The cartoon was written and directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. The title is a parody of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill Jr. Music for Steamboat Willie was put together by Wilfred Jackson, one of Disney's animators — not, as sometimes reported, by Carl Stalling — and comprises popular melodies including "Steamboat Bill" and "Turkey in the Straw".
The film begins with Mickey piloting the Steamboat Willie riverboat down a river, happily whistling along to the tune of "Steamboat Bill". He pulls a rope to sound the steamboat's three whistles. The tall and medium whistle sound off in synch but the shortest one stays quiet until it receives a good hit from the medium one. Unbeknown to Mickey, angry Captain Peg Leg Pete appears behind him and grabs Mickey's torso, stretching it in the process and switches places with him behind the wheel.
He proceeds to yell at Mickey and then and sends him back down to the deck. Mickey salutes weakly while Pete turns around. To his back, Mickey blows a raspberry. Pete turns around angrily to see Mickey weakly waving his hands, possibly indicating it was just gas. Pete goes to kick Mickey who races down the stairs which causes Pete's leg to miss completely and swing around to kick himself in the rear instead.
Mickey tumbles down the stairs, slips on a bar of soap, and lands in a bucket of water. A parrot nearby by mocks him and begins to laugh which provokes Mickey to throw the bucket of water on the parrot who squawks for help as Mickey walks away. Pete, who has been watching this whole time, pulls out a slab of chewing tobacco and bites off half of it. He spits in front of him and the spit circles around and hits the bell behind him causing it to ring. Giddy, Pete attempts to do it again. He spits and turns around to watch it hit the bell but gets hit in the face instead which causes him to make a fuss.
The film then cuts to a shot of Podunk Landing with two chickens, a duck and a cow stationed on the dock. Steamboat Willie makes its way around the bend and backs up into the dock. Mickey is lowered down to the dock by a crane near the cow. He fastens a belt around the cow in order to lift him onto the ship. However, the belt is far too big and the cow far too skinny, so all that happens is the cow is caught by the udder hanging upside down.
In a panic, Mickey attempts to bring the cow back down by grabbing his tail and gets sprayed by the udder. The cow is lowered back to the dock and Mickey attempts to tighten the belt to no avail. He looks distraught until he sees a wagon of hay and grabs a big fork load to feed to the cow. The cow happily swallows the entire bail and easily fills out to the size of the belt and is raised to the ship.
Just then, Minnie Mouse appears on the scene running to catch up to Steamboat Willie. Mickey jumps aboard the ship and takes off leaving Minnie yelling at the dock. She proceeds to run alongside the river after the steamboat. Calling for help, Mickey hears her and decides to lower the crane to catch her. The crane is lowered by Minnie and the hook proceeds to gently lift of her dress and grab hold of her bloomers carrying her onto the ship. As she is lowered, Minnie drops her fiddle and "Turkey in the Straw" sheet music which bounces over to a goat.
The goat sees it and begins to eat the sheet music. Minnie is lowered to the ship and the hook pulls her dress back down. Minnie is happy to see Mickey and turns shyly away to see the goat eating her sheet music. The goat then starts on the fiddle and Mickey attempts to yank it out of his mouth. Mickey struggles but can't pull it out and falls on the ground launching the fiddle into the goats body which proceeds to bounce around causing music notes to sound. Mickey hears this and gets the idea to use the goat as a phonograph. He opens the goat's mouth and calls Minnie over.
Minnie gets the idea and begins to "crank" the goat's tail and "Turkey in the Straw" begins to play. What follows is a lively rendition of the song where Mickey uses a barrel and garbage can as drums, bangs on pots and pans, strokes a washboard, pulls on a cats tail to make it sing and swings it around his head, uses a duck as a makeshift bagpipe, pulls on little piglets tails to make squeaks, and finally uses the cows teeth as a makeshift xylophone.
After the song, Mickey take a bow and finds Peg Leg Pete scowling at him. He attempts to walk away but Pete grabs him and sends him below deck to peel potatoes. Mickey begins to work when the annoying parrot flies into the window and begins to mock and laugh at him again provoking Mickey to throw a half-peeled potato at him, sending the parrot splashing into the water. Triumphant, Mickey begins to laugh and brings the picture to a close.
|“||When the picture was half finished, we had a showing with sound. A couple of boys could read music and one of them, Wilfred Jackson, could play a mouth organ. We put them in a room where they could not see the screen and arranged to pipe their sound into the room where our wives and friends were going to see the picture. The boys worked from music and sound effects score. After several false starts, sound and action got off with the gun. The mouth organist played the tune; the rest of us in the sound department blamed tin pans and blew slide whistles in the beat. The synchronism was pretty close. The effect on our little audience was nothing less than electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion. I thought they were kidding me. So they put me in the audience and ran the action again. It was terrible, but it was wonderful! And it was something new!||”|
Home video releases
- Mickey Mouse: The Black and White Years - Volume One
- Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White, Volume 1
- Vintage Mickey
- Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Diamond Edition
- Steamboat Willie is generally considered to be the first popular cartoon with synchronized sound.
- The film's original release date, November 18, 1928, was later declared as Mickey's official birthday in the early 1970s.
- In 1998, the Library of Congress added Steamboat Willie to the National Film Registry.
- Steamboat Willie was briefly referenced in the film Saving Private Ryan. After the main characters capture the machine gun nest, a captured German soldier mentions the film. As the soldier's real name is never stated, he is often nicknamed "Steamboat Willie."
- The part where the goat eats the music sheets and the instrument, as well as Mickey turning the goat into a phonograph, mirrors an exact event from the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon called Rival Romeos.
- In The Simpsons episode "Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie", Kent Brockman showed a clip of Itchy's first cartoon, Steamboat Itchy, in which Itchy takes on the Mickey Mouse role.
References in later Disney media
- At the beginning of the Bonkers episode "Of Mice and Menace", Steamboat Willie's steering wheel, along with a framed picture of Mickey steering the boat, is shown to be on display at the Toon Museum.
- In the cartoon Runaway Brain, Mickey (in Julius's body) shows Julius (in Mickey's body) his wallet and the first thing shown in it is a photo of Mickey at the steering wheel, to which Mickey comments "Aw, that's old!"
- At the end of Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Genie is seen exiting the mouth of the giant turtle on a small boat similar to Steamboat Willie, with Genie himself appearing as Mickey whistling "Turkey In The Straw".
- Steamboat Willie is often referenced and parodied in Mickey Mouse Works and House of Mouse.
- In "How to Be a Waiter", Goofy tries acting in a parody titled Steamboat Goofy. He ends up accidentally crashing his own steamboat against Steamboat Willie itself, much to the annoyance of Mickey.
- In "The Stolen Cartoons", Donald Duck, trying to appease the audience when they're angry that Mickey is absent, attempts to imitate the opening scene of Steamboat Willie.
- Steamboat Willie is the basis of the Timeless River world in Kingdom Hearts II. Other shorts that inspired areas of that world are Gulliver Mickey, Building a Building, Mickey's Orphans, and The Fire Fighters.
- Stages based on Steamboat Willie are also featured in Mickey Mania and Epic Mickey. Additionally, in both Epic Mickey and its sequel, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, the theater on Mean Street is playing "Steamboat Oswald".
- Steamboat Willie is the subject of a comic story titled "Mickey Mouse and the River of Time", in which the sunken ruins of the ship turn up in a river and Mickey and Pete work to salvage the craft.
- Part of the Old-Timey World in the Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension video game is set on a version of Steamboat Willie owned by the level's version of Heinz Doofenshmirtz.
- The iconic scene where Mickey is whistling while driving the steamboat was used in the Walt Disney Animation Studios logo. It starts out as a blank piece of paper as lines are drawn onto it, revealing the scene from a basic sketch to the final product.
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