“Steamboat Willie” was made by Walt Disney Studios and premiered at the Colony Theater in New York on November 18, 1928 (production). This cartoon short was hugely influential for not only future Disney staffers, but the entire industry of animation (Aja).
My initial reaction upon watching “Steamboat Willie” was a sense of nostalgia. Even though I grew up watching cartoons that were more sophisticated, it reminded me of my childhood, especially the Betty Boop cartoons I used to watch. The animated short was very whimsical, fun, and entertaining. Because all the characters are animals, some of which talk, their interaction is within a world of fantasy and make believe. Also, the simplistic music and use of the song “Turkey in the Straw” contributes to the appeal for children. In addition, all the animals aboard the steamboat, excluding Pete the captain cat, seemed to be enjoying the music and frivolity going on which creates enjoyment for the viewer. Overall, I enjoyed the cartoon, even as an adult, and laughed out loud at a few images within the short.
However, I could not help but delve into the cartoon’s meaning deeper. I thought it was rather sexist that the crane “hook” on the steamboat lifted up Minnie’s skirt to grab her by her underwear to hoist her aboard to join Mickey. I found this inappropriate for children even if the character is a cartoon mouse. I also didn’t like the way that Mickey and Minnie were treating some of the other animals aboard the steamboat. Minnie “winds” the tail of a goat to play music treating it like a phonograph. Also, Mickey shoves hay down a cow’s throat, pulls the tail of a cat and then tosses it aside, “plays” a duck like a bagpipe, pulls on the tails of nursing baby piglets, and bangs on the teeth of the cow with a spoon. It was odd to me that none of the animals seemed to mind this rough and degrading treatment.
Contrary to popular belief, “Steamboat Willie” was not the first cartoon to have sound or the first to feature Mickey Mouse; it was just the first to attract the attention of the mainstream public for its use of sound and star character (production). The cartoon opens with title cards which feature very primitive drawings of Mickey and Minnie that were most likely drawn by Disney himself (Aja). “Steamboat Willie” borrowed many gags from Disney’s previous silent cartoons; the Alice Comedies and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, although neither cartoon’s characters had as much of an impact on audiences as Mickey in “Steamboat Willie” (Malone, Aja). The animation in “Steamboat Willie” is good, although some of the animation in the Oswald shorts was more inventive (Malone).
Aside from Disney’s earlier cartoon shorts, “Steamboat Willie” was based on comedian Buster Keaton’s film Steamboat Billy Jr. (Aja). Following the success of “Steamboat Willie”, nearly every studio from Hollywood to New York borrowed from the animation style of the animals. The cartoon animals all had black bodies with simple facial features like Mickey which was a prime example of Disney’s earliest character designs (Aja). The “Turkey in the Straw” musical segment marked what was to come later not only for Disney, but everyone else working in animation at that time (Finch 28, Aja). For example, early Looney Tunes cartoon episodes created by Warner Brothers featured nothing but musical numbers at first (Cartoon Review).
“Steamboat Willie” was created using black and white colors, standard animation with a thirty-five millimeter print format and cinematographic process, and an aspect ration of 1.37: 1 (Malone). Mickey was designed with a head, body, face, hands, feet and ears with circular attributions because it made him easier to animate (Finch 25). Use of “rubber hose animation” is evident in “Steamboat Willie” in instances such as when Pete, the cat captain of the boat, kicks himself in the behind due to the force of his kick. Another example of rubber hose animation is the moment that occurs just before when Pete warps Mickey’s torso by grabbing him and Mickey replaces his disfigured stomach neatly back into his shorts (Aja). This type of silly and exaggerated animation contributes to the comical and whimsical nature of the cartoon. It is an apt style within the cartooning medium to use to tell the fun message imbedded in the story of the piece.
To say that the quality of the animation is “good” in the context of the time is an understatement. There is really only one error in the entire cartoon which occurs when a tag worn around the cow’s neck momentarily disappears. Considering that this is only a half second blip in the seven minute cartoon speaks to the dedication of Disney and his animators to this project (Aja).
The intention of the creators of the earliest Mickey Cartoons was to be funny before anything else. At that time, moral authority of the animation industry was left to the writers who obviously were not overly concerned with minor details that could be seen as offensive (Aja). Disney and his team of animators were responsible for making sure the material they were presenting was appropriate for children, which in some cases, it wasn’t.
There has been increasing displeasure of the way that Mickey treats the other animals on the steamboat in the past twenty years. Yet, even with Mickey’s apparent frustration or devious nature at times during the cartoon short, it is clear that the character was not abusing the animals out of meanness (Aja). Disney and his animators’ choices can be justified by saying that the treatment of the animals was “all in good fun”, but for some, the material was deemed inappropriate and needed to be censored.
Some of the more “violent” scenes involving animals have been cut including the scenes when Mickey “plays” a nursing sows teats like an accordion keyboard (not able to be found online), when he swings a cat by its tail above his head, and when he uses a goose as a bagpipe all during the “Turkey in the Straw” segment (Malone). During the time of the Hays Code in which there was heavy censoring of material it was requested that the cow featured in the animated cartoon be utter-less and be properly dressed like Mickey and Minnie were (Finch 29).
I don’t believe for a minute that Walt Disney and his team of animators were encouraging or endorsing violence towards animals. I also doubt that any viewers of this cartoon were influenced to mistreat animals. However, because of the lack of consideration by Disney to represent the animals in “Steamboat Willie” as being well treated, the people involved with the Hays code turned to utilitarianism ethics in a decision to censor material. Utilitarianism is an ethical idea that represents the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Censorship is needed to make this cartoon acceptable and appropriate for all audiences.
Prohibition caused many laws and traditions to be challenged and broken by Americans in the 1920’s (Jennings, Brewster 102). The story of “Steamboat Willie” mirrors this rule breaking behavior since Mickey and his companion Minnie both want to have fun aboard the steamboat without having to do any work, take on any responsibility, or care for any other's comforts.
Cultural symbols that help tell the story of the cartoon and are relevant to the time in which it was made include the tobacco chewed by Pete and the FOB tag around the cow’s neck. Early in the short, Pete chews an oversized stick of Star Tabacco which represents a popular habit at the time and perhaps made the character relatable to its contemporary viewers (Aja). However, in today’s society many people view chewing tobacco as a gross habit which makes Pete an undesirable character. This is appropriate since it helps communicate that he is the villain of the piece to contemporary audiences.
The letters FOB which appear on the tag worn around the cow’s neck mean “Free on Board” which denotes that the shipping charges have already been paid in full. This acronym is now unknown to viewers but was probably common knowledge to 1928’s audience and could have contributed a sense of realism to this fanciful cartoon (Aja).
The 1920’s was a time when people in America were struggling with deciding between the exciting jazz age which called people into the streets of the city and a rural and simplistic traditional lifestyle (Jennings, Brewster 100). Mickey’s pleasure at the end of the cartoon when the pesky parrot that was mocking him towards the beginning of the cartoon drowns in the ocean, speaks to the fact that in the exciting days of 1928, nearly everything was fair game. This malice displayed by Mickey was quickly written out of his character for later cartoons (Aja).
“Steamboat Willie” is a cartoon short that is very important to the history of animation. It shaped what came next for the animators at Disney’s studio’s as well as everyone in the motion picture business. It is still important to study and view for those interested in the evolution of animation from a historical standpoint.
The cartoon reflects the cultural ideas of the time which included a love of excitement, Jazz music, and challenging the rules of society. The message of the cartoon is about being carefree without being bogged down by daily duties. Perhaps the short doesn’t hold an apt message to influence children, but the intent of communicating a fun theme is successful.
The statement of the piece is not as important as the sum of its parts. The use of sound, style of animation, and the “Turkey in the Straw” musical segment were revolutionary. Aside from some debatable treatment of the animals aboard the steamboat (which have been cut from some versions of the cartoon short) it is a highly entertaining and significant piece of animation for both children and adults past and present.
Aja, Garrett. Steamboat Willie. Cartoon Review Site. Retrieved November 5, 2011, from http://www.cartoonreviewsite.com/series/mm/sw.htm
Finch, C. (1975). The Art of Walt Disney. Burbank, C.A.: Harry N. Abrams Inc.
Jennings, C. Brewster, R. (1998). The Century. New York, N. Y.: Doubleday.
Malone, Patrick. Steamboat Willie. The Encyclopedia of Disney Animated Shorts. Retrieved November 5, 2011, from http://www.disneyshorts.org/shorts.aspx?shortID=96
Steamboat Willie Production Information. The Big Cartoon Database. Retrieved November 5, 2011, from http://www.bcdb.com/cartoon_info/3820-Steamboat_Willie.html