‘Steamboat Willie’ at 95 – Short Film Review

Steamboat Willie (1928)
Directors: Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney
Screenwriters: Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks
Starring: Walt Disney, Charlotte Jamquie

It all started with a rabbit. That’s right, around a year before Mickey, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who, despite starring in dozens of shorts, was unceremoniously ditched in favour of another anthropomorphic animal character Disney could retain control of because of a series of fascinating legal wrangles and rights issues with Universal. Almost a full century on, how does Disney’s game-changing breakthrough cartoon short that introduced Mickey to his public hold up?

Mickey Mouse works on a steamboat under the gruff Captain Pete. On his way down the river transporting livestock, he picks up his girlfriend Minnie Mouse and puts on an unusual impromptu musical performance involving all of the farm animals on the boat.

Steamboat Willie is proclaimed proudly in the opening credits as a “A Mickey Mouse sound cartoon”, setting out Disney’s character branding and chief selling point from the off. Technically this isn’t Mickey’s first appearance, as Plane Crazy was made and previewed first, but Steamboat Willie was the first Disney cartoon to see a wide release and essentially helped put Disney (appropriately sometimes today known as the “House of Mouse”) on the map.

About the only major studio to keep the tradition of a short film preceding the main feature alive during cinema exhibition is Pixar, which has of course become a subsidiary of Disney. As a reference to its past, for the longest time an image of Mickey whistling from this short was the production logo for Disney Animation Studios, but when cinema hit mass popularity with the invention of synchronised sound in the late 1920s, it was standard practice for every studio to produce short subjects and B-movies in support of their main events.

Clearly revolutionary for its time, capitalising on the incoming synchronised sound revolution caused by the release of The Jazz Singer, Steamboat Willie introduces increasingly elaborate musicality during its 8-minute runtime. This really emphasises Disney’s talent as a businessman, his ability to spot the next big thing to capitalise on, as well as his need to step back from animation, giving way to cartoonists like Iwerks for the good of the company. 

No matter how cartoony and unrealistic this short is, to the modern eye it’s difficult not to notice how much (admittedly creative) animal cruelty is employed by Mickey just to make music. He turns the tail of a goat who has swallowed sheet music to use it as a gramophone, he strikes at a cow’s teeth to improvise a xylophone, and he pulls on suckling piglets’ tails to make them squeal to add another musical layer. You can’t help but think of the classic Monty Python sketch where Terry Jones is hitting a row of mice with a hammer to produce a musical scale and is forcibly dragged off midway through by his shocked onlookers. 

We should probably reference the links to minstrel shows here. Taking a minstrel musical standard (“Turkey in the Straw”, which had a much more offensive original title that won’t be repeated here) and using hallmarks of the morally dubious entertainment style in Mickey’s appearance, from his white gloves to his exaggerated body language, can’t be ignored given early cinema’s links to vaudeville and sideshow attractions, but nor is this a call to “cancel” Mickey. 

You have to acknowledge that Steamboat Willie is 95 years old, and looks it. Ub Iwerks was the master of the stretch-squash cartoon with a slightly surreal, mischievous edge, but the burgeoning Disney Studio had a way to go before their moving drawings transitioned from curiosities to magic. Sometimes the animation looks cheap and rushed, and is mostly held together by sheer exuberance and the clever matching of cartoony ideas to the building musical accompaniment.

Steamboat Willie is a fascinating artefact of film history and remains a pretty enjoyable way of spending just under ten minutes of your time. It’s certainly not polished and overall quality-wise it’s solidly in the middle of the Mickey Mouse canon, but a first step is always an important one, and the ideas tried out here cleared the way for many years of escapist amusement for audiences of all ages.

Score: 18/24

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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