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 The Test Screening of Steamboat Willie

The enormous success of the Jazz singer in early 1928 had sent 
Hollywood in a furore over the prospect of talking pictures. Studios and theatre owners were divided in their reaction to sound, but the voice of the public was clear  talkies meant big business. While many producers debated the merits of converting to all-sound production, Disney saw his opportunity to provide something unique: a synchronous sound cartoon. 

A test was made if a scene for the third Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie. "When the picture was half finished, we had a showing with sound" Disney later recalled. ”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 an 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!" 

Exact details of this now-historic screening vary from account to the other, but the effect was the same on every participant. Ub Iwerks later said, "I've never been so thrilled in my life. Nothing since has ever equalled it" The tiny Disney crew  which consisted of Walt, Roy, Ub, Les Clark, Johnny Cannon and amateur musician Wilfred Jackson  had discovered the miracle of talking pictures. 

Audience reaction to the completed Steamboat Willy duplicated the excitement of that private test screening months earlier. The idea that make-believe cartoon characters could talk, play instruments, and move to a musical beat was considered nothing short of magical. 
In 1932 the distinguished critic Gilbert Seldes noted: "The great satisfaction in the first animated cartoons was that they used sound properly  the sound was as unreal as the action; the eye and the ear were not at war with each other, one observing a fantasy, the other a actuality.." 

Edited excerpt p. 34 - 35 
Of Mice and Magic : A History of American Animated Cartoons  
by Leonard Maltin 
Paperback - 485 pages Rev Rei edition (May 1990)   
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