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Western Animation / Steamboat Willie

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"Oh, that's old!"

"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" is a black-and-white Mickey Mouse short released on November 18, 1928, and is the cartoon 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 Crazynote ), nor for being the first sound cartoonnote , 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 – in 1998, Disney successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to extend its copyrightnote  to 2024 (this is part of the reason that the Copyright Term Extension Act is occasionally derisively called the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act"), though by the original law it should have fallen into the 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.note  In several other countries, including Canada and Russia, the short has been in the public domain for several years.

In 1998, 70 years after its debut, the short was chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry. It can be watched on Walt Disney Animation Studios' official YouTube channel here.

"Steamboat Willie" provides examples of:

  • Angrish: This is pretty much the only "dialogue" Pete gets when he first catches Mickey goofing off.
  • Barefoot Cartoon Animal: It's unclear if Pete is this, or if he's just wearing black boots.
  • Black Comedy Animal Cruelty: This is the most famous example in the early Mickey Mouse cartoons (to the point of providing the page image); it includes a sow played like an accordion, a cat having its tail pulled and then swung around, and a goose squeezed like a bagpipe.
  • Bootstrapped Leitmotif: The chorus to Steamboat Willie has naturally become a theme for Mickey, and Disney in general.
  • Bowdlerise: Older VHS releases and TV airings of Steamboat Willie tended to edit out the scene where Mickey messes around with a sow and her nursing piglets, but modern releases like the Walt Disney Treasures line and Celebrating Mickey blu-ray reinstates the scene. The Redux version of the cartoon also edits out the pig scene.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: And puts a dismayed Mickey to work peeling potatoes. Though it should be noted that Pete isn't so much a malicious villain in this case, and more just a grumpy captain fed up with a crewmember who keeps goofing off instead of working.
  • Compressed Adaptation: The Emoji retelling, due to only being a minute long, heavily steamlines the basic plot (what little there is anyway) and excises the entire ending.
  • Extreme Omni-Goat: The goat eats sheet music and a ukulele, then is able to play music afterwards like a phonograph.
  • Furry Confusion: Perhaps seeing a three foot mouse swing a cat around by its tail is some form of twisted justice. Not to mention you have a non-anthropomorphic cat in the same cartoon as Pete.
  • iSophagus: The goat, which becomes a living phonograph as a result of eating Minnie's sheet music and ukulele.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Captain Pete is presented as something of a villain, but Mickey really shouldn't be goofing around on the job so much when there's work to be done.
  • Kick the Dog: A rare example of someone doing this several times and still being the protagonist.
  • Mickey Mousing: The Trope Maker, though Ur Examples do exist in some form; silent cartoons did have musical scores (which would have to be played by a piano player in the movie theater) and characters would often move to the beats, but not to the same extent.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: It's not okay to abuse animals just so you can make music anymore. Granted, it wasn't exactly OK for Mickey either.
  • Peeling Potatoes: Mickey's punishment for slacking off so much is getting thrown in a room of potatoes. Serves as the Trope Image.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis: The first scene where Mickey is seen steering the steam boat is far more famous than the rest of the cartoon. Most people know that "Steamboat Willie" launched Mickey Mouse as a superstar, but the amount of people who actually saw this cartoon from beginning to end is much lower.
  • Prehensile Tail: Mickey uses it to pick up a hammer so he can use it to play a barrel like a drum and bang the trash can at the same time.
  • Rubber-Hose Limbs: As is typical of 1920s American cartoons.
  • Tertiary Sexual Characteristics: Minnie has eyelashes and a flower in her hat.
  • The Unintelligible: Due to the quality of the recording, it is hard to tell that the parrot is actually saying words. But thanks to extensive research, and listening very closely, he is actually saying, "Hope you don't feel hurt, big boy! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!", and when Mickey knocks the parrot into the water with a thrown potato, you can hear him say, "Help! Help! Man overboard!"
  • Wedgie, around three minutes and 35 seconds into the cartoon this is Mickey’s chosen method to lift Minne onto the boat. (Using the boat’s hook to pull her up by the waistband of her underpants.)


Video Example(s):


Steamboat Willie

The scene of Mickey piloting the steamboat and whistling, which became one of the most popular pieces of Walt Disney's animation.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (33 votes)

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Main / SignatureScene

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