On November 18, 1928, the world of animation changed forever with the introduction of a certain cartoon mouse bopping along to fully synchronized sound and music in what would become an instant classic (and studio boon): Steamboat Willie. The brainchild of relative newbie Walt Disney, the eight-minute film premiered at the Broadway Theater in New York, introducing the world to a soon-to-be icon, Mickey Mouse, and was the first full-sound cartoon ever produced.
Despite this oft-recited legend, that honor belongs to the Fleischer brothers’ Song Car-Tunes Tunes, which premiered in 1924, a full four years before Mickey’s fateful trip downriver.
Max and Dave Fleischer began their foray into cartoons with a series of animated films called Out of the Inkwell, which they created for Bray Studios. The moderately successful series centered around Ko-Ko the Clown and his canine companion, Fritz, and, like all films of the time, were of the silent variety. When the Bray Studio ran into legal troubles in 1921, the Fleischer brothers left and began their own studio which they called, fittingly, Out of the Inkwell Studios.
In 1924, the studio released a novelty 3-minute film in which audiences could “follow the bouncing ball” to sing along to lyrics on a screen while the song itself played in the background. The first of these, Come Take a Trip on my Airship, was released on March 9, 1924, making it the first sound cartoon.
These innovative cartoons were produced using Phonofilm Sound On Film, a process invented by Lee De Forest in 1919 during which sound was recorded directly onto film as parallel lines. These parallel lines photographically recorded electrical waveforms from a microphone, which were translated back into sound waves when the movie was projected. The quality was poor by today’s standards but cutting edge at a time when most movies remained silent.
The Fleischer brothers produced dozens of “bouncing ball” Song Car-Tunes Tunes between 1924 and 1927, with a culminating achievement occurring in June 1926 with the release of My Old Kentucky Home. This, truly, was the first attempt at fully-synchronized sound in a cartoon where an unnamed dog mouths the words “Follow the ball, and join in, everybody” in remarkable synchronization. You can view a clip of the film here.
Of course, this is not to take away from the achievement of Steamboat Willie which, even all these years later, stands in a class of its own. The characters’ noises that stand in for dialogue as well as various sound effects all sync with the animation naturally. Its use of sound underlines the gags. The accompanying music matches the action beat for beat. It truly is a hallmark of both film and animation success and, to this day, Disney fans celebrate November 18 as Mickey Mouse’s birthday.
But let us not forget those who came before the ubiquitous cartoon mouse and paved the way for his legendary fame: the bouncing ball of the Fleischer sing-a-longs.