It is not right to explore the Silly Symphonies and, specifically, Flowers and Trees and The Skeleton Dance without providing a bit of background to the first huge success for Disney, notably Steamboat Willie. It has been parodied many times (an Itchy and Scratchy reference in The Simpsons is my personal favourite), but it is interesting to consider where the actual idea came from. Prior to Mickey, Disney had created a character called Oswald the Rabbit. Oswald was created under a one-year contract for Charles Mintz and Margaret Winkler and, towards the end of the contract, Mintz called Walt to New York to inform him that they would reduce the costs in creating Oswald. Disney could never accept the deal realising that Mintz was simply going out of his way to repossess Oswald – and squeezing out Walt. Rumour has it that, as Disney returned from this meeting, he created Mickey on the train between New York and California.
|Oswald the Lucky Rabbit|
From Oswald to Mickey …
Oswald, a completely Disney creation, is very similar to Mickey. It is assumed that it was Ub Iwerks who made Mickey a more “compact” version of Oswald. It was the underhanded manner of Mintz that possibly forced Disney to provide the voice to Mickey himself, whilst the characteristics of Mickey could be attributed to Charlie Chaplin. Steamboat Willie would not fully exploit all these aspects to Mickey – but, there is a little ‘knowing’ glance to camera towards the end which I believe is very-much Chaplin-esque, whilst the cruelty to the animals: squeezing and pulling tails o animals, etc were characteristics that would soon enough disappear from Mickey.
Like Chaplin’s ‘Tramp’, Mickey would soon enough become likeable and a character we can sympathise – rather than a character who hurts and abuses animals in the attempt of woo-ing a fellow mouse: Minnie. But, what a great start – even now, it shows such clear character to Mickey and it is so likeable you would be hard-pressed to imagine someone not impressed with this cartoon way back in 1928.