This year, The Walt Disney Company turns 100 years old. For good or ill, no other company has been more influential in the history of film. Walt’s Century is a monthly feature in which Ken Lowe revisits the landmark entries in Disney’s filmography to reflect on what they meant for the Mouse House—and how they changed cinema.
We are singers. Our oldest stories survive in verse. We use songs as mnemonic devices, whether to remind us of things as simple as our alphabet or as complex as our fraudulent backstories. The earliest films, too, were accompanied by music, but those scores were not yet part of the films. Many of cinema’s oldest stars rejected the “talkie” or found they had no place in an art form where it had become the dominant medium. (Some successfully pivoted into the strange new world.) For me, silent film and motion pictures that feature integrated synchronized sound are two completely different media, and you can divide movies into those made before 1927’s The Jazz Singer, and those made after.
The Jazz Singer, the first film with synchronized sound, just happened to inspire a man who was trying to debut short films featuring his cartoon mouse. In 1928, five years after he’d formed a production company, a cartoonist named Walt Disney decided he wanted to try the same trick as Alan Crosland and Al Jolson. Synchronized sound, he thought, was the way of the future, and he wanted his short film about a little cartoon mouse named Mickey, Steamboat Willie, to make use of it.
Disney has always rhapsodized on how “it all started with a mouse,” even very recently in the form of a squeaky-clean documentary. It’s true, though. Disney’s entire empire really began with a seven-minute short, one that played in theaters right before a movie that was called, of all possible titles, Gang War and which itself had added a spoken dialogue prologue to an otherwise silent movie. Sound was coming, and Mickey was one of its vanguards.
Like many things about Disney’s early history, it’s debatable whether Steamboat Willie really was the first cartoon with synchronized sound, depending on exactly how you define it: At least one Fleischer Studios cartoon, released a year prior, could claim the title depending on how “synchronized” you need your sound. But Steamboat Willie was one of the first, and the one that served as a definitive proof of concept. And by virtue of heralding Mickey’s arrival, it’s one of the most important short films in the history of film.
Steamboat Willie is a quaint little curio now, compared to the behemoth company its success spawned. Its Mickey is a cheery, elastic little guy. A blue collar worker under an overbearing boss. He’s a down-on-his-luck rural kid during the Depression: He must contend with the logistical challenge of a cow too emaciated to be lifted onto the boat, and his punishment for messing with his boss is to pull KP down in the hold, skinning potatoes—that’s how the short ends. (The potatoes are freaking huge, as is the open mouth of a cow. Is Mickey mouse-sized? Or is he man-sized? Maybe it should not be examined too closely.)
There’s not much plot: Mickey runs a steamboat under the boorish Pete, and at one point Minnie comes aboard. The draw for audiences in 1928 was the music, including a long, silly rendition of “Turkey in the Straw.”
So much of what The Walt Disney Company has cast aside is there in those seven minutes. Mickey is a troublemaker, an incorrigible youngster rather than the peppy and inoffensive mascot he’s since become—today’s Mickey isn’t going to play a tune on a mama pig’s nipples. Disney has spent much of the past century sanitizing their less-than-respectful portrayals of Black people, and Mickey’s whole characterization, look and the tradition of his comedy has its roots in minstrel shows: The centerpiece in Steamboat Willie, “Turkey in the Straw,” was a traditional tune they often featured (though it went by another name). Mickey’s voice (actually, every voice) is provided by none other than Walt Disney himself.
The way the smokestacks belch their smoke in time, the way Mickey’s cheeks and lips puff perfectly in sync with his whistling, the way other characters sway and wiggle in time to the music—this is the real beginning of Disney, the company, becoming the last word in animation. They dominated it, even fended off usurpers who, for a few vulnerable years, looked like they might become credible challengers, and then rose from the ashes in the ‘90s by leaning into their art, on screens big and small. Disney’s artists called animation an “illusion of life,” and Steamboat Willie was Walt Disney’s first magic trick.
That kind of magic is, more and more, being abandoned. Disney’s traditional 2D animated features open with that logo above, featuring Mickey there at the wheel of the steamboat, whistling and tapping his foot. You barely ever see it anymore, if you’re going to theaters: Disney’s features are either fully computer-generated 3D films like Encanto or Frozen, or—Tinkerbell help us—live-action/CGI remakes like last year’s Pinocchio, which was an affront to the entire company’s history. Disney is far, far away from the company it was when it made Steamboat Willie.
And then there’s the most important way in which Steamboat Willie heralds the end of a century this year, the detail which dwarfs any other artistic or aesthetic importance: It’s passing into the public domain on January 1 of next year, 50 years later than it originally would have due to Disney’s non-stop haranguing of Congress to extend copyright law. That massive lobbying effort, to set more favorable terms for its ownership of Walt’s intellectual property, is just one of the many ways in which Disney has bent the public trust over its knee.
Disney has become, more than a company that runs theme parks or makes movies about princesses, a company that owns things: Its biggest coups of the past couple of decades have been acquiring Marvel Studios, the Fox entertainment companies and Lucasfilm, the house of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Your tastes may vary, but there’s not a company on Earth that owns more of what more people want to watch (for now), and its profits reflect that.
Disney will always exhibit and make money off of Steamboat Willie: Subsequent re-releases are still under copyright, as are different renderings of Mickey Mouse. But we are going to witness something amazing if we make it through this year. This is the first time—ever—that a meaningful piece of Disney’s vast library will cease to be owned by the corporate machinery Walt Disney put in motion. It will be owned by nobody and will therefore belong to everybody. We are singers, after all, and this is the way of songs: To pass from the singer’s lips to the listener’s heart. It’s the natural order. It’s the circle of life.
Join us next month for the next edition of Walt’s Century, where we’ll talk about the movie that turned Disney into a feature-length cartoon phenomenon: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Kenneth Lowe hopes you don’t feel hurt, big boy! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.