Monday, July 8, 2024

NFR Project: 'Steamboat Willie' (1928)

Steamboat Willie

Dir: Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks

Scr: Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks

Pho: N/A

Ed: N/A

Premiere: November 18, 1928


 Well, here it is. The beginning of the entertainment empire that would come to dominate the world.

If this seems like a hostile opening, please remember that I was traumatized by Disney at a young age. Bambi’s mom. Old Yeller. I even cried during “Feed the Birds” in Mary Poppins. So I have to factor my distaste for everything Disney into my thoughts on the subject.

Disney was certainly a visionary. His remarkable insight that a sound cartoon would be a smash would not be his first. It must have seemed like a miracle to those who first watched it.

The plot is spare, but Disney and Iwerks wrote a script that takes full advantage of synchronized sound. Mickey Mouse makes his real debut here, and he is a happy-go-lucky steamboat pilot under the thumb of a mean boss, much larger than he. The sound plot is quite complex, and technically accomplished; nearly every action generates its own sound effect.

Mickey hooks Minnie Mouse aboard using a small crane. Her sheet music and ukulele are eaten by a goat; the two then transform the goat into an organ, its tail cranked to release the notes. Soon everything around the two on a boat turns into a musical instrument of some kind. The goings-on are all very family-friendly and wholesome (OK, Mickey does swing a cat by the tail). Finally, Mickey is sentenced to peeling potatoes.

Disney catered perfectly to the needs and mood of the audience of the day, a trend that would continue with all his projects until Pinocchio in 1940.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: There It Is.


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