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Released 18 November 1928, Steamboat Willie was Mickey and Minnie Mouse’s official début. They’d both appeared in silent cartoon Plane Crazy, released 15 May 1928, but it failed to find a distributor after its screening. Another pre-stardom, silent, unreleased cartoon was The Gallopin’ Gaucho, in August 1928. Due to Steamboat Willie‘s success, both cartoons were remade with sound and released 30 December 1928 (The Gallopin’ Gaucho) and 17 March 1929 (Plane Crazy).
Steamboat Willie was Disney’s very first cartoon with synchronized sound, and the first cartoon with a fully post-production soundtrack. Its title is an obvious spoof of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. Walt Disney did all the voices (unintelligible though they may be).
Mickey is steering a steamship when the giant, mean captain, Pete, creeps up behind him and yanks him away from the wheel. Naturally, Mickey is quite upset. When Pete tries to kick him, he runs down the stairs, slips on soap, and lands in a bucket of water. Smarting with humiliation, Mickey throws the bucket at a laughing parrot.
Back at the wheel, Pete (who’s been watching Mickey’s antics) takes a bite of chewing tobacco and spits it into the wind. It flies backwards and rings the bell. Hoping it’ll happen again, Pete spits a second time, only to get hit in the face.
The steamboat stops by Podunk Landing for livestock, where Mickey attempts to milk a very skinny cow. When he feeds her hay, she instantly becomes plump.
Minnie comes running up alongside the boat just before it sets back off, but doesn’t make it in time. Mickey uses the same hook he used for the livestock to bring Minnie aboard. On deck, Minnie accidentally drops sheet music and a guitar, which are promptly eaten by a goat.
In a gag many modern viewers might’ve guessed would happen, Mickey and Minnie use the goat as a musical instrument, in this case a cranked phonograph. Mickey also uses various objects and animals on the boat as instruments.
Pete has had enough of Mickey’s hijinks, and throws him at a potato bin. (I love how Mickey peels the potatoes left-handed!) The parrot from earlier reappears, and Mickey throws a potato at him, knocking him into the water.
The film was produced from July–September 1928, at an estimated budget of $4,986 ($72,675, or £57,414, in today’s money). An unfinished version had a test-screening on 29 July, with live music and sound effects. The audience (Disney employees and their wives) sat in a room adjoining Walt Disney’s office, with the film projector outside. The film was projected through a window.
The audience loved it, which was all the incentive needed to finish the film. Walt Disney decided to use the Cinephone sound-on-film system.
Steamboat Willie premièred by NYC’s Universal’s Colony Theatre (now Broadway Theatre, on 1681 Broadway), and initially ran for two weeks. It was one of the shorts played before the part-talkie feature Gang War (starring Jack Pickford, Mary’s brother; Olive Borden; and awesome character actor Walter Long). Walt Disney was paid $500 a week.
Critics and the general public alike loved the cartoon, which led to nationwide theatrical release and Mickey’s first two cartoons being redone with sound and publicly released.
The film has been referenced, featured, spoofed, or paid homage to in countless films, TV shows, cartoons, and video games over the years. In 1998, it was inducted into the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”