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Happy Birthday, Mickey Mouse

Tim here. Today, the short film Steamboat Willie celebrates the 85th anniversary of its theatrical debut. And that makes today, according to Disney, the 85th birthday of Mickey Mouse, cinema icon and greatest company mascot in the history of mascots. This despite Steamboat Willie being only the third Mickey short completed (it was, however, the first one commercially distributed). But if the giant media conglomerate wants to semi-arbitrarily choose by diktat which day we are to gather in celebration of their most famous son, who I am to disagree?

Anyway, It’s an ideal excuse to revisit Steamboat Willie, one of the best of all early sound cartoons. Of which it was not the first, no matter what you might have heard; it’s certainly the most technologically sophisticated, though, and the one that introduces the idea that animals and inanimate objects make melodically squeaky noises when you poke at them. Thus revolutionizing the world of cartoon sound effects down to the present day...

Even in terms of its visuals, though, this is a pretty terrific piece of slapstick, as executed by the great unappreciated animator Ub Iwerks, whose gift for the rubber, physics-free style popular at the time was unmatched.

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed most about the early run of Mickey cartoons (up to 1932, maybe; certainly, no later than 1934) is how much he’s not the clean-cut, family-friendly mascot he’d be turned into once Walt Disney discovered what a cash cow he had on his hands. The Mickey of Steamboat Willie is frankly a little shit, abusing cats and pigs and laughing in self-satisfied delight as he hears a parrot’s drowning death cries. And that, I am not remotely sad to say, is the version of him I like best.

Someone at Disney would seem to agree with me, given the recent push towards more old-school Mickey adventures. The run of super-short TV cartoons that premiered on the Disney Channel bring back the more manic, warped humor of the early Mickey comedies (I don’t personally, care for the animation style, but I’m glad they exist), and in barely more than a week, the new short Get a Horse! will screen in front of Frozen, a project explicitly based in the idea, “we should try to update ‘30s Mickey for a modern audience”.

a just-released clip from that new short

It’s all a gratifying corrective to the depiction of Mickey as a well-intentioned square for more than seventy years, basically since Donald Duck became the studio’s go-to comedic figure.


That said, the version of Mickey that’s a little bit more sincere and less of prankster isn’t without merit – one of his best and most popular vehicles, The Band Concert, finds him as the only mature figure surrounded by an orchestra full of comic screw-ups. And from time to time, Disney would free the character up to star in a short entirely by himself, which gave him more of a chance for adventure and swashbuckling than the many films where he was Donald’s foil, or the background character in a story about his dog Pluto. And thus we have things like Thru the Mirror and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from Fantasia, two of the last great Mickey stories before he was sanitized into oblivion. For many decades after that, the only form he took was as the anodyne face of theme parks, or as a very bland brand name icon in places like Mickey’s Christmas Carol, where, title be damned, he’s roughly the 10th most interesting character.

But we do not come to eulogize the figure that Mickey became, but celebrate the spunky little figure that he was, the version that made him an instant star and the most marketable figure in 1930s Hollywood. With that in mind, I’d like to offer up my list of ten of the most essential Mickey Mouse shorts from the first decade of his career. Links go to (unofficial) online versions of the films.

Tim's 10 Mickey Mouse Essentials



Steamboat Willie (1928)
The reason, after all, that we still care about the character 85 years later.

Mickey’s Follies (1929)
Essential for the introduction of Mickey’s theme song for many years after, "Minnie’s Yoo Hoo". 

Mickey’s Orphans (1931)
Mickey dressed as Santa! The best early appearance of Pluto! And if you don’t find those little kitten orphans adorable, then I can do nothing for you. [Oscar Nominated]

The Mad Doctor (1933)
Mickey gets plunged into a German Expressionist nightmare, and it’s as strange as you’re probably thinking.

Orphan’s Benefit (1934)
The first Mickey cartoon with Donald, and a great showcase all-round for the Mickey universe cast of characters.


The Band Concert (1935)
Mickey’s first Technicolor short, and the very best of all the films predicated on his antagonistic relationship with Donald.

Thru the Mirror (1936)
Wonderfully creative fantasy, with some of the most beautiful animation Disney produced throughout the decade; the glove dance is one of Mickey’s all-time crowning moments. 

Clock Cleaners (1937)
"Mickey, Donald, and Goofy take a job and screw it up" was the plot of many, many shorts, but none so excellently choreographed or actively funny.

Brave Little Tailor (1938)
His last solo triumph: great comedy, excellent personality animation, and Walt Disney’s vocal performance at its best. [Oscar Nominated] 

The Pointer (1939)
The premier of the "modern" Mickey design, with some of the lushest animation ever given to a Disney short. Possibly the last standalone Mickey vehicle that’s not too nice to avoid being bland. [Oscar Nominated]

Your turn! What are your favorite Mickey Mouse cartoons?


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Reader Comments (18)

Yay Mickey!

i am very surprised to report that i really enjoyed "Get a Horse" and think it might play in to the Oscar race for short.

November 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

GET A HORSE is great! So fun and great use of 3D (if you choose to see it that way).

November 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

I love the trio of Mickey, Donald and Goofy so much. "Clock Cleaners" is obviously awesome, but so are "Lonesome Ghosts" and the one with the trailer/RV, the name of which escapes me right now.

November 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterConrado

It's just Mickey's Trailer. It's the best of the buddy films with Donald and Goofy if you ask me. I found Clock Cleaners kind of boring. I also really liked Building a Building. Seems like one of the first great film involving construction site humor. I was surprised at how much there were.

Really looking forward to seeing Get a Horse.

November 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterajnrules

Mickey's Trailer! That was my #11.

So excited to hear that Get a Horse is good! I'm actually more excited to see that than Frozen, at this point.

November 19, 2013 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

A little off topic, but recently, these films were at the center of huge public domain issues. For years, Disney has lobbied Congress heavily to extend the copyright term laws so that Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters do not fall into the public domain (meaning anyone can do anything with them basically). And they just got another extension to make the term 95 years! Disney is, understandably, quite worried that these characters will fall into the public domain.

November 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

charlieg -- ugh do not get me started on public domain and Disney.... they are just ruining it for everyone culturally. Things are supposed to eventually belong to the culture at large. So many great works throughout history have stayed alive precisely because they became free for everyone to engage with. I understand company mascots (like Mickey Mouse) staying copyrighted but Disney should not be able to claim ALL of their characters as company mascots.

November 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Disney should not be able to claim ALL of their characters as company mascots

I'm sorry did you have your heart set on a particular character to use as you see fit?

November 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

First time commenting here on TFE, though i follow and comment on your blog regularly, Tim.

I haven't seen that many early Mickey shorts, though I did have the privilege of seeing six of the originals in that theatre exhibit in Main Steeet, USA, Disneyland, three months back. Soundless, yes, but still...

Plane Crazy is my favourite. Of my decent-sized collection of Mickey Merchandise, a t-shirt of that is my favourite. The perfect mix of classic Mickey antics and charismatic attempts to win over the other mouse.

I'm assuming loose moral code forbade you from including The Sorcerer's Apprentice, given that you gushed over it in your Fantasia review way back. Had you included it, Tim, where would it have ranked?

November 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGroudon202

/3rtful -- no. but there's agreat arguments to be made abouit how important the public domain is to the arts and to vibrant culture. the way i see it disney should really only be able to claim mickey mouse as a mascot. But otherwise copyrights should expire when copyrights expire. Copyrights are meant to protect artists and creators. Not multi-billion dollar corporations decades after the fact.

and its worth noting that Disney built his own empire on public domain characters (like Tinkerbell! who would be a valid argument for a company mascot as well if she weren't already a public domain character)

November 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Copyrights are meant to protect artists and creators. Not multi-billion dollar corporations decades after the fact.

That is such a loaded response.

November 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I adore the Mickey cartoons from 1928 until 1934. My favorites are The Klondike Kid, Building a Building, Two-Gun Mickey, The Mad Doctor, Ye Olden Days, Shanghaied, and The Mail Pilot.

November 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNitrate glow

Moral issues of copyright aside, I think that it's self-evident that an 85-year-old character who has spent 84 of those years as one of the most instantly recognisable figures in the world has become part of the greater culture in such a way that it's weird that there's no legal mean to "remix" him. That we can have tacky posters with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe in a diner, but not a single unofficial reproduction of the chief ambassador of American entertainment in the 20th Century, just doesn't feel sane to me.

I'm thinking of something like Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, about 20th Century pop culture instead of 19th Century pulp fiction; not that anybody wants to make something like that, but Disney's made sure they can't, and that rankles me.

November 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

NathanielR & Tim Brayton - Part of my concern about this copyright issue is that Disney seems to put off this air of really caring about their mascots' images, but then they go and do terrible direct-to-video movies like ... Cinderella 2: Dreams Do Come True. And with Mickey Mouse, they don't really do anything with him anymore. I was surprised recently to learn that my 4 year old niece and nephew have no idea who Mickey Mouse is. And their mother logically explained to me that Mickey Mouse isn't really that visible anymore (outside of actually going to Disney World or Disneyland). So ... that begs the question ... is Disney protecting something that doesn't really need protecting? Or are they basically saying "If there are going to be crappy t-shirts [or tacky posters in diners, in Tim's example], WE want to make them, not some random yahoo." Who knows?

NathanielR - I am convinced that 3rtful wants to get in your pants.

November 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

Charlie G -- well, of course it's monetarily driven. If everyone can mass produce mickey mouse t-shirts Disney can't make a fortune off of them which they still do.

November 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This raises interesting questions for me. When people say that Mickey Mouse should be in the public domain, what does this MEAN, exactly? Because the character has been continuously in use since his inception (and if you don't think he's currently an extremely active character, you are clearly not familiar with European comics). Naturally, over the years, the character has developed and changed and accrued a large set of associated characters. So when you say he should be in the public domain, do you mean that ALL THIS LATER STUFF should likewise be? That does not strike me as reasonable. But saying that the character as he existed in 1928 should be public domain, and nothing else, doesn't really leave you with much, does it? I feel as though copyright law was not written with an eye towards characters who are continuously active in the way that Mickey is.

November 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeoX

the second pic is a most beautiful and i like it the all pic so please visite my site.happy halloween

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterfarman

Happy Birthday, Mickey Mouse this is my favourite show Happy Birthday Images Free

March 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRavi Gupta

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