Tuesday, April 22, 2008

And So It Begins...

Okay, so I’m not quite on the timeframe I had hoped when I started this blog, but please forgive me. I started a new job almost immediately after I started the blog, so it’s taken me this long to figure out how to balance the demands of both. That said, it’s taken quite some time to get all the films I needed, but now everything should be fine.

So, let’s get started, shall we?

The very first films that Walt Disney ever made were the Newman Laugh-O-Grams, which are short vignettes featuring topics of the day from Kansas City. That’s what we will look at first on this blog.

However, it’s important to understand where Walt was coming from at this point in his life. The Laugh-O-Gram films were released to local theatres in 1922, at which time the 21 year old Walt had already lived quite a life.

Walt’s family moved frequently, and by this time he had lived in Chicago, Kansas City, and Marceline, Missouri – all of which would have a big effect on his future. He had lived on a farm, learned to draw, performed for his class with partner Walt Pfeiffer, spent a summer as an attendant on a steam train, and spent a year overseas with the Red Cross Ambulance Corps in World War I.

In addition, Walt had started his working life, as a commercial artist with the Pesmen-Rubin Company, where he met Ub Iwerks, the talented artist who would later help him create Mickey Mouse. The two formed their own company, Iwerks-Disney, to do commercial art, but their company died a quick death as they couldn’t pay the bills and Walt left the company to take a job as an animator with the Kansas City Slide Company. Iwerks joined him there a few months later, and both learned the art of animation.

Walt become obsessed with the art form, and began to study books and films in his spare time, even renting out his parents garage and bringing home a camera from work to make his own films. The 21 year old struck out on his own again, forming Laugh-O-Gram Films, and beginning a non-stop career in film.

That is an insane amount of living for one 21 year old!

So, view the films through that prism as we talk about the Laugh-O-Grams and what they are. If you would like to follow along with me, get yourself over to the site of Inkwell Images. This is a fascinating site that offers DVDs of classic animated films, including the Laugh-O-Grams and some of Disney’s Alice Comedies. You have to check it out.

The first section of the film features what is commonly referred to as the “Newman Laugh-O-Grams,” because they were produced for the Newman Theatre Group in Kansas City. These films are short vignettes (about 10-20 seconds) featuring a hand drawing a political cartoon that comes to life.

The most interesting part of the film for someone like me, though, is the opening shot, which is a portrait of Walt Disney sitting at an animation desk. Most Disney fans have probably seen the photo, but it’s amazing to see this 21 year old in the prime of his life and realize the effect that he would have on the rest of us for the next 80 plus years.

That said, the few films that are present on the Legendary Laugh-O-Grams DVD are illuminating, in that they show a beginning to Walt’s animation career. The animation starts with a drawing of Kansas City “cleaning up” the city, with a cop kicking out a bum, and proceeds to other political cartoons that do not move. Finally, there is a scene of cops heading into the police station, where a clean up is being advertised, and one by one the cops are thrown out onto the street. This is really the only traditionally animated scene in the group, while the rest are merely static images being drawn by a human hand.

The interesting part of this, at least to me, is how political these cartoons are. As someone who has grown up with Disney animation, I have long been aware of the criticism that Disney avoided controversy at all costs, yet these very first cartoons are social commentary that Walt avoided later in life. The difference is that later, he was releasing films under the Disney brand name moreso than his own name. But that’s a discussion for another day. The striking thing is that Walt had no aversion to the political cartoons, at least none that is evident here. Of course, he could just have been doing what was required of him by the theatres, so that’s possible as well.

In truth, that’s what these first Laugh-O-Gram films come across as – the efforts of a fledgling animator with a new company on his hands and the desire to get product out on the market. There is no artistry here, nor any hint of the storytelling that will come. Instead, the brief glimpse we see of Walt is the interesting bit, but the animation comes across as typical of the time, and not compelling. It is interesting, though, that Walt soon chose to turn his attention to fairy tales as the subjects of his next films.

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