Few events in cinema history are as apocryphal as the release of Steamboat Willie, the first fully post-produced sound cartoon and an unqualified success for the young, newly independent creators Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney. Disney had recently lost control of his previous cartoon creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to producer Charles Mintz. Upon returning home to California, Walt instructed Iwerks to develop a new character, perhaps one based on a mouse he had on his boyhood farm. After approving Iwerks' design, Walt wanted to name the new character Mortimer before his wife Lillian suggested Mickey.
Steamboat Willie would not in fact be the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. Both Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho were produced as silent shorts but their lackluster reception at test screenings left them on the shelf as Disney and Iwerks tinkered with an attempt to marry sound to animation. The young company, run with help from Walt's brother Roy, exhausted their coffers to produce the soundtracked cartoon, Walt even had to sell his car to finance the production. Luckily, Steamboat Willie was an immediate success and Mickey Mouse became an instant celebrity. Sound was quickly added to the two previous shorts which were then rushed to theatres to satiate demand.
The name and setting of Steamboat Willie is a parody of the great Buster Keaton feature Steamboat Bill, Jr. released earlier in 1928. The short opens with a diminutive mouse steering the ship down river and whistling the tune, "Steamboat Bill". Walt Disney himself provided the voice of Mickey Mouse, as well as every other character in the film, including Pete and Minnie. Current Walt Disney animated features use this introductory scene of the whistling Mickey as their logo, highlighting both the studio's most famous creation while subtly incorporating the company's creator. Pete, the ill-tempered captain of the ship catches Mickey at the wheel and boots him to the deck below. The boat then stops in port to pick up cargo, along with Minnie Mouse, and then turns into the setting of a manic musical.
The design of Mickey Mouse has often been ascribed as the reason for his popularity. Psychologists and sociologists point to his rounded form as a subconsciously comforting creation and even here in his very first appearance, Mickey is absurdly adorable. What works best with the character in Steamboat Willie is that he is so small, not only in relation to the towering Pete, but even a cow that he is trying to bring onboard the vessel. Later in his existence, Mickey would grow in stature, in part to better work alongside characters like Donald Duck and Goofy, but here he truly feels like a little rodent.
Meanwhile, the surrounding animation, all completed by Ub Iwerks, is a delight. Iwerks had a knack for injecting strong personality into even the most mundane objects, as evidenced early on by a family of steamboat whistles. Iwerks, with Disney's guidance, chooses some very interesting angles of perspective, the best being a view downriver as the boat chugs along with a chasing Minnie running beside onshore. These early shorts also have a tendency to use the confines of the film frame to its advantage by occasionally having a character lean forward, thus completely filling the image. Here, Mickey stretches the neck of goose who howls out the song and almost entirely engulfs the screen.
Steamboat Willie introduces the world to a mischievous, fun-loving, darling little mouse whose continuing exploits would charm generations of moviegoers. The short is the launch pad for one of the most successful, fertile imaginations in American history. Without Steamboat Willie there would be no Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (released less than a decade later!) or Disneyland. While there is no way to predict the future from this enjoyable, yet innocuous short, its strengths prove thoroughly tantalizing.
Viewing Verdict: Essential