Wednesday, November 18, 2015

It’s Complicated—Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie

Mickey in his iconic role as Steamboat Willie.

On November 18, 1928 Steamboat Willie, an animated short film was released to theaters.  According to the carefully constructed myth created by Walt Disney publicists, the film was the first appearance of Mickey Mouse.  It was not.  But the film does have an important place in cinema history as the first cartoon to feature synchronized sound for its entire length.  It was also the real launching pad for an empire.
A silent film titled Mickey Mouse in Plane Crazy was previewed in Hollywood in May.  Another film, The Gallopin’ Gaucho was in the can but unreleased.  Neither was very successful upon their first release, but taking advantage of the success of Steamboat Willie, sound was added to both shorts and they were re-released in 1929 and 1930.  The first film was released as Plane Crazy in the sound version.
Willie was distributed by Columbia Pictures, then a third rate studio, and was put on the bill with Gang War, a pot-boiler that opened to poor reviews despite having a synchronized sound prologue slapped on the silent movie to take advantage of the sudden craze for sound.  Reaction to the cartoon, however, was so strong that Columbia sent it out again with other films.
In 1928 sound was the coming thing.  Various technologies had been adding some elements of sound to films for a few years.  Warner Brothers/First National put its money on the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system and had made a sensation with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with some dialogue and music in sound.  But other systems were also being used, some far earlier.
Lee DeForest, the inventor of the vacuum tube that made electronic sound amplification possible, had patented a sound-on-film system in 1919.  After struggling with poor quality, DeForest used inventions by Theodore Case of the Case Research Lab to make his Phonofilm system practical.  By the early 1920’s DeForest was making and releasing short films of popular vaudeville acts like Webber and Fields, English Music Hall stars, orchestras, and political speeches to demonstrate the marketability of his system. Pioneering animators Max and Dave Fleischer began to produce Song Car-Tunes featuring follow-the-bouncing-ball singalongs using the system starting in 1924.
But DeForest had a falling out with Case for not crediting him with the significant improvements to the process that made the system practical.  After an expensive law suit which drained DeForest’s capital, he suspended development of Phonofilm in the United States, although he continued to work in Britain. The Fleishers also abandoned Phonofilm in light of the litigation.  Case sold his patents to William Fox whose studio engineers eventually used them to develop Fox Movietone.
In 1927 producer Pat Powers made an unsuccessful bid to buy out DeForest.  Rebuffed, he simply hired a former DeForest technician to clone Phonofilm and christened his version Powers Cinephone.  Betting correctly that DeForest was too broke from his fight with Case to contend the patent infringement, Powers convinced Walt Disney to adopt it.  Steamboat Willie became the first animated short to employ synchronized sound from beginning to end and included music, sound effects and limited dialoged.

It was not accident that Mickey bore a startling resemblance to Disney's earlier creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Disney was having his own problems in the 1920’s.  After relocating from Kansas City he had success with the Alice Comedies, live action/animation films based on Alice in Wonderland in which a real girl interacted with cartoon characters.  Then he signed a deal with Universal Pictures for a new all animation series of films starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  The character was created and drawn by Disney’s closest friend and associate, Ub Iwerks.  After the character and film proved popular, however, Disney discovered that Universal owned the copyright on the character and they hired most of his staff out from under him to produce new films in the series without him.  Iwerks, however, remained loyal to Disney and after tries with several other animals, created a mouse character to star in a new film series.  Disney wanted to name the mouse Mortimer, which would have surely doomed the character, but was talked out of it by his wife.  He settled on Mickey instead.
Although Mickey appeared in Steamboat Willie with his trademark two-button shorts and shoes, the character was much more mischievous than the virtuous, if naïve, mouse in later cartoons.  There was something scruffy and working class about him with a defiant tone toward authority—in the form of villain Pegleg Pete—that in many ways resembled Warner Bros. later creation Bug Bunny.  The film also featured an appearance by an unnamed Minnie Mouse as the hero’s love interest and others who became part of the Disney stable like Clarabelle Cow, also unnamed in this picture. 

Disney had a soft spot for the foundation of  his empire.
Although Walt Disney would later promote Steamboat Willie as the origin of Mickey, he would only show clips of the movie on his TV shows Disneyland and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, because the mouse did not reflect the wholesome image he now wanted Mickey to portray.  The Studio also became nervous about images of animal crueltyswinging a cat by the tail and playing a litter of piglets like an accordion as well as a flatulence joke.  The Studio cut more than 30 seconds of these scenes from the film when it was released in various VCR and DVD formats and on its rare showing on the Disney Channel.  Only recently has the company allowed the complete unexpurgated version to be shown on an in-room cartoon channel at Disney hotels and resorts.
Steamboat Willie has nearly gone into public domain four times.  Each time, just before that was to happen, Congress extended the period covered by copyright protection.  Although these extensions have broadly followed similar extensions of international copyrights, critics have often pointed to Disney lobbying as playing a critical role in the actions.  Most recently, by the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 the film is protected until 2023.

Latter in his career Mickey would be featured as a wholesome, plucky hero in films like The Brave Little Taylor with Minnie Mouse.

Recently, however, Disney’s copyright claims have come into question because of technical errors in the original 1928 filing.  Law students at Arizona State University and at Georgetown University independently investigated the claim and concluded that the film was likely in the public domain.  Hyper vigilant and aggressive Disney lawyers threatened legal action for publicizing the claims.  Who know, maybe they will even take on an obscure blog by a dead broke amateur historian if they read this. 



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