In 1927, The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, one of the first great “talkies” to use synchronized singing and speech, hit American theaters and thrilled audiences. Knowing that change was afoot, Walt Disney spent $4,986 to create his first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928). Remembering the film many years later, Disney said:
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!
These technical innovations make Steamboat Willie rather legendary. But the film retains landmark status for another reason. It marked the first public debut of Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend Minnie, two of the most recognized cartoon characters worldwide. Ub Iwerks, the celebrated Disney animator, first brought Mickey to life, and we have been living with him ever since — although, as you will see, his personality has softened over time.
Steamboat Willie appears in the Animation Section of our Free Movies collection.