Steamboat Willie (1928)

When talking about Steamboat Willie it’s almost more important to talk about what it’s not than what it is, as so many myths have sprung up about these seven minutes of animation. So, for the record Steamboat Willie is not:

  • The first Mickey Mouse cartoon.
  • The first Walt Disney cartoon.
  • The first cartoon to feature sound.

Willie’s real claim to fame is a little less sexy. It’s the first cartoon to use fully integrated sound and visuals, where the sound and pictures were recorded on the same film. There were other cartoons that used sound and music before this, but that basically involved playing the movie and the music on two separate tracks and hoping that they’d keep in sync like Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon. It doesn’t sound like it should make a huge difference but it really does. Take a look at Inkwell’s My Old Kentucky Home from 1926.

Wow, second sentence. You are so out of date in so many different ways that its almost impressive.

Wow, second sentence. You are so out of date in so many different ways that its almost impressive.

Now take a look at Steamboat Willie.

Synchronisation completely changes how you experience the cartoon. When you’re watching My Old Kentucky Home your brain thinks “I’m watching the dog move his mouth while a recording plays.” When you watchSteamboat Willie your brain thinks “The mouse is whistling.” With this marriage of sound and image all the elements are finally in place. This film, rough, scratchy and monochrome though it may be, is nonetheless the first modern cartoon.
Steamboat Willie was a sensation when it was released, making household names of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. And of course it also made a star out of Ub Iwerks who actually animated the damn thing…
Homer Laughing
Sorry Ub. To quote another Disney character, “Life’s not fair, is it?”
But, aside from its monumental historical and technical influence is Steamboat Willie any…y’know…good? Well, it’s probably not the best work of any of the people involved. And it certainly doesn’t fill me with the wonder of Winsor McCay’s shorts of almost twenty years prior. But it’s not without its charms. If Disney’s new series of Mickey Mouse shorts have taught me anything it’s just how deceptively versatile and charming the original Mickey Mouse design is. And there are some scenes, like Minnie running alongside the boat, that are actually quite technically challenging and impressive. But we will never really be able to understand the impact this short had on its original audience. We’ve spent our entire lives so immersed in sound and images that we’ve lost that innocence.
Our minds literally cannot conceive of how jaw-dropping this little short about a mouse goofing off on a boat must have been.
***
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31 comments

  1. I’ll probably watch this one someday for Completionism’s sake, but for now all I’ll say is that thanks to Cracked, whenever I look at the words “Steamboat Willie” I wind up thinking of something offensively hilarious (or is it hilariously offensive…?).

  2. The new Mickey cartoons are goddam fantastic. I started watching them about 4 or 5 months ago and got absolutely hooked. Always a treat to see a new one when I open up Youtube

    1. Not at all. I mean, it’s right there at the start “An Ub Iwerks cartoon.” There’s a world of difference between the Walt Disney’s and Stan Lee’s of the world who were just better self promoters than their collaborators and the Thomas Edisons /Bob King’s who straight up stole credit.

  3. Can you believe that this is the first time, that I watched this monumental short all the way through? Anyway… Í simply can’t get over how bizarre these old black and white Mickey Mouse shorts were, even for being cartoons. It is like when Disney changed to color, everything just became more realistic (as much as a cartoon can be realistic, of course). And damn, that cruelty to animals! I was this close to want to murder Mickey, when he started yanking that cat’s tail to make him into some musical instrument. Eeek!

    And when it comes to understanding the impact, that a short like “Steamboat Willie” had back in 1928? Yeah… It is like how I will never fully understand how my mother felt, when the rock’n’roll music came in the 1950s. And you have to be more than ninety years old to remember the days, when these old shorts were new. But still, you only have to compare “Steamboat Willie” to “My old Kentucky home” to get an idea.

    1. Compared to Early Tintin, Early Mickey was a member of PETA. Milou/Snowy was pretty much the only animal safe around that guy.

      1. True, Tintin was terrible with the poor animals in “Tintin in Congo”. I’m so glad that both Hergé and Walt Disney matured away from such cruelties.

  4. Looking forward to more short reviews. As for Steamboat Willie… I certainly appreciate the technical landmark qualities of the short, and the animation is at times impressively fluid. I cannot, however, get over the outright creepiness of these black-and-white era cartoons. The huge pale eyes, the body-horror-inducing cooked-spaghetti limbs, the sheer nonsensical, near-plotless otherworldliness… I remember somebody saying, with reference to cartoons of this era, that this is how Mussolini must have dreamt. There’s certainly a dream-like, surrealistic atmosphere that the later, colour Disney shorts lack. The stream-of-consciousness plotting – take a character, put them in a certain environment, allow for a few minutes of directionless slapstick – is reminiscent of early slapstick cinema, though I must say I find Chaplin much less unsettling and much more concentrated than this.

    Also, could we please agree that B&W era Mickey is an ASSHOLE? I’ve always had a visceral resistance to the way these early animations seem to think intentional animal cruelty makes for instant comedy. Just look how Mickey tortures the cat before hurling it away – presumably overboard. (We certainly never see the cat again.) Note that this isn’t a Tom & Jerry sort of thing – the cat is clearly a ‘lower’ animal while Mickey is obviously a person. Well, enough feline torture, now let’s throttle a goose. They make the funniest noises when brought to the threshold of death. You know, for kids! It’s genuinely disturbing to me how readily these guys go for animal abuse as if it were a comedic philosophers’ stone. There’s something lazy and mean-spirited about it, and this tendency is by no means restricted to this one cartoon.

      1. Indeed. In fact the entirety of the new cartoon series was conceived as an elaborate form of collective payback torture. I’m not proud of it, but it pays for the daily Schnitzel and Strudel.

    1. Oh yeah, I agree with you so much. Both about the over the top bizarrity and the cruelty to those poor animals. I shudder to think that people in 1928 supposedly found it funny to see Mickey treat the cat, the goose and the piglets that way. Ugh…

  5. Some pedantic comments: Animal cruelty aside, is anyone else weirded out by the fact that the second cat is so much smaller and seemlingly less intelligent than Pete in this cartoon? Was that his kid or is there a hierarchy of anthropomorphy in the Disney universe? If that’s the case, that would also explain the Goofy-Pluto paradox. Also, why does Minnie have boobs? Am I maybe just reading too much into it? Am I asking too many questions?

    1. The first of Some Guy’s self-confessedly ‘pedantic comments’ addresses an old yet unresolved argument that inevitably rears its head in all fiction featuring antropomorphic animals (or zoomorphic humans). Within the Disney universe, the borders are somewhat clear: if the creatures wear clothes in a social setting and eschew animalistic behaviour, they are persons, that is, people with beaks, feathers, tails, snouts etc. If they’re normally found naked and acting in animalistic way – and if their size vis-à-vis their physical environs matches that of an actual, say, duck – they’re animals. The less said about the necessary origins of this biologico-societal arrangement the better. (There is a desperate need for a scholarly monograph on the subject though.)

      Thus, the goose tortured by the rodent-person Mickey in this particular cartoon is clearly an animal, while Donald Duck and Yours Truly must be regarded as persons, as we are semi-attired, opposably-thumbed, societally endowed, and linguistically capable. This, dear friends, is no less than the line between avian and human in the Disney universe. (Personally, I prefer the term ‘humavian’.) There’s a lot of grey area – Chip & Dale etc. – but the general division is somewhat clear. In terms of ‘Steamboat Willie’, we find Proto-Pete (seriously, how many people truly see Pete as a feline first and foremost?) [1] wearing human attire presumably of his own volition [2] in physical proportions that roughly equal those of an adult Homo sapiens [3] walking on two feet and using two hands with opposable thumb and [4] exhibiting various forms of uniquely human behaviour, including piloting a fucking steamboat, following a presumed shcedule, keeping pets of his own (the parrot, the cat), chewing enormous bits of tobacco and so forth. These features should, within the Disney shorts universe, be enough to draw a clear distincion between Pete, a person, and the abused cat, an animal.

      Now in the WB Looney Tunes Universe, these distincions are much more blurred. Human hunters communicate linguistically with their highly articulate prey, wild coyotes have access to post order catalogues, and ducks and rabbits debate whose hunting season is at hand. That is a different can of anthropomorphic worms altogether.

      And yes, Some Guy is definitely reading too much into it while asking altogether too many questions. Too much and too many for a conventionally reasonable person, that is. But I doubt too many such personages frequent these fora.

      1. Perhaps Disney-verse is like “Cow Boys of Moo Mesa” where the magical comet McGuffin endowed some animals with anthropomorphism (like the cows, vultures, scorpions) but not others (like the horses that they ride.)

  6. I thought that while Steemboat Willie was not the first Mickey cartoon made it was released first? Too lazy to check now and you are probably right in the end anyway.

  7. I used to think that the joke in your depiction of Mickey Mouse (am I allowed to break the 4th wall here?) was that him being a diabolical sadist was at odds with his usual portrayal. Turns out all you were doing was continuing his story from torturing small animals all the way to the inevitable conclusion.

  8. Ahh, Steamboat Willie. Or I-Can’t-Get-Turkey-In-The-Straw-Out-Of-My-Head-Now. And yes, not the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. I remember Just Plane Crazy. And I remember Ub. At least I remember him. Poor Ub.

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