Bringing Forth The Mouse

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He is called Mickey Sans Culotte in France, Miki Kuchi in Japan, Topolino in Italy, Musse Pigg in Sweden, and Mikel Mus in Greece. He is known to have made an English queen late for tea; to have rescued an American toy-train manufacturer from receivership; to have an emblem, an oath, a handshake, and a song of his own; to be used as a charm to ward off evil spirits among primitive African tribes; and to appear on watches, soap, radiator caps, and innumerable cereal boxes. He is, of course. Mickey Mouse.

His creator, as everyone knows, was Walt Disney, who died on December 15, 1966. Disney made a considerable number of Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts; although immediately popular, they did not make much money in American movie houses. But when Disney shipped his mouse abroad, put him on television, and allowed his cheery countenance to adorn over 5,000 different products, Walt made a fortune.

The actual facts of Disney’s life are obscured in the carefully contrived myths released by the zealous publicity department of his studio. In writing the biography from which this article is taken, Richard Schickel notes that he has had “no co-operation from either the Disney family or the Disney organization.” The book, to be entitled The Disney Version , will be published later this month by Simon and Schuster.

Our article picks up Disney’s story in 1927, when the producer was twenty-six years old. After a miserable, dour childhood in Chicago, in Kansas City, and on farms in the Midwest, Walt and his brother Roy (the firm’s business manager) came to Hollywood. They set up an animation studio, which they barely managed to keep afloat with two uninspired series: Alice in Cartoonland and later Oswald the Rabbit. The future did not seem promising.

—The Editors

There are uncounted versions of the birth of Mickey Mouse, for Walter Elias Disney, and particularly his flacks and hacks, could never resist the temptation to improve upon the basic yarn. This much seems to be true: the idea to use a rodent as the principal character for a cartoon series came to Disney on a train; the year was 1927; and the train was carrying him back to California after a discouraging meeting in New York with Charles Mintz, who was the distributor of both his Oswald and his Alice series. The most flavorsome telling of the tale appeared in an English publication called The Windsor Magazine in 1934, under Disney’s own by-line, though it is doubtful that he did more than glance at the article his publicity department had prepared for him. The key section began with his boarding the train, with no new contract and no discernible future.

“But was I downhearted?” he inquired. “Not a bit! I was happy at heart. For out of the trouble and confusion stood a mocking, merry little figure. Vague and indefinite at first. But it grew and grew and grew. And finally arrived—a mouse. A romping, rollicking little mouse.

“The idea completely engulfed me. The wheels turned to the tune of it. ‘Chung, chug, mouse, chug, chug, mouse’ the train seemed to say. The whistle screeched it. ‘A m-m-mowaouse,’ it wailed. By the time my train had reached the Middle West I had dressed my dream mouse in a pair of red velvet pants with two huge pearl buttons, and composed the first scenario and was all set.”

It is well known that the name Disney first gave his creation was Mortimer Mouse—borrowed, it is said, from that of a pet mouse he had kept in his Kansas City studio four years before. Disney himself never claimed this, but he frequently confessed “a special feeling” for mice and readily admitted that he had kept a fairly large family of field mice in his Kansas City offices. Originally he had heard their rustlings in his wastepaper basket. He built cages for them, captured them, and allowed one of them who seemed especially bright the occasional freedom of his drawing board. He even undertook a modest training course for the little creature, drawing a circle on a large piece of drawing paper and then tapping the mouse lightly on the nose with a pencil each time he attempted to scamper over the line. Before long Disney had trained him to stay within the circle. When it came time to leave Kansas City, Disney set all of his mice free “in the best neighborhood I could find,” as he later put it. Of his parting with his special pet, Disney said that he “walked away feeling like a cur. When I looked back, he was still sitting there, watching me with a sad, disappointed look in his eyes.”

There are two versions of the renaming of the cartoon mouse. In the more common one Mrs. Disney reportedly found Mortimer too pretentious and insisted on a less formal-sounding title for the little chap; some say that she suggested the name Mickey, others, that Disney named his new character and she approved it during the course of their long train ride back to California. The other story is far more prosaic; it is simply that one of the first distributors Disney approached liked the idea but not the name, and his objection caused Disney to rename his creation.

In any case, it is certain that immediately after he returned from New York, Disney set his little studio to work on a cartoon that had a mouse as its principal figure. “He had to be simple,” Disney later said, discussing the details of the mouse’s creation.