Revisiting Disney's 'Steamboat Willie'
According to Walt Disney's older brother Roy O. Disney, Disney was inspired to create a sound cartoon after viewing the 1927 film 'The Jazz Singer', the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences, which heralded the commercial ascendance of the "talkies" and the decline of the silent film era.
After losing the rights to the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Charles Mintz, Walt Disney wanted to make Mickey Mouse his new star character. Disney believed that adding sound to a cartoon would greatly increase its appeal after Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho, the first two Mickey Mouse films produced as silent films failed to impress audiences and gain a distributor.
Although animation filmmakers Dave and Max Fleischer's Inkwell Studios had already produced seven sound cartoons, part of the Song Car-Tunes which started in May 1924, failed to keep the sound fully synchronized. 'Steamboat Willie' was produced using a click track to keep his musicians on the beat. The click track was sufficiently useful as a synchronization tool as optical marks were made on the film to indicate precise timings for musical accompaniment.
The title card of 'Steamboat Willie'. Pic Courtesy/ YouTube
'Steamboat Willie' was produced between July and September 1928 with an estimated budget of USD 4,986. Due to initial doubts regarding the believability of a sound cartoon between the animators, Walt Disney arranged a screening for a small test audience with live sound to accompany it.
A partially finished version of 'Steamboat Willie' was screened on July 29 in a room adjoining Walt Disney's office to a small audience which consisted of Disney employees and their wives.
Mickey Mouse as he appears at the start of 'Steamboat Willie'. Pic Courtesy/ YouTube
Walt Disney's brother Roy placed the movie projector outdoors and the film was projected through a window so that the sound of the projector would not interfere with the live sound. Ub Iwerks set up a bed sheet behind the movie screen behind which he placed a microphone connected to speakers where the audience would sit. The live sound was produced from behind the bed sheet. Wilfred Jackson played the music on a mouth organ, Ub Iwerks banged on pots and pans for the percussion segment, Johnny Cannon provided sound effects with various devices including slide whistles and spittoons for bells. Walt himself provided what little dialogue there was to the film, mostly grunts, laughs, and squawks.
The response of the audience was extremely positive, which gave Walt Disney the confidence to move forward and complete 'Steamboat Willie'.
Mickey and Minnie Mouse in a still from 'Steamboat Willie' Pic Courtesy/ YouTube
Walt Disney hired New York based Pat Powers's Cinephone system to produce the sound. Powers was using an updated version of Lee De Forest's Phonofilm system without giving De Forest any credit, a decision he would later regret.
The music in the final soundtrack was performed by the Green Brothers Novelty Band conducted by Carl Edouarde. The brothers Joe and Lew Green from the band also assisted in timing the music to the film. The first attempt to synchronize the recording with the film was a disaster. Disney had to sell his Moon roadster in order to finance a second recording. This was a success with the addition of a filmed bouncing ball to keep the tempo.
Did you know?
>> 'Steamboat Willie' is the first cartoon to feature a fully post-produced soundtrack which distinguished it from earlier sound cartoons.
>> In 1994 members of the animation field voted 'Steamboat Willie' 13th in the book The 50 Greatest Cartoons, which listed the greatest cartoons of all time.
>> In 1998 'Steamboat Willie' was selected for preservation in the United States' National Film Registry for being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
>> The Disney corporation considers 'Steamboat Willie' as the birthday of mascot Mickey Mouse.
>> 'Steamboat Willie' has been the center of a variety of controversies regarding copyright. The copyright of the film has been repeatedly extended by acts of the United States Congress. However, recent evidence suggests that the film may be in the public domain due to technicalities related to the original copyright notice.
>> The Disney corporation considers the birth of 'Steamboat Willie' as the birthday of mascot Mickey Mouse.
>> Mickey Mouse as a character made his debut in the 1928 Walt Disney short 'Plane Crazy' along with girlfriend Minnie, which was test screened as a silent film but failed to impress the audience. Walt Disney was unable to find a distributor due to this. The second short 'Gallopin' Gaucho had the same result. Since 'Steamboat Willie', which was the third cartoon starring Mickey Mouse was able to find a distributor for release it is considered as Mickey's debut by the Disney corporation.
>> The success of 'Steamboat Willie' not only led to international fame for Walt Disney, but for Mickey Mouse as well.