

Brian Sibley said...

Do you still have the tuxedo-clad Mickey Mouse 'stuffy' they gave us?

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday, Mister Mouse- what is even more amazing is that the Disney company still has a copyright on you, because of legislation they helped pass in congress to extend it!
michael G

Boll Weavil said...

I suppose cartoons by their nature ARE OTT but some more than others - Chuck Jones for example, who specialised in taking the viewer beyond the usual restrictions of the format.

Unmajam : a subject spoken of so enthusiastically by Mr Sibley that one feels totally guilty about not really liking it with the same fervour.

Brian Sibley said...

In case the second-half of BOLL's comment (above) is incomprehensible, he wrote in tomorrow's comments (if you see what I mean) as follows:

"I've decided that, owing to the number of interesting but presumably random words (or potential words) appearing in the letter verification of these comment sections, I will attempt to provide you with a definition pertinent to each of your posts..."

Anonymous said...

Mickey and I share a birthday and I celebrate for the both of us every year =)

Brian Sibley said...

Happy Birthday – come November 18! :)