Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie: The Landmark of Animation History

Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie: The Landmark Of Animation History

Almost 90 years ago on November 18, the first animation with a synchronized sound and post-produced soundtrack was premiered at Colony Theatre in New York. It was Steamboat Willie, starring the lively and smart cartoon mouse, Mickey Mouse.

Steamboat Willie was regarded as technical innovation in its time and appeared to be an immediate success. The audience was immersed in it and enjoyed it to the maximum, and two weeks later it was shown in Roxy in New York, the largest theater in the world at that time.


This illustration, titled “Mickey Mouse inbetweener drawing no. 469 or 479 from Steamboat Willie” appears courtesy Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Read more about this illustration at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005685943/


The success of the animation brought international fame for Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. Mickey turned to be the most popular animation character in the whole world; a character which was born in the same year and had appeared in two previous but unsuccessful works of Disney.


Steamboat Willie Picture Disc. Source: https://www.disneymusicemporium.com



The story in this black & white animation revolves around Mickey and his adventures and complications on a boat in a river. Minnie Mouse and Captain Pete also starred in this cheerful animation. It’s full of incidents and funny moments, the characters are dancing and singing most of the time and you can see and hear them talking.


Wilfred Jackson who arranged the music on the animation together with Bert Lewis, recalls that “nobody had ever seen a drawing make a noise, and there was no reason to be sure that the people would believe it. It might just look like some kind of a fake thing, and Walt wanted it to seem real.”

The idea for creating a sound cartoon occurred to Walt Disney after he watched The Jazz Singer in 1927. That film itself was the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized pre-recorded music, singing and speech, as stated by Roy Disney, the older brother of Walt and co-founder of Walt Disney.

A few cartoons with sounds were released in the same decade, but the sound was not synchronized. But in Steamboat Billie, the soundtrack was connected to the actions and while Mickey plays instruments, the sound precisely matches what he plays.


Walt Disney with Mickey Mouse. Photo source: United Artists/Photofest. IMDB


As stated by Dave Smith, Chief Archivist Emeritus of The Walt Disney Company, “Walt was determined to make his sound cartoons realistic; each sound would exactly match what one was seeing on the screen. As a subject for the cartoon, he would have Mickey working on a steamboat, a nod  to comedian Buster Keaton’s recent “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”

Upon the success of Steamboat Willie, Disney continued to work on Mickey Mouse and a series of short were made and released in the following years. Ten of Mickey’s cartoons were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and one of called Lend a Paw won the award in 1942.


Mickey Mouse is still one of the most popular icons. Besides the cartoons themselves, Mickey clothing and dolls are very common and very fashionable among the new generations.


Courtesy of Walt Disney


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