'Steamboat Willie' Transformed Mickey Mouse From Failure to Champion

Almost a century ago, Walt Disney embraced the talkies and built and empire outta a mouse named Mickey.

Mickey Mouse Steamboat Willie
Disney

Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we spotlight the Mickey Mouse classic ‘Steamboat Willie.’


Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse in secret. While under contract at Universal Studios, cranking out Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons, Disney gathered a small cadre of loyal animators. He felt constricted by producer Charles Mintz, and he believed total freedom would equal creative revelation. With a little help from his friends, Disney took the first steps in building an empire beneath the shadows of another.

Mickey Mouse did not start as a mouse or a Mickey. He began as merely a counterpoint to Oswald. Disney could do better, but he didn’t know what “better” looked like, or “who” better should be. A dog? A cat? A cow? A horse? A frog? All animals considered. All rejected.

Disney tasked right-hand animator Ub Iwerks to concoct a flurry of design sketches. Ideas sparked, but Disney scoffed one after the other. Any funny animal would not do. To destroy Oswald, it had to be the perfect funny animal.

Legend states that Disney landed on the mouse as a frame because he adored the tame mouse he once kept on his desk at his first studio in Kansas City. The reality might be even more elementary. Iwerks simply shortened Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, pushing his ears down and thickening his waist. At first, Disney named the creature Mortimer, but his wife recoiled at the thought and suggested the alternative. Actor Mickey Rooney would have you believe otherwise, at one point claiming he was the inspiration, but there’s no evidence to such a tale.

Mickey Mouse made his debut on May 15, 1928, during a test screening of the short film Plane Crazy. Disney and Iwerks co-directed the film, but Iwerks was its only animator, spending two weeks drawing seven-hundred frames a day to complete the project. Plane Crazy did not impress, and no distributor came forward.

Disney and Iwerks knocked out a second silent Mickey Mouse adventure, The Gallopin’ Gaucho, a comical twist on Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbuckling, no-gallopin’ The Gaucho. Again, few noticed. A key element was still missing.

In 1927, sound came to cinema via The Jazz Singer. Some saw it as an abomination, others a declaration. Walt Disney heard the future in Al Jolson’s voice and knew the Disney aesthetic would eventually connect if they could sell joy and comedy aurally as well as visually.

Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho were rehearsals. Steamboat Willie was always meant to be the big show.

While Max Fleischer’s Inkwell Studios was the first company to produce cartoons featuring synchronized sound, they were unable to replicate the experience consistently. Constructed using the Phonofilm system, Fleischer’s shorts closely maintained harmony between image and sound, but closely synchronized is not synchronized.

Always looking to crush his opponents, Disney assembled Steamboat Willie applying the Phonofilm’s competitor Cinephone, as well as a click track, which helped studio musicians keep time with the images (a feature commonly found today in any wannabe Garage Band app).

As he did for The Gallopin’ Gaucho, Disney drew narrative inspiration for Steamboat Willie from other movies. Six months earlier, Buster Keaton’s silent comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr. captured the public consciousness, rekindling enthusiasm for the song “Steamboat Bill” (the tune Mickey whistles throughout Steamboat Willie). However, rather than following the bumbling theatrics of a paddle steamer captain, Disney elected to demote Mickey Mouse to a potato-peeling lackey with delusions of grandeur.

Steamboat Willie opens with Mickey proudly squeaking his tune while spinning the steamer’s steering wheel. He’s toe-tapping, shaking his booty, and blaring the boat’s three whistles. Enter the real captain, Pete (who started life as a bear three years prior to Mickey, but Steamboat Willie redefined him as a cat, which would make any of us rather cranky). Mickey is tossed from the cabin, and forced to find entertainment through his menial tasks.

Walt Disney voiced all of the film’s characters himself, despite there being not a word of comprehensible dialogue. He wrings a spectrum of emotion from Mickey’s patented falsetto screech, taking the mouse from joyous to exasperated to mischievous and back again. As Mickey transforms the livestock and gadgets around him into a one-man band, Wilfred Jackson’s score operates as the big showstopper of the piece.

Sound took Mickey Mouse from a derivative of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit into an icon and corporate godhead. However, there were a few doubters in Disney’s cadre. Could sound truly elevate the theatrical experience?

To quash their dissension, before the production of Steamboat Willie‘s soundtrack, Disney demanded a trial screening comprised of employees and their families. On July 29, 1928, a screen was erected in the large room next to Disney’s office, and a projector was placed outside where it could beam the film through a window, maintaining enough distance, so it’s incessant whirring wouldn’t interrupt the performance.

And, no doubt, it was a performance.

Iwerks strung a bedsheet across the room behind the movie screen. From behind, Jackson roared on a mouth organ as Iwerks smashed pots and pans, producing Mickey’s percussive steamer instrumental. In charge of the sound effects was animator Johnny Cannon, rocking slide whistles and spittoons. Disney did his job, squawking and squealing for all of the characters.

Partially finished, Steamboat Willie was a sensation. The praise from the crowd was extreme, to the point that Disney thought some of them were putting him on, but he couldn’t dismiss the feeling the event stirred inside. He knew Steamboat Willie earned its applause. He knew the film would take him and his team to the next level.

The completed short premiered in New York City during the fall of the same year. It was immediately picked up for national distribution. Paired alongside the crime flick Gang War, Steamboat Willie stole its thunder, forever damning the longer adult-themed feature as that boring movie that played after Mickey Mouse.

Audiences demanded more, and their hunger granted a reprieve to Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, both of which had theatrical presentations while Disney worked on his next batch of Mickey Mouse shorts. In 1929, Disney produced ten more Mickey cartoons. In 1930, eleven. By the end of the decade, there were 109 Mickey shorts.

The last Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon debuted in 1938. Universal didn’t know it at the time, but the second Disney abandoned them, the rabbit died. There could be only one.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.