- Historic Sites
Bringing Forth The Mouse
Some Americans may have trouble listing the fifty united states. Some may be vague about who represents them in Congress. But it’s a sure bet that every one of us—over the age of three— can identify the nation’s most prominent rodent
April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
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.
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.
We had to push out 700 feet of film every two weeks, so we couldn’t have a character who was tough to draw. His head was a circle with an oblong circle for a snout. The ears were also circles so they could be drawn the same, no matter how he turned his head.
His body was like a pear and he had a long tail. His legs were pipestems and we stuck them in big shoes [also circular in appearance] to give him the look of a kid wearing his father’s shoes.
We didn’t want him to have mouse hands, because he was supposed to be more human. So we gave him gloves. Five fingers looked like too much on such a little figure, so we took one away. That was just one less finger to animate.
To provide a little detail, we gave him the two-button pants. There was no mouse hair or any other frills that would slow down animation.
In short, the mouse was very much a product of the current conventions of animation, which held that angular figures were well-nigh impossible to animate successfully, and that clearly articulated joints were also too difficult to manage, at least at the speed of drawing that was demanded by the economics of the industry. Hence the strange appearance of many old cartoons when we glimpse them today on television— the thick round bodies contrasting so oddly with the rubbery limbs of the characters. Within a few years, thanks largely to the leadership of the Disney studio, these conventions were abandoned. Whatever economic advantages these early techniques provided were offset, Disney later said, by the fact that they made it “tougher for the cartoonists to give him [Mickey Mouse] character.”
Indeed, it is possible that the mouse would have had a life no longer than many of his competitors if a technological revolution had not intervened and presented Disney with an opportunity particularly suited to his gifts and interests. He seized it with an alacrity shown by few in Hollywood. Plane Crazy , in which both Mickey and Minnie Mouse made their first appearance, was on the drawing boards on October 6, 1927, when Warner Brothers came out with The Jazz Singer , which though not actually the first sound film was the first to integrate sound with story. Only a small part of the dialogue was recorded, but all the musical sequences were, and the result was a sensation. Warner’s immediately added similar sequences to three other movies the studio then had in production and laid plans for an all-talking picture. The rest of the industry formally agreed to fight the “Warner Vitaphone Peril,” as the innovation was labelled by a trade magazine. The movie makers had been dragging their feet about sound ever since the first practical sound system was invented in 1923, but by the spring of 1928 opposition had collapsed and all the studios were rushing into production with sound pictures. There was nothing dignified or even very intelligent about the transition period. It was, indeed, a hysterical scramble in which Walt Disney and his problems, never in the forefront of anyone’s mind, were almost entirely lost from view.
At this point the frugality of Walt and Roy Disney paid off. Between them they had between $25,000 and $30,000 in personal assets, and their studio, though not wildly successful, could afford to go ahead with its first three Mickey Mouse films even though they had no contract for them nor any real idea of who might be persuaded to distribute them. In addition, they were in somewhat the same position as the nearly bankrupt Warner Brothers had been—they had nothing to lose by experimenting with sound: their investment in films not yet released was negligible, they had no investment in actors whose vocal qualities might be unsuitable to the microphone, and the animated cartoon was a medium ideally adaptable to sound. The early sound camera was all but immobile in the soundproof “blimp” that was necessary to prevent its whirrings from being picked up by the microphone. Disney, of course, had no such problem. The animation was shot silently, as always, and sound was added later. This meant that his little films retained their ability to move, unhampered by a stationary camera. Just as important was the control he could exercise over the co-ordination of picture and sound. They could be perfectly integrated by matching the musical rhythm to the rhythm of the drawn characters’ movements.
Disney hesitated only briefly before plunging into sound film production. After Plane Crazy , he shot a second silent film, Gallopin’ Gaucho , but in his third, Steamboat Willie , he began to experiment with sound.
His chief assistants were Ub Iwerks, in those days getting a “drawn by” credit on the title card of each film, and Wilfred Jackson, a newly employed animator who liked to play the harmonica in his spare time. Steamboat Willie was plotted to the tick of a metronome, which set rhythms for both Jackson, who played standard, public-domain tunes on his mouth organ, and for Iwerks, who could plan the animation with the appropriate tempo. The ratio of drawings to bars of music was thus calculated far more simply than it would be only a few years later. To further enliven the sound track, Disney rounded up tin pans, slide whistles, ocarinas, cowbells, nightclub noisemakers, and a washboard. When the animation was finished, the coworkers invited their wives to the studio to see something new one evening, then ducked behind a screen and played their “score” live, through a sound system Iwerks concocted out of an old microphone and the loudspeaker of a home radio. In later years Disney recalled that the ladies had been vaguely complimentary but had not allowed their husbands’ novelty to distract them from girl talk about babies, menus, hairdressers, and so on. Like so many of Disney’s reminiscences, this story seems a little too pat to be credible, but, on the other hand, the performance was probably not terribly impressive at that early stage.
By early September, 1928, however, Disney was ready to head for New York again, first in search of someone to put his perfected score on a sound track, and second to find a distributor. By this time Disney and his co-workers had their complete score, down to the last rattle of a cowbell, on paper and had devised a system by which a conductor could keep his beat precisely on the tempo of the film. Sound speed was standardized at ninety feet of film per minute, or twenty-four frames per second. The musical tempo was two beats per second, or one every twelve frames. On the work print that Disney took to New York with him, a slash of India ink was drawn on every twelfth frame, causing a white flash to appear on the screen every half second. All a conductor had to do was to key his beats to the flash; in theory, if he never missed a flash he would reach the end of his strange-looking score at the exact moment the film ended.
To obtain his sound track, Disney first had to find someone willing to record it, and then someone to conduct it—a conductor who would sacrifice the most important variable at his command, tempo, to a gang of musically illiterate cartoonists. Neither was easy to find. The best sound system was controlled by Radio Corporation of America; although it was willing to take Disney’s work, it was unwilling to follow his score. Its technicians had already added tracks to some old silent cartoons and were convinced, apparently, that close synchronization between music and sound effects and the action on the screen was, if not impossible, certainly not worth the effort. Disney knew otherwise and refused to relinquish his precious piece of film to them. The RCA men, on the other hand, were not about to let a stranger tell them their business.
Disney then started on the rounds of those entrepreneurs who owned outlaw sound equipment—that is, recording devices either not covered by or not yet restrained by the patents controlled by R.C.A. or its chief rival, Western Electric. Here history was repeating itself, for the first silent cameras and projectors had been controlled by Edison and licensed only to producers and theatres belonging to his so-called “trust.” His invention had been so attractive that in spite of Edison’s fight to enforce his rights, the trust had been effectively demolished by the sheer number of competitors who violated it. The situation in the sound business never grew quite so unmanageable, for both the quality of the patented systems and the power of the firms that controlled them was such that it was to everyone’s advantage to end the in-fighting. But it was impossible to control everyone, and Disney had no real difficulty locating someone to take on his recording chores.
The man he found was a semilegendary figure named Pat Powers, who had learned the movie business—and his code of ethics—in the freebooting days before World War I. It is said, perhaps apocryphally, that Powers, who at one time distributed Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures, actually resorted to throwing his account books out a twelfth-story window rather than let Laemmle. who got to wondering where his profits had gone, take a look at them. It is also said that Powers had the foresight to have a man waiting in the street below to retrieve the books and make a getaway with them. Disney was to experience some of this buccaneering style during his association with Powers, but he appears to have known what he was getting into, and Powers did have a sound system to put at Disney’s service—the “Powers Cinephone.”
Powers agreed to let Disney supervise the recording session. He engaged a conductor, Carl Edwardi, the bandleader at the Capitol Theatre; he hired the musicians; and lie handled all the details, including the price—$210 per hour for the thirty-member orchestra, plus fees for four sound-effects men and for the technicians. The first session went badly. The bass player’s low notes kept blowing tubes, and Disney himself, while doing the Mickey Mouse voice (as he was always to do), blew another when he coughed into an open mike. Worst of all, Edwardi flatly refused to key his beat to the Hashes on the screen, no doubt reasoning that a man of his reputation ought to be able to conduct, without the aid of childish prompting devices, a score consisting of “Yankee Doodle,” “Dixie,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Annie Laurie,” and “Auld Lang Syne.” After three hours and some $1,200 in costs, they still had nothing usable on the track. Powers, who had promised to pay all excess costs should Edwardi not live tip to his reputation, then declared that his offer did not include the musicians’ salaries—it was to cover only the cost of the sound equipment and the film. Disney had no choice but to wire his brother for more money. To raise it, Roy Disney sold, among other things, Walt’s Moon cabriolet, an automobile with red and green running lights, of which Walt was particularly fond. At the next session Edwardi agreed to try following the flashes on the screen and Disney cut the orchestra almost in half (dispensing with the bothersome string bass, among other instruments) and dismissed two of the sound-effects men, taking over some of their functions himself. This time, everything worked out as planned, and within days Disney was making the rounds of the New York distributors, trying to get someone to handle Steamboat Willie for him.
It was a disappointing business. In that year of the great sound crisis a man with a cartoon short subject, even one with an artful sound track on it, did not have high priority. The tendency was to stall Disney and to look at his product, if at all, only after screening more commercially promising projects. Disney re-called peeping out through projection-booth windows on the rare occasions when his work was given a showing, trying to gauge the viewers’ reactions.
At one of these screenings, a character who was even more legendary than Powers happened to be present, and it was he who sensed the possible exploitation value of Disney’s film. His name was Harry Reichenbach, and, as a press agent, he had previously promoted an utterly ordinary piece of kitsch called September Morn into a scandal of international proportions. At this time he was managing the Colony Theatre in New York, and he asked permission to book Steamboat Willie as an added attraction. Disney was hesitant, fearing that with the New York cream skimmed oft, he would have an even more difficult time persuading a national distributor to take the film. Reichenbach argued, however, that this was a special film demanding special treatment. He offered Disney a two-week run beginning September 19, 1928, and Disney talked him into paying $500 a week for the privilege.
The strategy worked. Reichenbach got the press to attend and to write stories about his added attraction, and Disney spent a good deal of time at the Colony listening to the laughter of audiences responding to the first genuinely artistic use of sound film. After the run at the Colony, Willie , moved to S. L. Rothafel’s two-year-old Roxy Theatre. Now the distributors started coming to Disney, asking him what he wanted to do and what they could do to help him. They got only part of the answer they were hoping for: yes, he did want to go on making Mickey Mouse cartoons; no, he did not want to sell them the films outright. In fact, he insisted on retaining complete control of his product. Again it appeared that he had reached an impasse.
It was Pat Powers who rescued him. He was looking for markets and promotion for his Cinephone device. More important, he sensed in the mouse a highly profitable item to distribute. In return for ten per cent of the gross, Powers offered to distribute the Mickey Mouse films through the system of independent, or “state’s-rights,” bookers. This was one of the simplest and oldest methods of film distribution.
The system had several disadvantages. The most obvious was that it took three sizable slices off the top of the gross—one each for the theatre owner, the state’s-rights man, and the national distributor—before any profit dribbled back to the original producer. Worse, the state’s-rights distributors usually did not have access to the very best theatrical outlets. Some of these were owned outright by the large production and distribution companies, and many more of them were locked into exclusive agreements with the major firms. And the final problem, with film and money changing hands so often, was that there were just that many more opportunities to cheat the original producer.
Despite all these disadvantages, Disney had no real choice if he wished to retain control of his product, and apparently Powers’ distribution offer was gratefully received by a man tired of worrying over money and deals at a moment when he sensed that he had, for the first time, a real hit. Disney’s main purpose at this point was to exploit his sudden advantage, to get more films made and before the public. He seemed to sense that it was more and better cartoons rather than large immediate returns that would ultimately establish the name of Walt Disney.
So he closed with Powers and got to work while still in New York on the creation of scores for his two unreleased silent Mickey Mouse films, Plane Crazy and Gallopin’ Gaucho , as well as for a brand-new vehicle for the mouse, The Opry House . Again he turned to his native Kansas City for talent he could rely on—a faithful theatre organist who had previously lent him money was brought east to score the films. By the time he left New York early in 1929, Disney had a package of four films ready for release. When these went into national distribution, their cumulative impact was simply tremendous; so great, in fact, that Disney was emboldened to attempt an animated short without Mickey or Minnie.
That picture was The Skeleton Dance , the first in the famous series of Silly Symphonies. However primitive it may seem to a modern audience, it then represented an extremely important advance for the animated cartoon. In The Opry House , Disney had already moved musically beyond “Yankee Doodle”; in that cartoon, Mickey and company cavort to a Rachmaninoff prelude. Now he decided to animate Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (with a few bars of some other serious music—notably “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite—thrown in). Obviously this was not suitable music for Mickey and his gang, whose activities were firmly located against an American small-town and country background. So Disney had to break with the most firmly held of all the conventions of animation—using animals as the principal characters.
It is difficult to say just what cultural influence was driving Disney at this time. Although he had studied the violin briefly as a boy, he had no real musical knowledge nor, indeed, standards. This is obvious from his cheerful chopping and bowdlerizing of music, not only in The Skeleton Dance but in all of his later work, not excluding his mightiest effort at uplift, Fantasia . (Indeed, when he was working on Fantasia he so felt his lack of musical training that he subscribed to a box at the Hollywood Bowl concerts, where, he recalled to a co-worker, he invariably fell asleep, lulled by the music and the warmth of the polo coat he liked to wrap around himself in those days.) One suspects that Disney’s desire to bring serious music into an area where it had not previously penetrated was based on several considerations. First was his commercially intelligent desire to differentiate his work from that of less adventurous competitors. Then there was the technical challenge that complex music presented to the animator. As early as 1925 he had made a short in which a cartoon character seemed to conduct a theatre’s live orchestra from the screen. He had also toyed with the notion of supplying musical cue sheets to theatre musicians so his silent shorts could be properly accompanied. In addition, there was, perhaps, his vaguely defined yet keenly felt yearning for “the finer things.” His father, as Disney once said, “would go for anything that was educational,” and Disney himself proved throughout his career that he was chipped off much the same block (though his ideas of what was educational were often eccentric). Finally, there was his own shrewd sense that sound—as he felt it could be used—was the basis of his new success.
To understand this point, one must take a closer look at Mickey Mouse. There is no more useful tool for this purpose than the print of the silent version of Plane Crazy owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The film is not a bad piece of animation when judged by the standards of its time. Particularly in the anthropomorphizing of inaminate objects, like the airplane in which Mickey takes Minnie up for a ride, it is quite good. That machine, like others that followed it, actually registers emotions—it strains forward in anticipation of action and cowers when it sees obstacles looming ahead. The construction of the story, too, is superior to that found in most competing cartoons. It is, like most silent comedies, live or animated, nothing more nor less than a string of physically perilous disasters, each more absurd and more dangerous than the last but all stemming from a perfectly reasonable premise—the natural desire of a young swain to prove his masculine prowess by taking his girl friend for a ride in an airplane that he has designed and constructed. When, at the end, the mice extricate themselves from their assorted perils (Minnie parachutes to safety with a great display of patched bloomers; Mickey successfully makes a forced landing), it is clear to the viewer that he has seen a work of talent and intelligence, however crude.
One also observes that Disney and his people made shrewd use of satire by giving Mickey’s hair a Lindberghian ruffle when he stands in his plane taking bows for his achievements. One is impressed, too, by the fact that, faced with the need to create an original cartoon, Disney had the wit to draw upon his own experience for subject matter. His recollections of the mice in his Kansas City workshop inspired the main character, his rural boyhood supplied the barnyard setting for background, and his understanding of the typically American urge to tinker and invent provided the film’s psychological motivation.
But having observed all this, one is still bound to conclude that the mouse, as originally conceived and as silently presented, was a very shaky basis for the empire that was to come. As Time observed in 1954 in a biographical sketch of Mickey, “he was a skinny little squeaker with matchstick legs, shoe button eyes and a long pointy nose. His teeth were sharp and fierce when he laughed, more like a real mouse’s than they are today… .” His disposition matched his appearance. He was quick and cocky and cruel, at best a fresh and bratty kid, at worst a diminutive and sadistic monster—like most of the other inhabitants of that primitive theatre of cruelty that was the animated cartoon. Five minutes with the mouse, however diverting, were quite enough. His amazing—indeed, impossible —voyagings in various guises were often amusing enough in their broad conception and they supported some excellent comic situations, but the truth is that at the outset it was the witty, constantly surprising use of sound to punctuate the stories, and the technical genius of the animation, that brought the best laughs.
This is nowhere more obvious than in Steamboat Willie . In it the mouse has, if anything, regressed as a character; he represents nothing more than the spirit of pure, amoral, very boyish mischief. Employed as an assistant to the villainous Peg-Leg Pete, he takes it upon himself to rescue Minnie, who appears to be the riverboat’s sole passenger, from Pete’s lustful advances. In the course of the ensuing chase, the mice find themselves among a group of domestic animals housed in the boat’s hold. A goat nibbles some sheet music, Minnie cranks his tail as if it were the handle of a street organ, and out of his mouth comes “Turkey in the Straw.” There then pours forth a formidable concert—in which a cow’s teeth are played as if they were a xylophone, a nursing sow is converted into a bagpipe, and so on—in a marvelously inventive and rapidly paced medley. The gags are not very subtle ones and, indeed, there is something a little shocking about the ferocity with which Mickey squeezes, bangs, twists, and tweaks the anatomy of the assembled creatures in his mania for music. But even today the effect of the sequence is catchy; in 1928 it must have been truly stunning.
What Disney had understood was that sound was not merely an addition to the movies but a force that would fundamentally transform them. He became the first movie maker to fuse sight and sound successfully, making them absolutely “co-expressible,” as one critic explained it, with neither dominant or carrying more than its fair share of the film’s weight. The concert in Steamboat Willie presages those intricate animation sequences that were to be the high points of his studio’s work in years to come—a rendition of the William Tell overture continuing aloft in a twister in the Mickey Mouse short The Band Concert (1935), the housecleaning sequence in Snow White , the ballet of the hippopotamuses (to “The Dance of the Hours”) in Fantasia . All are infinitely more sophisticated than Mickey’s musical interlude in Willie , but their basic appeal is the same: to ear and eye, “they come out right.” It would be preposterous to assume that Disney knew consciously where he was going in Steamboat Willie . He, too, simply liked things to come out right. But he knew better than his distributors did where the appeal of his films lay. They were convinced that Mickey Mouse was, like other leading cartoon characters, an exploitable personality, a “star” of a sort. Disney realized that it was technique, not personality, that drew the audiences.
Even though within a few months Mickey Mouse cartoons were getting billing on marquees, an almost unprecedented commercial tribute for a short subject, Disney was determined not to be trapped by his own mouse. By May of 1929—with the Mickey series barely under way—he had The Skeleton Dance ready for release. He sent the print off to Powers, who rejected it, telling Disney to stick to mice. He then took it to a friend who ran one of the theatres in the United Artists Los Angeles chain and got him to show The Skeleton Dance to a morning audience. One of the man’s assistants sat with Disney during the screening and, when it was over, told him he could not possibly recommend it for regular showings, despite the fact that most of the customers liked it, because it was simply too gruesome. Still Disney pressed on. Tracking down a film salesman in a pool hall, he wangled a showing of his cartoon at the Carthay Circle Theatre, one of the most prestigious houses in Los Angeles. It was a hit and collected an excellent set of notices. Back the film went to Powers, this time with its West Coast reviews and the advice to get it seen by “Roxy” Rothafel. The famous showman liked it, put it into the Roxy Theatre, and found himself with such a successful short on his hands that he held it over through several changes of feature.
The Skeleton Dance has no story and no characters at all. It is set in a graveyard in the smallest hours of the night, when the skeletons emerge from their graves and vaults, dance together for a few minutes, and then, with the coming of dawn, climb back into their resting places. It is such an innocently conceived movie that it is hard to imagine its frightening anyone. Yet its grotesque quality must have seemed remarkably advanced to audiences that had seldom seen such sophisticated iconography at the movies.
Its dividends for Disney were not to be counted merely in box-office terms. Indeed, after a year of work and the completion of twenty-one films, Disney had little to show for his efforts economically. What The Skeleton Dance did was provide diversity, forming the basis for a series of films in which, free of the artistic conventions and story lines imposed on him by Mickey and his “gang,” he could experiment with techniques. He even had one or two large financial successes with the Silly Symphonies, though at first his distributors insisted on a very strange billing: “Mickey Mouse Presents a Walt Disney Silly Symphony.”
Meantime, it was becoming clear to Disney that his deal with Powers was not working out. Throughout this year of extraordinarily hard labor, he and his brother had been unable to get a full financial report from their man in New York. Instead, he would send them checks for three or four thousand dollars, which was enough to keep going but nothing like what the Disneys felt they should be getting for their widely acclaimed Mickey series. Even more disturbing was the rumor that Powers was trying to make off with Ub Iwerks. Powers had been led to believe, not totally erroneously, that Iwerks was the real talent at the Disney studio. If he could be lured away and set up in his own shop, Powers hoped he might find himself in much the position Disney was now in—a producer with a possibly unlimited future. In any case, Powers planned to use the threat of hiring Iwerks as a way of bringing Disney to satisfactory terms on a new contract. Disney and his wife again entrained for New York, this time taking a lawyer. In Powers they found a man who had outsmarted himself. He had not counted on the mouse’s great success. Planning Disney’s creation as no more than a loss leader in the promotion of his sound system, Powers had neglected to make a tight contract with Disney; it ran for only one year, with no renewal option. From the moment Powers realized that Mickey Mouse was far more valuable than his Cinephone, he had been trying, legally or extralegally, to bind Disney to him.
Now Powers’ strategy became clear. He greeted Disney by showing him a telegram from his Los Angeles representative indicating that Iwerks had just signed a contract with Powers to produce a cartoon series of his own. He also refused to let Disney examine his books to determine what money was due him, unless he agreed to a new contract. Of course, Powers informed him coolly, he was free to undertake a costly, time-consuming court fight for a fair accounting. On the other hand, Powers assured the young producer that he did not wish to appear unreasonable. If Disney agreed to sign the new contract, not only would he receive the sums due him for his last year’s labor, but Powers would tear up his new contract with Iwerks and agree to pay Disney $2,500 a week in the future. Disney asked for a little time to think things over, and he later recalled that it was not until he was walking back to his hotel that the full magnitude of the $2,500-a-week offer struck him. It was more money than anyone had ever mentioned to him before, and he remembered muttering the figure aloud, to the wonderment of various passersby. The impressiveness of the sum was undoubtedly a mistake on the part of Powers, as indeed was his whole shabby strategy, since it was based on a fundamental misreading of his man. The $2,500 figure had the effect of confirming Disney’s own estimation of the value of what he was doing. It also indicated to him that he was not without bargaining strength himself.
Before he left home his brother had told him that he must obtain an immediate cash advance from Powers in order to keep the studio operating, and so, when he returned to the distributor for further discussions, he casually mentioned the need for cash. Anxious to indicate his good will, Powers drew a check for $5,000, and Disney stalled him until it cleared. Then he promptly broke off the negotiations. He made no attempt to retain Iwerks, who, with Powers’ backing, set up his own shop and, for a while, produced a series called Flip the Frog . It did not catch on, perhaps because Iwerks lacked the one talent everyone who ever worked for Disney agrees that Walt had in abundance—that of story editor. He certainly lacked .the Disney brothers’ ability to control costs and to cope with the fast-talking financial world beyond the studio door. Within a few years Iwerks was hack at work for Disney, where he has remained ever since—on a business-only basis. Witnesses report that Disney carefully looked the other way when passing Iwerks on the lot or, at best, spoke to him in monosyllables. Iwerks’ mechanical genius was of enormous value to Disney, but his moment of disloyalty was never forgotten.
After extricating himself from Powers, Disney had to find a new distributor. The man he finally settled with was Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures. This time Disney had no trouble striking a bargain that allowed him to retain the ownership of his films and the independence of his studio. The trouble was that his drive for an improved product continued to push costs up. At the time he signed with Columbia, a Disney short cost $5,400 to produce. By late 1931 he was spending $13,500 on each little film and doing no better than breaking even on them. Each cartoon barely paid for the next one. Worried about costs but always a perfectionist, Disney was driving himself relentlessly in the time-honored tradition of the American success ethic. He recalled later that he often took his wife out for dinner, then suggested dropping in to the studio to do a few minutes’ work. She would stretch out on a couch in his office and fall asleep, and he would plunge on at his job, losing track of time until he glanced at his watch and found that it was after one o’clock in the morning. When he woke his wife and she asked what time it was, he would tell her it was only ten thirty. He claimed she never discovered the truth.
Also at about this time the problems presented by Mickey’s character became extremely frustrating. The mouse more or less fitted the description of him written in 1934 by no less a literary figure than E. M. Forster, who found Mickey “energetic without being elevated” and added that “no one has ever been softened after seeing Mickey or has wanted to give away an extra glass of water to the poor. He is never sentimental, indeed there is a scandalous element in him which I find most restful.” The trouble was that some people were scandalized rather than refreshed by Mickey’s style, and the popularity he did attain, as the critic Gilbert Seldes said in 1932, had “some of the elements of a fad, where it joins the kewpie and the Teddy Bear.” To have started a fad was obviously not good enough for Disney. Mickey had to become both more verbal and somewhat softer in manner if he was to be a symbol that could outlast the shifts of fashion.
Although he recognized the necessity for the change, transforming Mickey’s character seemed to disturb Disney almost as if it were his own personality that was being tampered with. It also presented him with purely aesthetic decisions that were painful. Likable as Mickey was becoming, his new sweet self was as difficult to build a cartoon around as his old sharp self had been. He was still not funny in and of himself— he was merely unfunny in a different, though perhaps more generally appealing, way. (This humorlessness, as well as his naïveté and his enthusiasm for projects, were perhaps traits the mouse inherited from Disney, who insisted that he had a sense of humor and scorned anyone who lacked one, but who was never known to have uttered a genuinely funny remark in his life.)
Disney apparently saw as early as 1931 that Mickey was simply not very adaptable. As he later said, he was “trapped with the mouse … stuck-with the character.” Mickey “couldn’t do certain things—they would be out of character. And Mickey was on a pedestal—I would get letters if he did something wrong. I got worried about relying on a character like the mouse—you wear it out, you run dry.” The answer for him was diversification. “We got Pluto and the duck. The duck could blow his top. Then I tied Pluto and Donald together. The stupid things Pluto would do, along with the duck, gave us an outlet for our gags.”
The process of developing new characters, however, was slow. As of 1931, Disney had in addition to Mickey and Minnie only the villainous Peg-Leg Pete and a couple of rubber-limb-and-circle combinations known as Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar, who were serviceable but not memorable. It is true that a Plutotype dog had appeared as one of a pair of bloodhounds chasing Mickey in The Chain Gang in 1930, and that the same dog had appeared again with the mouse in The Picnic . He was known as Rover in that picture, however, and his useful presence was not apparent until late in 1931 when he acquired his appealing name and the beginnings of his marvelously eager, innocent, and therefore troublemaking identity. The duck did not arrive until 1934, when he had one line of dialogue (“Who—me? Oh, no! I got a bellyache!”) in The Wise Little Hen . His genesis is interesting, however. It seems that Disney heard an obscure entertainer named Clarence Nash on a local radio show reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as a girl duck. He discovered Nash was employed by a local dairy to put on shows for schools, hired him away, and then tried to create a character to match his duck voice. It was not until some unsung genius changed the duck’s sex and temperament that Nash found his métier. He has been the voice of Donald Duck ever since. The other members of the stable (or “gang,” as Disney people preferred to call it)—Chip and Dale, the team of comic chipmunks; Daisy Duck, Donald’s inamorata; and Donald’s nephews Huey, Louie, and Dewey—all came along several years after the duck.
Altogether this diversification of characters—the creation of new stars, one might call it—required most of a decade and was not therefore the immediate answer to Disney’s problems. Nor did his stylistic innovations bring money rolling in. He clung steadfastly to the Silly Symphony series. About half of these were original material, and the other half were based on traditional folk tales, with a heavy reliance on Aesop. But until The Three Little Pigs became his biggest short-subject success in 1933–34, the series did not make a large, direct contribution to his financial progress. If anything, it was a drain.
A temporary solution to the problem of keeping Mickey fresh and amusing was to move him out of the sticks and into cosmopolitan environments and roles. The locales of his adventures throughout the nineteen thirties ranged from the South Seas to the Alps to the deserts of Africa. He was at various times a gaucho, teamster, explorer, swimmer, cowboy, fireman, convict, pioneer, taxi driver, castaway, fisherman, cyclist, Arab, football player, inventor, jockey, storekeeper, camper, sailor, Gulliver, boxer, exterminator, skater, polo player, circus performer, plumber, chemist, magician, hunter, detective, clock cleaner, Hawaiian, carpenter, driver, trapper, whaler, tailor, and Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In short, he was Everyman and the Renaissance Man combined. As Forster said, “Mickey’s great moments are moments of heroism, and when he carries Minnie out of the harem as a pot-plant or rescues her as she falls in foam … he reaches heights impossible for the entrepreneur.”
Unfortunately, it was as an entrepreneur that the mouse finally found his most viable identity. By the mid-thirties he appeared more and more frequently as the manager and organizer of various events—and his “gang” more and more frequently carried the whole comic load. One cannot help but suspect that this was a reflection of Disney’s strong identification with the mouse. By then Disney himself was occupied principally as the manager, organizer, and co-ordinator of an organization that had grown from a handful of people to a complex of some 750 employees by 1937, when Snow White was in full production. The mouse was by this time rounder, sleeker, and far more human in appearance. And, like his creator, he was also more sober, sensible, and suburban in outlook—a better organized mouse. In fact, Mickey had grown up.