In 1928, struggling cartoonist, Walter Disney, had a radical plan. He created a Mickey Mouse cartoon entitled Steamboat Willie, inspired from Buster Keaton’s comedy, Steamboat Bill, Jr. That wasn’t radical; he had used this character before. The radical idea was creating a cartoon, with synchronized sound, that audiences could hear as well as see.
Since the turn of the Twentieth Century, moving pictures were a new form of medium that held the American public’s attention like a child with a new toy. It was a recreation that came alive through Thomas Edison’s invention, the nickelodeon, a projector which at the crank of a handle, would show a motion picture brought to life with a series of still photographs for the price of a nickel.
The first successful animated cartoon, Gertie the Dinosaur, creation of newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay debuted in 1908. Other cartoon characters emerged: KoKo the Clown, from the Out of the Inkwell series (created by Max Fleischer), Bobby Bumps (Earl Hurd in 1915), Felix the Cat (Otto Mesmer in 1919), Dinky Doodle (Walter Lantz, of Woody Woodpecker fame, in 1924) and Oswald the Rabbit (Walt Disney).
Shown in black and white, these “silents,” animated and real, became part of a new culture. In theaters, for the price of a nickel, you could watch cartoons and moving pictures whose plots involved adventure and romance. Dialogue, printed on cards and displayed on screen, was accompanied by an organ to provide mood music.
In 1927, moviegoers applauded The Jazz Singer. With this movie, Paramount Pictures not only established themselves as a major player in the movie business, but also ushered in a new era in motion picture history. This movie introduced the novelty of synchronized sound and impressed audiences. The “talkies” had arrived.
A few animators tried to add sound to their cartoons, but had failed to impress audiences when the sound failed to be in sync with the storyline. In May, 1924, Dave and Max Fleischer’s Inkwell Studios had earlier produced seven sound cartoons, the “Song Car-tunes,” but failed to keep the timing fully coordinated. In October, 1928, Paul Terry released Dinner Time also using a soundtrack—but failed to be a financial success.
Though conditions were right for Disney’s idea, he was taking huge gamble. Because of a salary dispute with his former employer, Walter Mintz, Disney lost the rights for his earlier creation—and best moneymaker, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Mintz had ordered Disney to take a production cut to make the cartoons. Disney balked at this suggestion and quit.
Unfortunately, Mintz owned the rights to Oswald and Disney had to give up his creation. However, there was at least one factor in Disney’s favor. Ub Iwerks, his oldest friend and talented fellow animator whom he had started work with in 1919, would come up with another character, a mouse with big eyes.
Disney and Iwerks had used Mickey Mouse in the cartoons Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho. Each time the response was less than positive. Much work had to be done to make the mouse talk.
First, the silent version of Steamboat Willie was completed in August. With a limited budget, Disney and Iwerks worked out of Disney’s garage in secret. A projector, with the cartoon, was run through a window and shown on a sheet, so that the segments could be followed and the sound effects and music could be placed.
Disney’s crew handled the sound effects. Wilfred Jackson played the music on a mouth organ, Iwerks banged on pots and pans for the percussion segment, Johnny Cannon provided sound effects that included slide whistles and spittoons for bells, Carl Edouardo conducted the music and Disney himself would voice the grunts, laughs, and squawks that were part of the dialogue.
Now, all Disney needed was a distributor. After visiting various engineers, he finally settled on Pat Powers, chief of Celebrity Pictures. Disney knew that Powers knew the motion picture business and had gone through a similar legal battle in which he emerged the winner against an employer who tried to take Powers’ idea. Now Disney could proceed—unfortunately, the timing for the first screening of Steamboat Willie emerged out of sync and. Disney had to sell his car to raise money for a second screening.
On November 18, 1928, Mickey Mouse made his debut at the Colony Theater in New York. Steamboat Willie was such a hit that the theater held it over for another week. Yet, the mouse did not talk—at least not right away. Though Steamboat Willie had sound and music, it had no audible dialogue. This would not come until 1929 with The KarnivalKid. In it audiences, for the first time, hear Mickey Mouse speak as he shouts, “Hot Dogs, Hot Dogs.”
With these two Mickey Mouse cartoons, sound in animation became part of the culture. During the next decade, advances were made:
- In 1929, Disney launched Silly Symphonies which had mostly music, , and no reoccurring characters. One such feature was the Skeleton Dance, the first successful synchronization set to music.
- In 1930 Sid Fleischer introduced Betty Boop voiced by Margie Hines. She went on to voice Olive Oyl from 1938-1943. Though Hines did the voice for Boop’s debut, Mae Questel was Betty Boop’s voice from 1931-1938 and Olive Oyl’s from 1933-38 until Fleischer took his studio from New York to Florida–and Questel refused to move with it. Hines voiced the roles of Betty and Olive during the years in Miami, until Paramont took over Fleisher’s studio moving it back to New York, where Questel voiced both roles in 1944. She also voiced Betty Boop, during her cameo appearance, in the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
- In 1931 Warner Brothers introduced Merry Melodies. Walt Disney Productions introduced Goofy voiced by Pinto Colvig. Colvig had made his debut when he voiced Mickey Mouse’s dog, Pluto, and voiced Practical Pig in Disney’s cartoon, Three Little Pigs, in 1933.
- In 1934, Disney studios introduced Donald Duck, who was voiced by Clarence Nash until his death in 1983. In 1986, Tony Anselmo, Nash’s protégé, became Donald’s voice.
- In 1936, Paramont Pictures produced a cartoon in Technicolor, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor with the cast of Jack Mercer(Popeye), Mae Questel(Olive Oyl) and Gus Wickie(Sinbad). Sinbad was presumed a clone for Bluto who would later be voiced by William Pennell and Jackson Beck.
- In 1937, Walt Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which cast Adriana Caselotti(Snow White), Lucille La Verne(Wicked Queen), Harry Stockwell(Prince), Pinto Colveg(Grumpy, Sleepy), Roy Atwell(Doc), Otis Harlan(Happy), Scotty Mattraw(Bashful), Billy Gilbert(Sneezy), Eddie Collins(Dopey), Moroni Olsen(Magic Mirror), and Stuart Buchanan(Huntsman).
From 1941-1945, animation played a part in America’s war effort. One example is the Donald Duck cartoon, Der Fuehrer’s Face. In it Donald experiences the nightmare of working in a German munitions factory only to wake to the beacon of the Statue of Liberty, kisses it and proclaims how “glad her is to be an American.” This won the 1942 Academy Award.
And to think it all started with a talking mouse.