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‘Steamboat Willie’ Anniversary: Debut Of Mickey Mouse & First Disney Sound Cartoon Turns 85
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Steamboat Willie

Steamboat Willie, which is generally associated with being one of the very first sound cartoons, but more importantly, it ushered into the public consciousness Mickey Mouse and that character’s creator, Walt Disney, two pop cultural images who became ingrained as American standards, celebrates the 85th anniversary of its release today.

Looking at the cartoon today, almost a century later, it’s an innocuous yarn on a boat, lightly funny, surprisingly wacky violent, and of course chock full of goofy, loopy, sound effects; it’s a half-baked affair. But it’s not so much the cartoon that makes it the universally recognized classic that it is; it’s more about being the genesis modes of Walt Disney and his creation, the lovable rodent, Mickey Mouse (the character had two other shorts prior, but Steamboat Willie was the first released – November 18, 1928).

And while there may have been (and this opinion could strictly be a taste issue) other studios and characters in the wake of the release of Steamboat Willie years and decades after that arguably had trumped the Disney cartoons for just their sheer approach to humor, (the characters and animators from the Warner Brothers Studios comes to mind), Steamboat Willie represents a time when Walt Disney rolled his sleeves up at the drawing board and firmly planted himself at the helm. Disney is mostly known as an elder statesman to the masses, frozen in that iconic image with the sharp suit, pencil-thin mustache, and graying temples, the kind old lord of the universe he created for himself, the iconoclastic, richer than most countries in the world, yet still retaining a kind of docile, hearth friendly demeanor in his presence. That’s how most of the world saw him and continues to see him. But here, on Steamboat Willie, during a time right at the end of World War I and before the Great Depression, he’s in control of the very, very beginnings of what eventually shaped that empire he enjoyed and his legacy continues to to this day (almost 50 years after his death, the Walt Disney Company rakes in billions annually).

Steamboat Willie

What’s most unique and pioneering about Steamboat Willie is its approach to sound. Again, it wasn’t the very first sound cartoon, but it certainly was the first to kind of transcend using in an “experimental version.” There are plenty of scenes and sequences within its seven minutes which are tailor made to utilize the sound, and mostly are done effectively. Just the shot of Mickey whistling has almost become synonymous with early animation. It’s immensely part of the fun, and in fact almost takes center stage to the mild narrative. It’s also fun to see Mickey Mouse in a kind of reckless manner, wild-eyed and humorously chaotic, an early version of what characters like Bugs Bunny would crystallize over a decade later. And seeing a Disney cartoon (or a production for that matter) that isn’t all about tugging at the heartstrings and becoming family oriented crests of armor, a subdivision of a large chunk of people, creating a lifestyle and enjoying an assembly line output of cartoons, motion pictures, theme parks, and every single bit of marketing minutiae one could conjure up, is actually a refreshing thing. It’s a big world after all.

Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks

Something else that gets brought to one’s attention when viewing Steamboat Willie is realizing the importance of animator Ub Iwerks, a name all but forgotten in today’s day and age, not even recognized as a known fossil to most of the contemporary animation/anime/cartoon crowd today. But like a Paul Terry (of Terrytoons and Mighty Mouse fame), or a Leon Schlesinger (the money end, but an extremely important catalyst in spearheading Termite Terrace, which was the Warner Brothers animation arm of the company) and many more, Ub Iwerks, was in a way as important as Walt Disney was to ushering in the entire animation cinematic boom. The two men co-wrote and directed Steamboat Willie, and Iwerks was also largely responsible for the sound direction and application. When a screening was arranged for doubtful animators working on the feature to prove that sound could indeed work successfully in animated cartoons, Iwerks set up the transmission of the sound, which at the screening, was played live, with Iwerks and others banging on pots and pans, using slide whistles and spittoons, all playing in harmony with the appropriate action on the screen. The response was as Disney later described it, “nothing less than electric” and gave the cartoon huge momentum and lift to get to final fruition. Iwerks later claimed that “he had never been so thrilled in life, and nothing since had equaled it.” It became the launching pad for what was to follow, the animation genre in general, which soon became a respected industry, having Academy Awards lavished upon various studios who put out various cartoons. It remains a billion dollar industry and while it may never attempt to utilize a substance over style in today’s studio computer drawn offerings which are light years from the dollar tree grass roots charm of a Steamboat Willie, it nonetheless still has the footprints of this first little microcosm of a zeitgeist and always will, whether if it is conscious of that fact or not.

Steamboat Willie

You can view the cartoon below. As one will see, Steamboat Willie remains much ado not so much about the cartoon, but again, the extremely ahead of its time breakthrough of the marriage of sound and picture in an animated short. It’s kind of akin to imagining how Thomas Edison simply turned up the tungsten and manifested the light bulb, or the Wright Brothers getting the plane off the ground for the twenty or so seconds that they did. It’s sometimes not even what the physical result becomes as much as the sheer invention of it. And it’s the invention of what it did, what it spawned, and in a strange way, how it changed the pop cultural landscape for eternity, that makes Steamboat Willie one of the most important animated shorts of all time.

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