Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Steamboat Willie: Cultural Contexts

"Steamboat Willie" is an undeniably important cartoon in the history of the form. Ub Iwerk's animation has a fantastic and fascinating quality, it has a number of very funny jokes and it was a huge success in 1928 when it was released with a relatively novel synchronized soundtrack. Today the Disney company makes the short readily available in a variety of mediums, yet perhaps some Disney enthusiasts who are seeing it in the 2000's for the first time are rather confused or put off by what looks like an antique by most standards. So for the novice or expert, I've collected here a number of cultural contexts relating to "Steamboat Willie".

1. Music
In 1910, popular recording artist Billy Murray released a wax cylinder recording "Casey Jones" about the famous railroad engineer who sacrificed his life to get the mail to San Francisco. The recording was incredibly popular, so much so that the demand caused the gold master to wear out and the song was recorded again several times over. Although hardly known today, anybody who has heard it will probably never forget the haunting refrain of:
Casey Jones - going to reach 'Frisco
Casey Jones - but we'll all be dead
Casey Jones - we're going to reach 'Frisco
We're going to reach 'Frisco but we'll all be dead!

Just as today, a record of this popularity will inspire knockoffs, and one of which was "Steamboat Bill", a song about essentially the same thing but with a steamboat instead of a train and a race instead of the US Mail. This is the song Mickey whistles a few bars of at the very start of the short. The recording may have had a resurgence in popularity in the late twenties as there are two synonymous 1928 films named after it: Steamboat Willie and Buster Keaton's last independent comedy, Steamboat Bill Jr. The later is now a public domain film and may be watched in its' entirety below. Although some claim that Steamboat Willie is something of a takeoff on this film, the two are negligibly similar outside of their setting.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928, dir. Buster Keaton, Charles Reisner, 71 minutes)
Casey Jones (1910, perf. Billy Murray & Chorus, Edison Blue Amberol #1550)
Steamboat Bill (1910, perf. Arthur Collins)

The main theme of the film, however, is "Turkey in the Straw", an early 19th century tune, was popularized in so-called "Minstrel Shows" of the Civil War and post-Civil War period. Although most commonly known today as being reincarnated as "Do Your Ears Hang Low?" (originally "Do Your Balls Hang Low?" - no kidding!), it was popularized by these blackface revues throughout the 19th century and into the twentieth. Fair warning: the version with vocals below would be considered "racially insensitive" today.

Turkey in the Straw (perf. Willie Eckstein on piano)
Turkey in the Straw (1898, perf. Billy Golden, vocals)

2. Style
The thing we ought to remember today is that the style of "Steamboat Willie" was not unique: cartoons and cartoon mice are all drawn more or less the same in the 20's. Neither was this the first cartoon with a soundtrack: the ingenious Fleisher Brothers had devised cartoons with soundtracks of some form as early as 1926. What made Steamboat Willie stand out was its' innovation of what we now know to be a "click track" to keep meter correct, as well as its' excellence evident in its' extensive planning and Ub Iwerk's very advanced animation.

Mysterious Mose (1930, Fleisher Brothers)
Bimbo's Initiation (1930, Fleisher Brothers)

Character design of the time: Fleisher Studios' Bimbo, Disney's Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Warner Brothers' Foxy.

I've linked to two post-Willie shorts above for two reasons: One, the animation in these is really excellent and shows that Disney's output at the time wasn't actually nearly as good as that of several competitors: a way to even the playing field, so to speak. "Bimbo's Initiation", especially, may be the best cartoon of the first half of the 1930's and makes everything Disney did prior to 1935 look dull by comparison. No, those aren't Mickey Mice in the two shorts, they're generic cartoon mice of the period. Two, it shows how, even two years after "Willie", synchronized dialog and sound effects in shorts not produced by Disney weren't always exactly on point. This is why "Steamboat Willie" was so amazing: it was so precise. Just one year earlier Al Jolson had electrified the nation in "The Jazz Singer", which was only partially sound. Along comes the third Mickey short and the synch was so perfect and novel, it became a sensation.

Everybody who cares about animation history should be horrified by this.

While we're at it, let's pop the bubble that the terminally dull "Flowers and Trees" was the first color cartoon. Here's Ub Iwerk's delightful Flip the Frog cartoon "Fiddlesticks" from 1930, in glorious two-strip Technicolor, made shortly after Ub's defecting the Disney studio.

Fiddlesticks (1930, MGM)

It's undeniable that "Steamboat Willie" is a key film in the art and for its time, and today it is still enormously entertaining and charming, but it is a product of its' time, and it is an inevitable one. It's not so much a testament to Walt Disney that he thought of making a synchronized sound cartoon so much as he was the first to get there with such excellence. That he didn't go the way of the Fleishers, of the Terry Toons, and various others is the strongest early indicator of his skill and vision as a producer. And so while it may have all started with a mouse, that mouse was a product of his time as much as the wartime shorts are a product of theirs.

Note: Some versions in circulation of Steamboat Willie are cut. The film was cut for a re-release due to demands from the newly formed Hays Office film censorship board. Since the studio was not recording such things at the time, for years the cuts were not known to Disney. Some versions cut immediately after Mickey pulls the piglets' tails. After this, he picks up the sow and shakes the piglets off, kicking one overboard in the process. Other versions cut at this point. The full version has him proceeding to play the sow's teats like accordion keys. The version on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD and standalone "Vintage Mickey" is complete. The version played in Disneyland's Main Street Cinema is the censored version.


tericson said...

Wow... What a well-thought, well-researched, and well-written piece! The links to the example cartoons are especially appreciated. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful entry, if not one of the most important in terms of Disney history. Thank you.

Cory The Raven said...


Sorry, got all lolcats on you there...

Excellent article! I enjoy the historical context you're providing for Steamboat Willie here... I love the late 20's/early 30's style of animation and it's nice to see the products of Ub Iwerks' peers.

I've looking up more and more lately, with the semester being over and my papers all handed in, and one character I'm now fascinated by is Felix the Cat. The early Felixes weren't any worse than an early Alice comedy or an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but by the end of Felix's initial run, Otto Messmer's work was every bit as good as Iwerks'. (Mickey Mice appear in them too!) It's astonishing to think that Felix would essentially disappear only a few shorts after going to sound. Another silent film star who couldn't make it in talkies!

I am sketchy on why I should be horrified by that scene from Mickey's Movie Barn though ^_^ I was hoping for that one when I went to Disneyland! Unfortunately, I ended up with Mickey Through the Looking Glass...