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It all began with a rabbit: Celebrating Mickey Mouse’s 88th birthday

Today is Mickey Mouse’s 88th birthday. So we’re celebrating the man mouse who’s better known than Santa Claus!

brunch Updated: May 15, 2016 12:59 IST
Walt Disney,Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,Mickey
Today is Mickey Mouse’s 88th birthday. So we’re celebrating the man mouse who’s better known than Santa Claus!

It all began with a rabbit: In 1927, Walt Disney created a character for Universal Studios called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But after a dispute, he branched out, and along with his most loyal animator Ubbe Iwerks (who did all the drawings) turned the rabbit into a mouse.

A mouse called Mortimer: But apparently, Mrs Disney hated the name and suggested he be called Mickey.

How Mickey became a mouse: Walt grew up on a farm and so animals showed up frequently in his works. There are several stories about what inspired him: a mouse that would creep into the offices where he worked in Kansas City, and which he fed crumbs to; the Disneys were on a train and the whistle sounded like ‘maowww-a-mouse’.

The beginning: The first two Mickey Mouse shorts – Plane Crazy (it was screened to an audience on May 15, 1928)and The Gallopin’ Gaucho – couldn’t find distributors at first. Then, Disney, inspired by the musical film The Jazz Singer, updated his mouse: Steamboat Willie hit the screens on November 18, 1928 – with synchronised music and sound effects. Everybody loved it. “It is an ingenious piece of work with a good deal of fun,’’ said The New York Times. “It growls, whines, squeaks and makes various other sounds that add to its mirthful quality.’’ Mickey became the first non-human to win an Oscar.

He had swag: He was skinny, had a long face, a curling tail. “He started out as a sadistic, ratlike, sexist pig…,” according to animation historian John Canemaker, “He was despicable.” During the Roaring Twenties – the time of The Great Gatsby life – this rogue-like mouse was a hero.

The makeover: But the Great Depression of the Thirties changed things. Americans were looking for a new kind of star: humble and nice, someone who would take on life’s great challenges. So in 1935, Mickey was given a pear-shaped body, pupils, white gloves and a smaller, cuter nose. His features were now rounder and so were his shoes, he wore white gloves. He was no longer rat-like, but lovable.

He was loved ’round the world: In France as Michel Souris; in Italy, Topolino; in Japan, Miki Kuchi; in Spain, Miguel Ratoncito; in Latin America, El Raton Miguelito; in Sweden, Muse Pigg, and in Russia, Mikki Maus.

During World War 2, the password of the Allied Supreme Headquarters in Europe was Mickey Mouse.

Not everybody liked him: Least of all the Nazis. A German newspaper excerpt from the time: “Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed… The greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom cannot be the ideal type of animal… Away with Jewish brutalisation of the people! Down with Mickey Mouse! Wear the Swastika Cross!”

Early retirement: At 25, Mickey Mouse went on a break for three decades: he didn’t appear between the 1953 cartoon short, The Simple Things, and the 1983 Mickey’s Christmas Carol. But this is the time he was busy doing other things: selling merchandise by the millions.

Why Mickey’s still the same: In the beginning, the idea was to make him stay current – but then after the Second World War, Walt Disney didn’t allow any changes: because by now, according to a biography on (and titled) Disney’s World, Disney is described as “having walked, talked and even eaten like his prized mouse for long periods of time.” By the late 1940s, “Mickey Mouse had become a son, an alter ego and a good luck charm to Walt Disney. The mouse would not be allowed to change even if it killed his acting career” – according to the book A Mickey Mouse Reader. But Mickey was meant for greater things: even 50 years after Walt’s death, he continues to be the face of Disney.

So are you YouTubeing good ol’ Mickey Mouse?

*Walt Disney often said – and this is very inspiring – “I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.”

From HT Brunch, May 15, 2016

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First Published: May 14, 2016 19:13 IST