It has been suggested that Mickey Mouse was, along with the Coca-Cola label and the swastika, once the most recognisable symbol in the world. The indefatigable rodent made his first on-screen appearance in the 1928 animated short film Steamboat Willie which, thanks to a quirk of copyright law, enters the public domain on January 1 2024. Still, good luck to those who now believe that they will be able to profit from the Mickey character.
Walt Disney, whose company owns (and indeed exploits) the mouse, long ago trademarked him as well as ensuring his copyright. So while the original, black-and-white Mickey Mouse may now pop up in a variety of forms, the best-known version of him will, in the words of a no doubt testy Disney spokesman, “continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company.”
Those of us who rejoice at a multi-billion-dollar company being able to continue to make money hand over fist thanks to their most popular character will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief at this news. Yet the appearance of Steamboat Willie in the public domain should draw attention back to one of the great unsung figures of 20th century animation. Ubbe ‘Ub’ Iwerks not only worked alongside Disney in the early days of his empire, but was responsible for designing the character of Mickey Mouse.
Although he has not exactly been airbrushed from history, Iwerks’s far lower profile compared to his colleague and employer shows how brutally skilled a mythmaker Disney truly was. The story we’re left with is a sanitised – Disneyfied, even – version of what really happened.
Iwerks, the son of an itinerant Dutch barber whom he loathed – upon hearing of his father’s death, he sneered “Throw him in a ditch” – first encountered Disney when the two men were teenagers, and working at the Kansas City company the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio. Already, the central differences in their personalities could be discerned. Iwerks was a hugely talented workaholic who could, if necessary, do two months’ work in two weeks, illustrating hundreds of animation cells by hand per night. Disney, although also a skilled animator himself, excelled at the corporate side of the business.
The two collaborated throughout the 1920s, with Disney very much the senior partner. But by the time they moved to Los Angeles in 1923, their careers hit a snag when the first cartoon character that they co-created, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was snatched away from them by Universal Studios, the production company that owned the rights to him. An incensed Disney vowed not only to retain all the rights to the characters that he was responsible for, but also to come up with a figure who would be considerably more successful – and iconic – than Oswald ever was.
The story of how Mickey Mouse was created was one that Disney often liked to tell in later life, in folksy, exaggerated detail. He either claimed that he had come up with the idea of an anthropomorphic mouse on a long train journey from New York to California, or that he was inspired by a pet that he kept during his Kansas City days. Both, or neither, might be true.
But what is incontrovertibly the case is that Iwerks came to Disney’s rescue when he was left without a character that he could monetise, and that, between the two of them, they came up with a figure who was originally named Mortimer Mouse. Until Disney’s wife Lillian, disliking what she saw as an overly pompous name, suggested changing Mortimer to Mickey.
There is no doubt that Disney was heavily invested in the character, not least because he voiced him for years, and he was responsible for coming up with Mickey’s quirks of personality that largely led to him becoming the much-beloved character that he still remains today. Yet the rush to claim credit meant that Disney, inadvertently or deliberately, sidelined Iwerks’ work in coming up with the iconic design for Mickey Mouse.
For a long time, Disney assumed ownership of the character, and today the accepted party line is that, in the words of one Disney employee, “Ub designed Mickey’s physical appearance, but Walt gave him his soul.” Yet this is an inaccuracy. As Iwerks’ biographer Jeff Ryan has commented: “[Iwerks] was the person who was doing most of the behind-the-scenes work. And when Walt was taking credit, Ub was the one who was denied credit. Walt, because he was never satisfied with anything, kept on making up bigger and bigger whoppers to stretch the Mickey Mouse creation story. And the biggest whopper at first was that Walt was the one who did it. He didn’t do it.”
The reasons for this are more complex than they might appear, and, as Ryan has suggested, “When you put Walt and Ub together, they were able to do just about anything.” Yet Iwerks swiftly tired of Disney’s showmanship and of being treated as the junior partner. Their working relationship came to an end in 1930, when – apocryphally – Disney, upon being asked by a young admirer at a party to draw him a sketch of Micky Mouse, simply handed over paper and pen to Iwerks and said “Draw it”. Cue a furious Iwerks storming out of the party and starting his own animation studio, Iwerks Studio. (He was paid less than $3,000 for his 20 per cent share in the company, a stake that would be worth billions today.)
In an ideal world, this would have gone on to be a rival to Disney, perhaps even to supersede it. But Disney knew the importance of hiring talent and so surrounded himself with capable young animators. (Although Iwerks was responsible for discovering Chuck Jones, the man who would later go on to create the Looney Tunes cartoons.) Iwerks struggled to break through on his own terms throughout the 1930s, and in 1940 returned to Disney. Only this time he was not an animator, but as a visual effects supervisor: an acknowledgement that the only way that the working relationship between the two men could resume once again would be if Iwerks was doing something new and distinct from his previous endeavours.
For the next 25 years, Iwerks worked tirelessly and fruitfully across many of the Disney enterprises. He was responsible for pioneering the integration of live action and animation on screen, which he first attempted in 1946’s much-maligned musical drama Song of the South and then, far more notably and successfully, he perfected in Disney’s epochal success, Mary Poppins.
He also worked on Disney theme park attractions, designing such shows as The Hall of Presidents and the It’s A Small World ride. Demonstrating his virtuosity, he moved away from Disney to design the terrifying-looking special effects for Hitchcock’s The Birds, for which he was nominated for an Oscar – having already received a special Academy Award in 1960 for “the design of an improved optical printer for special effects and matte shots”.
Animation genius, special effects pioneer, theme park visionary: Ub Iwerks should, by rights, be as well remembered as Disney, Jones or any of the other leading figures in 20th century entertainment. That he is not may be down to Disney’s wish to exclude him from taking credit for his achievements – although he was named a Disney Legend in 1989, following his death in 1971 – but also because of his restlessness.
He loved to take a car apart and put it back together in a weekend, and was known to build cameras from parts he found lying around his garage. He took up archery, only to quit after getting bored of hitting bullseyes over and over again. And as Ryan said of Iwerks: “There is a famous story in animation circles about Ub Iwerks’ brief love of bowling. He got better and better and better until one day he bowled 13 strikes in a row. And as soon as he did that, he’s like, okay, I’ve solved bowling. And he never bowled again.” (Much the same could be said of his first career with Disney, in which he excelled at innovation and trendsetting animation alike, before leaving his unbroken strike record behind, never to return.
The treatment of Iwerks may be a near-forgotten incident in the House of Mouse, but it remains common knowledge in popular culture circles. The 1996 Simpsons episode The Day The Violence Died revolves around a homeless man, Chester J Lampwick – voiced by none other than Kirk Douglas – who tells Bart that he is responsible for the creation of the character Itchy the mouse from the Itchy and Scratchy show. He has been forced out and denied his royalties by Roger Meyers Sr, a none-too-subtle dig at Disney, even down to a joke about his being cryogenically frozen. Lampwick eventually triumphs, being awarded an $800 billion settlement that bankrupts Meyers’s son and results in the cessation of Itchy and Scratchy.
Yet the most telling moment in the episode comes when Meyers declares in court that “Animation is built on plagiarism! If it weren’t for someone plagiarizing The Honeymooners, we wouldn’t have The Flintstones. If someone hadn’t ripped off Sergeant Bilko, there’d be no Top Cat.” And, the episode might have added, if there had been no Ub Iwerks, there would have been no Mickey Mouse, and probably no Disney empire as we know it today. So if Steamboat Willie’s entry into the public domain leads to Iwerks’s name being better remembered, this can only be a good thing.