Firsts: Mickey Mouse became the first animated movie star 90 years ago

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Jan 13, 2018, 10:30 AM EST

Long before the Renaissance that made Disney films household necessities for anyone tangentially associated with children in the decade from 1989 to 1999, there was an animated star who built The Walt Disney Company from the ground up. A mouse, to be exact.

Or, really, a rabbit’s second draft. Mickey Mouse’s origins are waggish, rambunctious, noisy, and revolutionary for how they pushed animation forward, even if he started off as Walt Disney’s runner-up. According to animation history expert Dr. Dan Bashara, “Mickey is a bit of an accident; first Walt created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit but lost legal rights to the character during a contract dispute, so Mickey was Oswald's replacement. (Seriously, look at the two next to each other; they're virtually indistinguishable except for the shape of their ears.)” Even in their modern iterations, it's hard to unsee:

Mickey and Oswald

That aforementioned contract dispute about Oswald concerned Disney’s contract with Universal Studios, where he did business after his small studio -- focused on comic animated shorts featuring animals (like mice) -- went under. Disney’s two studios (Laugh-O-Gram Studio and Disney Brothers Studio‍) were the birthplace of what would become Mickey Mouse. The ambition that followed would lead to either total failure or a complete takeover through a cartoon craze.

While there’s hearsay about the naming of Mickey (née Mortimer) and Disney’s particular inspirations of tame mice crawling on his desk, Universal’s ownership of Oswald after their falling out left Disney in need of a character. Mickey was the reactionary result of Disney’s new studio (and his loyal animator Ub Iwerks) firing back.

The mouse went on to show up in a haunted house and even (some say) Empire Strikes Back, but first and foremost he was a star in his own right thanks to a trio of short films: Plane Crazy, Gallopin’ Gaucho, and -- the film class staple whose hip-swaying mouse comes closest to today’s modern icon -- Steamboat Willie. Plane Crazy was inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s aviating heartthrob and features plenty of aerial acrobatics, while Gallopin’ Gaucho was a parody of Douglas Fairbanks' The Gaucho and involves a cowpoke scuffle over the affections of a salsa-dancing lass.

While these weren’t what Mickey needed to be for Disney’s success, they still had their hints of future animation innovation. Disney and Iwerks were “experimenting with perspective and parallax and all the stuff that eventually makes Disney's cartoons state-of-the-art in terms of visual realism over the course of the 1930s,” Bashara said. Characters in the foreground moved more quickly than those in the background when moving horizontally, which gave the illusion of realistic depth, while Disney’s cartoons also employed multiple focal points along various planes in a single frame - these were sophisticated animations, even if the first two shorts wouldn’t rocket Mickey to the spotlight.

All three were produced and test-screened in 1928, with the first two failing to find distribution to a public audience, which made Steamboat Willie the de facto premiere of Mickey to a wide audience on November 18, 1928. It came as a parody of one of silent comedy’s biggest stars’ newest films, Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., and launched an empire. How it achieved this is a mixture of iconographical savvy, moral rigidity, and the luck needed to be at the right intersection of two technologies’ development.

This was a time when sound films were sweeping the nation. That’s why Steamboat Willie was rushed out of the gate (the former two were refitted with sound later) despite being Mickey’s third short: It had synced-up sound. Walt Disney had been struck by a screening of The Jazz Singer, the first live-action talkie, and jumped to bring synchronized sound to his cartoons -- something the Fleischer brothers (Betty Boop, Popeye) had been experimenting with for the past two years in their song-centric shorts.

Mickey's cartoons weren't necessarily focused on the songs, but on telling a short story with sound-effect-laden slapstick. “What's funny in these early Mickey shorts is not so much Mickey himself but the unusual ways in which the animal gags are melded with the musical structure of the cartoon,” says Bashara. Mickey is shown screwing around with all sorts of barnyard animals, but their transformation into musical instruments makes Mickey seem like a charming magician rather than a scoundrel.

In contrast, Mickey is a smoking, drinking bandit in Gallopin’ Gaucho and a creep who won’t take “no” for an answer when it comes to Minnie in Plane Crazy. His (quite often off-putting) roguishness was easier to swallow when it manifested in outlandish, impossible musical antics (like stretching a duck’s neck into a strange bagpipe/trombone amalgam). Finding friendliness to kids within the authority-jabbing mouse, Disney brought wholesomeness and characterization to sound ‘toons that were up until that point more focused on the phenomenon of sound.

This is something Disney was good at, says Bashara: “This is another instance of Disney's striking ability to capture new territory even if he didn't actually get there first.” Bringing a perfectly marketable character to the forefront of animation alongside cutting-edge tech was a winning mix. “Mickey Mouse and sound arrived together, and it's the combination that packed such a powerful punch,” Bashara notes.

Disney never looked back and never slowed down. Despite Mickey’s current backseat in the company’s animated work, the figurehead was always a star first and foremost.