It all started 75 years ago, as Walt Disney never forgot to mention, with a mouse. In 1928 — a year after Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic and a year before the Great Depression — the first cartoon film with synchronized sound launched the career of Disney’s Mickey Mouse. This was at a time when America was determined to enjoy itself after a long and grim war. Henry Ford had created the Model T and Fitzgerald his Great Gatsby. Jazz had put the sin back in syncopation, and the flappers were dancing the Charleston. (Across the pond, the Bright Young Things were finding it all too too sick-making.) Mickey’s goldmine of a grin — with its nicely feel-good goofiness — embodied this desperate gaiety of the Roaring Twenties. It also became, very quickly, the symbol of a certain spirit of entertainment and enterprise. In ’29, the first Mickey Mouse club was set up in California, and Disney got an honorary Oscar in ’32. The following year, the first Mickey Mouse watch was made, and in ’34, a lover in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes serenaded his beloved, “You’re a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, you’re Mickey Mouse!” In 1955, Disneyland opened in California. An icon — and a brand — had already been made. But Mickey returned to the cinemas only in the early Eighties, after a 30-year absence. Towards the end of the Eighties, the Mickey Mouse Club television show started, to be hosted later by Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
This endlessly adaptable rodent is now the figurehead of a global commercial empire worth more than 47 billion dollars. In his 75th year, therefore, the renewed interest in Mickey Mouse is also a return to the merchandizing and marketing roots of Walt Disney. The company is now embarking on an 18-month campaign to recharge the brand. Besides, the copyright for Mickey’s image was due to expire this year. But frantic lobbying by Disney has led to a supreme court ruling, giving the American congress permission to keep extending copyright protection. Yet, considerable chunks of the world would snigger today at Jimmy Carter’s description of the Mouse as an “ambassador of goodwill and a peacemaker”. And there is more than just irony in its creator’s explanation that “a mouse is sort of a sympathetic character in spite of the fact that everybody’s frightened of a mouse”. Since the towers came tumbling down and the missiles wreaked their precision havoc, Mickey, and a few other M-words, might embody for some — and their numbers seem to be growing — the not-so-funny blurring of lines between global entertainment and globalized inanity.