With his unfailing good cheer, Mickey Mouse appears to be one of the last dependable figures in a world beset by turmoil and confusion. His celebrated smile, rivaled in fame only by the Mona Lisa's, seems to suggest a gentler, more certain time.
But Mickey has actually undergone several incarnations. The genially hip mouse in the tuxedo and tennis shoes neither looks nor acts the same as the blocky rodent who played "Turkey in the Straw" on a cow's teeth in "Steamboat Willie" (1928) 80 years ago.
Hundreds of animators, designers, writers, voice actors, model makers and artists have worked with this character, and each contributed to the evolution of the entity that audiences all over the world now recognize as Mickey Mouse.
Ub Iwerks designed Mickey's physical appearance and animated the first three Mickey cartoons almost single-handedly. But it was Walt Disney himself who initially supplied the key elements of Mickey's personality—and his voice until 1947. Sound effects man Jimmy Macdonald took over the voice when Disney became too busy to spend the necessary time in recording sessions (and after years of heavy smoking had roughened Disney's voice considerably).
The original Mickey was a rambunctious, mischievous imp who stole a kiss from Minnie in mid-air in "Plane Crazy" (1928). Iwerks based the character's design on circles, because they gave an appealing look and were relatively easy to draw. Some of the early animators traced around a quarter for Mickey's head and a nickel for his ears.
Mickey's development took a major leap during the mid-1930s, when Fred Moore refined his proportions and introduced a freer style of animation. A small, well-coordinated man, Moore imbued the character with his own physical dexterity. His influence can be seen in the eager, appealing Mickey of "Brave Little Tailor" (1938) and in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence of "Fantasia" (1940).
The comic strips and licensed products helped keep Mickey in the public eye when his cinematic career languished. Disney gradually phased out the production of cartoon shorts during the '50s, and most of the post-World War II films starred either Goofy or Donald. No Mickey shorts were made between "Pluto's Christmas Tree" (1952) and "Mickey's Christmas Carol" (1983).
Though his film career has waned in recent years, Mickey remains the most widely licensed character in the world, with his likeness appearing on thousands of products, excluding publications.