How secrecy and betrayal led to the creation of Mickey Mouse

How secrecy and betrayal led to the creation of Mickey Mouse

After Walt Disney’s friends betrayed him, he scrambled to stave off bankruptcy with a mouse cartoon that’s now in the public domain.



In May 1928, at a movie theater on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, the crowd was treated to an unannounced preview of a new silent cartoon from a local studio. The viewers had no idea they were witnessing the birth of a global phenomenon.

The single reel started to roll, and the screen flickered. The organist began to play. A dark screen appeared with the title “Plane Crazy” in white letters. The audience met a black mouse as he attempted to become an aviator.

A young man named Walt Disney nervously watched their reaction.

This preview, on May 15 (or possibly a bit earlier, according to Disney historian J.B. Kaufman), marked the beginning of Mickey Mouse — and the end of a frantic two months of betrayal and secrecy while Walt struggled to save his company.


‘Everybody was conspiring’

In 1927, the Walt Disney Studio was surrounded by scrub and scraggly hills in a quiet area about four miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Walt was the relentless creative force, and his brother Roy was the widely respected finance whiz. Walt’s close friend, Ub Iwerks, was his lead animator. They had a long history stretching back to Kansas City, Mo., where they first learned the business together.

“Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” — Disney’s new series created for Universal Studios — was becoming a hit across the country. Oswald was controlled by Disney’s longtime distributor in New York, Charles Mintz, with whom Walt had a prickly relationship. Walt didn’t know Mintz had betrayed him, with the help of his good friends.

In mid-1927, Mintz’s brother-in-law, George Winkler, who managed his operations in Los Angeles, started lingering longer at the Disney studio. He was arranging clandestine meetings with Walt’s animators and planning to launch a rival studio to assume production of Oswald.

Mintz and Winkler targeted Hugh Harman, a young Disney animator who had worked with Walt back in Kansas City but had grown tired of his overbearing pressure. Harman jumped at the opportunity to take Oswald away from Walt. Unbeknownst to all of them, Harman also had his own secret shop and was developing a new character.

As the year came to an end, more animators were recruited to join Harman, and they were close to officially signing with Mintz to keep creating Oswald cartoons. One animator said it was an era when “everybody was conspiring against the other one.”

In February 1928, Walt and his wife, Lillian, took a “second honeymoon” via train to New York, where he was scheduled to meet with Mintz to negotiate a new annual distribution contract for Oswald. Walt wanted to increase his fee from $2,250 to $2,500 per cartoon. But weeks of negotiations went nowhere — and he learned he was on the verge of losing much of his studio to Mintz.

Thinking quickly, Walt asked Roy via an urgent telegram to sign their animators to binding contracts, but most refused. Walt knew it meant “only one thing — they are hooked up with Charlie.” After several futile attempts to bypass Mintz or interest another studio in New York, Walt admitted defeat. Oswald was gone, along with most of his animators.


A frantic scramble

Back home in Los Angeles, Walt and Roy still had to work with the defecting animators to complete the last remaining Oswald cartoons by May. Money was running out, and they had nothing lined up to replace Oswald.

But Walt still had Iwerks. Together, they started developing a secret new animal character. Mice were a familiar sight in cartoons of the period, including the Disney shorts. Walt’s initial mouse concept was too wiry, and Iwerks changed it to a more pleasing round shape.

At first, they named it Mortimer Mouse, but Lillian vetoed the name, so they chose Mickey Mouse instead. Walt infused him with a bit of Charlie Chaplin, while Iwerks added the charm of the silent film star Douglas Fairbanks. Borrowing from a previous Oswald short, “The Ocean Hop,” they quickly created a rudimentary plot based around aviator hero Charles Lindbergh.

At the studio, Iwerks hid from the other animators — either in a locked room, according to Iwerks; or behind a black curtain, according to Harman — and animated the entire cartoon nearly by himself in mere weeks. Iwerks was already known for his speed and skill, but for “Plane Crazy,” he drew an incredible 700 frames a day, which he claimed broke a record held by a prolific New York animator. The average animator was lucky to get a couple hundred on a good day.

Starting in mid-April, Walt and Roy snuck Iwerks’s drawings to Walt’s nearby house, which had become a shadow studio. In the garage below the living room, Lillian — who had formerly worked as an inker for the studio — enlisted Roy’s wife and two or three other women to ink and paint Iwerks’s work.

“We worked night and day” to keep up, Lillian remembered, and “had a major budget crisis one night when I tripped on the garage stairs and ruined my last pair of silk stockings.” The women kept inking and painting at the kitchen table and “ate stews and pot roasts, which luckily were cheap,” Lillian said. Roy helped wherever he was needed, and Walt crept back to the studio at night and had the finished cels photographed.

The completed “Plane Crazy” short showed an unrefined Mickey harassing Minnie before ultimately crashing his plane. It concluded with an innovative shot that showed the view from the cockpit of Mickey’s airplane as it spiraled to the ground.

In a 1973 interview, Wilfred Jackson, a longtime Disney animator and director who was hired by Walt during the “Plane Crazy” production, said the shot “took days and days and days.” According to Jackson, they put a painting of the ground on a bed, then put shims under the bed “and raised it up a fraction of an inch, and shot another frame, and turned it just a little bit” and repeated, causing the painting to move closer to the camera as it rotated.

When they saw the finished scene, “we almost wore the film out,” Jackson said, “admiring what we had done.” It was a reminder of the talent still on display at Walt Disney Studio.

At the premiere of “Plane Crazy,” the “reception was good, though not overwhelming,” wrote Bob Thomas in “Walt Disney: An American Original.” After creating a second Mickey cartoon, “Gallopin’ Gaucho,” Walt simply couldn’t get anyone interested in distributing them.

With bankruptcy looming, Walt headed back to New York in the fall to try something else: adding sound to Mickey’s third cartoon, “Steamboat Willie.” After “Steamboat Willie” swept the country, Walt converted his first two Mickey cartoons into sound versions in 1929.

Along with “Steamboat Willie,” the silent versions of “Plane Crazy” and “Gallopin’ Gaucho” entered the public domain this year, meaning they can be shared by anyone on any platform and all audiences can now see the cartoon that first captivated viewers 96 years ago this month. The sound versions will join the public domain next year.


(Originally published by The Washington Post and edited by Aaron Wiener.)

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