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Steamboat Willie

If someone asked you what the first Mickey Mouse cartoon was, what would you say?

Well, unless you have delved deep into cartoon history, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was Steamboat Willie.  In fact, Gallopin’ Gaucho and Plane Crazy were Mickey Mouse’s first two cartoons to be produced; however, Steamboat Willie was the first to be distributed.

This 1928 short is most famous for being the first cartoon to feature synchronized sound; although a couple of other studios had already produced shorts with ‘synchronized sound’, though failed to keep their sound fully synchronized, losing the desired effect.  Disney got around this problem by using a click track to keep the sound in time with the cartoon.

Walt initially decided that he wanted to make a ‘talkie’ after watching The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson, as it was the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue.  The two cartoons which preceded Steamboat Willie were not given a warm reception by audiences, and Walt believed that by adding sound, the appeal of his cartoons would increase.  Production on Steamboat Willie began in July 1928 and ended in September of the same year, with a budget of almost $5,000.  The cartoon was a play on the Buster Keaton comedy Steamboat Bill.  Ub Iwerks, who had previously worked with Walt on the Alice Comedies and had animated Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, also animated Steamboat Willie almost single-handedly, often churning out up to 700 drawings per day, with the final cartoon consisting of 8,500 drawings.

Before the soundtrack was produced, to ensure that the cartoon would be believable enough with sound, Walt held a test screening of the then only partly finished Steamboat Willie, for a test audience made up of his employees and their wives.  Ub Iwerks banged on pots and pans, Wilfred Jackson played the mouth organ, Walt provided the dialogue (of which there was little) and Johnny Cannon provided various other sound effects, all from behind a bed sheet which was placed behind the movie screen.  Fortunately for Walt, the audience gave positive feedback, which encouraged him to go ahead with producing the rest of the cartoon.

Right, that is the history lesson over!  After all, this is a review…

Well, to judge a cartoon which is over 80 years old by today’s standards would be wrong of course, however, comparing Steamboat Willie to the black and white Mickey Mouse shorts which were released in the 1920s and 1930s, it isn’t hard to see why this little gem is as popular as it is.  At the time of release, its popularity was no doubt reliant on the novelty factor of it being a sound cartoon, however, at its premiere in New York on November 18th 1928 where it was shown before Gang Wars; it was more talked about amongst the audience than the main feature.  Watching it today, you may expect it the comedy to be dated, however it is still amusing in a charming sort of way, and even a little bit bizarre in places.  For instance, in some versions of the short, 30 seconds were removed where we see Mickey swinging a cat round by its tail, and playing a duck like a set of bagpipes, as it was considered as animal cruelty.

The story is simple; Mickey Mouse is ‘captaining’ a steamboat, whistling away, when the real captain shows up, (Pete) and orders him to leave.  The steamboat stops to pick up livestock, and is it leaves the dock we can see Minnie Mouse running along to try to catch up with the boat.  When Minnie lands on deck after Mickey picks her up with the cargo crane, she drops her sheet music, which is then eaten by a goat.  Minnie then uses the goat as a gramophone by turning its tail, as music plays out of its mouth.  It is here that Mickey starts to ‘play’ various other animals, as mentioned above.  A grouchy Captain Pete then puts Mickey to work peeling potatoes, where he throws a potato at a mocking parrot, knocking it into the water.

All in all, a slightly odd cartoon, but not as strange as some of the other cartoon shorts of the same era.  Maybe the story could have been a bit more interesting, but there is nothing else I would change about it! 

I am reviewing this cartoon from the Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White DVD.  The quality is as good as can be expected from such old cartoons, with the usual flickering and odd bits of dust on the film, though this does not make for a difficult watch.  I would love to say that this cartoon could be enjoyed by all ages, however, this cartoon and the DVD that it came on are intended more for Disney geeks and cartoon collectors, and though it may be watched by children, they would most likely be drawn to newer and more colourful Disney movies.  Another point to make would be that these DVDs are now hard to get hold of, unless you are willing to pay whatever someone on eBay is asking for them.  For instance, the DVD I am using came from Italy, so the box is in Italian, and this set was released way back in 2002.

I give this movie 4 Tinks.


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