Steamboat Willie was the third Mickey Mouse film to be produced

Saturday, January 6th, 2024

Steamboat Willie finally fell out of copyright this year:

Steamboat Willie was the third of Mickey’s films to be produced, but it was the first to be distributed, because Disney, having seen The Jazz Singer, had committed himself to produce one of the first fully synchronized sound cartoons.

The Jazz Singer is famous for being the first “talkie,” or, technically, “the first feature-length motion picture with both synchronized recorded music and lip-synchronous singing and speech.” I don’t remember seeing it or any references to it growing up — except for some cartoon spoofs that didn’t make any sense to me at the time:

The film depicts the fictional story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young man who defies the traditions of his devout Jewish family. After singing popular tunes in a beer garden, he is punished by his father, a hazzan (cantor), prompting Jakie to run away from home. Some years later, now calling himself Jack Robin, he has become a talented jazz singer, performing in blackface. He attempts to build a career as an entertainer, but his professional ambitions ultimately come into conflict with the demands of his home and heritage.

Even the non-blackface numbers feel quite dated:

Steamboat Willie could have entered the public domain in four different years:

first in 1955, at which point it was renewed to 1986, then extended to 2003 by the Copyright Act of 1976, and finally to 2023 by the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (also known pejoratively as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”).

Like The Jazz Singer, Steamboat Willy features a song associated with the old minstrel shows:

”Turkey in the Straw” is an American folk song that first gained popularity in the 19th century. Early versions of the song were titled “Zip Coon”, which were first published around 1834 and performed in minstrel shows, with different people claiming authorship of the song.


The title of “Zip Coon” or “Old Zip Coon” was used to signify a dandified free Black man in northern United States. “Zip” was a diminutive of “Scipio”, a name commonly used for slaves. According to Stuart Flexner, “coon” was short for “raccoon” and by 1832 meant a frontier rustic and by 1840 also a Whig who had adopted coonskin cap as a symbol of white rural people. Although the song “Zip Coon” was published c.1830, at that time, “coon” was typically used to refer to someone white, it was only in 1848 when a clear use of the word “coon” to refer to a Black person in a derogative sense appeared. It is possible that the negative racial connotation of the word evolved from “Zip Coon” and the common use of the word “coon” in minstrel shows.

Although Steamboat Willy just fell out of copyright, Walt Disney posted it to YouTube 14 years ago:

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