06 August 2008

Steamboat Willie (1928)

d. Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks / USA / 8 mins.

The near-misses and colossal failures of history are endlessly fascinating, and by that standard the story of Bert Glennon's 1928 independent film Gang War is the stuff of film legend. The movie had an all-star cast (including Olive Borden and the last performance of Jack Pickford, respectively playing the roles of a dancer and a saxophonist caught in the midst of a gang-related turf war). It was originally meant to be a silent feature, but synchronized sound – at that point, still a relatively new technical advancement – was added before it hit the screen. It might have been something big, but when it opened, reaction was rather flat. To make matters worse for those involved, in November 1928 a cartoon from a struggling entrepreneur would be attached to Gang War for a two-week screening at the Colony Theater in New York City. In two weeks Gang War had been completely eclipsed by the eight-minute cartoon that preceded it, and the film began its long descent into obscure cocktail party trivia.

It was not just any cartoon, mind you. Steamboat Willie, the labor of love from entrepreneur Walt Disney and animator Ub Iwerks, revolutionized animation and put the near-bankrupt Disney on the map. It introduced the public to the character Mickey Mouse and was the first cartoon in history to have a post-produced soundtrack of dialogue (or what passes of Mickey's squeaking dialogue) and synchronized sound effects with orchestral music that mirrored the on-screen action. Response to Steamboat Willie during the initial two-week run was overwhelming; after its engagement at the Colony, it opened at the Roxy in New York, at that time the largest theater in the world.

The mythology about Steamboat Willie sometimes gets carried away, much to its studio's pleasure I assume. It was not Mickey Mouse's screen debut; Disney and Iwerks had made two failed silent cartoons before. Although it is regarded as the first animated short with synchronized sound, it wasn't the first time animation had any sound at all. (Max Fleischer, of Betty Boop and Popeye fame, had produced some failed cartoons with sound effects previously.) And yet the effect of Steamboat Willie probably can't be overstated. November 2008 will be be eighty years since it premiered, and it's still being watched, analyzed, canonized, and broadcast, not to mention possessing a recognizable style that pops against the superhighway of slick, stylized, rainbow-glow animation. (The shot of Mickey spinning the wheel and whistling might be the most recognizable shot in animation.) Steamboat Willie gave Disney the boost he needed. From there he would go into making more Mickey cartoons and create his Silly Symphonies line of shorts, which allowed his animators to experiment on enough techniques to sustain what would lead to the first feature-length animated film and beyond.

Disney is usually given all the credit for the short's success (indeed, credit for most of the films he shepherded although he was hardly ever the director), but it's important to recognize Ub Iwerks's role in the production. Iwerks first sketched Mickey as a character; he and Disney wrote and directed Steamboat Willie together; and Iwerks animated it almost exclusively on his own. The combination of all the elements – a likable character, creative risks, personalized animation, the desire avoid failure – all made the film so popular in its initial release and durable as a work of cinema. It's remained fresh and crisp, and the jokes are worth a smile or two if you don't mind some casual animal cruelty. (All in good fun, of course.) It's one of those occurrences when the film is important historically and yet works as entertainment.


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