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)
Though it may seem like Mickey Mouse has always been with us, this most well-known of cartoon characters sprang to animated life on November 18, 1928. The high-spirited, mischievous mouse debuted in Steamboat Willie, a short film designed and animated by Ub Iwerks, the chief animator with the then-nascent Walt Disney Company, with direction from Walt Disney. They cast Mickey Mouse as a shipmate on a steamboat captained by a surly cat. Scheduled to be the opening for a feature-length film, Steamboat Willie was given an initial modest run at the Colony Theater in New York. But audiences and critics went wild for the impish, round-bellied mouse and for the premiere of the first cartoon with synchronized sound. Two weeks later, Steamboat Willie was re-released at the Roxy, also in New York, and the largest theater in the world at the time. It made silent animation obsolete and launched the Disney empire.
Before the runaway success of Steamboat Willie, Iwerks and Disney had made two shorts centered on their new Mickey Mouse character. Both were silent; neither interested distributors. So Disney changed course. With the success of The Jazz Singer in mind, he directed Iwerks to craft a cartoon specifically for sound. Iwerks delivered a symphony, turning nearly everything in it into an instrument. The three whistles atop the steamship—a merry vessel despite its snarling captain—trill out musical notes along with puffs of steam. Mickey Mouse turns the farm animals and kitchenware on the ship into various instruments, squeezing a duck like bagpipes, for example, or playing a cow’s teeth like xylophone keys. Meanwhile, the ship’s wheel creaks, its smokestacks puff heartily, and background music moves the action along—there is never a silent moment in this cartoon.
Disney wanted the sound in Steamboat Willie to correspond with the images. He brought the completed animation to a studio in New York to record its soundtrack with a 17-piece orchestra and three sound effects professionals. But their first attempt failed as the orchestra struggled to keep time with the cartoon’s action. For their second attempt, the animators added a bouncing ball to the filmstrip, which was overlaid onto the images to indicate the tempo at which the orchestra should play. (The ball was removed for the film’s final cut). This solved the problem and resulted in a precisely synched sound animation.