“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing—that it was all started by a mouse.” – Walt Disney
Welcome to Mickey Monday here at 23&Main. Mickey Monday is dedicated to one of the most recognizable, enduring, and lovable icons. We are talking about Mickey Mouse of course! Like Walt has said, without Mickey Mouse there wouldn’t be Disney as we know and love it. For over 90 years Mickey Mouse has made us smile, laugh and help us appreciate the things that really matter in our lives. It’s almost surreal to think that an animated mouse could make such an impact. So, we decided to celebrate the magic that is Mickey Mouse each Monday. It will be sure to be a swell journey, so come on along with us!
The first edition of Mickey Monday was a lot of fun to put together, we discovered a whole lot of hidden history behind Sorcerer Mickey. So if you missed it be sure to check it out here!
This edition of Mickey Monday will hop onboard the steamboat with our favorite character at the helm. So climb on and lets take a look behind the magic that brought us Steamboat Willie!
Steamboat Willie is one of those characters that is instantly recognizable. Even people who’ve never seen the actual film can immediately identify Mickey in this starring role. Like most successful projects and works of art, there is some very unique history behind the origins of Steamboat Willie. To truly understand the magic behind Steamboat Willie, we have try and understand why this character was even created.
Summer of 1928
Walt Disney was busy finishing up his contractual obligation with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but he was also secretly working behind the scenes on short animated films featuring a new character – Mickey Mouse. Many people falsely believe that Steamboat Willie was Mickey’s debut in film. In fact this film was Mickey’s third after the silent films Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho both of which failed to land a distributor at the time. While it’s not technically true that Steamboat Willie was Mickey’s debut, it was really the first time a large audience got was introduced to Mickey and to Minnie Mouse as well.
Failing to land a distributor for Mickey’s first two films convinced Walt Disney that audiences craved something new and innovative. The Jazz Signer inspired Walt to commit to bringing a fully synchronized sound cartoon to audiences. In today’s world of streaming video, smartphones and social media adding something as simple as sound to a film seems far from innovative. In 1928 the addition of synchronized sound with a film was as revolutionary as something like 5G today.
Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks started making Steamboat Willie as a parody of the film Steamboat Bill Jr. In fact Steamboat Bill is the famous tune Mickey is heard whistling. Walt Disney understood that synchronized sound films were the future which is why he was so committed to this idea. The dedication paid off, Steamboat Willie became the first Disney cartoon with synchronized sound as well the first cartoon with a fully post produced soundtrack. This distinguished Disney from the few other films dabbling in the idea of adding sound. Steamboat Willie is also the first time audiences get to hear Walt Disney himself. He did all voices for this film, although there isn’t really any dialog. Besides the technological firsts, it is also widely considered the true debut of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The film quickly became the most popular cartoon of its day.
With a budget of about $4986 Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks set out to make this film a reality. Some of the animators expressed doubt that adding sound would benefit the film. To put them at ease and prove the concept, Disney arranged for a test screening. Disney employees and their wives made up the audience for this event. The screening room was just off of Walt’s main office. Placed outside to prevent the sound it made from messing with the sounds of the film, the projector played the movie through a window. For this test run the sounds were live. To produce the sounds Walt and Ub Iwerks set up a bed sheet to separate them from the audience. They banged on pots and pans and played music on a mouth organ. It took them a few practice runs but when they were ready the ushered in the audience. It was a resounding success!
Walt Disney then traveled to New York to hire to record and produce the sound system he wanted to be used. He choose Pat Power’s Cinephone system for this task. The first attempt at synchronizing the music and sounds to the film was a complete disaster. Walt Disney had to sell his Moon roadster in order to finance a second recording. Using what they learned from the first attempt, the second recording went really well and set the standard for films at that time.
Steamboat Willie – Release
Released on November 18, 1928 to audiences at Universal’s Colony Theater in New York City. Celebrity pictures distributed the 7 minute and 48 second film was. The initial run was only two weeks. Steamboat Willie played ahead of an independent feature titled Gang War. Steamboat Willie became the 1928 version of a viral video. Gang War was soon forgotten about. The release earned Disney $500 a week.
Critics in the film industry loved the film and praised the technology, the animation and the overall story. The publications Variety and The Film Daily both recommended the film be picked up in any theater wired for sound. The two earlier Mickey features were reproduced with sound and re-released. It’s fair to say that the success of Steamboat Willie launched not only an Icon in Mickey but the entire Walt Disney company.
Steamboat Willie – The Story
A happily whistling Mickey Mouse (whistling the tune Steamboat Bill) is piloting a steam powered riverboat, we only assume Mickey is the captain. Turns out the real captain, Pete, doesn’t like what he sees and orders Mickey off the bridge. Mickey, not going away easily, blows a raspberry at Pete. Pete them attempts to kick Mickey but misses and ends up kicking himself. It wasn’t a clean getaway for Mickey though, he slips on a bar of soap and lands in a bucket of water. A parrot cracks up laughing at Mickey and he angrily throws the bucket at it.
The steamboat stops to pick some cargo and livestock at “Podunk Landing”. This is where we meet Minnie for the first time. Just as the steamboat starts to pull away, Minnie appears and is running to try and catch the boat. Mickey didn’t see her in time and she has to run along the shoreline to try and get on. Mickey uses a cargo crane and hooks onto her clothing to pull her onboard.
Minnie drops a ukulele and some sheet music which are eaten by the livestock they just put onboard. Mickey and Minnie use the opportunity to “play” the animals like instruments. Due to perceived cruelty to animals, parts of this segment (about 30 seconds) were edited out of some later releases. The full feature including this scene is now available on Disney+.
Pete is not a fan of the musical act and makes Mickey go peel potatoes. The parrot the mocked Mickey earlier returns and is laughing at him again. Mickey throws a partially peeled potato at it, knocking the bird into the river. The film ends with Mickey laughing as he sits with his pile of potatoes.
Accolades for Steamboat Willie
Seventy years after it was made, Steamboat Willie was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1998. Deemed culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant; the film has been selected for preservation. Steamboat Willie is 13th in the book The 50 Greatest Cartoons which ranks the greatest cartoons of all time. It received worldwide critical acclaim when released and is still recognized today as a ground breaking feature cartoon.
We hope you liked our second edition of Mickey Monday! It was certainly fun putting this together and sharing some of the magic with you. We are also looking forward to putting together future editions. While we have some great things planned, we’d love to hear from you, our loyal fans on what Mickey character, attraction, story, film etc. you’d like to see featured. So go ahead and comment below on this edition and let us know what you’d like to see.