Looking back at “Steamboat Willie”

As you may or may not have heard by now, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon “Steamboat Willie” is now public domain. Coincidentally, I recently watched this film, all 7 minutes and 46 seconds of it, after previously only sitting through the first minute or two.

My take on it is pretty straightforward. For starters, I’m surprised Disney themselves made this available on YouTube some years ago. The film prominently features the melody of “Turkey in the Straw.” This is the same “Turkey in the Straw” that shares its melody with songs with (more) blatantly racist lyrics and titles, which I won’t repeat here. You may well have heard the melody as a child played by an ice cream truck, though Good Humor teamed up with someone well-known in the recording industry to make a replacement back in 2020. (I’ll get back to this in a later post.)

If you’re looking for it, you can see something of a link between this version of Mickey Mouse and the minstrel shows of the era. (See this NPR story for further context.) There’s a lot of cartoonish abuse of farm animals, the first instance of which involves a goat with an appetite for sheet music and a guitar.

If you can get past all of that, there’s a lot of late 1920’s humor packed into a little under 8 minutes, and a good look at what Mickey Mouse used to be. Since this is public domain, I have made Steamboat Willie available via BitTorrent (seed file) along with a brief README file and some related materials; this is the official companion torrent to this post. Be aware that as of right now, for some reason the version I found on archive.org is missing the audio. This may due to a mistaken belief that only the silent version of this film is public domain; that is the case for another early Mickey Mouse cartoon but not this one.