The first cartoon released with synchronized sound to attract widespread public notice and popularity. (It was not- despite the official Walt Disney Company assertions to the contrary- the first animated cartoon with sound- or even with synchronized sound! (There were quite a number of cartoons with sound that pre-date this film by years.)
This was the third Mickey Mouse cartoon produced, and the second Mickey Mouse cartoon released- Plane Crazy (as a silent cartoon) had a very limited release earlier in the year- and the third Mickey cartoon produced. But when Walt heard Warner Bros. "The Jazz Singer" and its matched, synchronized soundtrack, he decided to rework all three cartoons for sound. Steamboat Willie was the first of the three to which sound was added, though not the first originally produced.
In an infamous test screening, Wilfred Jackson and a few others provided limited music and sound effects to a group watching the screening. As Walt Disney recalled:
When the picture was half finished, we had a showing with sound. A couple of boys could read music and one of them [Wilfred Jackson] could play a mouth organ. We put them in a room where they could not see the screen and arranged to pipe their sound into the room where our wives and friends were going to see the picture. The boys worked from music and sound effects score. After several false starts, sound and action got off with the gun. The mouth organist played the tune, the rest of us in the sound department blamed tin pans and blew slide whistles in the beat. The synchronism was pretty close.
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!
The Green Brothers- George Hamilton Green, Joe Green and Lew Green and others in the Green Brothers Novelty Band not only performed the final music for the released version music, but provided Disney with the technical expertise to synchronize the music to the filmed images. The final, sound version premiered on November 18, 1928 at the Colony Theatre in New York City.
Produced on July 29, 1928.
In 1998, Steamboat Willie was one of 25 films added by the Library of Congress' National Film Preservation Board to the National Film Registry.