Short Review: Steamboat Willie (1928)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation.

Cast

Walt Disney – Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Peg-Leg Pete and the Parrot

Sources of Inspiration – early sound film The Jazz Singer (1927) and silent Buster Keaton vehicle Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Release Dates

November 18th, 1928 (sound premiere) at the Colony Theatre (now Broadway 53rd Street), New York City

Run-time – 8 minutes (almost)

Directors – Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks

Composers – Wilfred Jackson and Bert Lewis

Worldwide Gross – Disney was paid $500 per week during the short’s two-week theatrical run, a large sum at the time (it cost just under $5,000 to make)

Accolades – 1 win


1928 in History

Sierra Leone abolishes domestic slavery

Volcanic island Anak Krakatau appears

John Logie Baird achieves the first transatlantic television transmission (and later the first colour one)

Shi Yousan, a Chinese warlord, sets the Shaolin Monastery ablaze

Charles Lindbergh is presented with the Medal of Honor

Representation of the People Act passed in Britain – women can now vote at age 21, rather than 30

Amelia Earhart becomes first woman to make a transatlantic flight (from Newfoundland to Wales)

Italo-Ethiopian Treaty signed, preventing the colonization of Ethiopia

Alexander Fleming accidentally discovers Penicillin

The Okeechobee hurricane devastates Guadeloupe and Florida

Stalin launches his First Five-Year Plan

Births of Maya Angelou, Shirley Temple, Richard Sherman, Che Guevara, Stanley Kubrick and Andy Warhol


 

Wherever you live in the world, chances are good that you’ve heard of Mickey Mouse. He is nothing less than an international icon, a logo as recognisable as those of McDonald’s, Coca Cola or Apple, and he will be turning eighty-nine years old this November (according to his official birthday, which is the date of the release of this short). So where did the little mouse come from?

I’ve already discussed his origins a bit in my post, Understanding the Disney Eras – basically, Walt needed a new character when his original one, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was taken out from under him by producer and distributor Charles Mintz. Legend has it that Mickey was dreamed up on the train journey home from New York, after getting this crushing news – he was nearly named “Mortimer,” but was apparently spared this misfortune by Walt’s wife, Lillian, who wisely insisted that the name was too “pretentious.”

Steamboat Willie was not actually the first Mickey cartoon to be put into production, as many sources claim. That was Plane Crazy, which was initially produced as a silent feature before being retooled and released with sound after the success of Willie. Neither was Willie the first sound cartoon; the Fleischer Studios had used sound in their Song Car-Tunes series earlier in the decade, and just a month before Willie’s premiere Paul Terry released his own sound short, Dinner Time – but none of these met with much success. What is true is that Steamboat Willie was the first successful sound cartoon with a properly synchronised soundtrack, the first to make full use of the new technology, and audiences couldn’t get enough of it.

Following an encouraging test screening of the half-finished film for the staff’s wives and girlfriends (in which the music was played live, the soundtrack not having been recorded yet), Disney found a distributor – Celebrity Productions – and prepared for the big debut. Now, let’s take a look at the film which audiences saw that November evening, almost nine decades ago, and see why it remains so beloved today.

 

Characters and Vocal Performances

To modern audiences, Mickey’s role here can come across as rather shocking upon first viewing. He’s quite a rascally little devil in this short, with an undeniable “mean streak” which soon disappeared as the character’s success forced the company to tone down his personality somewhat. In the carefree Prohibition era of the 1920s, rule-breaking and lack of responsibility were in vogue, and that’s just what we see Mickey embodying here. Although he wouldn’t speak until 1929, the new sound technology was used to cleverly convey his personality and his motives to us in non-verbal ways, as in the iconic whistling moment at the very beginning, which has recently been incorporated into Disney logos. Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character is said to have been an influence on Mickey in these early days, with his mischievous ways and his oppression by a “heavy” in the form of Peg-Leg Pete – certainly there is a lot of holdover from the Silent Era with the exaggerated gags (remember, this short was instrumental in bringing that era to a close). Interestingly, Mickey doesn’t win in the end – the short closes with him in the boat’s galley, scolded by Pete, enduring the common military punishment of peeling potatoes. Perhaps this could be taken as a fitting justice for his uncharacteristic malice at times in the short.

Mickey whistling

Mickey’s loving companion, Minnie, also makes her debut here. There is little to distinguish the two in these early shorts, apart from their attire, although there are hints of a backstory to Minnie – is she some sort of travelling performer? As a female character, the prevailing attitudes of the time meant that it was considered less funny to see women subjected to slapstick, so Minnie doesn’t partake in many gags. The most notable one is when, after just missing the boat, she is hitched on board by Mickey using a humanised crane – the crane hooks into her panties, and after depositing her on deck, modestly lowers her skirt for her. She doesn’t really have any distinct lines, apart from calling “Yoo Hoo!” as she chases the boat along the shore, but we still get a look at her personality as she joins Mickey in his gleeful improvised performance with the animals.

Minnie running

The other significant character in Willie is Peg-Leg Pete, who was established years earlier in the Oswald and Alice shorts. Pete is portrayed here as Mickey’s stick-in-the-mud superior, the captain or skipper of the steamboat. Although he is played as a stereotypical “heavy” in the vein of Wallace Beery, he really isn’t all that bad in this short, compared to some of his others. His “villainy” is almost non-existent here; he just wants his employee to do his job and stop pestering the livestock!  Pete also gets one of the few indistinct lines of dialogue in the short, saying “Get down here!” to Mickey.

Pete Star Tobacco

The many animals taken on board at Podunk Landing are given a remarkable amount of character, too. I love the cheeky goat who eats Minnie’s sheet music and ukulele before she’s even on deck – he is perhaps the only animal who deserves to be turned into an instrument by the rascally rodents. He certainly doesn’t suffer as much as the poor little cat, at any rate! The most common piece of criticism this short gets nowadays (and even got noted for a bit at the time) is the animal abuse, nowhere more blatant than when Mickey grabs a passing cat, steps on it to make it yowl to the music and finally swings it over his head by the tail and tosses it away. Judging from the poor thing’s cries of pain, it did not enjoy the experience. Another “abusive” scene involving the sow and her piglets being played like an accordion was cut in the 1950s, although it has been restored in some recent versions.

That poor cat

The parrot is also an interesting character. As well as getting the most dialogue in the whole short (it says in a muffled voice “Hope you don’t feel hurt, big boy! Ha ha ha!” twice and also calls for help when it’s knocked out of the window), it also suffers the worst fate of all the animals, as it’s implied that it drowns! Mickey’s obvious delight at this was partly what prompted Walt to vow never to have him wilfully hurt another animal again (he kept his word – Mickey only ever hurts other characters when they’ve done something to deserve it).

According to animator and director Mark Kausler, “Some Internet research led me to popular blues singer Ida Cox and her 1927 hit ‘Worn Down Daddy,’ which would still have been going strong on the radio at the time of Steamboat Willie‘s release. In it, a floozy insults her beau for having lost his potency: ‘You ain’t young no more… your loving is weak… you’re just an old has-been… like a worn-out old joke…’ And after each volley of insults, the recurring tag line is a sarcastic ‘I hope you don’t feel hurt.’ In ‘Steamboat Willie,’ read ‘I hope you don’t feel hurt’ as shorthand for the insults that come before it in the song, and the parrot as a female (she calls Mickey ‘big boy’)— and then you can see why Mickey reacts to her not just with anger, but with offence (communicating insult to us and swelling his chest indignantly).”

I would have never considered the parrot as a girl, but this bit of trivia does provide an interesting spin on the character!

The Parrot

Animation

The animation for the short was largely done by Ub Iwerks, one of the absolute best of his time. He was helped by Les Clark, one of the future Nine Old Men, who did the scene where Mickey fills the skinny cow with hay, and by Wilfred Jackson, an eager young animator who did the scene of Minnie chasing after the boat as his first assignment. If you overlook the inherent shortcomings of a nearly ninety-year-old piece of animation, the work is truly top-notch and still holds up incredibly well. It was done in the “rubber hose” style of the day, where the characters lack fixed weight or volume – note the loose, “boneless” bodies, which is clearest when Pete grabs Mickey by the torso and comically stretches it out. When Mickey sighs, his whole body inflates in a little balloon; in these early days, anatomy was less important than the gags and novelties like sound, which were what audiences came to see. The animation certainly complements the sound very well here – the two elements support each other brilliantly in gags which couldn’t be done without one or the other, such as when the three whistles on the boat “toot” to the music, all except the smallest, which has to be kicked up the backside before adding its part. At the time, nobody had seen anything like this before – a hand-drawn character, whistling a tune and keeping perfect time by tapping his foot, all in sync to the music playing in the background. Truly remarkable.

Mickey stretch torso

There are, of course, a few minor blips here and there, but it is a testament to the dedication of the staff at the studio that these are so rare and unnoticeable. The most frequently mentioned is the “disappearing” tag which the cow wears around its neck – by the way, the “F.O.B” on it stands for “Free On Board,” an old shipping term denoting that the shipping charges for the freight have been paid in full. I didn’t know that until I started researching for this review – hooray for trivia!

 

Plot

Plot wasn’t a significant factor in these early shorts; people came to laugh, not to be sucked into a complex drama. Animated films were obscure, foreign affairs in those days, so most Americans wouldn’t have seen any – animation, for them, was pure entertainment, based mainly on the vaudevillian slapstick prevalent in the Silent Era.

Mickey here plays the pilot of a river steamer, with Pete as the skipper. They sail down to Podunk Landing to pick up some livestock – and, just barely, Minnie Mouse. After the goat swallows Minnie’s belongings, she and Mickey turn it and eventually the other animals into a wacky sort of orchestra, playing Turkey in the Straw and Shave and a Haircut before Mickey is stopped by an angry Pete. The short ends with Mickey stuck with the potatoes, foiled by the skipper.

To quote a piece of trivia from Mouseplanet, “Before various bans on importation were enacted in the 1930s, several Americans owned parrots as a sign of prestige and exotic taste. Even President Teddy Roosevelt kept one at the White House during his tenure. New Orleans, at the base of the Mississippi, was a shipping port, and often crates of parrots broke and the birds found new homes—which may be how they became associated with pirates who also frequented the port.” This explains the presence of such an unusually exotic animal in the American Midwest!

We also see Pete enjoying a hilariously oversized block of Star Plug chewing tobacco, which makes for some more great sound-based gags as he spits it at the boat’s bell. Star Plug was very popular at the time, but with the decline in casual smoking, many audiences of today might not be sure what it’s supposed to be – I used to think it was chocolate or molasses!

 

Cinematography

The title card of the short features an extremely dated image of Mickey and Minnie, with him in a boater hat and cane, of all things! Jolly good, old bean. Although there isn’t much to be said about the cinematography in such an old short, it does feature a few impressively detailed backgrounds, rolling by behind the boat as it sails along. There isn’t really any room for variations in lighting, as the whole thing is, of course, black and white. One notable shot is when Mickey is playing the duck, like bagpipes – near the end of the scene, he aims its head right at the screen, and as it gets closer, the volume of its quacking increases, serving as an early indicator of the future surround sound systems. Perhaps Walt already had the idea for Fantasound gestating in his mind when he made this?

Mickey abuses the duck

Soundtrack

This is where Steamboat Willie really shines. The songs used in the piece were all well-known tunes, as the studio couldn’t afford to hire a composer at that point. Turkey in the Straw was Wilfred Jackson’s idea, a folk song commonly used by fiddlers which was popularized by blackface performers a century earlier. It’s a jaunty, simple tune which perfectly suits the needs of the short, as Mickey and Minnie adapt it into various forms of animal-based percussion. The 1911 song Steamboat Bill by Arthur Collins is also used (this is what Mickey is whistling at the start) – according to Mouseplanet, “The song recounts the story of Steamboat Bill who commands the steamboat named the Whippoorwill in its efforts to beat the record of the famous steamboat, the Robert E. Lee, which in 1870 set a record time covering the stretch between New Orleans and St. Louis. In the song, the Whippoorwill is pushed beyond its limits and its boiler explodes, sending Bill and a gambler high in the air, where Bill bets another $1000 that he’ll go higher than the gambler.” This shows the film’s debts to earlier “talkies” like The Jazz Singer, where a song with a similar theme, Waiting for the Robert E. Lee, is used.

Mickey and Minnie play goat

The music was conducted by Carl Edouarde, though not without some reservations on his part about the “low-brow” music. For the recording of the soundtrack, Disney used the Powers Cinephone, a renegade sound system from Pat Powers (who had himself copied it from the bankrupt Lee De Forest’s Phonofilm system), as most commercial recording equipment at the time was controlled by rival studios who would have been unlikely to loan it to Disney.

The sound design may be basic by today’s standards, but for the 1920s it was revolutionary. Everything is in near-perfect sync, and sometimes there are multiple sounds happening at once – look at the scene where Minnie is chasing after the boat; her calls to Mickey, the clicking of her heels and the whistles of the boat are all mixed together to create a complex, layered piece of work. Overall, the music and effects reflect the “Tin Pan Alley” sound which dominated popular music at the time, though it was shortly to be usurped by the increasing availability of the radio and phonograph.

 

Final Verdict

Steamboat Willie represents a milestone in the history of animation. Nothing like it had been seen before and after its two-week run it was an instant success. It was released alongside the film Gang War, which also featured some dialogue, but the patrons were far more interested in the cartoon. Harry Reichenbach handled the promotion of it and drummed up a lot of interest in advance. Mickey would soon have legions of fans, including such luminous names as Maurice Sendark, Mary Pickford, Sergei Eisenstein, David Low and even King George VI – everybody loved to watch the little mouse and his mischievous antics. Well, almost everybody – naturally, the Nazis would have nothing to do with him and banned the short, as did the East Germans later on. This isn’t surprising; Mickey is, after all, one of the most well-known icons of an extremely capitalistic company. Although his popularity has been eclipsed somewhat in recent times, partly due to the “erosion” of his character as he gradually transformed into the classic “everyman,” he remains an enduring symbol of Disney and all that it stands for, and is an integral part of the company’s identity to this day. The subliminal Easter Eggs known as “Hidden Mickeys” can be found throughout the company’s films, products and parks, and this short is one of several played on a loop in the Main Street Cinema at Disneyworld.

The copyright for the short was extended by the company in 1998, so that instead of expiring in 2003, it is now not set to until 2023 (although in some countries, like Canada and Russia, it’s already in the public domain). Either way, it is still easy to watch online – the Disney Studio themselves have uploaded a version (without the sow and goose abuse), which I’ve provided a link to below. Please give it a go, if you haven’t seen it – any self-respecting animation fan needs to see this one.

 

References

I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:

The World History of Animation (2011) by Stephen Cavalier

The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch

Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (1998 ed.) by John Grant

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas

Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules (1997 ed.) by Bob Thomas

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32631783 – credit for film poster

https://www.mouseplanet.com/10157/Secrets_of_Steamboat_Willie – extra info from Mouseplanet

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steamboat_Willie – wiki article

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019422/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1 – IMDB profile

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBgghnQF6E4&index=6&list=WL – watch the Disney Studio’s upload of the film here.

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