As Loud as a Mouse: Mickey’s Sonic Debut in Steamboat Willie (1928)

When Steamboat Willie premiered in the autumn of 1928, marking Mickey Mouse’s public debut, rivers were on the American mind. Show Boat had hit Broadway the previous Christmas, its racially integrated cast creating wake as they cruised the Mississippi on Cotton Blossom. That same year, the river’s waters surged to a high-water mark during one of the most destructive floods in US history. From the trauma came comedic release. In the summer of 1928, Buster Keaton commandeered a paddle steamer for Steamboat Bill, Jr., leading to his most infamous stunt. During a cyclone, a house makes to flatten Keaton, but he passes through a window and remains improbably upright — an image of resilience for all those devastated by recent disasters. And then, who next comes lazing down the river? A cartoon mouse in the employ of a villainous cat, ready to unleash a deluge of animated films upon the world.

Although it was not the first cartoon to use synchronized audio, Steamboat Willie was the first to exhibit this new technology to a widespread audience. Walt Disney and his chief animator Ub Iwerks needed something to distinguish their cartoons from competitors, after two previous Mickey Mouse shorts failed to find a distributor earlier that year. And they bet it all on sound. While Iwerks drew almost every frame himself using cel animation, Disney accomplished the sound design with the help of a dime store, scooping buckets, bells, and cans into his shopping cart. Spittoons littered their screening room floor, repurposed as gongs. When Steamboat Willie finally debuted at New York’s Colony Theatre, it was the soundscape — of the film, of the crowd — that caught critical attention. Variety called it “a peach of a synchronization job all the way”; Weekly Film Review noted that the movie kept “the audience laughing and chuckling from the moment the lead titles came on the screen, and it left them applauded”.

From the earliest frames, the film is alive with Cinephonic sound. The steamboat’s funnels blow scratchy o’s of smoke; its whistles honk and bark; and Mickey whistles too, the popular vaudeville song “Steamboat Bill”, while he spins a helm that clicks like a winch. It is sound that seems to grant animals their human qualities. The chaw of Peg-Leg Pete’s Star Plug tobacco and the subsequent slap of the spit smacking across his gob, Minnie’s nervous squeals at Podunk Landing before she is hauled aboard by her bloomers, a parrot teasing the mouse, both voiced by Walt himself, “Hope you don’t feel hurt, big boy!” — these spellbinding moments of synchronicity between eye and ear reveal the animism in animation. The extraction of voice from bodily forms serves as Steamboat Willie’s persistent theme. After a goat gobbles down Minnie’s ukulele, the animal becomes a music box, bleating out the tinny minstrel standard “Turkey in the Straw”. Mickey not only slaps a drum kit of saucepans, he also bullroarers a yowling cat, bagpipes a living duck, and approximates the legendary cat piano by plucking the tails of suckling piglets. It’s all very funny, yet also seems to repurpose a darker history for humor: the centuries of violence inflicted upon beings thought to be voiceless, speechless, dumb. Despite the outlandish premise, it starts to make sense why a forthcoming film adapts Steamboat Willie into a horror flick. “Steamboat Willie has brought joy to generations”, claims the director’s press release,“but beneath that cheerful exterior lies a potential for pure, unhinged terror”.

How can it be that Mickey Mouse will find his way into not one but two terrifying (and possibly terrible) movies in 2024? Well, the mouse finally escaped its owners’ trap: Steamboat Willie entered the public domain at last on January 1, 2024. To appreciate the monumental nature of this one needs to understand a little about The Walt Disney Company’s relationship to, and perverse effect on, copyright law in the United States — and how symbolic Mickey has become in the fight to preserve the public domain. The story takes a significant turn in 1998 with the passing of the Copyright Term Extension Act, which basically did what it says on the tin: extended copyrights for many thousands of works that otherwise would have entered the US public domain, including Steamboat Willie (and also Plane Crazy). While Disney wasn’t the only lobbyist for this bill, it was certainly one of the most prominent, and its involvement earned the legislation a derisory moniker: “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act”.

The effect of this Act (and previous extending Acts, also involving Disney) has been devastating to the enlargement of the US public domain, locking up an enormous number of works for many decades, but . . . all things must pass, and so too the copyright on Steamboat Willie. What does this mean? In a simple sense, one can now use the film as one wishes (in the US, at least). And this copyright expiry also applies to the characters of Mickey and Minnie who star in the film, but with two important caveats: first, it’s only these particular versions of Minnie and Mickey (e.g. long arms, gloveless), later iterations are still under copyright; and second, Disney still has the trademark, so you cannot reuse this material in a way which implies an affiliation with the company.

For a more in-depth look at the issues involved here (including why aspects of the later Mickey iterations might also be fine to reuse), we highly recommend this great post by Jennifer Jenkins from the Center for the Study of the Public Domain and also this Twitter thread by Cory Doctorow.

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