.....A ship sails along a river, and the vessel's whistles sound joyously as the pilot begins to whistle his own tune.
The pilot, named Mickey Mouse, pulls on a rope, which causes the ship's whistles to shout out again-except the third, shortest whistle, which requires a jolt to its rear by the middle whistle to finish the jaunty tune.
.....Inside the ship, Mickey continues piloting and dancing about merrily as the ship's captain comes to the bridge and glares angrily at his first mate.
The captain, a brutish cat name Pete, grabs Mickey by his torso and swings him aside. As Mickey puts his warped torso properly back in his shorts, Pete yells at him, ordering below decks to handle his assigned tasks. Shamed, Mickey sheepishly agrees, but pushes his luck before leaving by giving his tyrannical captain a great big raspberry.
.....Pete notices, and attempts to kick Mickey, but misses entirely only to hit his own behind. Mickey falls down the stairway leading to the main deck, landing in a pail of water as a parrot mocks him. Upset, Mickey throws the bucket at the parrot, which lands on its head. The parrot panics, thinking he's been thrown overboard.
.....As Mickey gets back to doing his job, Pete takes the wheel of his ship and produces an oversized stick of tobacco. Taking a large bite out of it, Pete spits some out the window through his teeth.
Next, Pete spits out some of the tobacco, which he manages to have arc around and hit a bell hanging behind him. Proudly satisfied, Pete spits out more of his tobacco, only to have it arc around and land in his face.
.....Elsewhere, on a loading dock, sits a cow, a duck, a goat and tow chickens. As they stand about calmly, Pete's ship pulls up to the dock, and Mickey rides down on a crane that has a harness attached to it. He loops it around the cow, but since the cow is far too skinny, Mickey ends up with a face full of milk when he tries to prevent it from falling out of the harness.
The harness is lowered, and Mickey tries to adjust it, to no avail. However, he sees a wagon full of hay and feeds it to the cow. Now fat enough to correctly fit in the harness, the cow is lifted safely into the boat.
.....Just then, a female mouse named Minnie runs towards the dock, attempting to flag down the vessel in the hopes of boarding. However, Mickey fails to notice her, and waves off the ship as he leaps back on board. The ship takes off seconds before Minnie reaches the dock, leaving her behind.
Minnie runs after the ship, and is noticed by Mickey, who nervously tries to think up a plan before settling on using the crane to hoist her on board.
.....The crane's hook lifts up Minnie's skirt and grabs her by her panties. As Minnie hangs above the main deck of the boat, she drops her guitar and music sheet, both of which fall before a goat, who hungrily eyes the music sheet (which bears the sheet music for "Turkey in the Straw").
The goat then eats the sheet music as the crane lowers Minnie safely to the deck (while the hook almost forgets to return Minnie's dress to its proper position), which goes unnoticed as the young mice fawn over each other.
.....That moment is painfully brief as Minnie and then Mickey notices what the goat is up to. Mickey tries to prevent it from chowing down on Minnie's guitar, but fails as the instrument careens inside the innards of the omnivorous animal. However, the guitar sounds out random notes as it bounces around, and Mickey gets an idea. Calling Minnie over to the goat, Mickey shows Minnie the open mouth of the goat and presents it to her as a makeshift phonograph. Minnie turns the goat's tail into a handle and begins turning it like a crank.
.....Immediately the strains of "Turkey in the Straw" begins playing out of the goat's mouth, and Mickey dances about happily before setting up a makeshift drum set with a garbage pan, some pots, and some pans. He plays one verse this way, then picks up a washboard and plays a verse using that. Next, he plays a verse by pulling the tail of a cat who had walked near him by chance. As the verse ends, Mickey haphazardly tosses the animal aside, which then hits the trash can lid he had set up moments before.
.....Moving on, Mickey picks up a nearby duck and plays a verse with it by squeezing its stomach and extending its neck. Following this, Mickey walks over to a mother pig and pulls on the tails of its children to create another verse.
Then, he picks up the mother pig (kicking aside a piglet that manages to remain locked onto its mother's teat) and plays her like an accordion. The parrot dances happily as Minnie continues cranking, and Mickey moves onto his next "instrument", the cow he had so much trouble bringing on board earlier.
.....Mickey opens the cow's mouth and produces a set of xylophone sticks, with which he plays the final verse on the cow's teeth. Following the final note of "Shave And A Haircut", Mickey takes a bow, but is received only by an extremely angry Pete.
Mickey looks up at the big cat and grins nervously before sighing and turning to get back to work. However, Pete grabs his first mate and throws him into the kitchen, leaving Mickey to unhappily peel potatoes. However, the parrot flies into the porthole, and begins mocking Mickey once again.
"Hope ya don't feel hurt, big boy! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!!"
Fed up, Mickey lashes out at the parrot again, throwing a half-peeled potato at the pest. When Mickey hears the parrot crying for help as it drowns, he gets in the last laugh.
.....No single cartoon, not even such landmarks as "Flowers And Trees" (the first three-strip Technicolor cartoon), "Porky's Duck Hunt" (the first appearance of Daffy Duck), or "A Wild Hare" (the first true Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoon) are as important as "Steamboat Willie". Sound on film is such a given, such an afterthought to most that it's easy to underestimate the impact of its introduction to film, and to animation in particular. While live action silent films produced a number of stars and classic films, cartoons were lightly regarded. The closest thing to true stars before sound were Felix the Cat and Koko the Clown, with Disney's own silent efforts, the Alice Comedies and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, having even less of a long-standing impact with most audiences than Felix and Koko's silent efforts. However, with sound, there was not only a new dimension of humor (the now-standard humorous sound effects and music), but an avenue for much-needed character depth. The introduction of "Steamboat Willie" didn't just launch the career of Mickey Mouse, it launched the entire industry.
.....The story of "Steamboat Willie" is infamous. When travelling to New York to renegotiate the Oswald contract, Walt Disney was dropped with horrible news: not only had producer Charles Mintz taken Oswald from him (as was his legal right, and as it was the legal right of Universal to later steal Oswald from Mintz and give the character to Walter Lantz), but Mintz had signed nearly all of Disney's staff. A call to Walt's brother Roy in Hollywood confirmed this, and Walt returned to Hollywood (by train) with his wife, Lillian, with thoughts of a mouse in the back of his head. Upon arriving in Hollywood, Walt, Roy, and Ub Iwerks (Disney's lead animator, and one of those still loyal to Walt) began plans to produce "Plane Crazy" in secret while the staff beholden to Mintz finished their prior commitment to the Oswald series. Lillian and Roy's wife Edna were drafted to provide ink and paint for the short, working out of a garage belonging to one of Walt and Roy's uncles. Following a choice suggestion by Lillian Disney (who told her husband that the name Mortimer seemed too pretentious, leading to the name Mickey), the series was a go, and "Plane Crazy" was soon joined by "The Gallopin' Gaucho".
.....However, following a failed test screening of the silent "Plane Crazy", Walt knew he needed something different. Namely, sound. After an impromptu performance of the half-completed "Steamboat Willie" before a select audience (namely the Disney wives and members of the staff who weren't off creating the sound in another room), Walt and Roy knew that sound was the way to go. So, Walt drafted Carl Stalling to create a score on the way to New York, and using Pat Powers' Cinephone process, a fully synchronized soundtrack was created. And on November 18th, 1928, "Steamboat Willie" premeired at the Colony Theater as a lead-in to the film Gang War. The cartoon was a smash success.
.....While it has been obscured by the mists of time, "Steamboat Willie" was in fact inspired by the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill, Jr., hence the name. (Which refers to no character seen in the short, of course, but you'd be shocked at how many people screw that up.) So, automatically, viewers had a frame of reference going into this cartoon.
.....Much like the rest of the early Mickey Mouse shorts, the cartoon begins with the titles that feature a rather primitive looking illustrations of Mickey and Minnie-which were quite likely drawn by Walt Disney (as opposed to Ub Iwerks, whose basic design for Mickey would prevail until Fred Moore's revolutionary Fantasia redesign). All details save the title of the short dissolve, and after a few moments there is the standard cartoon iris in, marking the full start of the picture. Suffice to say, the first shot of Mickey is perhaps the most famous shot in cartoon history (and is always the one used whenever "Steamboat Willie" is mentioned in the media and even by Disney itself).
Perhaps most shocking is how instantly identifiable Mickey is, particularly when characters like Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck looked wildly different from how we remember them in their first appearances.
.....The first real gag of the series underscores the importance of sound, as it involves one of the whistles above Mickey's vessel. It also underscores one of the great truths in animation: when there is a group of characters, the smallest character in the group is always the funniest, and is invariably completely out of sync with its mates.
.....One of the surprises of this short is Pete, who looks completely unlike the villain that we recognize today. However, what most people don't know (besides the fact that it really is Pete) is that Pete was by this point a seasoned Disney veteran, having first appeared in the old Alice Comedies before becoming a key nemesis of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Thanks to his three years of thuggery (part of which was spent as a bear and not the cat he is now), Pete is already quite fully realized here. His grabbing of Mickey is quite humorous, as he completely distorts Mickey's tiny torso.
A bit of Mickey's personality emerges as he meekly tucks his stomach back in his shorts as Pete barks out his orders to the mouse. A bit of a surprise (from a modern standpoint, at least) is how Mickey gives Pete a wet raspberry while Pete's back is turned-a devious trait that would be de-emphasized or just plain removed from Mickey's character over the years.
.....Mickey's nervous hand-flapping as Pete winds up to kick him would become quite common in these earliest Mickey shorts-a nice bit of character likely introduced by Ub Iwerks.
More recognizable as an Iwerks contribution is Pete's exaggerated kick, which results in the big cat kicking his own butt-a textbook example of rubber-hose animation.
.....The parrot Mickey encounters on the main deck would see a handful of appearances over the next couple of years, and would be treated just as maliciously by Mickey in those shorts (one of them being "The Gorilla Mystery") as he gets treated here.
In fact, it wouldn't be until "Mickey's Parrot" (when Mickey's character had already begun its infamous softening) that he'd actually meet a parrot that he wouldn't try to intentionally kill on first sight. Of course, one reason for this eventual shift was the realization that Mickey is generally without malice. Sure, Mickey is capable of underhanded behavior (see MouseWorks), but it's usually because he's driven towards some goal. This "attack only when the other guy deserves it" mentality is in fact what separates first-tier cartoon heroes like Mickey and Bugs Bunny from their sidekicks (i.e., Donald and Daffy)-their intentions are always completely honorable.
.....Pete's sequence in the bridge is remarkable because it's so indicative of his character. Not only does he lift his stomach in a show of bravado,
but he produces a humorously oversized stick of Star Tobacco (a habit that would last well into the '40s).
Sound design is also key, as Pete's biting noise is fittingly overdone, and his tobacco spit hits the bell with a loud CLANG! The latter sound effect would become standard procedure whenever anyone spat tobacco, making it but the first of Disney's many, contributions to the art of cartoon sound design.
.....The animals at the Podunk Landing are perfect examples of the early Disney school of character design (which would quickly come to be ripped off by nearly every studio in New York and Hollywood following the success of "Steamboat Willie"): the bodies are almost entirely black, save for their faces, which have the same basic features as Mickey's face (excepting the substitution of mouselike features for those of cows and chickens, of course). The cow seen amongst these animals is noted because of the odd tag around its neck.
The non-word FOB is, in fact a now-obscure (or, at least, obscure to your truly) acronym meaning either "Free on Board" or "Freight on Board", denoting that the shipping charges for the cow have been paid in full. (Thanks to CRW reader Bart Massey for bring this bit of knowledge to my attention.)
.....The only real error in the short (excepting the obvious technical deficiencies inherent in a 75 year old film), occurs when the cow chews its cud and begins to moo, and the name tag and one of its ears disappears momentarily.
However, with the pressure on Walt Disney's tiny staff, it remains a miracle that these are the only errors unearthed in the film. Even more astonishing is that the affecting footage amounts to maybe 12 frames of (largely repeated) animation, or half a second out of the entire seven and a half minute cartoon. That's talent and dedication, kids (with a heavy side order of time, most likely).
.....The docking of the boat and the udder gag are examples of the over-exaggerated visual humor that drove the silent era, as is the gag with the bale of hay.
The main difference between these jokes and those seen in the works of future Disney artists and directors like Tex Avery seems very much a matter of improved technique. Even with the insane humor of Tex Avery's greatest works, there was always a dimension of weight and realism simply not seen in these early "rubber hose" efforts. This isn't to say that these early efforts don't work-it just means that there was an evolution in the field of animation-one that was helped immensely by sound (which added that extra dimension to the humor much like sound added to live-action films).
.....Minnie's entrance adds some drama to the short as she rushes to catch the boat, shouting (in barely comprehensible fashion) the words she would become known for in the early '30s: "Yoo Hoo!"
Minnie is also a clinic on how relatively unrefined cartoon design was at this early juncture, as Minnie's clothing is the only thing that really distinguishes her from Mickey visually. However, this limitation would quickly disappear, as shorts like "The Karnival Kid" and "Mickey's Follies" would be able to accurately portray Minnie as a female character.
.....The events of Mickey first encountering Minnie in this short lends itself better to the development of both characters' personalities than in "Plane Crazy" and "The Gallopin' Gaucho" since Mickey neither acts like a boor later on in the short or when he meets Minnie. While meant as no insult to those early shorts where Mickey has no real moral weight, the idea of Mickey as an everyman (and Minnie as an everywoman) depends on his ability to reflect the morals of the time each of his cartoons were produced during. However, the "moral-less" Mickey belies his primary influence: Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. While the Tramp still represents many aspects of the common man, there's no doubt that Chaplin built up his famous character as someone who would do exactly what we wished we could do in similar circumstances. Mickey, however, is noted for doing what we should do in any given circumstance. We want to be Mickey, whereas we're already the Little Tramp.
.....Part of the reason for the lack of a moral compass was the desire for Disney cartoons to be, above all, funny. However, when you're inventing a medium, you need to experiment. So the earliest cartoons tried to be funny above all. Characters were mostly a secondary element, if that (which is why most early cartoons were disposable), and the moral authority of the entire industry was generally left to the writers, who certainly weren't sweating the details. Perhaps the surest sign of this in "Steamboat Willie" is when the humanized hook realizes that it has forgotten to pull down Minnie's dress.
There's no intention to shock here; just to entertain.
.....Perhaps the most indicative element of this search for humor is the now-famous "Turkey in the Straw" sequence, which would heavily influence not only future Disney animators of the Mickey series, but everyone in animation. Most of the future Mickey shorts would feature some sort of musical number, and Warner Bros. (to name one example) would do nothing but musical numbers until Porky Pig established himself as the first true star of Looney Tunes. The atmosphere here is decidedly festive, with everyone (save for the dazed billy goat) enjoying themselves.
.....While there have been increasing hints over the past 20 years that this part of the cartoon is unacceptable because Mickey is "abusing" the animals, there is little indication that Mickey is acting of out malice here. Yes, gets upset as he struggles with the goat, and yes, the look on his face is certainly devious when he tosses the cat into the trash can lid, but the entire scene plays as if Mickey is simply looking for objects to play "Turkey in the Straw" with. The sequence is, quite simply, an experiment in humor. And, simply put, the experiment is a smashing success.
.....Another experiment that would bear enormous fruit occurs when Mickey plays the duck like a set of bagpipes.
As Mickey plays the duck while keeping its head pointed in one direction, the volume is naturally consistent. However, towards the end of the verse, Mickey decides to point the duck's head right into the camera.
The volume of the duck's voice increases, resulting in what can be safely identified as the earliest precursor to today's surround sound systems in feature films. Granted, the true birth of surround sound technology was with Fantasia's Fantasound system (which, like THX, required specific sound equipment and placement), but one must surely wonder if this segment was in the back of Walt's mind when the Fantasia project started up.
.....Perhaps most infamous about the "Turkey in the Straw" sequence is the long-lived edit that saw the removal of Mickey playing the mother pig's teats much like an accordion.
The edit, which was instated for the 25th Anniversary re-release of "Steamboat Willie" in 1953 (a year which also saw the re-animation of part of "The Three Little Pigs" to remove the Big Bad Wolf's Jewish peddler disguise), was done to appease the Hays Code (which didn't yet exist in 1928). The edit became long-lived, however, not because of any fears of being politically incorrect by Disney, but because the new print stricken for the reissue had an optical soundtrack (unlike the original release, which featured the soundtrack on a separate disc). As such, transferring the edited version to home video proved to be cheaper and less of a hassle.
.....A downside of this edit is that one can easily recognize its presence in both versions. On the edited version, the soundtrack jumps noticeably as the picture skips ahead to the shot of the parrot dancing happily to the tune of the music (which is the next shot after the pig sequence in the uncut version).
In the uncut version, the soundtrack has a readily apparent tape hiss here, largely because the primary source is the now very aged soundtrack disc(s). As such, one needs not even be in the same room as a showing of this short to know which version it is.
.....The cow's teeth is probably the most openly humorous of Mickey's impromptu instruments, largely because xylophones are naturally funny, something only emphasized by the exaggerated tones used here. Cartoon tradition is again created, as Mickey chooses to play "Shave and a Haircut" at the end of his performance.
Of course, the joyful mood is quickly interrupted by Pete, who's about as menacing as he can be in his intermediate form. What sells the moment, though, is the music. The now-familiar suspense theme begins playing even before we see Pete, and crescendos just as he growls at Mickey.
.....Another ignored element of "Steamboat Willie" is the fact that Mickey outright loses the central conflict of the short-namely that between Pete and himself. Furthermore, he acts with malice towards the parrot by throwing a potato at the pest.
"Ha ha ha ha ha......"
In addition to this, Mickey takes great joy in hearing the bird cry for help as it drowns. Needless to say, this complete disregard for life was quickly written out of Mickey's character. What people don't realize is that this behavior was actually quite common throughout the 1928 and 1929 Mickey Mouse shorts, and wouldn't really disappear until around 1932 (although the recent TV series have seen a return to the harder-edged Mickey of days gone by). In fact, of the original three Mickeys, only "The Gallopin' Gaucho" features an ending consistent with the later years of the series-and even then the cartoon featured Mickey partaking in "antisocial" behavior such as smoking and drinking. Ultimately, this behind-the-scenes conflict would kill the Mickey series, as audiences would voice-very loudly-their dissatisfaction whenever Mickey displayed behavior that could possibly be deemed as "not nice". A major element of MouseWorks and House of Mouse would be a return to this slightly less angelic Mickey, who is ultimately more interesting while managing to be no less endearing (especially when these new adventures found Mickey encountering the ever-slimey Mortimer Mouse with a very welcome frequency). However, in the heady days of 1928, everything was fair game, as the ending of "Steamboat Willie" surely attests.
.....OK, time for the quickest, dirtiest, bluntest Final Verdict I'm ever going to do. "Steamboat Willie" is a classic. Not only is it on the National Film Registry with such classic films as Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and Gone With the Wind, it is the bright, shining center of the animation industry as we know it today. With few exceptions (mainly the works of Paul Terry and the Fleischers, both of whom were already well-established in the industry at this point), everything (and I mean everything) produced afterward had a former Disney staffer, an associate of a former Disney staffer, or someone influenced by the Disney Studios or the work of a studio influenced by Disney present. So, when Walt Disney said that it all started with a mouse, he wasn't just talking about his studio, he was talking about the entire animation industry. Considering the many nations with thriving animation industries (Japan, France, and Canada spring immediately to mind), and compounding it with the many live-action films and producers influenced by the animation industry, the sphere of influence "Steamboat Willie" maintains is nothing short of earth-shattering. To never have seen this treasure and still call oneself a fan of cartoons is a bold-faced lie. To not enjoy the film or its star is nothing short of an unpardonable sin.
"Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha...."
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