80 years ago, Mickey Mouse steamed onto entertainment scene

Eighty years ago, one of the world’s most beloved stars was born as Mickey Mouse whistled his way onto the silver screen with the cinema debut of “Steamboat Willie” at the Colony Theater in New York.

That day, November 18, 1928, is widely considered the iconic mouse’s official birthday. But months before, Walt Disney had dreamt up the cartoon character and featured it in the short animated film “Plane Crazy.”

“‘Steamboat Willie’ is the most famous of the early Mickey Mouse films because it has a soundtrack,” Eric Smoodin, a professor of film studies at the University of California, Davis, told AFP.

“Mickey Mouse, within a year or two after Steamboat Willie, becomes the biggest star in the world,” Smoodin said.

“So even though it’s not the first Mickey Mouse film, it really was the beginning of his great celebrity,” he added, speculating that in the 1930s, only Charlie Chaplin came close to Mickey Mouse in terms of global super-stardom.

Mickey Mouse was created almost by accident: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was Walt Disney’s first cartoon character, but when Disney lost the rights to Oswald in 1927, he returned to the drawing board.

He came up with “Mortimer the Mouse.” Popular legend has it that his wife preferred the name Mickey, and Walt Disney deferred to her choice.

“Steamboat Willie” has a flimsy, politically incorrect storyline and features little, if any, comprehensible dialogue.

But the cartoon marked an animation landmark with its synchronized sound track where Mickey whistles and blows raspberries at the irascible ship’s captain, a large tobacco-chewing cat called Captain Pete.

In roughly seven minutes, Captain Pete kicks Mickey Mouse out of the steering room of a riverboat. The hero then hoists Minnie Mouse on board using a crane that grabs her by the knickers, swings a cat by the tail, strangles a goose and plays keyboard on some suckling piglets as the American folk song “Turkey in the Straw” plays from a goat’s innards.

“Mickey Mouse was both a great star of Hollywood and the world and a symbol of Disney’s technological innovation,” said Smoodin.

Walt Disney recorded the “Steamboat Willie” soundtrack with “the bootleg Powers Cinephone process … using a 15-piece band and his own squeaks for Mickey,” according to the Disney website.

“It was an early sound film when there weren’t that many sound films being made. Disney committed to making only sound films after that,” explained Smoodin.

The Disney studios pioneered the use of color-film cinematography and 3-D films in the 1930s. Disney also made innovative use of stereo sound technology in “Fantasia,” a movie starring Mickey Mouse and first released in 1946.

Just over a year after his debut in “Steamboat Willie,” on January 13, 1930, Mickey Mouse got his own comic strip, drawn by artist Ub Iwerks.

He made it into the Sunday comics on January 10, 1932, the same year that Walt Disney won a special Academy Award for creating the friendly rodent.