I began this journey through the wonderful world of Disney, I struggled with where I should start. It would be incredibly easy to jump into the instant classics I had grown up with or go straight for the many park attractions. But looking at my MagicBand, the place to start became pretty obvious: Mickey Mouse.
It doesn’t take much of a Google search to discover Steamboat Willie as the debut of the world’s most famous mouse. However, that short was not the first to be produced featuring Mickey Mouse. Nor the second. In fact, Steamboat Willie was the third short produced with Mickey but it was the first to feature synchronized sound and thus find its way into distribution. This was a big goal for Walt Disney and it proved to be a major hit, propelling his new character quickly into the hearts of the public. But while this was the first cartoon to feature sound I discovered it lacked one thing most people recognize as a Mickey Mouse staple and even a Disney staple.
Look, No Gloves!
The first two Mickey Mouse shorts to be produced were produced as silent cartoons as Walt Disney’s studio had been producing up to that point and were the first attempt to launch a character that they wholly owned after the loss of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit(to Universal, but has since found his way back to the Disney family). In as such, much of the early character and style of Mickey Mouse holds a lot in common with Oswald. In watching the first handful of shorts, it becomes quite clear that Walt and his team were working hard to make this new character stand out.
The success of Steamboat Willie helped the struggling studio jump into full production of the new synchronized sound cartoons and even sent the two previously animated silent shorts, Plane Crazy and Gallopin Gaucho, to have soundtracks added in. This created a bit of a jumble in the release order compared to the production order but going back to watch the first handful of cartoons in the order they were made we can see Mickey Mouse evolving from a close approximation of the lost Oswald to his own unique personality.
A Different Mickey Mouse for A Different Audience
One thing that becomes obvious quickly is that these early adventures of Mickey Mouse were not aimed at children. This is hardly surprising for the time frame of the late 1920s as movie theaters had only a single screen and there were not many films aimed directly at younger audiences. In fact, Walt never really aimed for children alone as he always wanted to craft something everyone could enjoy(which is kind of why we’re here, right?).
Throughout the first few shorts, Mickey is a very mischievous mouse. He’s excessively forward with Minnie Mouse and even partakes in tobacco and alcohol! Hardly the smiling character many of us grew up knowing! And the more mature elements do not stick solely to our lead mouse either. In Gaucho, his stead is fall down drunk and the villainous Pete is quite lecherous. Losing clothes or seeing under Minnie’s dress is a common occurrence as well.
By the time Walt and his lead animator, Ub Iwerks, reach their third and easily most ambitious production in Steamboat Willie, the character begins to resemble more of the Mickey Mouse that would become an icon for the better part of the last century. Interactions he has with other characters become more varied, showing concern about the plight of the distressed Minnie while cowering under the angry behemoth of Pete(and secretly mocking him behind his back). He’s still playful and a bit mischievous but he’s become deeper and much more likable.
This carries over into the fourth short produced, The Barn Dance. Mickey and pals start to exhibit more of a range of emotion, with the lead showing the greatest diversity. Even without any dialog we can easily tell Mickey gets swept up in moments, feels jealousy, finds himself at a loss when Minnie is upset and can even feel sad. As the animators refine their techniques, their new lead and his wild cast of supporting characters become more relatable despite the surreal nature of their world.
Brand New Gloves
Technically, the white four-fingered gloves that have become so attached to Mickey Mouse as to be a featured item in Disney Parks and stores, are initially only put on to perform acts on stage. But once they’re on they must have felt good because the mouse is hardly ever seen without them since.
Of course this was to assist in giving the newly successful lead in having a bit more expression. With color still off in the future, Disney and Iwerks used the white gloves to allow for more distinct hand gestures without blending into Mickey’s body. The result is a more refined and sophisticated Mickey Mouse, in terms of animated characters of the era.
Other characters quickly followed suit. The white gloved hands became an expressive part of these characters, simultaneously allowing for more human mannerims while keeping them distinctly fantastic with their four-fingered hands.
Mickey’s white gloves seemed to come with a need to keep them clean as well. While other characters could still do things like smoke and drink, that seemed to be lost for the main mouse. He was far from the good natured and all-smiles character we mostly see today though, as he still managed to scrap and cajole through a variety of adventures. But the white gloves seemed to set a standard.
White Handed Hero
Far from the final incarnation of the mouse that now runs a kingdom, the white gloves of Mickey Mouse seem to be a quiet evolution for the ever evolving icon during his formative years. A small change that would have a long lasting impact on popular culture.
As the character and animation evolved, so did Disney storytelling. The cruder, earlier version of Mickey Mouse seemed to have little motivation other than whatever seemed fun from the first few frames and it mostly led to a series of gags. Once the gloves came along, Mickey began to have motivations and struggles and all usually within 8 minutes
While worth note in the early evolution of a character and the Disney animation studio, more insight is gained about how Walt Disney and his studio learned how to push forward and continually improve than about the character. The shorts can still be enjoyable, but we can find them a bit more so as a very important brick foundation in the Disney castle.
Or we can just enjoy the gags.