The Debunker: Was “Steamboat Willie” the First Mickey Mouse Cartoon?

by Ken Jennings

It’s now 2014, a full decade since Jeopardy! made Ken Jennings mildly famous, but he’s still waging his tireless war against misinformation in our weekly “Debunker” column. Did you know that January 21 is Squirrel Appreciation Day? Or that David Seville of “The Chipmunks” fame was born on January 27? By the end of this month, of course, the most famous rodent-related day on the calendar, Groundhog Day, will be just hours away. In honor of our small woodland friends, most of whom are probably hibernating right now, Ken will spend the month of January gnawing away at all the rodent-related facts you only thought you knew.

The Debunker: Was “Steamboat Willie” the First Mickey Mouse Cartoon?

Last week, we learned that the Disney company isn’t above throwing cute, chubby rodents off cliffs if dramatic necessity so requires. This is more than a little ironic, since the multibillion dollar entertainment goliath was originally built on rodents—specifically, on the success of one little mouse. No, not the fat one with no pants from Cinderella! Not The Rescuers either, good guess! The Great Mouse Detective? Try again. Nope, not “Roquefort” from The Aristocats. Damn, you know a lot of Disney mice. Respect.

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I’m speaking of course, about Mickey Mouse. Eighty-six years after his creation, the plucky little guy is still one of the most recognizable icons in the world (behind only Santa Claus and Ronald McDonald, according to one reckoning). Mickey’s history is well-known: in 1928, Walt Disney’s studio was reeling from the loss of its flagship character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who had been taken by Disney’s distributor in a contract dispute. Mickey made his debut at New York City’s Broadway Theatre on November 18, 1928, in a groundbreaking sound cartoon called “Steamboat Willie.” It was a smash hit, and the nearly bankrupt studio was saved.

But most people don’t know that “Steamboat Willie” wasn’t the first Mickey cartoon: it was the third! The Disney studio had first used Mickey in two silent cartoons: the immortal “Plane Crazy” and “The Gallopin’ Gaucho.” “Plane Crazy” even had a test screening on May 15, 1928, but failed to find a distributor. When “Steamboat Willie” got a proper theatrical release, Mickey’s two (largely unseen) silent efforts were hurriedly pushed to market with new soundtracks. The Walt Disney Company’s historians still count “Steamboat Willie” as the official debut, but (“M-I-C”) see, that’s not really the case. (“K-E-Y”) Why? Because a theatrical audience had seen “Plane Crazy” fully six months earlier. M-O-U-S-E!

Quick Quiz: What burly cat is Mickey’s antagonist in “Steamboat Willie,” but is actually three years older than the mouse, having debuted in 1925’s Alice Solves the Puzzle?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.