Like with the Bechdel Test, it would be so easy to simply say “Disney created Mickey Mouse,” but it’s not totally true. There’s a bit more to it than that. It’s what I discovered while I was reading about some cartooning history that led me to Mickey.
Who is the real creator of Mickey Mouse?
Everybody knows who Mickey Mouse is. After all, as the longtime corporate mascot of the mascot of the Walt Disney Company, even if you never saw any animated (short or long) movie featuring the anthropomorphic mouse, or saw him on a TV Show, you know him.
Mickey Mouse has a pretty distinctive clothing style–wearing red shorts, large yellow shoes, and white gloves–but even in disguise, his face is rather hard to not recognize.
The origin story of Mickey Mouse doesn’t take us back to the origin of the Walt Disney Studio, but not by far.
Everything pretty much started in 1919 in Kansas City when Walt Disney worked at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio as an apprentice. There, he became friends with another young artist named Ub Iwerks. Laid off at the same time, the two men started their first business together. It was a failure and they took other jobs. After discovering the potential of cel animation, Disney opened another studio (Laugh-O-Gram Studio) and recruited once more Iwerks–but also Fred and Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. Laugh-O-Gram Studio didn’t succeed financially and Disney moved to Hollywood in order to join his brother Roy and sell his animated/live-action short Alice in Wonderland. It took time, but it happened and Walt Disney Studio was born. Once more, Disney hired Iwerks.
They made more shorts in the Alice series for film producer Charles Mintz who wanted more animated material to distribute through Universal Pictures. That’s why Disney and Iwerks created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And they ultimately lost their creation. It’s 1928 and Universal took control of the rabbit.
Walt Disney didn’t want that to happen again and ask his best friend Ub Iwerks to develop ideas for a new character. He started with frogs, dogs, and cats, then cows and horses–everything was not thrown away though as we later met Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar who started there.
Inspired by sketches of mice drawn by Hugh Harman a few years earlier, Disney worked on a sketch of a mouse that it took to Iwerks who refined it as Disney came up with the rest… almost. He thought of calling his new character Mortimer Mouse, but his wife, Lillian, convinced him to change it. It became Mickey Mouse–and that had nothing to do with actor Mickey Rooney.
Mortimer Mouse didn’t totally go away, as it became the name of Minnie Mouse’s uncle in comics stories.
Mickey Mouse’s first appearance
Everybody knows that Mickey Mouse’s first appearance was in Steamboat Willie (in 1928), because it was, publicly at least. Mickey’s first role was in fact in the cartoon short Plane Crazy directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks in which the mouse tried to fly an airplane to imitate Charles Lindbergh. It failed, the plane crashed and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was not impressed enough to distribute it.
The story repeated itself with The Gallopin’ Gaucho, the second failed short featuring Mickey Mouse.
A few months later, the reception for Steamboat Willie was quite different, as it became a success. The movie introduced changes to Mickey’s appearance (especially with the eyes that simply became large dots). Also, Steamboat Willie was one of the first cartoons with synchronized sound, as well as one of the first cartoons to feature a fully post-produced soundtrack.
Ub Iwerks was responsible for most of the animation work at the Walt Disney Studio, but it took almost 70 years for him to get the proper credit he deserved for the creation of Mickey Mouse and the early success of the studio. Walt Disney was celebrated for all their work for a long time. He certainly deserved his fair share, but not one that big.
Due to the lack of recognition for his work, Iwerks left Disney in 1930 but came back to the studio a decade later. Then, he developed the processes for combining live-action and animation that was eventually used in Song of the South (1946). He helped develop many Disney theme park attractions and continued to revolutionize animation with the technics used on 101 Dalmatians (1961). He also worked outside of animation on special effects, notably for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).
As for Walt Disney, I don’t really need to tell you more, his company continued to grow, changed the face of the industry, and finally took control of Hollywood!
You can learn more about the life and work of Ub Iwerks with the book Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor: The Genius of Ub Iwerks written by Don Iwerks. And if you are interested in the creation of fictional characters, I also wrote about the Addams Family and Scooby-doo.