There are many reasons why Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie cartoon has remained a staple in American animation. Sure, there were cartoons that featured sound in the early 1920’s – Fleishcher’s Inkwell Studios did it with Song Car-Tunes. This also isn’t the “first” Mickey cartoon. While Steamboat Willie was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon to be released publicly, the iconic mouse first appeared in Plane Crazy, followed by The Gallopin’ Gaucho. So what made this whistling, foot tapping mouse so popular?
Walt Disney had a lot to prove after losing the rights to the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit when he left Universal Pictures, so he created Mickey Mouse to take back the spot light. After making the aforementioned Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, he realized that to really wow the audience, he would have to include sound. And as for the history of animation, no other cartoon incorporated sound as fluidly as this.
The boat itself in Steamboat Willie takes pn a life of its own, with the horns whistling to themselves and the smoke staffs belching out black smoke. Mickey whistling to himself behind the ship’s wheel has become so iconic that you can spot homages in more contemporary cartoons such as The Simpsons. In fact, as of 2007, Walt Disney Animation Studios has used this image as it’s logo for it’s in-house films. What really got the audience going (as well as animal rights activists) is when Minnie Mouse comes on board, and our two anthropomorphic characters starts using their less developed animal friends as instruments. We see Mickey swinging a cat around by its tail while Minnie cranks a goat’s tail like a gramophone.
Let’s also not forget the obvious Buster Keaton reference the title makes. Enjoy the cartoon below: