Thursday, December 04, 2003

Happy 700th birthday, Mickey Mouse

While the Austrians are pissing in the wind, legally speaking, on this one, the much- publicized, recent 75th birthday of capitalism’s Ur-mascot makes revisiting Mickey’s origins a timely affair.

This is an ultra-sanitised version:

Mickey was conceived on a train in early 1928, as the 26-year-old Walt Disney and his wife Lillian travelled from New York to Los Angeles after the animator lost a drawing of his original cartoon character, a rabbit.

"I had this mouse at the back of my head ... because a mouse is kind of a sympathetic character in spite of the fact that everybody's frightened of a mouse ... including myself," Disney recalled later.

The animator wanted to christen the mouse clad in red velvet shorts Mortimer, but Lillian told him the name was too pompous. By the time the train arrived in Los Angeles a new star had been born.

The above is totally incorrect in just about every key fact, as this Wikipedia entry demonstrates. It does the [unnamed] “animator” – Ubbe Iwerks, who was actually co-director and head animator of “Steamboat Willie” – a gross disservice.

Peculiarly, one does not have to dig deep to find out this much; a news story from a coupe of days after the above one tells the story of Mickey’s origins this way:

Company lore says Mickey was conceived by Walt Disney in 1928 on a train trip, basing the character on a little mouse that would root through his papers late at night when he was a child. In reality, the appearance of the mouse was invented by his partner, Ubbe Iwerks. Disney did not even come up with the name, wanting to call him Mortimer until his wife, Lillian, said it was too "sissy", and suggested Mickey.

Myths arising so as to launder the origins of big-ticket corporate intellectual property are probably inevitable. A moment of creativity rarely, if ever, coincides with the germ of a killer sales shpiel. What needs to be stressed, in the case of Mickey’s origins, is their extreme modesty. Mickey was road-tested first – he didn’t debut in “Steamboat Willie” – and his career-making role in the 1928 short film was conservatively premised: “Steamboat Willie” was an obvious parody of Buster Keaton’s film released a few months earlier, “Steamboat Bill”.

This fact doesn’t mean, as Lawrence Lessig has provocatively suggested, that Disney Inc stole from Keaton. Rather, it is a testament to one of the miracles, or paradoxes, of capitalism – how creative mediocrity thrives like nothing else. Everyone knows the case of Microsoft in this respect, but here’s some food for thought: billionaire J K Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, came up with the boy-wizard idea on a – you guessed it – train also.

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