Nov 182017
 

On this date in 1928 Steamboat Willie, an animated short film directed by Walt Disney and mostly drawn and animated by Ub Iwerks (who rarely gets credit for his substantial part in making early Disney cartoons), was first shown publicly at Universal’s Colony Theater in New York City. Walt Disney Studios considers the cartoon to be the debut of Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend Minnie, although both the characters appeared several months earlier in a test screening of Plane Crazy. In fact, Steamboat Willie was the third cartoon featuring Mickey’s films to be produced, but was the first to be distributed because Walt Disney, having seen The Jazz Singer, had committed himself to producing the first fully synchronized sound cartoon. Because this date is Mickey’s public debut, the Disney corporation considers it to be his birthday, so we should celebrate too. But remember it is Minnie’s birthday as well.

Throughout the earlier years, Mickey’s design bore heavy resemblance to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (an earlier Iwerks and Disney creation), save for the ears, nose, and tail. Ub Iwerks designed Mickey’s body out of circles in order to make the character simple to animate. Disney employees John Hench and Marc Davis believed that this design was part of Mickey’s success as it made him more dynamic and appealing to audiences. Mickey’s circular design is most noticeable in his ears. In animation in the 1940s, Mickey’s ears were animated in a more realistic perspective. Later, they were drawn to always appear circular no matter which way Mickey was facing. This made Mickey easily recognizable to audiences and made his ears an unofficial personal trademark.

Oswald

In 1938, animator Fred Moore redesigned Mickey’s body away from its circular design to a pear-shaped design. Colleague Ward Kimball praised Moore for being the first animator to break from Mickey’s “rubber hose, round circle” design. Although Moore himself was nervous at first about changing Mickey, Walt Disney liked the new design and told Moore “that’s the way I want Mickey to be drawn from now on.” I wonder if at this point the similarity between Disney and Thomas Edison has dawned on you. Both men were skilled in business and marketing, yet get credited with innovations that they did not create. Edison did not invent the light bulb and Disney did not draw Mickey Mouse.

Each of Mickey’s hands has only three fingers and a thumb. Disney said that this was both an artistic and financial decision, explaining “Artistically five digits are too many for a mouse. His hand would look like a bunch of bananas. Financially, not having an extra finger in each of 45,000 drawings that make up a six and one-half minute short has saved the Studio millions.” In the film The Opry House (1929), Mickey was first given white gloves as a way of contrasting his naturally black hands against his black body. The use of white gloves would prove to be an influential design for cartoon characters, particularly with later Disney characters, but also with non-Disney characters such as Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Mighty Mouse, and Mario. Whether consciously or unconsciously, there is no question that Mickey’s early appearance, particularly the gloves, and facial characteristics, evolved from blackface caricatures used in minstrel shows.

Mickey’s eyes, as drawn in Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, were large and white with black outlines. In Steamboat Willie, the bottom portion of the black outlines was removed, although the upper edges still contrasted with his head. Mickey’s eyes were later re-imagined as only consisting of the small black dots which were originally his pupils, while what were the upper edges of his eyes became a hairline. This is evident only when Mickey blinks. Fred Moore later redesigned the eyes to be small white eyes with pupils and gave his face a Caucasian skin tone instead of plain white. This new Mickey first appeared in 1938 on the cover of a party program, and in animation the following year with the release of The Pointer. Mickey is sometimes given eyebrows as seen in The Simple Things (1953) and in the comic strip, although he does not have eyebrows in his most recent appearances.

Besides Mickey’s gloves and shoes, he typically wears only a pair of shorts with two large buttons in the front. Before Mickey was seen regularly in color animation, Mickey’s shorts were either red or a dull blue-green. With the advent of Mickey’s color films, the shorts were always red. When Mickey is not wearing his red shorts, he is often still wearing red clothing such as a red bandmaster coat (The Band Concert, The Mickey Mouse Club), red overalls (Clock Cleaners, Boat Builders), a red cloak (Fantasia, Fun and Fancy Free), a red coat (Squatter’s Rights, Mickey’s Christmas Carol), or a red shirt (Mickey Down Under, The Simple Things).

Steamboat Willie is especially notable for being the first Disney cartoon with synchronized sound, including character sounds and a musical score. Disney understood from early on that synchronized sound was the future of film. It was the first cartoon to feature a fully post-produced soundtrack which distinguished it from earlier sound cartoons such as Inkwell Studios’ Song Car-Tunes (1924–1927) and Van Beuren Studios’ Dinner Time (1928). Steamboat Willie became the most popular cartoon of its day.

Music for Steamboat Willie was arranged by Wilfred Jackson and Bert Lewis, and included the songs “Steamboat Bill,” a composition popularized by baritone Arthur Collins during the 1910s, and “Turkey in the Straw,”  a traditional fiddle tune popularized by minstrelsy in the 19th century. The title of the film is a parody of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), itself a reference to the song by Collins. Walt Disney performed all of the voices in the film, although there is little intelligible dialogue.

The production of Steamboat Willie took place between July and September 1928 with an estimated budget of $4,986. There was initially some doubt among the animators that a sound cartoon would appear believable enough, so before a soundtrack was produced, Disney arranged for a screening of the film to a test audience with live sound to accompany it. This screening took place on July 29 with Steamboat Willie only partly finished. The audience sat in a room adjoining Walt’s office. Roy placed the movie projector outdoors and the film was projected through a window so that the sound of the projector would not interfere with the live sound. Ub Iwerks set up a bed sheet behind the movie screen behind which he placed a microphone connected to speakers where the audience would sit. The live sound was produced from behind the bed sheet. Wilfred Jackson played the music on a mouth organ, Ub Iwerks banged on pots and pans for the percussion segment, and Johnny Cannon provided sound effects with various devices, including slide whistles and spittoons for bells. Walt himself provided what little dialogue there was to the film, mostly grunts, laughs, and squawks. After several practices, they were ready for the audience, which consisted of Disney employees and their wives. The response of the audience was extremely positive, and it gave Walt the confidence to move forward and complete the film. He said later in recalling this first viewing, “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!” Iwerks said, “I’ve never been so thrilled in my life. Nothing since has ever equaled it.”

Disney traveled to New York City to hire a company to produce the sound system. He eventually settled on Pat Powers’s Cinephone system, created by Powers using an updated version of Lee De Forest’s Phonofilm system without giving De Forest any credit, a decision he would later regret (but typical of Disney). The music in the final soundtrack was performed by the Green Brothers Novelty Band and was conducted by Carl Edouarde. The brothers Joe and Lew Green from the band also assisted in timing the music to the film. The first attempt to synchronize the recording with the film, done on September 15, 1928, was a disaster. Disney had to sell his Moon roadster in order to finance a second recording. This was a success with the addition of a filmed bouncing ball to keep the tempo.

Steamboat Willie’s initial run lasted two weeks. Disney was paid $500 a week which was considered a tidy sum at the time. It played ahead of the independent feature film Gang War, setting up a theater pattern that would last for decades, showing a short cartoon before the feature film. That was the norm when I was a boy.The success of Steamboat Willie not only led to international fame for Walt Disney, but for Mickey as well. On November 21, Variety magazine published a review which read in part “Not the first animated cartoon to be synchronized with sound effects, but the first to attract favorable attention. [Steamboat Willie] represents a high order of cartoon ingenuity, cleverly combined with sound effects. The union brought laughs galore. Giggles came so fast at the Colony [Theater] they were stumbling over each other.”

Let’s turn to another cartoon, Mickey’s Trailer (1938), featuring Mickey, Donald Duck, and Goofy, for recipe inspiration:

You could make pancakes or corn on the cob, of course, but popcorn is my choice because popcorn is a perennial favorite of moviegoers. Popping corn is about as old as the domestication of corn itself. Corn was first domesticated 9,000 BP in Mesoamerica, and the earliest corn produced in this way could be popped (although it probably wasn’t). However, archaeologists have discovered remnants of popcorn in Mesoamerica dating to around 5600 BP. Popcorn has been around for a very long time.

These days there are popcorn poppers, microwaveable popcorn packets, prepackaged stovetop popcorn assemblages and the like, but when I was a boy my parents made popcorn (very rarely) in very traditional manner using a heavy pot with a lid. It is a lot easier to use a home air popper if you are a big fan of popcorn because the results are always consistent and there is no expertise involved: add unpopped kernels, turn the machine on, and catch the popcorn as it comes out of the spout. Effective, but hardly a challenge. Popping corn the old fashioned way is fun.

Popping results are sensitive to the rate at which the kernels are heated. If heated too quickly, the steam in the outer layers of the kernel can reach high pressures and rupture the hull before the starch in the center of the kernel can fully gelatinize, leading to partially popped kernels with hard centers. Heating too slowly leads to entirely unpopped kernels: the tip of the kernel, where it attached to the cob, is not entirely moisture-proof, and when heated slowly, the steam can leak out of the tip fast enough to keep the pressure from rising sufficiently to break the hull and cause the kernels to pop. So . . .

Use a large, heavy pot with a tight lid. Place a tablespoon of vegetable oil in the bottom of the pot, add three popcorn kernels, cover and place over medium-high heat. Count the pops, and when all three have popped, remove the pot from the heat, discard the popped kernels and add ⅔ cup of unpopped popcorn. Cover and let sit for about 20 seconds. Then put the pot back on the heat, shaking it from time to time. As you begin to hear the popping, shake the pot more vigorously. After about 2 minutes the popping will virtually stop. Immediately remove the pot from the heat. Toss the popcorn in a large paper bag with the seasonings of your choice (e.g. butter and salt or honey and butter), fold over the top of the bag tightly trapping air in the bag.  Shake vigorously a few times then pour the popcorn into a bowl and dig in.

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