Mickey Mouse made his hit debut on the silver screen 94 years ago today when the animated short Steamboat Willie first premiered on July 29th, 1928. Steamboat Willie marked a watershed moment in animation and pop culture.
The Idea That Started it All
In early 1928, Walt Disney was a relatively unknown name with two successful animated series under his belt. When pitched the ideas of his two animated characters in 1927, Universal Studios loved Disney’s creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and quickly called for a series of shorts featuring him. After meeting with the studio in 1928, Walt was informed that Universal retained the rights to his animations.
After Universal Studios took the rights to his two big characters, Disney was in desperate need of a million-dollar idea. Disheartened and prepared to throw in the towel, Walt reflected on the humble beginnings of his animation career as he rode the train from Manhattan to Hollywood. Walt remembered a mischievous mouse that lived in the walls of his studio back in Kansas City.
In a stroke of genius, Disney knew this idea was something he and his team needed to pursue. After many sleepless nights and frustrating first drafts, Walt, along with his loyal colleague Ub Iwerks, who stayed with him after he left Universal Studios, animated a lovable mouse they named Mortimer. Disney began to work Mortimer Mouse into shorts, and along the way, his newest character creation was renamed Mickey Mouse.
Bringing Mickey to Life
Disney produced the first cartoon starring Mickey Mouse titled Plane Crazy in 1928. Plane Crazy is a silent animated short that depicts Mickey differently than how viewers know him today. Without his white gloves and yellow, oversized shoes, Mickey is a bold and adventurous pilot inspired by renowned pilot Charles Lindbergh. The short was shown to a small audience, and it was not well received by distributors. The Gallopin’ Gaucho was the second Mickey Mouse cartoon, and it experienced the same end result as Plane Crazy. After the release of Steamboat Willie, Plane Crazy was successfully released as a sound animation.
The idea for Steamboat Willie was inspired by the film Jazz Singer. The 1927 silent film was the first feature-length movie to have synchronized sound. Upon seeing the movie, Walt was inspired to create the first animation incorporating synchronized sound. Disney began working on a cartoon with sound being his main focus during its production. Walt was determined to make his groundbreaking vision a reality. Along with being the first cartoon with synchronized sound, Steamboat Willie featured a fully produced soundtrack.
Premiere of Steamboat Willie
On July 29th, 1928, even though the animation was only partly finished, the first screening of Steamboat Willie took place. The film was very well received by the audience, who were the first to get a sneak peek of Disney’s newest creative creation. Steamboat Willie was officially released to the public on November 18th, 1928, in New York City. The cartoon was an overnight success that landed Walt and the whole Disney team international acclaim.
In the cartoon, Mickey cheerfully steers a boat as he whistles the tune of “Steamboat Willie.” Throughout the eight-minute short, Mickey finds himself in all kinds of exciting trouble.
To read more about the influence of Mickey’s first appearance in Steamboat Willie, click here!