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The Very First Mickey Mouse Cartoon

By Shelly Schwartz, Contributing History Writer

Animator Walt Disney with Mickey Mouse.

American animator and producer Walt Disney with one of his creations, Mickey Mouse. (1935)

(Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
In April 1928, cartoonist/animator Walt Disney had just had his heart broken when his distributor stole his popular character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, from him. On the long, depressing train ride home from getting this news, Disney drew a new character -- a mouse with round ears and a big smile. A few months later, the new, talking Mickey Mouse was first shown to the world in the cartoon Steamboat Willie. Since that first appearance, Mickey Mouse has become the most recognizable cartoon character in the world.

It All Started With an Unlucky Rabbit

During the silent film era of the 1920s, Charles Mintz, Walt Disney’s cartoon distributor, asked Disney to come up with a cartoon that would rival the popular Felix the Cat cartoon series that played before silent motion pictures in movie theaters. Mintz came up with the name “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” and Disney created the mischievous black and white character with straight, long ears.

Disney and his artist employee Ubbe Iwerks made 26 Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons in 1927. With the series now a hit, costs rose increasingly higher as Disney wanted to make the cartoons better. Disney and his wife, Lillian, took a train trip to New York in 1928 to renegotiate a higher budget from Mintz. Mintz, however, informed Disney that he owned the character and that he had lured most of Disney’s animators to come draw for him.

Learning a depressing lesson, Disney boarded the train back to California. On the long trip home, Disney sketched a black and white mouse character with big round ears and a long skinny tail and named him Mortimer Mouse. Lillian suggested the livelier name of Mickey Mouse.

As soon as he reached Los Angeles, Disney immediately copyrighted Mickey Mouse (as he would all the characters he would later create). Disney and his loyal artist employee, Ubbe Iwerks, created new cartoons with Mickey Mouse as the adventurous star, including Plane Crazy (1928) and The Gallopin’ Gaucho (1928). But Disney had trouble finding a distributor.

First Sound Cartoon

When sound became the latest in film technology in 1928, Walt Disney researched several New York film companies in the hopes of recording his cartoons with sound to make them stand out. He struck a deal with Pat Powers of Powers Cinephone System, a company that offered the novelty of sound with film. While Powers added sound effects and music to the cartoon, Walt Disney was the voice of Mickey Mouse.

Pat Powers became Disney’s distributor and on November 18, 1928, Steamboat Willie (the world’s first sound cartoon) opened at the Colony Theater in New York. Disney himself did all the character voices in the seven-minute-long film. Receiving rave reviews, audiences everywhere adored Mickey Mouse along with his girlfriend Minnie Mouse, who also made her first appearance in Steamboat Willie. (By the way, November 18, 1928 is considered the official birthday of Mickey Mouse.)

The first two cartoons, Plane Crazy (1928) and The Gallopin’Gaucho (1928), were then released with sound, with more cartoons on the way with additional characters, including Donald Duck, Pluto, and Goofy.

On January 13, 1930, the first Mickey Mouse comic strip appeared in newspapers around the country.

Mickey Mouse Legacy

While Mickey Mouse gained the popularity of fan clubs, toys, and worldwide fame, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit faded into obscurity after 1943.

As the Walt Disney Company grew over the decades into a mega-entertainment empire, including feature-length motion pictures, television stations, resorts and theme parks, Mickey Mouse remains the icon of the company as well as the most recognizable trademark in the world.

In 2006, the Walt Disney Company acquired the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

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