Bringing Forth The Mouse

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His chief assistants were Ub Iwerks, in those days getting a “drawn by” credit on the title card of each film, and Wilfred Jackson, a newly employed animator who liked to play the harmonica in his spare time. Steamboat Willie was plotted to the tick of a metronome, which set rhythms for both Jackson, who played standard, public-domain tunes on his mouth organ, and for Iwerks, who could plan the animation with the appropriate tempo. The ratio of drawings to bars of music was thus calculated far more simply than it would be only a few years later. To further enliven the sound track, Disney rounded up tin pans, slide whistles, ocarinas, cowbells, nightclub noisemakers, and a washboard. When the animation was finished, the coworkers invited their wives to the studio to see something new one evening, then ducked behind a screen and played their “score” live, through a sound system Iwerks concocted out of an old microphone and the loudspeaker of a home radio. In later years Disney recalled that the ladies had been vaguely complimentary but had not allowed their husbands’ novelty to distract them from girl talk about babies, menus, hairdressers, and so on. Like so many of Disney’s reminiscences, this story seems a little too pat to be credible, but, on the other hand, the performance was probably not terribly impressive at that early stage.

By early September, 1928, however, Disney was ready to head for New York again, first in search of someone to put his perfected score on a sound track, and second to find a distributor. By this time Disney and his co-workers had their complete score, down to the last rattle of a cowbell, on paper and had devised a system by which a conductor could keep his beat precisely on the tempo of the film. Sound speed was standardized at ninety feet of film per minute, or twenty-four frames per second. The musical tempo was two beats per second, or one every twelve frames. On the work print that Disney took to New York with him, a slash of India ink was drawn on every twelfth frame, causing a white flash to appear on the screen every half second. All a conductor had to do was to key his beats to the flash; in theory, if he never missed a flash he would reach the end of his strange-looking score at the exact moment the film ended.

To obtain his sound track, Disney first had to find someone willing to record it, and then someone to conduct it—a conductor who would sacrifice the most important variable at his command, tempo, to a gang of musically illiterate cartoonists. Neither was easy to find. The best sound system was controlled by Radio Corporation of America; although it was willing to take Disney’s work, it was unwilling to follow his score. Its technicians had already added tracks to some old silent cartoons and were convinced, apparently, that close synchronization between music and sound effects and the action on the screen was, if not impossible, certainly not worth the effort. Disney knew otherwise and refused to relinquish his precious piece of film to them. The RCA men, on the other hand, were not about to let a stranger tell them their business.

Disney then started on the rounds of those entrepreneurs who owned outlaw sound equipment—that is, recording devices either not covered by or not yet restrained by the patents controlled by R.C.A. or its chief rival, Western Electric. Here history was repeating itself, for the first silent cameras and projectors had been controlled by Edison and licensed only to producers and theatres belonging to his so-called “trust.” His invention had been so attractive that in spite of Edison’s fight to enforce his rights, the trust had been effectively demolished by the sheer number of competitors who violated it. The situation in the sound business never grew quite so unmanageable, for both the quality of the patented systems and the power of the firms that controlled them was such that it was to everyone’s advantage to end the in-fighting. But it was impossible to control everyone, and Disney had no real difficulty locating someone to take on his recording chores.

The man he found was a semilegendary figure named Pat Powers, who had learned the movie business—and his code of ethics—in the freebooting days before World War I. It is said, perhaps apocryphally, that Powers, who at one time distributed Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures, actually resorted to throwing his account books out a twelfth-story window rather than let Laemmle. who got to wondering where his profits had gone, take a look at them. It is also said that Powers had the foresight to have a man waiting in the street below to retrieve the books and make a getaway with them. Disney was to experience some of this buccaneering style during his association with Powers, but he appears to have known what he was getting into, and Powers did have a sound system to put at Disney’s service—the “Powers Cinephone.”