Walt Disney’s ‘Steamboat Willie’ and the Rise of Mickey Mouse

Mickey Mouse star in Walk of Fame
Image by Flickr user freshwater2006

On November 18, 1928, Walt Disney’s animated movieSteamboat Willie‘ was released that presented his most famous characterMickey Mouse‘ for the very first time in New York City. The film is also notable for being the first cartoon with synchronized sound.

The movie was produced in black-and-white and debuts Mickey Mouse as well as his girlfriend Minnie. Even though it was the third of Mickey’s films to be produced, it was the first to be distributed. The movie starts out with Mickey steering a river steamboat until the boat’s real captain Pete appears, who orders Mickey off the bridgeMickey and Pete then proceed to fight back and forth on the ship while they accidentally trip and fall. Eventually, Minnie appears on board and the two mice proceed to make music together using the animals aboard. Meanwhile, Pete gets angry again, ordering Mickey to peel the potatoes. A parrot appears, who makes fun of the mouse and Mickey throws a potato at him, which knocks the parrot into the river.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit used to be the star of Disney’s and he was one of the first cartoon characters that had personality. However, Disney lost the rights to the character and Mickey Mouse was intended to become the new star. The first films starring Mickey Mouse were silent films and did not really impress the audiences. No distributor was found and Disney came to realize that adding sound to a cartoon would probably increase its appeal. However, Steamboat Willie was not the first cartoon synchronized sound. Dave and Max Fleischer’s Inkwell Studios produced 19 sound cartoons in the mid 1920s using the Phonofilm sound-on-film process. Unfortunately, the sound could not be synchronized completely. Steamboat Willie was produced using a click track to keep his musicians on the beat. Back then, click track meant that optical marks were made on the film to indicate precise timings for musical accompaniment.

Initially, the producers had doubts about the sound in a cartoon and Disney arranged a test screening with a small audience consisting of Disney employees and their wives. The live sound accompanied the partly finished film Steamboat Willie. Behind the movie screen, a bed sheet was installed along with a microphone and speakers. The sound, consisting of a mouth organ, percussion and several ‘special effects‘ like bells and whistles, was produced from behind the sheet. The audience loved it and a company was hired to professionally produce the sound system as well as the Green Brothers Novelty Band for the final soundtrack. Steamboat Willie premiered at Universal’s Colony Theater in New York City on November 18, 1928 and was an instant success which caused Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse international fame.

At yovisto, you may be interested in the lecture ‘The Power of Cartoons‘ by Patrick Chappatte.

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