This is probably the biggest- it is certainly the most pervasive of the Disney myths. And it is a gigantic lie, surrounded by a multitude of little lies. Was this the first Mickey cartoon? No. Was it the first sound cartoon? No. How about the first with synchronized sound? Not even close. Did Walt Disney animate Mickey? No. Was Steamboat Willie the first film written to be a sound cartoon? No. Was Steamboat Willie was first shown to audiences in November of 1928? No, not really. What is true about this short is that it was the first cartoon released with synchronized sound to attract widespread public notice and popularity.
Walt Disney Before Mickey Mouse
So what is the truth? The Disney Studios was busy animating Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for M. J. Winkler Productions, but not making much money per episode. Walt traveled east to meet with Charles B. Mintz to ask for more money per episode, a modest $250 more per episode. In response, Mintz actually offered $450 less per episode. There was no middle ground for the two men to meet on and Disney was famously fired and the series taken from him (which was then given to Walter Lantz). Disney returned to Hollywood empty-handed, with no series and no distributor. According to legend, Walt Disney invented the Mickey Mouse character on the long, sad train home (some say just outside Flagstaff, Arizona).
Walt and Company set to work, repurposing an unused Oswald script to the new character, and this film became Plane Crazy. The film was shown to test audiences in a silent form in May of 1928 in a Hollywood theater, so it was, in fact, the first released Mickey Mouse cartoon, albeit in a silent version in a limited release. Walt’s original application for the Mickey Mouse trademark was filed with United States Patent Office on May 21, 1928.The original production notes show this film with a production number of “MM-1” (Steamboat Willie would be noted as “MM-3”). The Mickey and Minnie models from this film are not as refined as Steamboat Willie; Minnie does not yet have buttons on her skirt, either.
Steamboat Willie was well into production when Plane Crazy was released. Walt halted work to retool the film for sound (The Gallopin’ Gaucho [MM-2] was also completed at this point, but held for release). Steamboat was first shown to audiences in a half-complete version featuring live sound effects on July 29, 1928, to gauge reactions of viewers. The audience liked what they saw- and heard- and production was completed by September of 1928. Walt took the film to New York, teamed with Pat Powers’ Cinephone Sound system, and showed the short at Universal’s Colony Theater in New York City on November 18, 1928 (paired with the independent feature film Gang War).
Which was the first sound animated cartoon?
One of Steamboat Willie‘s claims to fame was that it was the first sound cartoon. It was even advertised that way in the program for the shorts original run at the Colony Theater. Just because Disney promotes it as such does not make it a fact.
Lee De Forest’s sound system had been used in 19 of Max and Dave Fleischer’s Inkwell Studios series Song Car-Tune prior to November 1928. The first Fleischer short with sound was Come Take A Trip In My Airship from January 1925 (a remake/rework of a silent film by the same title from the previous year). The first with sound synchronization appears to be My Old Kentucky Home (1926), which features a dog mouthing, “Follow the ball, and join in, everybody” in sync.
Fables Studios Aesop’s Film Fables release of Dinner Time is another studio with another sound film that preceded Steamboat Willie. Dinner Time also has the distinction of being the first cartoon completely produced and released as a sound cartoon. (“Steamboat Willie” was originally conceived and produced as a silent cartoon, with sound added just before release.) Walt Disney was even at the sound studio during the Dinner Time recording sessions.
The Disney used Pat Powers’ Cinephone Sound system was created in 1928, and was a reworked- some say outright stolen- version of Lee De Forest’s Phonofilm system.
Oh, as to who animated Steamboat Willie… the first few Mickey cartoons were animated by Ub Iwerks. Plane Crazy was 100% animated by Iwerks, it is said. Remember his name- it will come back to haunt the truth of Disney again!
Was Steamboat Willie an important film? Without a doubt. It was a monster hit that put a young artist from Kansas City forever in the public’s mind, and launched what became a multi-billion dollar entertainment company that bears his name. It was the first synchronized sound animated cartoon to play to massive effect on the public. But that is a far cry from being the first sound animated film, or even the first film made with sound as some have incorrectly claimed. Or even being the first Mickey Mouse cartoon.