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Saturday Matinee

Disney Cartoon #54, Revisitations Week: "Steamboat Willie" Revisited (November 18, 1928) - published January 14, 2012

by Albert Gutierrez

One year ago tomorrow, my first Saturday Matinee article was published, as I shared fond memories and brief analysis of Mickey Mouse's "Steamboat Willie." Now, 364 days later, we revisit the cartoon as part of our special Revisitations Week. It's been quite a ride, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to analyze some of my favorite shorts and films. Let's return to the synchronized-sound era of Mickey Mouse, and revisit "Steamboat Willie"...

Mickey Mouse is at the steering wheel of a cargo ship, under the captaincy of Peg-Leg Pete. He's having a grand old time just whistling along to the tune "Steamboat Bill," but Captain Pete won't have any of that. He pulls Mickey away and takes hold of the wheel. Pete chews tobacco, spitting against the wind, which causes it to hit the bell behind him. The ship stops at Podunk Landing, where Mickey has to load various animals, including a cow who is too skinny for the harness. Showcasing the first of Mickey's many mischievous acts in the short, he stuffs her full of hay in order for the harness to stay intact.

Meanwhile, Minnie Mouse has missed the boat, and as she chases after it, Mickey paces back and forth, unsure how to retrieve her. He soon gets the idea to catch her with a hook, and she is soon aboard. Her sheet music falls on the ground, and a hungry goat starts chewing up "Turkey in the Straw". Mickey and Minnie get the idea to turn the goat into a phonograph, and while Minnie keeps the music playing, Mickey turns some kitchenware into drums. It doesn't stop there, as he eventually uses a cat, a cow, and a pig to help make music at their expense. Pete puts a stop to it and sends him to the galley to peel potatoes. When a parrot mocks him, Mickey throws a potato his way, and then laughs at himself as we iris out.

As stated in my first Saturday Matinee, "Steamboat Willie" made its premiere at the B.S. Moss Colony Theatre in 1928. Twelve years later, the theatre (now under its current name of The Broadway Theatre) was chosen to host the premiere of Fantasia. The film played in roadshow engagements from November 13, 1940 to February 28, 1942. At the time, Fantasia was only available in roadshow presentations, since theatres would need to be equipped with Fantasound, the film's audio-sensory experience that gave birth to our modern day surround sound. It seems rather appropriate that the theatre that housed the first sound cartoon also housed the first surround sound cartoon. Fantasia would be the last Disney production mounted at The Broadway Theatre until 2011, when Sister Act made its Broadway debut after a successful run at the London Palladium in the West End.

Production of "Steamboat Willie" lasted only two months, between July and September of that year. Ub Iwerks animated the majority of the cartoon, with 20-year-old Les Clark serving as inbetweener, and Wilfred Jackson animating Minnie's running along the riverbank. Ub Iwerks had remained loyal to Walt during the Mintz defection, but left in 1930 to form Iwerks Studios, where he created Flip the Frog. He later returned to Disney in 1940, now concentrating on special effects and eventually transitioning to the theme-park division, WED Enterprises. Les Clark became the first of the famous Nine Old Men to work with Walt Disney, and joined Walt Disney Studios shortly after his high school graduation. He was told it would be a temporary job, which instead lasted until his retirement in 1975. Finally, Wilfred Jackson became a prominent Disney director of both shorts and feature films, directing such memorable shorts like "The Castaway," "The Night Before Christmas," and "The Tortoise and the Hare," along with animated features such as Melody Time, and the 1950s animated classics, save for Sleeping Beauty.

Jackson also worked on the music in "Steamboat Willie," adapting and transposing the music from "Steamboat Bill" and "Turkey in the Straw." The music in "Steamboat Willie" is one of the highlights of the short, not only for its innovative synchronization with the cartoon, but for its depiction in Mickey's world. Iwerks even animates Mickey's foot tapping for a bit, in beat with the tune. It's a little thing like that which helps convince audiences that this is a real "world" that the characters live in. When the goat chomps down on the sheet music, several notes fall out, each one accompanied by a plink from a xylophone. This helps sell the idea that while the world may seem real, we're still removed from it. It allows things to happen in an animated world that we can only dream of seeing in our own. Wouldn't it be cool to drop a note and hear it play when it falls to the floor?

Mickey's use of the farmyard animals also shows a great imagination with music. Today, the sequence sometimes seems cruel; I still wince at the pulling of the piglets' tails. At the same time, we also see how music can be found in every day noises. The idea of arranging every day objects to create a melodious sound has been done several times over the decades that followed. Look at the popular dance troupe "Stomp," or even the Muppets' own Marvin Suggs and his Singing Vegetables. For a few weeks in 2008, a stretch of road in Lancaster, California played the William Tell Overture when cars drive over the intermittent grooves designed to sound like the unforgettable song. The road has since been repaved, but the song still lives on in the Honda Civic commercials of that year. All of these examples likely were not directly inspired by Mickey's use of animals for music, but there surely could be a connection.

I can still fondly recall sitting in Exposition Hall at various times in 2005, relaxing and watching the cartoon loop of "Steamboat Willie," "Flowers and Trees," and "The Band Concert." There was something exciting about seeing Mickey's beginnings over and over again. The iconic shots of Mickey at the wheel, of pounding the spoons on his own head, of laughing to himself after committing murder. This is the Mickey that I grew to love the most, a mischievous little wiseguy who still would save his girl and defeat the Pete. I think it's safe to say that "Steamboat Willie" is my most-viewed Disney short, and certainly my favorite from Mickey's black-and-white years. It's got a great deal of replay value and the animation still holds up over 70 years later. All the hopes of Walt Disney Studios rested on this one cartoon, and thankfully, the audiences of 1928 recognized the greatness that was thrust upon them.

I am forever envious of those audience members who got that first glimpse of Mickey Mouse on November 18, 1928. Sure, my Exposition Hall viewings gave me a somewhat smaller-scale scope of sitting in a darkened theatre watching cartoons. But imagine going to the theatre one day for a movie, and seeing before your eyes the first new cartoon from the same guy who did Oswald and Alice. At the time, you're not aware of the culture juggernaut that would launch from that one cartoon, and so your appreciation in the first viewing may not be that much. But to see Mickey flower and bloom over the decades to come, that's what I envy most. I've grown up in a world where all things Disney is expected to be a big hit - either with the general public or with a devout selection of fans - but I'm sure it was more exciting to see this company grow from the ground up.

I think that's why I chose the cartoon for my first article of Saturday Matinee. Not because it was the first Disney cartoon, but because it resonates so much with me. There's a lot of sentimental value that always makes me associate the cartoon with 2005, one of the greatest years of my life. In addition, there's so much technical wonderment at how the cartoon was made. I admire the animators greatly for what they accomplished here, especially since I can't draw to save my life. Thus, the best I can do in animation is watch and enjoy it, occasionally studying how sequences work from a non-artist's point of view. I'm forever grateful that this column allows me to share my love and analysis of Disney's animation on a weekly basis.

"Steamboat Willie" has been released thrice on DVD, all three of which are sets worth owning but are unfortunately out of print. 2002 saw its release in "Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White," the first volume of Mickey's black and white shorts. In 2005, the short was included in the compilation disc "Vintage Mickey," which was released to help celebrate Disneyland's 50th Anniversary. Finally, 2007 saw the short included among the bonus features for "The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit," which also contains the 1999 documentary The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story.


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