Seventy-Nine years ago today, on November 18, 1928, Steamboat Willie debuted at the Colony Theater in New York (in front of a film titled Gang War, which I find amusing). While it was the third Mickey short to be animated, it was the first to be released with synchronized sound and is considered his official debut (the two earlier films would be re-released with sound afterwards). There’s an interesting story about the determination of Mickey’s official ‘birthday’ on 2719 Hyperion.
Disney had put all his resources on the line to obtain the rights to use Pat Powers’ Cinephone sound system, starting a long trend of Walt putting everything he had into making huge technological leaps. The unprecedented success of the Mickey shorts would provide the foundation for everything that came later; Walt would later famously say that it “all started with a mouse.” It’s fairly amazing to think that the multi-billion dollar corporation that exists today really did begin with the single showing of this animated short.
Ub Iwerks’ hilarious and fluid animation – he animated these first shorts almost singlehandedly – infuses Mickey with far more personality than the slicker animation of later Mickey films. Yet while Steamboat Willie remains iconic, it’s rarely shown or seen in its entirety. This is a shame, as these early black and white Mickey cartoons show a character far removed from the incredibly bland, fey, and dull creation Mickey would later evolve into.
Mickey has become an icon and ceased to be a character. While Donald constantly became more interesting and amusing as a character, Mickey became bland and corporate and is now usually represented as a manic, mincing meth fiend who is always giggling uncontrollably. Hopefully as new leadership at Disney helps the company get in touch with its roots, we’ll see more of the Mickey of Plane Crazy and less of Mickey and the Seal. Think of it as an intervention, even if it’s for a seventy-nine year old mouse.
Happy birthday Mickey…