Mickey Mouse Appears in his First Animated Feature

In the fall of 1928, Walt Disney could claim three dubious assets: a new animated cartoon character called Mickey Mouse, three short silent films featuring the spunky rodent and an idea greater than perhaps even he imagined—adding sound tracks to his little films.

What he didn't have as he wandered New York City with one of those films, Steamboat Willie, tucked under his arm was cash or clout. He was just an unknown 27-year-old animator from California who needed musicians and sound-effects guys to record a score—and a distributor to promote his product.

It was seemingly an impossible dream. A year earlier Warner Bros. had released the first (partial) talkie, The Jazz Singer, and the movie biz was in a tizzy. The Al Jolson movie was awful, but the man sang and spoke. A long-sought miracle had arrived. Unfortunately, the camera, heavily blimped to prevent its whirrings from being recorded, was immobilized. Movies could talk but could no longer move gracefully. That's where Disney came in. His animators' drawn images were as free as any in movie history. It was relatively easy to pre-plan music, effects and dialogue so that they could be synched to the imagery. For example, all a conductor had to do was follow the beats Disney's people had marked on their work print. Even so, Disney had to spend a good deal of his dwindling capital getting a musical director to follow those cues. Then he had to spend several weeks lurking around screening rooms, trying to get Willie seen and heard.

To no avail. At which point enters legendary press agent Harry Reichenbach, master of old-fashioned ballyhoo (he had once faked a star's kidnapping to promote a film). Reichenbach was managing the Colony Theater in New York City, and he advised Disney to appeal directly to the public. Give me your little movie for a two-week run, he told Disney, and I'll give you $1,000 and make your mouse famous. The producer was dubious but desperate to make payroll—and he made the deal.

And so, on Nov. 18, history happened. There were bigger stars on the Colony's stage and screen, but Steamboat Willie got the press. Crowds created near mob scenes as they rushed to see this "riot of mirth." In truth, it was crude stuff. But Mickey turned a cow's tail into a hurdy-gurdy handle, and it mooed music as he cranked away. Another bovine's teeth became a xylophone on which he beat out a tune. In short, Willie had what its more pretentious competitors lacked—energy and freedom. And its creator was on his way to fame, riches and immortality.

Steamboat Willie was first released on November 18, 1928. It was co-directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Iwerks again served as the head animator, assisted by Johnny Cannon, Les Clark, Wilfred Jackson and Dick Lundy. This short was intended as a parody of Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr., first released on May 12 of the same year. Although it was the third Mickey cartoon produced, it was the first to find a distributor, and thus has been cited as Mickey's debut. Willie featured changes to Mickey's appearance (in particular, simplifying his eyes to large dots) that established his look for later cartoons.

The cartoon was not the first cartoon to feature a soundtrack connected to the action. Fleischer Studios, headed by brothers Dave and Max Fleischer, had already released a number of sound cartoons using the DeForest system in the mid-1920s. However, these cartoons did not keep the sound synchronized throughout the film. For Willie, Disney had the sound recorded with a click track that kept the musicians on the beat. This precise timing is apparent during the "Turkey in the Straw" sequence, when Mickey's actions exactly match the accompanying instruments. Animation historians have long debated who had served as the composer for the film's original music. This role has been variously attributed to Wilfred Jackson, Carl Stalling and Bert Lewis, but identification remains uncertain. Walt Disney himself was voice actor for both Mickey and Minnie.

The script had Mickey serving aboard Steamboat Willie under Captain Pete. At first he is seen piloting the steamboat while whistling. Then Pete arrives to take over piloting and angrily throws him out of the boat's bridge. They soon have to stop for cargo to be transferred on board. Almost as soon as they leave, Minnie arrives. She was apparently supposed to be their only passenger but was late to board. Mickey manages to pick her up from the river shore. Minnie accidentally drops her sheet music for the popular folk song "Turkey in the Straw". A goat which was among the animals transported on the steamboat proceeds to eat the sheet music. Consequently Mickey and Minnie use its tail to turn it into a phonograph which is playing the tune. Through the rest of the short, Mickey uses various other animals as musical instruments. Captain Pete is eventually disturbed by all this noise and places Mickey back to work. Mickey is reduced to peeling potatoes for the rest of the trip. A parrot attempts to make fun of him but is then thrown to the river by Mickey. This served as the final scene of this short.

Audiences at the time of Steamboat Willie's release were reportedly impressed by the use of sound for comedic purposes. Sound films or "talkies" were still considered innovative. The first feature-length movie with dialogue sequences, The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, was released on October 6, 1927. Within a year of its success, most United States movie theaters had installed sound film equipment. Walt Disney apparently intended to take advantage of this new trend and, arguably, managed to succeed. Most other cartoon studios were still producing silent products and so were unable to effectively act as competition to Disney. As a result Mickey would soon become the most prominent animated character of the time. Walt Disney soon worked on adding sound to both Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho (which had originally been silent releases) and their new release added to Mickey's success and popularity. A fourth Mickey short, The Barn Dance, was also put into production; however, Mickey does not actually speak until The Karnival Kid in 1929 when his first spoken words were "Hot dogs, Hot dogs!" After Steamboat Willie was released, Mickey became a close competitor to Felix the Cat, and his popularity would grow as he was continuously featured in sound cartoons. By 1929, Felix would lose popularity among theater audiences, and Pat Sullivan decided to produce all future Felix cartoons in sound as a result. Unfortunately, audiences did not respond well to Felix's transition to sound and by 1930, Felix had faded from the screen