How Walt Disney came back from ruin

Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in the animated short Steamboat Willie, which was released on 18 November 1928. When the film came out, Walt Disney was facing ruin – but then had a brain wave that would transform his life, writes Myles Burke, alongside an exclusive BBC Archive clip.

Next year, a piece of movie history will enter the public domain. Disney is going to lose copyright protection of its 1928 animated short Steamboat Willie, featuring the original version of its most iconic character, Mickey Mouse.

The animated short not only marked the debut of a global cultural icon, it set the path for Walt Disney’s entire empire and was a pivotal moment in the development of cinema, introducing synchronised sound to animated cartoons.

More like this:
The moment that reshaped Europe
The 1968 image that shook the world
An inside look at the real Rupert Murdoch

At the time of its release, Disney was facing ruin. He had just lost the rights to his popular creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and most of his staff had been poached in a corporate dispute.

Disheartened and running out of money, Disney got his animators Ub Iwerks and Les Clark to work up an idea he had at the back of his mind, a sympathetic mouse who navigates his way through a series of comic misadventures. The mouse was initially dubbed Mortimer until Disney’s wife persuaded him to change it to the less pompous-sounding “Mickey” instead.

Disney had long been fascinated by animals, to the extent that he would send his artists to an animal anatomy class before making Bambi (1942), which he describes in this exclusive BBC clip from 1959. “Animal anatomy is not taught properly in art schools, so I started a special course,” he says. “I brought animals into the studio, in our art classes. Instead of live models, we had animal models.”

Watch: Walt Disney performs iconic Mickey Mouse voice

Disney could not persuade a distributor to release the first two silent Mickey Mouse cartoons they made, but then he had a brain wave. Inspired by a film with synchronised dialogue that had taken the US by storm in 1927, The Jazz Singer, he decided to craft a cartoon where the on-screen action was intricately synced up with a musical score and sound effects.

Steamboat Willie premiered in New York and its seamless marriage of sound and visuals was an instant sensation: glowing reviews soon began appearing in the press and people flocked to see it. Its innovative animated storytelling thrilled audiences, with cinema-goers often clamouring for the projector to delay the start of the feature film, so they could watch Steamboat Willie again. Disney quickly capitalised on the character’s popularity with more adventures, with Walt himself going on to provide the voice of Mickey.

A new era

Steamboat Willie’s success ushered in a new era of cartoon storytelling. It set the stage for Walt Disney’s domination of the medium, which would see Disney creating the Oscar-winning Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

When it came to making Bambi five years later, as well as bringing live animals into the studio, he also wanted to see animals in the wild.

In History

In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today.

“I found that the animals in captivity are not themselves. What you see of an animal in a zoo is not what the animal actually is when he is out there in nature itself,” he said in a BBC interview in 1959.

“So, I sent camera crews out into the wilds, to capture what an animal actually does in his way of life. And from the film that I brought in for the artists to study, I realised there was a great story there that had never been told.”

Inspired, he launched an ambitious project, the True-Life Adventures, a series of documentaries offering a fascinating glimpse into lives of animals in the wild. As with his animation, Disney’s team of filmmakers pushed the boundaries of technology and innovation. The studio pioneered the use of long-range lenses and underwater cameras, enabling viewers to see wildlife behaviour and the intricate interplay of ecosystems in unprecedented detail.

The series, which carefully balanced educational and engaging storytelling, went on to win multiple Academy Awards, including the first-ever best documentary feature Oscar for The Living Desert in 1954.

“Over the last few years, we have ventured into a lot of different fields,” said Disney, reflecting on his expanding empire. “I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing, that it all started with a mouse.”

In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today.

If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can’t-miss news delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Read on

Please enter CoinGecko Free Api Key to get this plugin works.