Steamboat Willie is a 1928 American animated short film directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks.[2] It was produced in black and white by Walt Disney Studio and was released by Pat Powers, under the name of Celebrity Productions.[3] The cartoon is considered the debut of both Mickey and Minnie Mouse, although both characters appeared several months earlier in a test screening of Plane Crazy.[4] Steamboat Willie was the third of Mickey's films to be produced, but it was the first to be distributed, because Disney, having seen The Jazz Singer, had committed himself to produce one of the first fully synchronized sound cartoons.[5]

Steamboat Willie
Theatrical release poster[1]
Directed by
Story by
  • Walt Disney
  • Ub Iwerks
Produced by
StarringWalt Disney
Music by
Animation by
Color processBlack and white
Distributed byPat Powers (Celebrity Productions/Cinephone sound)
Release date
  • November 18, 1928 (1928-11-18)
(United States)
Running time
CountryUnited States

Steamboat Willie is especially notable for being one of the first cartoons with synchronized sound, as well as one of the first cartoons to feature a fully post-produced soundtrack, which distinguished it from earlier sound cartoons, such as Inkwell Studios' Song Car-Tunes (1924–1926), My Old Kentucky Home (1926) and Van Beuren Studios' Dinner Time (1928). Disney believed that synchronized sound was the future of film. Steamboat Willie became the most popular cartoon of its day.

Music for Steamboat Willie was arranged by Wilfred Jackson and Bert Lewis, and it included the songs "Steamboat Bill", a composition popularized by baritone Arthur Collins during the 1910s, and the popular 19th-century folk song "Turkey in the Straw".[6] The title of the film may be a parody of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928),[7] itself a reference to the song by Collins. Disney performed all of the voices in the film, although there is little intelligible dialogue.[a]

The film has received wide critical acclaim, not only for introducing one of the world's most popular cartoon characters but also for its technical innovation. The short is often considered to be one of the most influential cartoons ever made. Animators voted Steamboat Willie as the 13th-greatest cartoon of all time in the 1994 book The 50 Greatest Cartoons, and in 1998, the film was selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.[9] The cartoon entered the public domain in the United States on January 1, 2024, as the work was published in 1928.

Background edit

Mickey Mouse was created as a replacement for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an earlier cartoon character that was created by the Disney studio but owned at the time by Universal Pictures.[10] The first two Mickey Mouse films produced, silent versions of Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho, had failed to gain a distributor. According to Roy O. Disney, Walt Disney was inspired to create a sound cartoon after watching The Jazz Singer (1927). Disney believed that adding sound to a cartoon would greatly increase its appeal.[11]

Despite being recognized for it, Steamboat Willie was not the first cartoon with synchronized sound.[12] Starting in May 1924 and continuing through September 1926, Dave and Max Fleischer's Inkwell Studios produced 19 sound cartoons, part of the Song Car-Tunes series, using the Phonofilm sound-on-film process. However, the Song Car-Tunes failed to keep the sound fully synchronized, while Steamboat Willie was produced using a click track to keep his musicians on the beat.[13] As little as one month before Steamboat Willie was released, Paul Terry released Dinner Time, which also used a soundtrack, but Dinner Time was not a financial success.

In June 1927, producer Pat Powers made an unsuccessful takeover bid for Lee de Forest's Phonofilm Corporation. In the aftermath, Powers hired a former DeForest technician, William Garrity, to produce a cloned version of the Phonofilm system, which Powers dubbed "Powers Cinephone". By then, de Forest was in too weak a financial position to mount a legal challenge against Powers for patent infringement. Powers convinced Disney to use Cinephone for Steamboat Willie; their business relationship lasted until 1930 when Powers and Disney had a falling-out over money, and Powers hired away Disney's lead animator, Ub Iwerks.[citation needed]

Plot edit

The full short film Steamboat Willie

Mickey Mouse is piloting a steam river paddle steamer, cheerfully whistling "Steamboat Bill" and sounding the boat's three whistles. Soon, the captain, Pete, appears and orders Mickey off the bridge. Mickey blows a raspberry at Pete. Pete attempts to kick him, but Mickey rushes away in time and Pete accidentally kicks himself in the rear. Mickey falls down the stairs, slips on a bar of soap on the boat's deck, and lands in a bucket of water. A parrot laughs at him and Mickey throws the bucket on its head.

Pete, who has been watching the occurrence, pilots the steamboat himself. He bites off some chewing tobacco and spits into the wind. The spit flies backward and rings the boat's bell. Amused, Pete spits again, but this time the spit hits him in the face, to his dismay.

The steamboat makes a stop at "Podunk Landing" to pick up a cargo of various livestock. Mickey has trouble getting one of the slimmer cows with a FOB tag onto the boat attached to a harness. To solve this, Mickey fills the cow's stomach up with hay to fatten the slim cow into the harness. Just as they set off again, Minnie Mouse appears, running to catch the boat before it leaves. Mickey does not see her in time, but she runs after the boat along the shore calling out Mickey's name. Mickey hears Minnie's calls and he takes her on board by hooking the cargo crane to her bloomers.

Landing on deck, Minnie accidentally drops a ukulele and sheet music for the song "Turkey in the Straw", which are eaten by a goat. After a brief tug of war with the goat over the eaten ukulele, Mickey accidentally lets go of it. The goat goes dizzy over the use of force, and the two mice begin using the goat's body as a phonograph, which they play by turning its tail like a crank. This makes the two mice laugh. Mickey uses various objects on the boat as percussion accompaniment and "plays" the animals like musical instruments. This includes pulling the tail of a cat, stretching a goose's throat, tugging on the tails of baby pigs, playing with the teats of their nursing mother pig, and using a cow's teeth and tongue to play the song as a xylophone.[14][15][16]

Captain Pete is unamused by the musical act and puts Mickey to work peeling potatoes as a punishment. Out of spite, Mickey uses a knife to peel the potatoes wastefully, discarding most of the potato along with the skin. In the potato bin, the same parrot that laughed at him earlier appears in the porthole and laughs at him again. Fed up with the bird's heckling, Mickey throws a half-peeled potato at it, knocking it back into the river below. Mickey then laughs as he sits next to the potatoes and hears the parrot drowning.

Dialogue edit

Mickey, Minnie, and Pete perform in near-pantomime, with growls and squeaks but no intelligible dialogue. The only dialogue in the film is spoken by the ship's parrot. When Mickey falls into a bucket of soapy water, the bird says, "Hope you don't feel hurt, big boy! Ha ha ha ha ha!".[17] It then cries "Help! Help! Man overboard!" after Mickey throws the bucket onto the parrot's head. At the end of the short, the parrot repeats the phrase, and after it falls into the water, it cries, "Help! Man overboard!".[18]

Production edit

Pete (left) confronts Mickey (right) on the bridge of the steamboat

The production of Steamboat Willie took place between July and September 1928, which according to Roy O. Disney's personal notes had a budget of $4,986.69, including the prints for movie theaters.[19] There was initially some doubt among the animators that a sound cartoon would appear believable enough, so before a soundtrack was produced, Disney arranged for a screening of the film to a test audience with live sound to accompany it.[20] This screening took place on July 29, with Steamboat Willie only partly finished. The audience sat in a room adjoining Walt Disney's office. His brother Roy placed the movie projector outdoors and the film was projected through a window so that the sound of the projector would not interfere with the live sound. Ub Iwerks set up a bedsheet behind the movie screen behind which he placed a microphone connected to speakers where the audience would sit. The live sound was produced from behind the bedsheet. Wilfred Jackson played the music on a mouth organ, Ub Iwerks banged on pots and pans for the percussion segment, and Johnny Cannon provided sound effects with various devices, including slide whistles and spittoons for bells. Walt Disney provided what little dialogue there was to the film, mostly grunts, laughs, and squawks. After several practices, they were ready for the audience, which consisted of Disney employees and their wives.

The response of the audience was extremely positive, and it gave Walt Disney the confidence to move forward and complete the film. He said later in recalling this first viewing:

The effect on our little audience was nothing less than electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion. I thought they were kidding me. So they put me in the audience and ran the action again. It was terrible, but it was wonderful! And it was something new!

Iwerks said: "I've never been so thrilled in my life. Nothing since has ever equaled it."[21]

Walt Disney traveled to New York City to hire a company to produce the soundtrack, since no such facilities existed in Los Angeles. He eventually settled on Pat Powers's Cinephone system,[22] created by Powers using an updated version of Lee De Forest's Phonofilm system, without giving De Forest any credit.[23]

The music in the final soundtrack was performed by the Green Brothers Novelty Band and was conducted by Carl Edouarde. Joe and Lew Green from the band also assisted in timing the music to the film. The first attempt to synchronize the recording with the film, done on September 15, 1928, was a disaster.[24] Disney had to sell his Moon roadster in order to finance a second recording. This was a success, with the addition of a filmed bouncing ball to keep the tempo.[25]

Release and reception edit

The Broadway Theatre in New York, seen in 2007, where Steamboat Willie was first shown in 1928; the venue was known as "Universal's Colony Theatre" at the time

Steamboat Willie premiered at Universal's Colony Theater in New York City on November 18, 1928.[26] The film was distributed by Celebrity Productions, and its initial run lasted two weeks. Disney was paid $500 a week (~$9,000 in 2024).[25] In its first run, the picture was presented five times a day.[27] It played ahead of the independent feature film Gang War.[4] Steamboat Willie was an immediate hit, while Gang War has since been lost and all but forgotten today.

A Colony theatre bill, from November 18, 1928, promoting Steamboat Willie in the second row

The success of Steamboat Willie not only led to international fame for Walt Disney but for Mickey as well.

Variety (November 21, 1928) wrote:

Not the first animated cartoon to be synchronized with sound effects, but the first to attract favorable attention. This one represents a high order of cartoon ingenuity, cleverly combined with sound effects. The union brought forth laughs galore. Giggles came so fast at the Colony [Theater] they were stumbling over each other. It's a peach of a synchronization job all the way, bright, snappy, and fit the situation perfectly. Cartoonist, Walter Disney. With most of the animated cartoons qualifying as a pain in the neck, it's a signal tribute to this particular one. If the same combination of talent can turn out a series as good as Steamboat Willie they should find a wide market if the interchangeability angle does not interfere. Recommended unreservedly for all wired houses.[28]

The Film Daily (November 25, 1928) said:

This is what Steamboat Willie has: First, a clever and amusing treatment; secondly, music and sound effects added via the Cinephone method. The result is a real tidbit of diversion. The maximum has been gotten from the sound effects. Worthy of bookings in any house wired to reproduce sound-on-film. Incidentally, this is the first Cinephone-recorded subject to get a public exhibition and at the Colony [Theater], New York, is being shown over Western Electric equipment.[29]

Special honors edit

In 1994, members of the animation field voted Steamboat Willie 13th in the book The 50 Greatest Cartoons, which listed the greatest cartoons of all time.[30] In 1998, the short was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[31] The Australian Perth Mint released a 1 kg gold coin in honor of Steamboat Willie in 2015.[32]

Copyright status edit

A 2024 illustration of Steamboat Willie entering the public domain

Prior to its entrance into the public domain, the film had been the center of a variety of controversies regarding copyright. Its copyright was extended by multiple acts of the United States Congress. Since the copyright was filed in 1928 three days after its initial release,[33] it was extended for over half a century.[34]

Steamboat Willie could have entered the public domain in four different years: first in 1955,[35] at which point it was renewed to 1986,[36] then extended to 2003 by the Copyright Act of 1976,[37] and finally to 2023 by the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (also known pejoratively as the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act").[38] It has been claimed that these extensions were a response by Congress to extensive lobbying by The Walt Disney Company.[39]

In the 1990s, former Disney researcher Gregory S. Brown determined that the film was likely in U.S. public domain already due to errors in the original copyright formulation.[40] In particular, the original film's copyright notice had two additional names between Disney and the copyright statement. Thus, under the rules of the Copyright Act of 1909, all copyright claims would be null.[41][40] Arizona State University professor Dennis Karjala suggested that one of his law school students look into Brown's claim as a class project. Lauren Vanpelt took up the challenge and produced a paper agreeing with Brown's claim. She posted her project on the Internet in 1999.[42] Disney later threatened to sue a Georgetown University law student who wrote a paper confirming Brown's claims,[43] alleging that publishing the paper could be slander of title, but Disney chose not to sue after its publication.[44]

Excerpt from the short on which the Walt Disney Animation Studios production logo (2007–present) was based,[45] it has been speculated that it was done to extend protection for the 1928 version, under trademark law[46][47]

Beginning in 2022, several Republican lawmakers vowed to oppose any future attempt to extend the copyright term due to Disney's opposition of the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act. Legal experts noted that later versions of Mickey Mouse created after Steamboat Willie will remain copyrighted, and Disney's use of the Steamboat Willie version as a logo in its films since 2007 may allow them to claim protection for the 1928 version under trademark law, as active trademarks can be renewed in perpetuity (so long as the owner can prove using it).[46][47]

In April 2023, John Oliver announced his intention to use the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse as the new mascot for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver as soon as the cartoon entered the public domain in 2024, and debuted the "brand new character".[48]

Not affecting trademark status,[49] Steamboat Willie entered the US public domain on January 1, 2024, more than 95 years after its release.[50][51]

Although it was believed that only the black and white depiction of Mickey Mouse, which lacks the red shorts and gloves, would enter the public domain, it has been pointed out that a 1928 promotional poster for Mickey Mouse features the character's red shorts and yellow shoes, putting those attributes into the public domain and available for anyone to use.[52][better source needed]

In other media edit

Disney Music Group released a vinyl record with the music score of "Steamboat Willie" in 2018

Television and film edit

The fourth-season 1992 episode of The Simpsons "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie" features a short parody of the opening scene of Steamboat Willie, entitled Steamboat Itchy.[53]

In the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, set in 1944, a German prisoner of war, nicknamed "Steamboat Willie", tries to win the sympathy of his American captors by talking about Mickey Mouse.[54]

In the 2008 film of the TV series Futurama titled The Beast with a Billion Backs, the opening is a parody of Steamboat Willie.[55]

As part of their 100-year anniversary, in July 2023, Disney released a The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse special and series finale entitled Steamboat Silly featuring multiple copies of Mickey as he appears in this short.[56][57]

The first cinematic adaption of Steamboat Willie since its entry to public domain was the live-action art film Social Imagineering by multidisciplinary artist Sweætshops released at midnight on January 1, 2024, which was filmed on the PS Waverley paddle steamer.[58]

Video games edit

Steamboat Willie–themed levels are featured in the video games Mickey Mania (1994),[59] Kingdom Hearts II (2005),[60] and Epic Mickey (2010).[61] An alternate Steamboat Willie-themed costume of Kingdom Hearts' Sora was featured in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (2018).[62] The Steamboat Willie versions of Mickey Mouse and Pete are featured as playable racers in Disney Speedstorm (2023).[63][64]

Other use by Disney edit

In 1993, to coincide with the opening of Mickey's Toontown in Disneyland, a shortened cover of the cartoon's music was arranged to be featured in the land's background ambiance.[65]

In 2007, a Steamboat Willie clip of Mickey whistling started being used for Walt Disney Animation Studios' production logo.[66][67]

In 2019, Lego released an official Steamboat Willie set to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Mickey Mouse.[68]

The whistle in the film has been used to make sound in the Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway attraction, which opened at Disneyland in January 2023.[69]

Release history edit

Theatrical edit

  • July 1928 – first sound test screening (silent with live sound)
  • September 1928 – first attempt to synchronize the recording on the film
  • November 1928 – original theatrical release with final soundtrack
  • 1972 – The Mouse Factory, episode #33: "Tugboats" (TV)
  • 1990s – Mickey's Mouse Tracks, episode #45 (TV)
  • 1996 – Mickey's Greatest Hits
  • 1997 – Ink & Paint Club, episode #2 "Mickey Landmarks" (TV)
  • Ongoing – Main Street Cinema at Disneyland

Cuts edit

A segment of film cut from a Steamboat Willie reel by a 1930s cinema

In the 1950s, Disney removed a scene in which Mickey tugs on the tails of the baby pigs, and then picks up the mother and kicks them off her teats, and plays her like an accordion, since television distributors deemed it inappropriate.[70] A variant of this censored version is featured on the 1998 VHS/Laserdisc compilation special The Spirit of Mickey, where the first part of said scene with Mickey pulling on the piglets' tails is reinstated. Since then, the full version of the film was included on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD set "Mickey Mouse in Black and White", as well as on Disney+ and the Disney website.[71]

Home media edit

See also edit

Notes edit

  1. ^ The only spoken words are when Pete mutters "Get down there!" and several times the parrot says "Help! Man overboard!" and "Hope you don't feel hurt, big boy!"[8]

References edit

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