Today is the 83rd anniversary of Steamboat Willie, the Walt Disney cartoon that introduced Mickey Mouse to the world. Here's what I previously wrote about it.
In the summer of 1928, around the time Buster Keaton's latest comedy, Steamboat Bill, Jr., hit theaters, a young animator named Walt Disney was looking for a vehicle to launch his struggling studio's latest creation, a cartoon mouse by the name of Mickey. On November 18, 1928, the animated short Steamboat Willie premiered at New York's 79th Street Theater.
The rest, as they say, is history. Mickey Mouse soon eclipsed Felix the Cat as the movies' most popular cartoon character, appearing in hundreds of shorts, feature-length films and television shows over the next eighty years, as well as serving as the corporate symbol of the largest media conglomerate in the world. But if Disney had had his way, the famous mouse would have been a rabbit and history's most beloved pants-wearing rodent might never have made it off the drawing board.
Disney had only just launched his own studio when he and his chief animator, Ub Iwerks, created a series of animated cartoons centered around a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The series was a smash hit but unfortunately for Disney, distributor Universal Studios wound up owning the character. Universal hired away most of Disney's animators (all but the loyal Iwerks), wrested control of Oswald from Disney and left his fledgling studio on the verge of bankruptcy.
Desperate for a new franchise to fill the gap, Disney and Iwerks quickly came up with an animated mouse they dubbed Mortimer—soon changed to Mickey at the insistence of Disney's wife, Lillian. After two silent Mickey Mouse shorts, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho, failed to find a buyer, Disney produced a short with sound, a loose parody of Keaton's latest film.
Steamboat Willie was an immediate hit and is still considered one of the most important cartoons ever produced. In 1994, a group of one thousand animators chose it as the thirteenth greatest cartoon of all time and four years later, the National Film Registry selected Steamboat Willie for preservation in the Library of Congress.
Walt Disney, by the way, was nominated for fifty-nine Oscars, winning twenty-six of them, including four in one year, all records. Ironically, though, he didn't win for Steamboat Willie, one of the most important works of his career—there simply was no category of "cartoon short" at that time.
We'll correct that oversight now. For creating Mickey Mouse in 1928, I'm giving Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks honorary Katie Awards.
Make a little more room on the mantlepiece, fellas.
Trivia: Maybe you knew this, but I didn't: Walt Disney himself provided the voice of Mickey Mouse until 1946.