Friday, September 1, 2017



Directors/Screenplay: Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney (Uncredited)
Producers: Walt Disney (Uncredited) & Roy O. Disney (Uncredited) 

Among my most prized possessions as a kid was a collection of Disney cartoons on VHS. I still have a bunch of them somewhere packed away, and I played my Mickey Mouse Volume One to near death. It doesn’t even begin at the beginning anymore, which was a short little cartoon opening between a more modern Mickey talking to a dancing older, black-and-white Mickey, who barely made any sound much less spoke words, before they showed the first cartoon on the tape, “Steamboat Willie”. Of course, you gotta remember, those sounds, coming out of a piece of animation, Walt Disney invented. 

Sound had barely been around for a couple years, and after losing the rights to his original big creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney Studios was in desperate times when after bouncing around ideas with some of his closest workers and animators, came up with the sketches for Mickey, a more scrappy and witty variant on Oswald, he made sure to own the rights outright, but still had no distribution.

Despite Oswald, you can argue that his previous major name to fame was actually “Alice’s Wonderland” a major animation accomplishment with that short film that successfully managed to combine a live-action little girl with animated footage. His collection of the Alice cartoon series lasted over five years, but this was his last daring chance. He had created two Mickey Mouse shorts previously that didn’t get distribution and adding sound was a last gasp for him, and he just barely got it released in New York City, and of course, the rest is history as the say. His major animation houses on both coasts struggled to keep up after it broke through; Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat character was basically DOA at that point. There’s a reason why most modern Disney films now have an introduction calling back to that little mouse whistling that infamous little tune at the beginning of their logos, the whole legacy of everything that Disney as a name and brand has become and represents, started with this. 

At the time, it was jaw-dropping. People requested the main features be delayed in order to have the reel played again instead. What was startling wasn’t simply that the animation and sound were combined, it was how, with the sounds being integral to the comedy. Mickey falling down the stairs in tune, the anthropomorphic parts where the ship’s whistle are banging on one another when they miss their call. Actually, in hindsight, it plays more like a cartoon you’d expect out of the Fleishcher Studios at the time, with their focus on non-linear story and more interest in just have surreal imagery to dwell on, but while Fleischer was just beginning to figure out their own influential pieces of animation mixed with music, they were more intrigued by the jazz music of the day, and rotoscoping real people to create the animated sequences, and the perverse animal cruelty in hindsight. (Seriously, every animal is basically abused by turning them into a musical instrument, well except for the parrot, he's just abused in the normal ways animals are abused in cartoons.) Disney instead used the sounds and music he was creating as apart of the gags to create and to enhance the settings. (And when I say Disney, I mean, he used himself. He's the voice of every character in the short, despite there being no dialogue)  Even “The Jazz Singer” didn’t really do this then, that movie and several other early sound features were mostly silent movies mixed in with the most basic early sound devices and most of those were musical performances mixed to break up the otherwise silent films. They barely were figuring out ambiance at that point.
“Steamboat Willie” stands out even among the Hollywood pictures of the time for this reason. In many ways, the movie practically invented the ideas of sound designs and post-production matching of sounds. Sure, it’s still Mickey trying to impress Minnie and otherwise, just annoying his employer by using anything and everything he can find as a musical instrument, but that’s not that different than the Marx Brothers destroying whatever set they happened to stumble into at the time.

By any standard, “Steamboat Willie” changed the game, and remains an essential landmark for cinephiles and Disney aficionados alike, and remains one of the most well-known and beloved animated short films in history. There might be funnier and more memorable Disney shorts people can list and name; I can't think of anybody who lists "Steamboat Willie" as their favorite Mickey Mouse or Disney cartoon, and it’s only the first initial footsteps of what Disney would create and invent and reinvent overall, but it’s the beginning piece of creation mythos of Disney. It's what started everything and generations since have become so entranced with the brand that it's almost a whole separate subsection of the film world, even from American or Hollywood movies, hell for some, Disney is animation. Not bad for something that's seven minutes worth of black-and-white drawings.

(Whistles "Steamboat Willie") 

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