Mickey’s Precursor: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

If it weren’t for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Mickey Mouse would never have been created.

In 1927, Walt Disney was a 26 year old animator with the bankruptcy of his business, Kansas City-based Laugh-O-Gram Studio, just recently behind him. Disney had decided to reinvent himself in a new place, and he’d chosen the fledgling film capital of Hollywood, California to be that place.

Disney soon struck a deal with an animated film distributor called Margaret Winkler for a series of cartoons roughly based on “Alice in Wonderland.” When Winkler married later that year, she turned her business over to her husband Charles Mintz who requisitioned a new series of cartoons from Disney based on anthropomorphic animal. Disney and Mintz sold the rights to this cartoon character to Universal Studios before it was even created. Disney and his animator decided to make the new character a rabbit. Universal Studios picked the name “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.”

Oswald represented an entirely new direction in cartoon characters. In addition to gag lines that ran as subtitles underneath the action, Oswald was funny because his body could compress and expand. Oswald could turn any prop at hand into a tool that would help get him out of his wacky jams. Oswald, in short, was a kind of visual vaudeville comedy routine.

Oswald turned out to be extremely popular in the 27 black and white shorts he starred in, and Walt Disney attempted to use that popularity to negotiate more money from Universal. This was the height of the Depression however, and Universal, through their spokesperson Charles Minz, tried to get Disney instead to accept a 20 percent pay cut.

Disney was insulted. He decided to walk away from the Oswald character and to create another one in its place with the same humorous characteristics.

The Birth of Mickey Mouse

While working at the Laugh-O-Gram Studio, Walt Disney had adopted a mouse as a pet. He decided to base his new cartoon creation on that mouse. The new animated mouse looked a great deal like Oswald at first only with shorter ears and some extra padding around the middle. Walt Disney loaned the mouse his voice, and, say some, his personality. When the mouse first debuted, it was called Mortimer, but Mrs. Disney hated that name. Eventually, the mouse came to be called Mickey, and so a star was born.

in 1928, Mickey Mouse starred in “Steamboat Willie,” the first animated feature to use a synchronized soundtrack and sound effects. The cartoon was a smash hit and made Mickey famous. By 1930, Disney had started marketing a line of Mickey Mouse-themed merchandise and launched a fan club for kids called the Mickey Mouse Club.

Pre-1935, Mickey Mouse did not look much like the lovable rodent we all know today. That year, an animator named Fred Moore introduced the pear-shaped body, button nose and white gloves that have become Mickey’s trademarks. Throughout the 1930s and the 1940s, Mickey Mouse was the Disney Studios’ cash cow. In 1940, he was featured in “Fantasia” in what is probably his best known role, as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, set to the symphonic poem of the same name by Paul Dukas.

In 1946, Walt Disney stopped voicing the character. In the 1950s, the Disney Studio began focusing on feature films like “Bambi” and “Snow White,” and Mickey Mouse drifted into the background. The plucky rodent, however, will always be associated with the Disney name.