One of the most important videos in the history of cinema, Walt Disney has just made their original hit Steamboat Willie available for free.
Check it out in the video above.
The cartoon was released in November 1928, and was the first appearance by Mickey Mouse.
What makes this such a seminal and important moment in cinema is that this was the first cartoon with synchronised sound. Allegedly, Disney was inspired when he saw The Jazz Singer the previous year in 1927, which was the first black and white film with synchronised dialogue, officially starting the age of the “Talkies”.
Prior to synchronised sound, cinemas would project the film onto the screen, and music would be provided by either a pianist, or small orchestra in larger city cinemas. While some films came with sheet music which roughly matched the flow of the film, often pianists would simply improvise the music.
Steamboat Willie changed that for cartoons, creating sound effects which synchronised with the action on screen to such a degree as to give the audience the impression that they fit together. Almost as if the action on screen was causing the sound. If you watch the video, you will see moments which perfectly illustrate this, such as Mickey whistling, or when he plays the cow’s teeth like a xylophone.
At the time, this was nothing short of revolutionary.
Walt Disney himself described the moment they tested it out:
When the picture was half finished, we had a showing with sound.
A couple of boys could read music and one of them [Wilfred Jackson] could play a mouth organ. We put them in a room where they could not see the screen and arranged to pipe their sound into the room where our wives and friends were going to see the picture. The boys worked from music and sound effects score. After several false starts, sound and action got off with the gun. The mouth organist played the tune, the rest of us in the sound department blamed tin pans and blew slide whistles in the beat. The synchronism was pretty close.
The effect on our little audience was nothing less an electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion. I thought they were kidding me. So they put me in the audience and ran the action again. It was terrible, but it was wonderful! And it was something new!
When the film was finally released, the audience went equally wild.
It just goes to show how you can be inspired by a new trend or piece of technology, and use it to create art which is distinctive and all your own.
What is a common misconception though is that this was also Disney’s first cartoon. During the 1920’s Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks had released several cartoons using their original first creation, a rabbit called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In fact, for a long time Oswald was significantly more popular than Mickey Mouse and a huge hit with the crowds.
However, this all changed because Oswald’s Intellectual Property was actually owned by Universal Studios, not Disney. Universal tried to extort the creators by threatening to poach Disney and Iwerks’ best animators if they didn’t lower the Oswald production costs. Disney and his partner had an ace up their sleeve though: they had the creativity and skill to create Oswald in the first place, and they used this creativity to move on from Universal and produce their next set of cartoons themselves.
Unable to actually do anything more with the Oswald IP, Universal lost the creativity battle, and with Disney’s next projects including the groundbreaking Snow White, the history of cinema was changed forever.
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