An obscure Mickey Mouse predates ‘Steamboat Willie’ and he wasn’t very friendly

A little-known version of Mickey Mouse came before ‘Steamboat Willie’ — and he wasn’t very nice

Before Mickey Mouse became the beloved icon we know today, he made his cinematic debut in 1928 through a series of short films that preceded main attractions at theaters across the United States. These early films served as a platform for the mischievous Walt Disney creation to captivate audiences with his black-and-white antics and distinctive high-pitched squeak, all enhanced by groundbreaking sound technology.

While “Steamboat Willie,” a seven-minute short released in November 1928, is perhaps the most renowned Mickey Mouse film from that era, it wasn’t his silver-screen debut. That honor goes to “Plane Crazy,” a silent short film that underwent test screenings months before “Steamboat Willie.” However, this precursor portrayed Mickey in a less-than-flattering light, diverging from the cheerful character we’ve come to associate with the iconic mouse.

Copyrighted in 1928, the silent version of “Plane Crazy” has, along with “Steamboat Willie,” entered the public domain in 2024, allowing people to freely share, copy, or use them without seeking permission. Interestingly, unlike “Steamboat Willie,” “Plane Crazy” isn’t readily available on Disney+ or extensively highlighted in the annals of Disney history.

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In “Plane Crazy,” Mickey embarks on an adventurous journey to pilot a two-seater plane, inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight from New York City to Paris in 1927. Minnie accompanies him, leading to a series of frenetic mishaps and inadvertent comedic moments, including the unexpected milking of Clarabelle Cow. However, as the plot unfolds, Mickey’s character takes a somewhat darker turn. After Minnie rejects his advances, Mickey resorts to daredevil maneuvers to scare her, laughing at her fear and concluding with an unwanted smooch.

Fed up with Mickey’s antics, Minnie exits the plane, using her bloomers as a parachute for a graceful descent. Mickey, on the other hand, lands less gracefully and faces rejection from Minnie after mocking her billowing undergarments. “Plane Crazy” and another early short, “The Gallopin’ Gaucho,” initially struggled as silent films until Disney and collaborator Ub Iwerks introduced synchronized sound in “Steamboat Willie,” leading to the cartoon mouse’s widespread acclaim.

Interestingly, the earliest iterations of Mickey Mouse depicted him as spikier and more tantrum-prone than the amiable Disney mascot we know today. Mickey’s behavior in these early cartoons, such as manipulating Minnie and engaging in slapstick antics, contributed to his initial appeal.

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As animation historian David Gerstein notes, there was a conscious effort to “clean up” Mickey’s act in the mid-1930s, transforming him into a sanitized straight man, a characterization that has endured since then. Modern viewers might express alarm at the older, cruder Mickey, with some noting his “gutter rat” behavior in “Plane Crazy,” including manipulative actions and even cruelty to a turkey.

Mickey Mouse came into existence after Walt Disney lost ownership of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Universal Pictures in 1928. Determined to continue creating animated shorts, Disney needed a new star, and thus, Mickey Mouse was born. Unlike Oswald, Mickey became a character owned entirely by Disney, paving the way for the creation of an enduring cultural icon.

With “Plane Crazy” and “Steamboat Willie” entering the public domain in 2024, these early works become open to creative manipulation by individuals and entities other than the original copyright owner. This shift parallels the situation with A.A. Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh stories, which entered the public domain in 2022, allowing independent works like the horror film about a murderous Pooh and Piglet.

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However, it’s crucial to note that only the earliest black-and-white versions of Mickey Mouse have entered the public domain. The more modern iterations of Mickey and Minnie remain under Disney’s copyright protection, and their use in projects requires the involvement and permission of the Walt Disney Company.

While the public domain status of “Plane Crazy” and “Steamboat Willie” opens up possibilities for creative reinterpretation, Disney’s plans for these early works remain unknown. A Disney spokesperson has yet to comment on the company’s intentions regarding these iconic pieces of animation history.

In the meantime, fans have already begun finding creative ways to incorporate the early riverboat captain Mickey into cartoons, memes, and other original scenarios, showcasing the enduring cultural impact of this iconic character.

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