The Mouse That Roared

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Jim Whiting
The Running Encyclopedia


     Eighty-nine years ago today [11/18/1928], the world’s best-known rodent burst onto the national stage. Steamboat Willie, a seven-minute cartoon starring Mickey Mouse in the title role, launched the animated mouse on his road to global recognition. 
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     By the 1920s, cartoons had become an important part of the movie business. In 1927, the fledgling Walt Disney studio created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was a huge success. The company that distributed Oswald cartoons around the country repaid Disney by hiring nearly all his employees and offering him less money for future Oswald cartoons. Disney and his most important remaining employee—Ub Iwerks—secretly developed a new character—a mouse based on one of Disney’s former pets.

     Originally the two men named him Mortimer. Disney’s wife Lilly didn’t like the name. At her suggestion, the new character became Mickey. He made his first appearances in the early summer of 1928 before test audiences. The viewers were underwhelmed. Nevertheless, Disney and Iwerks forged ahead. For Steamboat Willie, they added a soundtrack that was synchronized to the on-screen action—something that had never been done with cartoons.

     It was a brilliant move. Sound films had debuted just the previous year, and moviegoers loved them. From its very first screening, Steamboat Willie was a huge hit. 

     It opens with Mickey piloting a river steamboat. Pete, the real captain, appears and kicks Mickey out of the wheelhouse. Mickey loads livestock during a brief stop, then helps Minnie Mouse board the boat after it has left the dock. The two of them play the song “Turkey in the Straw” using animals and objects strewn about the deck as musical instruments. The captain is angry at Mickey for wasting time and orders him to peel potatoes instead. A parrot makes fun of Mickey, who throws a potato at him and knocks him overboard. The cartoon ends with Mickey laughing at the sound of the parrot’s struggles in the water.  

     Disney and Iwerks worked feverishly to take advantage of Steamboat Willie’s success with a succession of additional Mickey Mouse cartoons. It became the nation’s most popular cartoon series. Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse were both on their way to becoming American icons. 


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Jim Whiting hasn’t written a book about Walt Disney or Mickey Mousebut he has written one about a pair of interesting entertainers named Gilbert and Sullivan. These two men wrote very very funny operettas, the most famous of which was the H.M.S Pinafore. Their work was so entertaining that in the late 19th century, it was greeted with the same excitement that we associate with a major rock concert or blockbuster movie today.  To find out more, click here.  

MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. “The Mouse That Roared.” Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ the-mouse-that-roared. 

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