Mickey Mouse was created as a replacement for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a cartoon character created by the Disney Studio for Charles Mintz, a film producer who distributed product through Universal Studios. So in Spring of 1928 Walt Disney asked Ub Iwerks to draw up new character ideas of various animals but none appealed to Disney. I believe Walt Disney got the inspiration of Mickey Mouse from Iwerks a tame mouse in Flip the Frog series. There is a scene where a mouse plays a violin in Fiddlesticks a 1930 film from Flip the Frog series from UB IWerks. Mickey has become one of the world’s most recognizable characters he was first seen in a single test screening (Plane Crazy). Mickey officially debuted in the short film Steamboat Willie (1928), one of the first sound cartoons. He went on to appear in over 130 films, including The Band Concert (1935), Brave Little Tailor (1938), and Fantasia (1940). Mickey appeared primarily in short films, but also occasionally in feature-length films. Ten of Mickey’s cartoons were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, one of which, Lend a Paw, won the award in 1942. In 1978, Mickey became the first cartoon character to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.”
— Walt Disney, Disneyland; October 27, 1954
In 1925, Ub Iwerks created a new mouse character for Disney “Mortimer Mouse” had been Disney’s original name for the character before his wife, Lillian, convinced him to change it, and ultimately Mickey Mouse came to be. The actor Mickey Rooney claimed that, during his Mickey McGuire days, he met cartoonist Walt Disney at the Warner Brothers studio, and that Disney was inspired to name Mickey Mouse after him. This claim however has been debunked by Disney historian Jim Korkis, since at the time of Mickey Mouse’s development, Disney Studios had been located on Hyperion Avenue for several years, and Walt Disney never kept an office or other working space at Warner Brothers, having no professional relationship with Warner Brothers, as the Alice Comedies and Oswald cartoons were distributed by Universal.
Throughout the earlier years, Mickey’s design bore heavy resemblance to Oswald, 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, which in traditional animation, always appear circular no matter which way Mickey faces. This made Mickey easily recognizable to audiences and made his ears an unofficial personal trademark. Even today, the rudimentary symbol Mickey Mouse is often used to represent Mickey. This later created a dilemma for toy creators who had to recreate a three-dimensional Mickey. In animation in the 1940s Mickey’s ears were animated in a more realistic perspective.
Disney had Ub Iwerks secretly begin animating a new cartoon while still under contract with Universal. The cartoon was co-directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Iwerks was the main animator for the short, and reportedly spent six weeks working on it. In fact, Iwerks was the main animator for every Disney short released in 1928 and 1929. Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising also assisted Disney during those years. They 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. Mickey was first seen in a test screening of the cartoon short Plane Crazy, on May 15, 1928, but it failed to impress the audience and to add insult to injury, Walt could not find a distributor. Though understandably disappointed, Walt went on to produce a second Mickey short, The Gallopin’ Gaucho, which was also not released for lack of a distributor.
Steamboat Willie was first released on November 18, 1928, in New York. It was co-directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Iwerks again served as the head animator, 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 of the same year. Although it was the third Mickey cartoon produced, it was the first to find a distributor, and thus is considered by The Disney Company as Mickey’s debut. Willie featured changes to Mickey’s appearance (in particular, simplifying his eyes to large dots) that established his look for later cartoons and in numerous Walt Disney films. Audiences at the time of Steamboat Willie’s release were reportedly impressed by the use of sound for comedic purposes. Sound films or talkies were still considered innovative. The first feature-length movie with dialogue sequences, The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, was released on October 6, 1927. Within a year of its success, most United States movie theaters had installed sound film equipment. Walt Disney 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. Walt Disney soon worked on adding sound to both Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho (which had originally been silent releases) and their new release added to Mickey’s success and popularity. A fourth Mickey short, The Barn Dance, was also put into production; however, Mickey does not actually speak until The Karnival Kid in 1929 when his first spoken words were “Hot dogs, Hot dogs!” After Steamboat Willie was released, Mickey became a close competitor to Felix the Cat, and his popularity would grow as he was continuously featured in sound cartoons. By 1929, Felix would lose popularity among theater audiences, and Pat Sullivan decided to produce all future Felix cartoons in sound as a result. Unfortunately, audiences did not respond well to Felix’s transition to sound and by 1930, Felix had faded from the screen.