What’s with Walt Disney and his obsession with mice, and just what did this genius start?
And I don’t mean only Mickey Mouse, who joined American life 82 years ago. Ever since he first introduced the character in “Steamboat Willie” (the first cartoon with synchronized sound) pop-culture mice have been multiplying at a frightening rate.
Mr. Disney is only one reason why, but he was certainly the rodents’ biggest fan, idealizing them, humanizing them and generally overlooking what an annoyance they can be in real life.
He’s responsible, for example, for Gus and Jaq and their many companions (arguably the cutest movie mice ever). This year, they’re celebrating their 60th year of screen life as Cinderella’s faithful friends in the 1950 Disney film classic.
He wasn’t through, then, though. Besides Mickey, Minnie and TV’s Mousketeers, he populated many of his movies with mice, including such key characters as Timothy Q. Mouse in “Dumbo,” as well as Miss Bianca and Bernard of the “Rescuers” adventures and Basil, his Sherlock Holmes knockoff, in “The Great Mouse Detective,” among many others.
My favorite Disney mouse, though, is Amos Mouse, the star of the still-charming 1953 “Ben and Me,” an Oscar-nominated short-subject adaptation of Robert Lawson’s acclaimed book. Amos, we learn, is the real source of all those inventions and discoveries usually attributed to Ben Franklin. The short tale — shown here and here in 10-minute chunks — is well worth another watch all these years later.
Disney isn’t the only reason that pop-culture mice seem to proliferate as fast and often as their real-life counterparts.
Here’s just a sampler of some of the mice who have popped up in all sorts of strange places in pop culture (feel free to add some other examples in the Comment section below).
Two Italian mice
Who knew about the international appeal of mice, particularly, for reasons that are unclear to me, Italian mice? We’ve got two that have proved popular in America, too.
• The more popular, without a doubt, is Topo Gigio, the 1960s visitor who made more than 50 appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” including the final program in 1971. The puppet show character ended his visits with a frequent request for the sour-faced Sullivan: “Eddie, Keesa me goo’night!”
• And then there’s Pepino the Italian Mouse, the star of a Top 5 Lou Monte hit in early 1963 and a less successful follow-up recording.
Mice — figurative and otherwise —have propelled quite a few non-Disney movies, too. For instance:
•Two “Mouse” movies, beginning with Peter Sellers’ “The Mouse That Roared,” the 1959 tale of “an impoverished backward nation [that] declares a war on the United States of America, hoping to lose.” The 1963 follow-up, “The Mouse on the Moon,” continued the adventures of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
• “An American Tail,” the 1986 story of Fievel, a young Russian mouse separated from his family who must survive in a new country while searching for them. The film’s song, “Somewhere Out There,” was an Oscar nominee and became a No.2 hit for Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram.
• “Mouse Hunt,” the 1997 Nathan Lane movie in which the frustrated tenants battle a mouse for control of an antique house.
• “The Tale of Despereaux,” the 2008 film version of the book by Minneapolis-based writer Kate DiCamillo about “a misfit mouse who prefers reading books to eating them.”
The mouse theme features prominently in a couple of movie scenes, too:
• Jerry (of Tom and Jerry) wows us in a duet with legendary song-and-dance man Gene Kelly in this classic scene from the 1945 movie “Anchors Aweigh.”
• “Three Blind Mice,” the opening scene of the first James Bond movie, “Dr. No” (1962).
Mice have been making tracks all over TV, too:
• Mighty Mouse, a Superman parody that gained its biggest success in the 1950s and ’60s and has had several lives. The familiar theme song found new fame in the early days of “Saturday Night Live” with the late Andy Kaufman.
• The late Soupy Sales, master of the pie in the face, found brief Billboard chart fame with his 1965 dance “hit,” “The Mouse,” frequently featured on his kids’ show (or so it seemed) and such prime-time music extravaganzas as “Hullabaloo.”
• Itchy of “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” famous on “The Simpsons” — apparently the perfect program for “all children who love mice that hate cats.”
A few other miscellaneous “mice” have influenced pop culture, too:
Update: I can’t believe I forgot to include one of my favorite pop-culture “mice,” so I’m correcting that oversight right now (4/3): Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap.” The mystery play, first performed in 1952, holds the world record as the longest continuously running stage production. (If memory serves, I took my younger daughter, Amy, to see the final “Mousetrap” performance of what turned out to be the final play ever performed on the old University of Minnesota Centennial Showboat. Months later, while in dry dock for repairs and updates to its wood structure, the boat was destroyed in an accidental fire.)
• Eek-a-Mouse, the Jamaican reggae musician.
• The enduring Mouse Trap game, an unfortunate reminder of one of the (many?) “low points” of my high school career. For reasons I still don’t understand, I bizarrely chose to put together the intricate Mouse Trap contraption for my “demonstration speech” during junior-year speech class. Big mistake: Between being nervous and being a certified klutz, I managed to draw a crowd that even included on-break teachers outside the classroom door who gathered to join my classmates in rollicking laughter at my physical ineptitude at “building” the delicate mouse trap. A memory that won’t die.
• And, lastly, a daily necessity worldwide: the computer mouse, which many say first came to its omnipresent prominence with the 1984 introduction of the Apple computer in this famous commercial.