Walt Disney was inspired to create a sound cartoon in 1927 after watching The Jazz Singer, one of the first “talkies.”
Disney was also looking for a film to launch his new characters, Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? Two cartoons had already been produced featuring the new characters: Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Goucho. However, neither of these silent features had screened well with test audiences. Both flopped; something had to change.
Disney felt that a sound cartoon might be just what he needed to make a big splash.
Third time lucky
Steamboat Willie began production in July 1928 with a budget of $4,986. But not everyone was convinced about the appeal of a sound film. In order to prove his point, Disney screened an early version of the animation for the wives and children of Disney employees.
The soundtrack had not yet been produced, so a system of microphones and speakers was set up and Disney gathered a team to produce the music and sound effects live as the film played. The audience response was unanimously positive.
The effect on our little audience was nothing less than electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion.
Now certain that he was on the right track, Disney arranged for a soundtrack to be recorded and synchronised with the film.
The film was released on 18 November, 1928 to commercial and critical success. It was not the first cartoon to feature sound but, as a Variety Magazine noted, it was the first “to attract favourable attention”.
The character of Mickey Mouse attracted particular attention, so much so that Disney added a soundtrack to the two earlier cartoons featuring Mickey and released them as well.
Only the beginning
Steamboat Willie made Walt Disney a household name and provided the launchpad for one of the most iconic companies in the world. A turbulent ten years later, full of personal highs and lows, Walt created one of his greatest, if not his greatest, work: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Image from Steamboat Willie © Disney