Disney’s Steamboat Willie is a landmark in the history of animation. The first film starring Mickey Mouse to be released with synchronized sound, it threw silent animation into obsolescence and launched an empire. Previously, there had been little to distinguish Disney’s cartoons from those of his competitors. He was facing bankruptcy when director Alan Crosland’s film The Jazz Singer—with long sequences of song and dialogue—took the United States by storm in 1927. Sensing that movies with sound meant big business, Disney decided to stake all on his talking mouse. The movie opened at New York’s Colony Theater on November 18, 1928, a date that would become known as Mickey’s birthday.
Audiences were stunned by the vitality of the film’s characters. Unhampered by the difficulties of using new equipment with live actors, Disney was able to fuse technology with handcraftsmanship, naturalism with abstraction—an ability that, over time, proved him to be a great artist. So strong was audience demand for Steamboat Willie that, two weeks after its premiere, Disney rereleased it at the largest theater in the world, the Roxy in New York. Critics came to see Mickey Mouse as a blend of several ubiquitous cinematic figures: Charlie Chaplin, in his championing of the underdog; the energetic Douglas Fairbanks, in his rascally, adventurous spirit; and the illustrious dancer Fred Astaire, in his grace and seeming freedom from gravity’s laws.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)