He originally hit the big screen as Super Mouse in 1942, even sporting the familiar red and blue of the character that he parodied. But by 1944, he’d picked up a new name and, later that year, a new yellow and red suit. You know him today as Mighty Mouse, he of the outsized super-powers and infectious theme song. But as popular as he was in the 77 theatrical shorts that ran between 1942 and 1954, that would pale in comparison to his reach upon his move to TV in 1955.
Mighty Mouse started animated life with a Superman parody concept from animator Isidore Klein at the Terrytoons studio. Klein suggested poking fun at the Man of Steel, but originally drew the character as a fly. Studio owner Paul Terry saw the value in the idea, but, possibly keying in on another animated icon, had the character rendered as a mouse instead. Super Mouse debuted in the 1942 theatrical short, “Mouse of Tomorrow.” The title was a play on The Man of Tomorrow, one of Superman’s many nicknames. A familiar trope of the character emerges in the first short, which features him rescuing endangered mice from scary, even fascistic, cats. As the studio cranked out more cartoons against the backdrop of World War II, the parallels between the animated cats and Nazis would get much more explicit.
The first “Super Mouse” cartoon, “Mouse of Tomorrow.” (Uploaded to YouTube by TerryToons; Public Domain)
In “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” the eighth short, the Mighty Mouse name is used for the first time. It’s clear by the eleventh installment that the studio was ready to move away from the parody costume, as they switched him to a red costume with a yellow cape. By “The Sultan’s Birthday,” the mouse’s fifteenth adventure, his look has settled into the familiar yellow and red. While Mighty Mouse continued to appear regularly on the big screen and was one of Terrytoons’s biggest characters, he wasn’t as popular as, say, Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, or other regular inhabitants of the shorts. By 1955, Terry licensed all of his Terrytoons cartoons to CBS, eventually completing a sale of the studio to the network by the following year. On December 10, 1955, Mighty Mouse became a TV star.
The first series was called Mighty Mouse Playhouse, and featured the classic shorts repackaged for TV. Mighty Mouse caught on in a big way with the public, and the show ran for just short of 12 years. The theme song by Marshall Barer, with its call of “Here I come to save the day!” became as familiar as any tune in pop culture. CBS did make three more theatrical shorts between 1959 and 1961, bringing the total to 80, but abandoned the practice with December 1961’s “Cat Alarm.”
When Playhouse ended in 1967, the character stayed alive in comic books and TV syndication packages. Mighty Mouse returned to CBS in 1979, along with fellow Terrytoon characters Heckle & Jeckle, in the aptly named The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle. The hour-long show included new cartoons for both sets of characters, as well as for Quacula (yes, a vampire duck). Each episode had one Quacula short, two Heckle & Jeckle shorts, and three spots for Mighty Mouse, one of which would be an installment of an ongoing serial called “The Great Space Chase.” In 1980, the show was cut to half an hour, and eventually moved to Sunday, before ending. The Great Space Chase theatrical film of 1982 was edited together from the 16 parts of the completed serial.
Mighty Mouse didn’t stay away from CBS for long. Famed animator Ralph Bakshi, who started his career and Terrytoons before becoming known for edgy animated features like Fritz the Cat, Wizards, and American Pop, as well as his 1978 adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, kicked off a revival series in 1987. Titled Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, the series drew critical acclaim for its new style and more sophisticated humor. Those elements could be owed in part to Bakshi, and to first season senior director John Kricfalusi, who would create Ren & Stimpy. The series even made Time’s list of the Best of 1987. Unfortunately, the show came under attack by Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, who alleged that one episode where Mighty Mouse sniffed a flower depicted cocaine usage. The fairly ludicrous story played out in the press, and though CBS released statements supporting Bakshi, the show was cancelled by 1989.
Mighty Mouse has mostly been out of the spotlight since that time, but rumblings of a reboot continue. In 2019, Paramount Animation began assembling a team for a hybrid live-action/CGI feature; writers Jon and Erich Hoeber and producers Karen Rosenfelt and Robert Cort are reportedly attached. As of November 2, 2020, the film was scheduled for an October 2022 release.
Whether the super-powered mouse grabs the attention of a new generation of fans remains to be seen. But just because he’s been in the background for a couple of decades, don’t count Mighty Mouse out. It could be on the big screen, or maybe on Paramount’s streaming service, but chances are good that he’ll be coming to save the day once again.
Featured Image: Still frame from Wolf! Wolf! From 1945. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Superraton.jpg (©CBS/Terrytoons via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain)