SUMMARY: Mickey Mouse makes his official cartoon debut with audiences as a lackey aboard a steamboat captained by the brutish Pete.
WHY IT’S HERE: The third Mickey Mouse cartoon produced but the character’s official debut, ‘Steamboat Willie’ is one of the most famous cartoons of all time. The film’s opening images of Mickey at the helm of the steamboat, spinning the wheel and happily whistling to himself, have become some of the most iconic in animation. Rightly so, for two reasons. For one (despite the scraggly Mickey of ‘Plane Crazy’ appearing on the film’s title card’) this is instantly the Mickey Mouse we all know and love. More filled-out and handsome, complete with his completely black eyes and his pants with the huge buttons, this is Mickey at his handsomest, the classic design of the character. In personality too, this is the real Mickey. Carefree, happy-go-lucky, good-natured Mickey Mouse.
These are perhaps the reasons why ‘Steamboat Willie’ plays so well with animation fans today but there was another element that made it instantly popular with 1928 audiences; the whistling. Although ‘Steamboat Willie’ had been preceded by some crude sound experiments in animation, including the Fleischers’ ‘Song Car-Tunes’ series and Van Beuren Studio’s ‘Dinner Time’, ‘Steamboat Willie’ is recognised as the first really successful synching of animation and sound. The cartoon was produced using a click track to keep everything on the beat, which was crucial as music and sound are ‘Steamboat Willie’s main attractions. In fact, this essentially plotless cartoon is built round them from the opening clunks and hisses of the rickety steamboat as it trundles down the river through to a beautifully synchronised (if somewhat horrifying) scene in which Mickey plays a group of animals like instruments.
Special mention must be made of Mickey’s co-star Pete. His appearance alongside Mickey in ‘Steamboat Willie’ ensured that he went on to become one of Disney’s stock villains but what few people know is that he is actually the studios longest running recurring character. Pete appeared as early as the Alice comedies and also in the ‘Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’ shorts, Disney’s first crack at creating a star performer. He continued to appear throughout the classic shorts, then in comics, merchandise and later in TV series such as ‘Duck Tales’ and ‘Goof Troop’. As of 2013 he began appearing in a new series of Mickey Mouse shorts made for TV. Pete, we salute you!