A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1928 – Steamboat Willie

Walt motherfuckin’ Disney.

Where do you even start?

I guess we can start with the obvious: this is the first on-screen (official) debut of Mickey Mouse. And considering he is the single greatest screen character creation of the 20th century, and spawned a multi-billion dollar corporation, it’s pretty much gonna take precedent as the most important thing to happen the year it debuted.

Plus, we haven’t talked about animation yet. And animation is as integral as live-action is to the history of film.

Oh, and by the way, this is the first animated film with fully synchronized sound, so we’re actually hitting on all cylinders with this one.

But mostly… it’s Mickey Mouse. Obviously this was going to be the choice.

The idea for the film began after two events: after Walt lost the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and after he saw The Jazz Singer. He picked Mickey as the new character to replace Oswald an wanted to showcase him in a synchronized sound film.

Mickey was originally shown to the public in some test footage for a film called Plane Crazy. The audiences were pretty underwhelmed, and Walt couldn’t find a distributor for the film. Then he made The Gallopin’ Gaucho, which also couldn’t find a distributor. But both of those were silent films.

Walt then made this, intended as a parody of Steamboat Bill Jr., the Buster Keaton film.

This time, the film did find a distributor, and because of that, it’s officially the first Mickey Mouse cartoon ever released. It was also not the first animated film to feature synchronized sound, but it was the first to maintain synchronized sound throughout the entire film.

The sound was recorded with a click track that kept the musicians on beat throughout the recording. And Walt himself did the voices of both Mickey and Minnie.

The film came out in November of 1928, before a film called Gang Wars. Clearly remembered fondly today. And audiences loved it, and it became an instant hit. The precise timing of the music really helped the comedy come through, and, on top of that, Walt, being the innovator he was, saw the changing of the guard, so to speak, and saw that sound was the new thing. So, because he was really the first to come out and make a fully synchronized sound cartoon, Mickey became the prominent animated character of the era, and hasn’t given up that title ever since.

Walt released the two previous Mickey cartoons, rerecording them with sound, and then kept moving forward with cartoon after cartoon. Mickey doesn’t officially talk until The Karnival Kid in 1929, but the voice and the personality were already there. And in case you were wondering, the first words Mickey speaks on screen are, “Hot dogs! Hot dogs!”

Despite being the most famous animated character of all time, the interesting thing about Mickey is that he never had his own feature film. He has appeared in features, but never had a feature length film that starred him as the main character. And actually, if it weren’t for television, the character might not have been as popular as it is. Mickey decreased in popularity in the 50s, after Disney came out with all of its features, but then once he started appearing on television, for a whole new generation of children, that‘s when he became as iconic as he is today.

But anyway, Steamboat Willie might not be a great short, going back and watching it today, but at the time, it was as innovative as it got, and signaled the beginning of everything that Disney is today. Which… is a pretty big deal.

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