#150) Steamboat Willie (1928)

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#150) Steamboat Willie (1928)

OR “Word of Mouse”

Directed & Written by Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney

Class of 1998

The Plot: Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney) is the pilot of a steamboat run by the mean-spirited Pete (also voiced by Walt Disney). Mickey spends most of this short singing and dancing with his best gal Minnie (also also voiced by Walt Disney), and tormenting every animal in sight. All of this set to the new modern miracle of synchronized sound!

Why It Matters: The NFR describes it as “the film that introduced the world to Mickey Mouse” as well as the one that “established Walt Disney as a key player in the animation industry”. There’s also a detailed essay by Disney Archives Chief Emeritus Dave Smith.

But Does It Really?: It’s certainly not the laugh riot it was back in the day, but the historical and cultural significance of “Steamboat Willie” cannot be denied. Definitely worth a viewing as a pivotal moment in film history. Plus the songs are really catchy.

Shout Outs: The film gets its title and general premise from Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill Jr.”, which makes sense seeing as how no one in this short is named Willie.

Everybody Gets One: We’ll see plenty more from Walt and his crew, but this is the only NFR entry for Walt’s brother Roy. Eight years older than Walt, Roy Disney was by all accounts a loving and supportive big brother. When Roy moved to Los Angeles after World War I, he became a banker, and when Walt joined him in L.A. a few years later, the two founded the Disney Bros. Studio, with Walt focusing on the creative aspects and Roy being the finance guy. Roy was a producer on “Steamboat Willie” and many previous shorts, before Walt bought out Roy’s shares in 1929. Roy continued to serve as CEO and Co-Chairman of the Board at Disney until his death in 1971, five years after Walt.

Wow, That’s Dated: Steamboats. That’s a big one. Also, the only reason this film exists was to cash in on the new sound craze in movies.

Other notes

  • “Steamboat Willie” preceded the film “Gang War” in theaters. The short is considered culturally significant, while the film is so obscure it no longer exists.
  • In addition to co-directing and co-writing, Ub Iwerks animated nearly every frame of this film himself.
  • While not the first animated film with synchronized sound, it was the first one to be successful. As always, history is written by the winners.
  • The song Mickey is whistling at the beginning is “Steamboat Bill”. Did you know that the song has lyrics? I sure didn’t.
  • Ah yes, back when Peg Leg Pete actually looked like a cat. And no longer had a peg leg.
  • Wow, an extended tobacco chewing sequence, you don’t see that anymore.
  • What is Minnie wearing? Is that a coconut bra? Pasties? A weird shirt design?
  • Say what you will about Minnie, she is a runner. She’s practically caught up with the boat!
  • Mickey Mouse’s film debut features him recklessly swinging a cat around in the air.
  • Excellent pre-“Flintstones” use of animals for instruments. It’s a living.
  • Primitive as it may be, the animation of Mickey’s reactions is quite good. Well done, Ub. I’ll do what Walt never could and give you the credit you deserve.

Legacy

  • As previously mentioned, this put Walt Disney on the map. So let’s blame “Steamboat Willie” for that Disney nature documentary where they pushed lemmings off a cliff.
  • “Steamboat Willie” gave us Mickey Mouse as we know him. Disney is still making shorts with the Mouse, and if you’re not watching the new ones, you are missing out.
  • The mouse caught the cat. The success of “Steamboat Willie” led to Pat Sullivan trying to convert Felix the Cat to sound. The attempt was unsuccessful and all but ended the Felix shorts.
  • The famous shot of Mickey steering the boat is the current logo for Walt Disney Animation.
  • Many spoofs over the years, including several by Disney. But the best will always be “Steamboat Itchy”.
  • In addition to its artistic legacy, “Steamboat Willie” is responsible for how long films are copyrighted in this country. The latest extension on “Steamboat Willie” (good until 2023) was in 1998, the same year the short was added to the NFR. What an amazing coincidence that had nothing to do with any sort of push from Disney.

Further Viewing: One more of the new Mickey shorts. They’re just great.

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