Secrets of Steamboat Willie

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Besides last week's column, I have written about Mickey Mouse's birthday before ("Disney Celebrates Mickey's Birthday" from November 15, 2006, and "Happy Birthday, Mickey Mouse" from November 14, 2007).

Mickey Mouse did not have an official birthday until 1978 when Disney Archivist Dave Smith declared that November 18, 1928, was the first general public appearance of Mickey Mouse since that was the premiere of the animated short, "Steamboat Willie," at the Colony Theater in New York. (It is just one of many things Disney fans should thank Dave for over the years.)

In today's column to celebrate Mickey's 84th birthday, I am going to examine "Steamboat Willie" a little more closely.

In early February 1928, Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian, journeyed to New York where Walt was going to negotiate a new contract for his popular Oswald the Rabbit cartoons. Walt wanted a modest increase of $250 a cartoon.

Distributor Charles Mintz offered $450 less per cartoon than what he was currently paying the Disney brothers. Walt discovered that Universal not only owned the rights to Oswald (a common practice in the industry, for the studio to own the animated characters) but that Mintz had contracted with all of Walt's animators except for Ub Iwerks to work for Mintz to produce future Oswald cartoons.

When Walt returned to Hollywood from New York the last week of March 1928, Walt and Ub and probably Walt's brother, Roy, developed the character of Mickey Mouse. Walt and Roy had been able to save over $25,000 and decided to use that money to fund a new series of cartoons to save the studio.

The first two cartoons were silent and were titled "Plane Crazy" and "Gallopin' Gaucho," but Walt could not find a distributor interested in them. Musician Carl Stalling would later compose musical scores to add to both the films that would be released after "Steamboat Willie" to take advantage of Mickey's overnight success.

Walt's application for a trademark on Mickey Mouse was filed with United States Patent Office on May 21, 1928, and granted on September 18, 1928.

Steamboat Willie opened on November 18, 1928, playing on the bill before the movie Gang War, a standard crime drama starring Jack Pickford, the younger brother of silent screen star Mary Pickford who would soon become one of Mickey Mouse's biggest fans.

Gang War was a typical gangster picture and was primarily silent, with some talking sequences (that's why later films advertised “All Talking!”).

The film was directed by Bert Glennon, who was later the cinematographer for the black and white portions of the behind-the-scenes segments in Disney's Reluctant Dragon (1941) and also for the full length live action film, Disney's Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956).

The music for Gang War was by Alfred Sherman, who was the father of Disney songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman.

Mickey Mouse was a huge hit. Many critics ignored the main feature and the live stage show. Variety declared "Steamboat Willie" was “a high order of cartoon ingenuity” and “a peach of a synchronization job all the way.” The New York Times said "Steamboat Willie" was "an ingenious piece of work with a good deal of fun. It growls, whines, squeaks and makes various other sounds that add to its mirthful quality."

Weekly Film Review said, "It kept the audience laughing and chuckling from the moment the lead titles came on the screen, and it left them applauding." And Exhibitor's Herald said, "It is impossible to describe this riot of mirth, but it knocked me out of my seat."

It is often stated, erroneously, that Walt's first-released Mickey Mouse cartoon, "Steamboat Willie" was the first sound cartoon and in fact it was advertised that way in the program at the Colony Theater. Actually it was Max Fleischer, one of Walt's successful New York competitors, who had done a handful of sound cartoons in 1924–1925 with the help of Lee De Forest, one of the great—if controversial—pioneers of radio.

But these mostly musical sing-a-longs were not a success and quickly forgotten, just as was the animated Aesop Fable, "Dinner Time" (released October 1928) that Walt saw being recorded with synchronized sound when he was in New York working on "Steamboat Willie." However the soundtrack in that Aesop's Fable was a cacophony and a novelty, whereas the synchronized sound in "Steamboat Willie" was used to emphasize humor and help the story.

"Steamboat Willie" was the first cartoon to successfully integrate music, voice, and effects into an entertaining and believable product, which included a likeable main character and a clear story. That helps explain why it made such a huge, immediate impact on audiences.

When Dave Smith began the Disney Archives in 1970, one of his first tasks was to catalog what was in Walt Disney's office, which had remained untouched since Walt's death. Smith was surprised to find in the bottom of one of Walt's desk drawers the original six-page story outline for "Steamboat Willie."

Dave Smith stated in a 1997 interview, “Things were stolen from the company before the Archives was established. Included were some scenes from 'Steamboat Willie' and the story sketches for several sequences of Snow White. We have the (story script) for 'Steamboat Willie' and most of the other films. I found the 'Steamboat Willie' script in Walt's office; which surprised me since everyone told me he wasn't interested in the company's past, only the next project.”

In 1988, to celebrate the 60th birthday of its most famous cartoon character, the Walt Disney Company donated to the Smithsonian (National Museum of American History) six original drawings from "Steamboat Willie" selected personally by Roy Edward Disney.

Despite being available for 84 years, "Steamboat Willie" still hides some interesting secrets that I am revealing here:

Why is it called "Steamboat Willie"?

Most articles will make a quick reference to the fact that "Steamboat Willie" was a parody of Buster Keaton's last independent silent comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr., which was released earlier that same year.

However, other than the fact that both films feature a steamboat and that Keaton's character is called “Willie” in the film, there are no direct references to the film, unlike "Gallopin' Gaucho," which parodies some of the action and personality of the lead character from the silent film The Gaucho.

Obviously, there was the hope that audiences would associate the title with the Keaton classic, but it was not intended as a direct parody. In the cartoon, the opening music was a popular song entitled “Steamboat Bill,” which also helped inspire the title and the hope of audience familiarity.

In addition, audiences were aware of the popular Broadway musical Showboat, which premiered in 1927, and the tragic Mississippi River flood of 1927, which led to vast improvements in flood control—so Mississippi steamboats were very prominent in the minds of the audience.

It is also important to remember that no one had heard of “Mickey Mouse,” so calling the cartoon “Steamboat Mickey” would have had no box office recognition. More importantly, Walt would insist that when an audience went to see a Mickey Mouse cartoon that they were not seeing the adventures of Mickey Mouse. Mickey was an actor performing a role just as Clark Gable or Cary Grant would.

This conceit was one of the things that positioned Mickey Mouse in the marketplace differently than other cartoon characters of the time. Mickey was not Steamboat Willie; he was portraying the role of a character named Steamboat Willie and in his next film, he might be portraying a different character even if the character had many of Mickey's own characteristics.

Did Ub Iwerks animate the entire film himself?

For the most part, Disney Legend Ub Iwerks animated the entire film himself in what was known as “straight ahead” animation, which meant he did the first drawing and then the second drawing and then the third drawing, and so on. It would be a while before the concept of key drawings, assistants, and inbetweeners became the process.

By this time, Walt had given up doing any animation at all, and his primary contribution was the development of character and story. However unlike the first two Mickey Mouse cartoons, Iwerks did have some animation help on "Steamboat Willie."

Wilfred Jackson was so eager to become an animator that he turned up at the Disney Studio one day and offered to pay Walt tuition until he had gained experience. Walt gave him a job washing the ink and paint off cels so that they could be reused. Jackson was at the Disney Studio only a week before the Oswald the Rabbit animators left. They were laughing and talking but on Saturday took all their personal belongings home and never came back on Monday.

Jackson was quickly moved up into the role of an apprentice animator. His first animation was the cycle of Minnie Mouse running along the riverbank in "Steamboat Willie." Jackson went on to win several Oscars for his directing work on Disney animated shorts.

Les Clark was the first of Disney's “Nine Old Men” beginning his tenure at the Disney Studio in 1927 where he got some experience animating on the Alice Comedies and the Oswald the Rabbit series, even though he had no formal animation training. Clark animated the scene where Mickey shoves a pitchfork of hay down the cow's throat in "Steamboat Willie."

What is the story behind the music?

The Disney Studio could not afford to hire a composer or pay royalties so they relied on music that was in public domain. Later, Carl Stalling, Frank Churchill, Oliver Wallace, and others would supply memorable original music for Disney cartoons.

The opening song that Mickey Mouse whistles was a popular parlour song entitled “Steamboat Bill.” It was written by the Leighton Brothers (who also wrote the song “Frankie and Johnny”) and Ren Shields (who later wrote “In the Good Ol' Summertime”).

The Leighton Brothers used the song in their minstrel act, where the audience was encouraged to sing along with each repeat of the chorus, and this is what Mickey is whistling:

“Steamboat Bill, steaming down the Mississippi.
Steamboat Bill, a mighty man was he.
Steamboat Bill, steaming down the Mississippi.
Out to break the record of the Robert E. Lee.”

The song recounts the story of Steamboat Bill who commands the steamboat named the Whippoorwill in its efforts to beat the record of the famous steamboat, the Robert E. Lee, which in 1870 set a record time covering the stretch between New Orleans and St. Louis. In the song, the Whippoorwill is pushed beyond its limits and its boiler explodes, sending Bill and a gambler high in the air, where Bill bets another $1000 that he'll go higher than the gambler.

Thanks to Disney Historian Michael Barrier's excellent Walt Disney biography, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, we now know that the song was not in public domain as Walt, his staff, and most of the rest of the world (myself included) assumed.

However, the other prominent song in "Steamboat Willie" is “Turkey in the Straw.” This was one of Wilfred Jackson's favorite tunes to play on the harmonica, and was actually in public domain. The lyrics of the tune that comes out of the goat's mouth after eating the sheet music:

“Went out to milk, and I didn't know how,
I milked the goat instead of the cow.
A monkey sittin' on a pile of straw,
A-winkin' at his mother-in-law.”

What is a parrot doing on a steamboat?

Before various bans on importation were enacted in the 1930s, several Americans owned parrots as a sign of prestige and exotic taste. Even President Teddy Roosevelt kept one at the White House during his tenure. New Orleans, at the base of the Mississippi, was a shipping port, and often crates of parrots broke and the birds found new homes—which may be how they became associated with pirates who also frequented the port.

A parrot was probably also chosen for the same reason the bird was chosen for the first audio-animatronics attraction, the Enchanted Tiki Room. Rather than dealing with the problem of matching lip movements, a bird's beak merely opens and closes, making it easier to animate dialog. Also, a parrot doesn't merely echo speech but it mimics selectively, which often seems like a taunt, making it a comic foil.

Interestingly, the parrot does not appear in Walt's original script for the cartoon. Walt provided the voice for the parrot, and most texts refer to its final words: “Man Overboard!” However, the parrot taunts Mickey twice during the cartoon, with “Hope you don't feel hurt, big boy!” when Mickey falls into a bucket and then has to peel potatoes. That is why Mickey hurls a potato at the bird, in retaliation for the taunts.

Good friend, outstanding animator and historian Mark Kausler told me:

“On the original exposure sheet to scene #5-B of 'Steamboat Willie,' labeled 'Parrot Close Up,' the dialog is indicated: 'Hope You Don't Feel Hurt Big Boy.' Each word is just placed on the sheet, the words are not broken into syllables with vowels and consonants as became the practice later. The same drawings, ##22–#28 are used for most of the words, with new drawings #32–#45 used for the word 'Boy' and the laughing cycle. I always thought the parrot was saying; 'Hope you don't feel alright, big boy!' He probably does say 'Hurt,' but with a Brooklyn accent, so it comes out 'Hoit,' which sounds like the 'i' sound in 'alright.' I have this X-sheet, so here is first-hand knowledge for you.

"Some Internet research led me to popular blues singer Ida Cox and her 1927 hit 'Worn Down Daddy,' which would still have been going strong on the radio at the time of Steamboat Willie's release. In it, a floozy insults her beau for having lost his potency: 'You ain't young no more... your loving is weak... you're just an old has-been... like a worn-out old joke...' And after each volley of insults, the recurring tag line is a sarcastic 'I hope you don't feel hurt.' In 'Steamboat Willie,' read 'I hope you don't feel hurt' as shorthand for the insults that come before it in the song, and the parrot as a female (she calls Mickey 'big boy')— and then you can see why Mickey reacts to her not just with anger, but with offense (communicating insult to us and swelling his chest indignantly).”

Did something disappear?

In the rush to complete the cartoon, items are continually disappearing and audiences have been so captivated by the cartoon that they rarely if ever notice.

Mickey starts the cartoon wearing a pilot's hat on his head. The pilot is the person who actually steers the ship and on smaller vessels the captain and the pilot may be the same person or have overlapping job functions. When Pete appears wearing the same hat, he grabs Mickey and twirls him around. As Mickey twirls toward the camera, he loses his hat.

The rope chord for the whistle and the rope for the bell are clearly evident behind Mickey in the beginning of the cartoon. After Pete chews a big plug of tobacco, both ropes disappear for the remainder of the cartoon.

The cow on the dock wears a tag labeled “F.O.B.” which means “Free On Board” referring to the fact that it was being shipped under a rate that includes cost of delivery to and the loading onto a steamboat. When the cow stretches its neck to “moo,” the tag briefly disappears.

The goat's goatee disappears twice when it eats the sheet music on deck, although this can only be seen by examining the sequence frame by frame.

When Mickey swings the cat by the tail and it hits the lid, the lid stays in position, disappears, reappears, and eventually disappears.

However, the most famous piece of disappearing animation was an entire segment that was missing from the cartoon for decades. Mickey pulls on the tails of little pigs suckling on their mother. Then in a scene that was removed in the 1950s, Mickey picks up the mother, kicks off the pigs still hanging on and plays the mother pig like an accordion by pushing on her teats. When the cartoon was to be shown to a television audience, this particular bit of barnyard humor was deemed too inappropriate and was removed (but has been restored on some recent releases).

Haven't I seen some of those gags before?

In the days before videotape and television, an audience might see a cartoon and then never see it again, so it was not uncommon to borrow the funniest gags from previous cartoons to re-use in the latest cartoon.

When Pete pulls Mickey's stomach and it stretches, Walt's comment on the original story script is, “same as Oswald and the Bear in Tall Timber,” which was an Oswald the Rabbit cartoon released July 9, 1928.

When the goat eats the sheet music and Mickey has to crank its tail for the music to play, it is a repeat of a gag from the Oswald cartoon "Rival Romeos," released March 5, 1928.

At the end of the cartoon, when Mickey is peeling potatoes and making big potatoes into smaller ones, it is a repeat of a gag of a mouse doing the same action from "Alice the Whaler," released July 25, 1927.

Is Pete doing a product placement?

Pete is the longest continually appearing Disney character. He made his first appearance in the Alice Comedy, "Alice Solves the Puzzle" in 1925 and eventually appeared in four Alice Comedies and seven Oswald cartoons before he menaced Mickey Mouse.

Before 1930, he was sometimes called Putrid Pete or Bootleg Pete, and audiences sometimes thought he was some kind of bear. However, Walt's original story script identifies him as a “cat Captain” and of course, a cat would be a natural enemy for a mouse even though Walt never considered Mickey and Minnie as mice (Walt's script for "Steamboat Willie" always identifies Minnie as “the girl”).

It is important to remember that Pete is not really a villain in this cartoon. He may be a bully but basically as the captain of the steamboat, he wants his only crewmember, Mickey, to do the job he is supposed to be doing rather than goofing off.

Pete is chewing Star Plug tobacco, and Walt specifically refers to it as such in his script. Star Plug tobacco was an actual existing product at the time and highly popular. Every tobacco chewer prided himself on his aim, whether lobbing it over a piece of furniture without accident or making it ping-pong when it hit the cuspidor. Horse Shoe Plug was sloppy at the start but hit the mark with a wonderful tone. Climax Plug had got a good getaway and a happy ending. Star Plug was good on the getaway with minimum drool or drip but splattered when it hit.

Obviously Star Plug was popular at the Disney Studio because many years later Goofy uses it to try and catch fish in "On Ice" (1935).

Why is Mickey peeling potatoes as punishment?

Walt's experience in France toward the end of World War I introduced him to the military punishment of peeling potatoes, a mindless job that needed to be done in order to feed the troops but that built discipline as well. In fact, in Walt's original script, he was going to have Mickey whistle the popular WWI song, “Pack Up Your Troubles” during this sequence.

Potatoes were a standard on boats since they would “keep” longer and as a food ration would help prevent scurvy. The Titanic carried 40 tons of potatoes. However, even when potatoes became the second largest food crop in America, they were still used primarily as animal fodder and that might be their purpose on this steamboat.

How much did this masterpiece cost?

Roy O. Disney, in small handwriting, entered into his ledger book the amounts (which included production and prints) for the first three Mickey Mouse cartoons:
  • Plane Crazy: $3, 528.50
  • Gallopin' Gaucho: $4, 249.73
  • Steamboat Willie: $4,986.69

Where is Podunk Landing?

The dictionary defines “Podunk” as a small, unimportant, isolated town. Podunk is an Indian name meaning “lowland,” and communities called Podunk tend toward swampiness. Others claim the name comes from the sound of a mill wheel going “po-dunk.” Some people believe that Podunk is a fictional place but there are several Podunks in the Northeast and Midwest.

Podunk is the town that the country mouse comes from in the Disney cartoon, "Country Cousin," directed by Wilfred Jackson, who animated on "Steamboat Willie."

Notice that when Mickey arrives at the Podunk Landing pier, it is filled with animals and boxes. Walt's original story script also included a rooster and the mother pig and her nursing children who appear later on board. After Mickey loads the cow, there is a quick cut to Minnie running toward the landing and then a quick cut back to see that Mickey has apparently in that brief moment loaded all the animals and freight on board the steamboat (not to mention the rowboat in the background that appears in medium shots but disappears in long shots).

Believe it or not, there are even more secrets in the film, if anyone is interested in another installment. However, next week, I will finish my birthday celebration to Mickey Mouse will an article on the very first official Mickey Mouse Convention held in Wisconsin in 1931.



  1. By DwarfPlanet

    I love old trivia and secrets, looking forward to hearing more about other secrets on this and others.

  2. Discuss this article on MousePad.