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Western Animation: Steamboat Willie

"By 1927-1928, audiences would groan when a cartoon came on. Animation had worn out its welcome. The novelty was gone. If sound hadn't come in, the cartoon would have vanished."
Shamus Culhane, on why Steamboat Willie was such an important film for animation.

"Steamboat Willie" was a black and white Mickey Mouse short released on November 18, 1928, being the short that kicked off what we have come to know as The Golden Age of Animation. It is notable, not for being the first Mickey Mouse cartoon (that honor goes to Plane Crazy) and, contrary to popular belief, not for being the first sound cartoon note , but for being the first cartoon with a completely post-produced soundtrack of music, dialogue, and sound effects. Namely, it was the first cartoon to get it right, bringing The Silent Age of Animation to an end.

The short itself begins with the iconic image of Mickey Mouse at the mast of a steamboat, whistling to himself. The villain, Pete, the real captain of the ship, steps in and hassles Mickey for not doing his job. The steamboat docks to pick up a cargo of animals, and Minnie Mouse rushes to board the ship as it leaves the dock. Mickey manages to get her on board (by using a hook to pick her up by her panties no less), but an Extreme Omni Goat eats her ukulele and her sheets of music. Somehow Mickey and Minnie are able to make the most of the situation by cranking the goat's tail, which causes it to play music. The ensuing scenes involve Mickey abusing animals in order to add to the music, by swinging a cat by its tail, choking a duck, pulling on the tails of baby pigs and then playing the mother pig's nipples. Animal abuse aside, this scene readily showed off what adding sound to cartoons could do. Pete gets angry at Mickey for slacking off again, and forces him to peel potatoes. The short ends with Mickey throwing a potato at a parrot for laughing at him.

The short was revolutionary for its time, and its copyright status in the US is still up in the air; Disney has successfully lobbied Congress to extend its copyright to 2023 (which is part of the reason that the Copyright Term Extension Act is occasionally known as the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act") though by the original law it should have fallen into public domain years ago. It may in fact already be in the public domain due to errors in the original copyright formulation, but don't let Disney hear you mention that. In several other countries, including Canada and Russia, the short has been in the public domain for several years.

This short has also placed no. 13 on The 50 Greatest Cartoons list, and was chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry.


Steamboat Willie contains examples of the following tropes:


Rabbit of SevilleThe 50 Greatest CartoonsThe Old Mill
Plane CrazyWesternAnimation/Classic Disney ShortsThe Skeleton Dance
Plane CrazyThe Roaring TwentiesSilly Symphonies
Plane CrazyFilms of the 1920sThe Skeleton Dance
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)National Film RegistryThe Public Enemy
Static ShockWestern AnimationSteven Universe
The Skeleton DanceAnimated FilmsThree Little Pigs

alternative title(s): Steamboat Willie
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