Vintage Disneyana in Europe
Paleontologists often wonder if they may consider the Homo Neandertalis as the first Human on earth or if it is still part of the Hominids, the ancestors of modern Human. While collecting early '30s "Mickey" from Europe, you are often faced with the same kind of puzzle: Is this The Mouse or is this just a "Mousoid", the modern Mouse ancestor ?
Even when you recognize a character as being definitely a Mickey, it may still be to our beloved friend what Cro-Magnons are to Homo Sapiens Sapiens, a caricature (though not as hairy). Some will be rat-like, others five-fingered, or five fingered on one hand, four fingered on the other as that Mickey I nicknamed Tchernobyl Mickey, from a Spanish cinema magazine. But not only do morphological features vary, in this uncertain era of the early '30s, so do Mickey's standards of behavior. One of his best friends on tin toys and wind-up toys is Felix the Cat (!), Mickey speaks French and English slang on postcards, and even allows Minnie to smoke on a German ceramic figure,...
The fact is that European manufacturers just went to cinemas, saw a few minutes of a cartoon, drew crude sketches and boldly reproduced them on any support they wanted to illustrate... even on a... kid's chamberpot !
And if one original Mickey Mouse was not enough to their taste, they created whole families, whole races of mickey mouses.
This frenzy of creation could have been satisfactory to the surrealists triumphing at that time on the Continent, but it certainly was not to the image caring Walt Disney. In June 1930, Walt decided to send William Banks Levy as sole representative in Europe, the home base being London. This marked the start of the "Mickey Mousens Mousens" era, but it would be hard work.
In the early '30s, Levy started controlling the European merchandize produced. The first goal was to take Mickey's image up to Studio's standards. That proved to be hard work, indeed. Five fingers, for example, were a common tradition for artists when drawing a hand even when it belonged to a mouse. Moreover, Levy, at first, tolerated some strange looking but hard selling designs, like on the Hagelberg postcards. Around 1933 however, it looks as if the majority of products were coming directly from Disney artists, even if many still did not bear the "by special authorization of Walter E. Disney" sign.
The copyright and rational merchandising is the next step, mostly started by the arrival of Kay Kamen's nephew in London in late 1933. (Levy stays but with new responsibilities). To begin with, he launched companies in most of the important markets: England, France, Italy, Portugal (for the Iberian peninsula) . In early 1934 "Mickey Mouse Ltd." appears in the U.K. soon followed by "Mickey Mouse S.A." created in 1934 in France and Walt Disney Enterprise in Italy and Portugal. After the war they would all become WDP, exept the French one that keeps its old name for a while.
The way manufacturers express the fact that they are officially licensed vary greatly and is far from unified: "Genuine Walt Disney copyright", "Par autorisation spéciale de Walt Disney Enterprise", "By permission Walt Disney-Mickey Mouse Ltd.", etc. and recalls a bit the "pre-Levy/Kamem" creative anarchy. But little by little, the "by permission of Mickey Mouse Ltd. (or S.A. in France for example)" prevails.
The image unifying itself was lengthy and complex. In France, for example, the soon-to-be creator of the weekly Journal de Mickey, Paul Winkler, had been granted a special authorization by Walt Disney covering only publications which was not submitted to Levy's authority. While the first French albums (1931 on) were "disneyly correct", reproducing Iwerks and Gottfredson strips, in the first Disney book published in France (1932): "Mickey et Minnie", our friends officially marry at the end, living the life of a settled couple !
The most fascinating element of the European disneyana history is the way image unification worked. The "ekta-process" actually seems to have started then. From one set of ekta photographs taken from a Disney feature today can be created from 30 to 100 different European publications in average: this is the "ekta-process".
In the mid-'30s, it looks as if 4 to 5 sets of drawings have given birth to hundreds of different products. Those drawings were essentially reproductions of the Blue Ribbon Books: from French Hachette publications to English jigsaw puzzles, china and postcards, the same images are used and reused. But as in the current "ekta-process", the creativity of the producers makes up for the small range of images; while new original designs are not always forbidden.
As you will see in future articles, the Mouse manufacturers were not, as suggested by the title, mere copycats.
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