Зоя Никитюк
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100-YEAR-OLD MICKEY MOUSE: Lessons learned in time of war

100-YEAR-OLD MICKEY MOUSE: Lessons learned in time of war
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Walt Disney surrounded by Mickey Mouse dolls. Photo by Caitlin Moneypenny-Johnston


The life of Walt Disney is an example of the realization of a great dream in the face of turmoil. The First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, difficult years of childlessness, and work on the verge of bankruptcy. Disney did not break down but convinced himself and others to believe in the best, no matter how sad his heart was. The centuries of popularity of his favorite Mickey Mouse proves that the animation legend was correct.




If you look at Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from the Universal Studios cartoon, he seems too much like Mickey Mouse. And this is a small creative revenge of Walt Disney to the distributor Charles Mintz.

In the late 1920s, the Happy Rabbit became a favorite of moviegoers and the cartoonist had been working on it for about a year, and he went to New York to ask Mintz for more creative freedom and more money.

However, upon arrival, he discovered that Mintz had hired his own animators and was preparing to produce the project himself. Disney offered to continue working for much less money. The 27-year-old man was incredibly disappointed.

Ahead of him was a trip from Manhattan to Hollywood. His beloved Lillian, whom he had married at the age of 24, was by his side. Walt was thinking about a new cartoon character that would save The Walt Disney Company from bankruptcy. It was on that trip that he remembered a mouse that had come to mind earlier, but he hadn’t had a chance to bring it to life.

Disney wanted to name the mouse Mortimer. But his wife rejected the name and suggested Mickey. Later, the animator would say: «I owe a lot to Charlie Chaplin for this idea — a little mouse with a lot of the actor’s thoughtfulness in it». By the way, the plasticity and movements of Mouse were taken from the silent movie star.




On the thin animation paper of 1928, Mickey is depicted with his beloved Minnie. This couple managed to make people fall in love off-screen. For example, in the 70s, Wayne Allwine voiced Mickey for three decades. In the nineties, the man got married and lived with Russi Taylor, the voice of Minnie, until his death. However, the couple Mickey and Minnie took a lot from Walt and Lillian.

According to his daughters, at first sight, Disney fell in love with his future wife, a secretary at the Walt Disney Studios. Before meeting Lillian, he promised himself that he would not marry until his 25th birthday and until he earned 10 thousand dollars. He missed his 25th birthday by a few months and married in July 1925.

For eight years, the couple had no children, suffered two miscarriages, and finally gave birth to a daughter in 1933. A few years later, the couple adopted Sharon. Walt said, «To succeed, it’s important to have someone you want to do it for. The most important moments in life are not about selfish achievements, but about what we do for the people we love».

Lillian understood Walt’s many hours of daily work. Before the children came along, she often fell asleep on the couch in his office while her husband was inventing the next character. When she would wake up and ask him for the time, he would be cunning. He invariably answered that it was half past eleven, although it could have been two in the morning. When the children came along, Walt often played the role of a sleepy Lillian. The family museum has a lovely photo from 1937, where the cartoonist is exhausted, and his daughters are not even going to sleep.

He found time to take the girls to school every day until they grew up. And he never missed a weekend, which he considered Dad’s Days. The animator even came up with his epic Disneyland for the sake of his daughters — he wanted to create a fabulous place where both children and adults would be interested. Of course, there are many images of Mickey Mouse in this amusement park. And at the entrance to Disneyland, there is a monument to Walt Disney with Mickey, the hero who saved the studio from bankruptcy and made us take a fresh look at animation.


Волт і Ліллі Дісней на борту «Рекса». Автор фото: Кейтлін Маніпенні-Джонстон
Walt and Lilly Disney are on board the Rex. Photo by Caitlin Moneypenny-Johnston




In 1928, Walt Disney invested all of the studio’s funds in the animated film «Steamboat Willie», which was the third project featuring Mickey Mouse. The first two didn’t work out, but the animator didn’t stop. He decided to achieve synchronization between the music and the movements on the screen and found a distributor who agreed to show the result of his work on the screen.

In the era of silent movies, this effect fascinated the audience, and they stormed the theaters. Disney wasted no time in making changes to the two previous cartoons. «Steamboat Willie» went down in history as the first sound movie by the Disney studio. By the way, here Mickey does not yet have traditional white gloves, pupils and four fingers.

Later, the gloves will be added for contrast, and thanks to the absence of the fifth finger, the studio will be able to save money and time. After all, a few-minute movie required 45 thousand drawings! Fewer movements and details mean fewer drawings.

The Mouse became a kind of salvation during the Great Depression. Adults and children alike could, at least for a while, escape from the present, which was hanging over them like a black cloud. During the economic crisis, the animator came up with «The Mickey Mouse Club». Fans of the cartoon gathered in movie theaters, watched short films, and participated in amateur performances.

A few years later, such clubs united more than a million children. In the mid-50s, the club turned into a television program of the same name, thanks to which Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake (who fell in love with each other here), Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, and others began their careers.

Twelve years later, Disney surprised the audience again. The feature-length animated film «Fantasia» was released. Walt took a risk and used stereo sound and classical music was created with the participation of an orchestra. Here, Mickey plays the role of a magician, and it is this cute image that is most famous in the world.


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Walt Disney could hardly have guessed that in times of total unemployment, it was his cartoon mouse that could save many people from poverty. There are several illustrative stories in the studio’s history. Lionel Trains, a manufacturer of toy railroads, had to expand production after the launch of the Mickey the Railroader series, even though many companies around it were slowing down. The factory that made Mouse sweatshirts couldn’t cope with the volume either. To encourage employees, they were provided with three free meals a day.

In 1933, the Ingersoll-Waterbury Clock Company was on the verge of bankruptcy. But a contract for the production of Mickey Mouse watches a few weeks after the start of sales forced the company to increase the number of employees — from three hundred to three thousand! On the very first day of release, a record 11 thousand copies of the Mouse clock were sold in the New York Macy’s store!

A year later, the studio came up with a way to support parents who hadn’t recovered from the Great Depression and still couldn’t afford toys for their children. The General Foods cereal boxes had Mickey’s picture on them. Children would cut him out and build their own collection.




Walt Disney’s long-term partner was his older brother Roy, who was responsible for the financial component of the studio. Roy called Walt «a genius — a creative man with great determination, a single purpose and ambition». When Walt died, Roy oversaw the completion of the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando and died of a stroke two months after the final opening.

Another vital person for Disney was Herman Kamen, a marketing genius. His goal was to have Mickey Mouse in every American home. In 1932, the businessman signed a contract with Disney with a profit split in half. It didn’t take long for Kamen to realize his dream. Very soon, the legendary mouse was everywhere: napkins, wallpaper, books, gramophones, clothes, accessories, toys. There is even an archive photo of a child’s gas mask in the shape of Mickey Mouse. It was believed that during a possible gas attack, this type of protection would reduce children’s fear.

The money made from Mickey Mouse mania made it possible to realize an idea that critics considered abnormal and risky. Walt Disney spent one and a half million dollars, an incredible amount for the time, to create «Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs». It was the first full-length animated film, and it is now included in the list of the 100 greatest American films, according to the American Film Institute.




«Walt Disney in a barracks behind a wooden board». This is the caption of a photo in the cartoonist’s family museum. This illustration is very inspiring, as it shows that even while volunteering in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps during World War I, Walt found time for his favorite pastime.

He didn’t put it off until after the war was over; he got to work today. Such an all-encompassing love for a dream allowed him to make history, win a record number of Oscars (26), and create characters that live on for decades.

The most famous of them is a 60-centimeter-tall mouse weighing ten and a half kilograms, who became the first cartoon character to have his own star on the Walk of Fame. After all, this incredible cartoon empire was started by this little mouse.


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