Just mention the name Mickey mouse to a fan or just anyone on the street and immediately visions and perceptions well up in the listeners mind. To some, he represents innocence and fun of a bygone era, to others, corporate America, and to a lesser extent, a money-making gimmick. Most people do not realize that the name or picture of Mickey mouse is the most recognized icon in the world, topped only by the American flag! One would have to go literally to the ends of the earth to find someone who never has heard of the mouse.
Mickey mouse was a national hero to most of the country in the dark days of America’s depression era. He burst upon the scene when America was riding high in jobs, money and good times. But a scant year later, the bubble burst and America along with the rest of the world, fell victim to the worst economical upheaval which lasted almost a decade until the start of world war ii. But a quick history lesson is in order to fully understand Mickey’s impact on America during those trying times.
Mickey mouse according to Disney lore was born on November 18, 1928 at the old colony theater in New York city as “Steamboat Willie”, the first synchronized sound cartoon. Many would dispute this “birth date”, but that’s for another article. These were high times for America. It was the era of bathtub gin, speakeasy’s, new morals and ideas. America after world war i was the leader in technology and science and most people led the good life. However, on black Tuesday, October 29th 1929, the bubble burst and in an instant, millions of people lost everything; their savings, their homes, and for many, their lives. Stocks in America lost over 40 percent of their previous value, thousands of banks became insolvent and closed. This financial fallout affected everyone, including the very rich. By 1932, 30 percent of the work force was unemployed. And to top this misery, the largest and longest drought, the dustbowl started in the Midwest and lasted about a decade. Blowing sand and dunes, racked the Midwest causing thousands of families to lost their farms, crops, and many just left, unable to pay mortgages or make a living in the arid plains. The roads were chocked with families looking for a new start somewhere else.
The poor and middle class were hit the hardest. They trusted no one. They blamed big business and the rich for their woes. America was at it’s lowest ebb and needed someone or something to give it hope and a promise for a brighter future. Enter Mickey mouse. This little personage literally pulled America up from despair and gave it the hope and vision for better times ahead. Mickey mouse was said to be given his physical form by ub iwerks, but his personality and inner self was given to him by Walt Disney. Every fan knows that Mickey is Walt’s “son”. And Mickey has all of Walt’s attributes, his vision, courage, his humor and lots of Walt’s mischievous tenants. He was an everyman, a scamp, a common worker and he had the same dreams and hopes as common America. He was someone the masses could relate to and finally trust. In Mickey, they saw themselves, in very much the same scrapes Mickey got himself into. By 1931, the Mickey mouse club (before the 1950’s club!) Had over a million members, meeting in movies houses, watching Mickey mouse cartoons and getting the burst of hope they needed to get by another day.
In the ’30s, a movie ticket cost in some houses a nickel to maybe a quarter. There was usually shown cartoons before the main movie and people came just to see Mickey! His adventures showed his courage, his humor and also showcased his big heart, giving to those who had less than he did, and again, the masses related to this. In the short the “whoopee party” 1932, Mickey and Minnie give a big party with entertainment and all the food you could eat, when most people could not even afford a loaf of bread, they saw Mickey sharing with his friends. And in Mickey’s “good deed”, 1932 which i believe is the best rendition of Mickey’s generosity, Mickey in this short is destitute and playing his cello on Christmas eve for money till he sees a family worst off then himself, so he gives up his most prized possession, his dog Pluto for them. This short conveyed the message that all in not lost and even those with little could still help others with less.
My final example, and i could cite many more, is the short “building a building”, 1933 where Mickey quits his precious job for the honor of his girl Minnie, who was kidnapped by Peg Leg Pete, the foreman of the job. Mickey showed that a man’s (or a mouse’s) honor was above all. America related to Mickey and his problems because they were mirrored in theirs. He came to the rescue when no politician, actor, or any other person of the times could. He was trusted and he gave hope, courage and most important, he gave laughter! That’s what America needed, to laugh. And like his “father”, Walt Disney, he triumphed again and again. So Mickey mouse almost single-handed saved the nation from the depression and despite more than 70 years since his birth, still gives us laughter and hope and in some, the longing for the bygone years when life was simpler and more innocent.