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Steamboat Willie: Facts, Stories, & Trivia About Mickey Mouse's First Cartoon Ever

1920s | November 19, 2020

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Steamboat Willie is commonly known as one the first cartoon ever made (and distributed) with sound (even though the Fleischer brothers released a cartoon technically before it), and is famous for being the debut of arguably the most famous pop culture icon in the world: Mickey Mouse. But it wasn't exactly as we choose to remember it, and this exact cartoon actually kept pushing the U.S. to extend their copyright laws for years until fairly recently. Steamboat Willie's history and the first time people ever saw it made a huge impact on not only animation, but pop culture. It is currently sitting at 13th in the book The 50 Greatest Cartoons, which includes a list of the 50 best cartoons ever made. It is now part of the United States' National Film Registry and is considered "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." These are all the Steamboat Willie trivia, facts, and stories you may not quite know everything about yet. 

Its Legacy Is Riddled With Misnomers

Disney Animation Studios, 1928

Mickey Mouse's first appearance was actually in a cartoon called "Plane Crazy" which never found a distribution channel, so they tabled it, created Steamboat Willie, which came out in 1928, and then released "Plane Crazy" in 1929, making it the fourth Mickey Mouse cartoon released after Steamboat Willie. This famous cartoon wasn't even the first Mickey Mouse cartoon ever made.

The Fleischer Brothers were actually Disney's first competition in that they were the big two studios cranking out animated sound films to the point where they technically beat Steamboat Willie by about a month in putting out the first ever sound cartoon. Steamboat Willie made its debut on November 18, 1929, while the Fleischers' first sound cartoon, called "Noah's Lark," came out on October 25, 1929. The Fleischers where famous for creating such characters as Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, Koko the Clown, Bimbo, and Superman. 

How It Came To Be

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Steamboat Willie was made after Walt Disney watched the famous film The Jazz Singer. The cartoon took three months to complete with an estimated budget of $4,986 (or $75,923 in 2020 dollars). Walt Disney performed the original voice of Mickey Mouse himself, but only because he was performing all the other anthropomorphic sounds in the first test screening himself. 

The screening was very much an ad hoc job, which is hard to believe by Disney standards today, but it was really a homegrown production. Since Walt Disney wanted to do a screening with a test audience to make sure the live sound would be believable, since sound cartoons were at such an early stage, they had to make do with what they had. The audience was seated in the room next to Disney's office, from which they projected the film to an outside screen that was just a bedsheet. They kept the projector in the office so as to not interfere with the live sound that the team was providing for this screening. The film was literally projected through a window. The sound, then, was to come from behind that bedsheet. A man named Wilfred Jackson played the music on a mouth organ, collaborator Ubbe Iwerks worked the pots and pans, and a man named Johnny Cannon did the foley work, including stuff like slide whistles and the sort. 

After the test screening went really really well, Walt Disney would proudly bring the production to his full vision: he contracted a band, a production sound system, and a conductor. But, that first try at synching the sound ended up being an absolute failure, so Disney sold his Moon roadster to pay for another recording and another try. How did they make the first Mickey Mouse cartoon work with sound? Part of the reason the second try worked so well is that they added the bouncy ball on the screen to keep the tempo for the band like a visual metronome. And it was finally finished. 

After The Original Release Of Steamboat Willie

Disney Animation Studios, 1928

Steamboat Willie was first shown and released at Universal's Colony Theater in New York on November 18th, 1928. It showed in front of an independent feature film which history almost completely forgot. The short cartoon led to worldwide recognition and fame for Walt Disney. Its very first Variety review went as follows:

"Not the first animated cartoon to be synchronized with sound effects, but the first to attract favorable attention. This one represents a high order of cartoon ingenuity, cleverly combined with sound effects. The union brought forth laughs galore. Giggles came so fast at the Colony [Theater] they were stumbling over each other. It's a peach of a synchronization job all the way, bright, snappy and fitting the situation perfectly. Cartoonist, Walter Disney. With most of the animated cartoons qualifying as a pain in the neck it's a signal tribute to this particular one. If the same combination of talent can turn out a series as good as Steamboat Willie they should find a wide market if interchangability angle does not interfere. Recommended unreservedly for all wired houses."

When Steamboat Willie finally hit Europe in 1931, it did so well that the previous Mickey Mouse films were reproduced as sound cartoons and all given wide theatrical runs, making it a windfall of success for the early-on and young animation studio. 

Copyright Laws And Mickey Mouse (Steamboat Willie)

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As you may know if you've taken any Communications courses, Steamboat Willie has had a dicey relationship with U.S. copyright law since the get-go. Copyright statutes had some changes over the 125 years before Mickey Mouse came into the picture. Originally, in the Copyright Act of 1790, the duration was 14 years, which you could renew if the author (of the map, chart, or book at the time) was still alive. If the terms of the copyright weren't met, the work would enter into public domain (Disney's worst nightmare). In 1831 it was extended to 38 years with a 14 year renewal possibility, and then in 1909, the law changed to 28 years with a 28 year renewal. This allowed Mickey Mouse to be pretty much safe until 1984, at which point Disney started lobbying congress to extend this even further. It worked. A 1976 legislation gave people retroactive extensions for works published before the new laws, and the duration was extended from 56 years to 75 years, making Mickey safe until 2003. The law goes "life of the author plus 70 years" and made copyright for corporate works to 95 years from the first publication or 120 years from the year created, whichever comes first. This pushes Mickey Mouse's copyright until 2023, at which point Disney will have a lot of work to do in preserving their first hit and their most prized character: Mickey Mouse. 

Tags: animation | business | disney | film | mickey mouse | walt disney

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Brian Gilmore

Writer

Brian Gilmore has been writing about and studying everything the Internet loves since 2006 and you've probably accidentally read something he's written before, and if you haven't, you're already reading this bio, so that's a good start. He's a culture junkie ranging from Internet culture, to world history, to listening to way more podcasts than the average human being ever should. He's obsessed with the social catalysts that have caused some of the biggest movements of the last few hundred years, including everything from their effect on the pop culture of the time, to where they end up ideologically. The idea that generations have a beginning and an end is fascinating to him, and the fact that their lasting effects at any given point of their evolution can steer the direction of the entire world lead to some interesting questions, and answers, about our current culture at any given time. He also loves retrofuturism, phobias, and the fact that every pop culture icon has at least a few photos of them that make you feel like you might know them. History isn't a collection of stories as much as it is humanity trying its hardest to maintain a grasp on lessons we've learned before as a species, and that is just way too interesting to not look into a few hours a week. Oh and he used to collect Pez dispensers.