Steamboat Willie (1928). 8 minutes. Directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Voices by Walt Disney. Music by Wilfred Jackson and Bert Lewis.
Steamboat Willie is a black-and-white animated Disney short that was the first cartoon of any kind to use completely synchronized sound. It draws thematically from both the 1911 song “Steamboat Bill” and the 1928 silent Buster Keaton comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr., but it was also inspired by the technological revolution launched by The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length movie to use partially synchronized sound. Steamboat Willie is notable today for its historical achievement and for being the first widely successful cartoon to feature Mickey Mouse, but in addition to these accomplishments, it remains extremely silly and a good example of how charming early animation could be.
The story follows the iconic rodent protagonist as he works on a riverboat. A large cat (Pete) orders Mickey around and banishes him from the ship’s bridge. Mickey then helps to load animals onto the ship. Minnie Mouse appears on the shore and Mickey brings her on board using a pulley. On the ship, one of the animals (a goat) eats sheet music and a ukulele, and the two mice have fun generating music from it and playing the other animals as if they are instruments. In the end, Pete discovers Mickey fooling around and punishes him with kitchen duty.
Like many cartoons of its sort, Steamboat Willie just barely has a narrative and primarily shows its characters at play. Accordingly, it engages in the typical cartoon disregard for physics. When Pete grabs Mickey’s midsection, he extends it until it falls on the floor like a snake, and then the mouse picks it up and replaces it in his shorts. In the next scene, the cow that Mickey plans to load onto the steamboat is too skinny for the brace attached to the pulley that will carry it on board, so Mickey feeds the animal a bale of hay, which immediately causes it to inflate. This spirited test of physical limitations belongs to the early cartoon world where characters behave ludicrously and are preoccupied with manipulating the logic of their universe. It should be noted that as the characters engage in these cause-and-effect activities, they do not particularly learn anything, comfort each other, emit signals of virtue, or reinforce imperatives to be good, as later Disney characters would.
The cartoon blends these more conventional aspects of animation with a fair amount of innovation, and that innovation is located chiefly in its soundtrack. We listen to Mickey whistling “Steamboat Bill” and hear the animals participate in a performance of “Turkey in the Straw.” There are also sound effects—ringing bells, blowing whistles, and animal noises. But ironically, for a movie famous for its use of sound, there is not anything of note said, and the actual dialogue that we hear is barely recognizable as language. The characters growl, snicker, and cry out but do not actually say words, and the story relies on gesture and action to move the plot along and communicate with the audience, much like earlier, silent cartoons.
One of the most delightful aspects of Steamboat Willie has to be the long musical sequence that takes place with the animals on board the ship when the goat consumes Minnie’s music and ukulele. Mickey opens the goat’s mouth and cranks its tail, and we hear a band playing the aforementioned “Turkey in the Straw.” As Mickey grabs and manipulates a duck, a cat, and a bull, the song morphs and the sequence becomes even more inane. By squeezing the duck like a bagpipe and tapping the bull’s teeth like a steel drum, he transforms the animals into instruments in a way that looks forward to Disney’s slightly later and similarly iconic sound cartoon Skeleton Dance (1929), in which skeletons play each other like xylophones. As critic Gilbert Seldes noted, the generation of sound in Steamboat Willie is as absurd as the visuals, with the result that the two elements do not compete with each other—which is to say that Steamboat Willie uses its new technology harmoniously and appropriately.
Exaggerating the physical possibilities of animal behavior is perhaps something we would expect from a cartoon of any era, but Mickey’s antics during the “Turkey in the Straw” sequence also serve as a kind of metaphor for what was taking place in animation at the time of Steamboat Willie’s release. The cartoon’s spirit of adventure and enthusiasm emerge not so much through plot or characterization but from the sheer fact that squeezing a duck in this new world can be music, and anything from a bull’s molars to a cat’s tail can engender a novel creative possibility. Admittedly, however, that new world of possibility is also rooted in familiar territory, both in the pedestrian farm animals that populate the ship and in the very song the animals perform. “Turkey in the Straw” is an early nineteenth-century folk song, not a cutting-edge jazz tune from the late 1920s, so Steamboat Willie both offers us something innovative and something we are already comfortable with in a strange mixture of old and new.
Steamboat Willie may be a short cartoon, but it paved the way for so much of what followed it, including Disney’s first color short, Flowers and Trees (1932), another milestone in the world of animation. As Disney strove to innovate his art, he pushed at the limitations of the form, eventually releasing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, the first feature-length cel-animated film. But in spite of many later achievements helmed by Disney, animator Ub Iwerks claimed that a live test run of Steamboat Willie was the most thrilling moment of his life. It may be difficult to appreciate how exciting the prospect of sound was to filmmakers and audiences at the end of the 1920s, but it is entirely possible to still enjoy early sound films for their inventiveness and creativity, and Steamboat Willie certainly ranks alongside feature-length sound productions such as The Jazz Singer as an important work almost 100 years later.