Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Hand Behind the Mouse, Part II

Continuing today with a look at Ub Iwerks and his contributions to the Disney Brothers Studio, we’re also discussing the book and film, The Hand Behind The Mouse, which is a full biography of the man who created the look of Mickey Mouse.

When Margaret Winkler was unsatisfied with the look of the animation in the early Alice films (and who can blame her), Walt had to look to improve the quality of the films and do it fast. From his work with Ub in Kansas City, Walt knew who to go after, but it was tough to convince his old friend to make the trip to California.

After Ub had handled the bankruptcy of Iwerks-Disney, he had then invested $1,000 of his own money into Laugh-O-Grams to try and keep it going. That was ultimately a failure as well, and Ub went back to Kansas City Film Ad to try and get back on firm footing financially. During his time back at his old job, he had been promoted to art director, and was doing very well. Walt’s request to join him in Hollywood could not have come at a worse time.

Both the book and film do a great job of covering this period in Ub’s life. To understand future events between Ub and Walt, you must understand what had already taken place. Ub, who had to support his mother all by himself, had worked in two companies with Walt, both of which had gone bankrupt and left Ub without a firm means of support. Both times, Ub was able to pick himself back up, but here was Walt asking him to come to California and join him in yet another business venture.

Neither the book or the film show that Ub had any hesitation, but you must imagine he did. Certainly, the thought of moving to California had to be a big stretch for this Kansas City farm boy. Nevertheless, when Walt got a hold of you, he had a way of selling you on something. Ub and his mother, in the car that the Davis family had left behind when they moved to California, took off across the country.

This is where the film does a bit of a better job of capturing the mood and atmosphere when Ub arrived at the studio. He was immediately the top paid man there, and you can tell from the pictures used and some of the live action home movies that the studio was a happy place to be. Footage from the film shows the key players frolicking in a nearby park, or posing proudly with one another.

None of this is what you would expect from a fledgling studio still fighting for another contract from Winkler for more Alice Comedies. It is as if Ub’s mere presence made them confident that there would be much more prosperity to come.

Not having seen Alice the Peacemaker yet (although it’s coming soon, I promise), I can’t comment on the immediate change he brought to the Alices. But the main thing that Ub gets praised for is the fluid motion that he brought to the animation. Before Ub, the animators would draw key poses, and allow others to fill in the movement, but the striking poses were the way that people recognized the action.

Ub’s philosophy was to create the motion fully from one end to the other, so he drew all the poses. Walt frequently chastised him for doing this, but it created a full range of fluidity in the characters that the earlier films did not have. Suddenly, Julius the cat’s limbs moved up and own but were not jerking around. It was a breakthrough that would be surpassed later, when the Mickey Mouse cartoons would introduce the world to personality animation. But more on that later.

We’ll have the final part of The Hand Behind the Mouse later this week or early next week, then it’s back to work with Alice the Peacemaker. Please leave me your comments and let me know how you’ve enjoyed things so far. Until then, enjoy the blog!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Hand Behind The Mouse, Part 1

Okay, so I’ve been delaying long enough, it’s time to start the serious discussion of Ub Iwerks, the man who designed Mickey Mouse.

Yes, I know, we’ve all heard that story about Walt riding back from New York and sketching out the little guy on a train. It’s not true. That is, if you believe the book and film, The Hand Behind The Mouse, by Leslie Iwerks and John Kenworthy. But more on that later. Since we are about to begin on the first films that Ub did for the Hollywood studio, let’s look at what we can learn about Ub and Walt before that time.

We know from earlier that Ub and Walt met while working at Pesmen Rubin Commercial Art Studio, then formed their own studio, called Iwerks-Disney. This bond between the two men must have been strong, because Ub at the time was caring for his mother, as the only source of income. To risk that on a venture with Walt had to be a challenge.

Walt, with Ub’s blessing, left to take a job at Kansas City Film Ad, leaving Ub to run the business. It was not a good idea. Ub Iwerks was a gifted artist, and likely one of the best animators to ever pick up a pencil, but he was not a good businessman. He was not a showman or a salesman, both of which Walt excelled at. Iwerks-Disney folded, and Walt was able to get Ub a job at Kansas City Film Ad.

These two had to have been fast friends, because even with Ub’s financial situation, Walt was the one who left first and started making money at Film Ad, while Ub handled the bankruptcy proceedings at Iwerks-Disney. They did share some similarities – both were trying to move in different directions from their fathers. We discussed Walt and Elias earlier, but Ub was taking up the slack for his father, who left the family when Ub was young.

Both men grew interested in animation early on, and began to experiment with the form while still working at the Kansas City Film Ad company. Their boss, A.V. Cauger, allowed them to take home a camera to play with things. While most Walt Disney biographies have only Walt working in the garage to create new films, these Ub Iwerks bios place him in the room with Disney. Is this true?

This is where there is difficulty with The Hand Behind the Mouse. In no other literature or interviews have I ever seen that Ub was involved with Walt’s animation experiments at the Bellefontaine Avenue garage. But in both the book and documentary, it is asserted that he was involved and helped Walt animate the first Laugh-O-Gram, Little Red Riding Hood.

Image courtesy of

I’m not saying I don’t believe the Ub version of things, because it’s very obvious that the Walt Disney Company glossed over the contributions of anyone except Walt for many years. Even Roy O. Disney did not get the credit he so richly deserved for many years. But there is no way to say conclusively at this point one way or another. This is where I have trouble watching and reading these projects.

Eventually, Laugh-O-Gram Films would be founded, and Ub would be right in the middle of animating those early fairy tales. What did he contribute, and how was it vital to the process? Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the Ub influence and how the perspective of The Hand Behind the Mouse reconciles with other Walt Disney bio information.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Walt Disney's Missouri

It’s important to look back while you prepare to look forward. When thinking about Walt Disney’s life to come in Hollywood, as the Disney Brothers Studio is picking up steam with the Alice Comedies, we need to take a minute to pause and look back at what has occurred in his life so far, to gain perspective on the coming films.

A great place to get that information is in the book Walt Disney’s Missouri, by Brian Burnes, Robert Butler and Dan Viets. The book traces Walt’s life from childhood in Marceline up to his departure for Hollywood, and provides a much more detailed and rich picture of what his life was like. There are some small qualms with the book, but we can discuss those later.

The first thing to examine is Walt’s life in Marceline, where he lived for just over four years, from ages 5 to 9. In the book, the authors lay out the life Walt had on the Disney farm, which was idyllic. Since he was not quite old enough to work the fields as his father and brothers were, Walt’s life consisted of indulging a young boy’s fantasies on the farm. He played with animals, climbed trees, laid in the fields and generally was a rambunctious little boy. He loved it.

Marceline, MO today

Marceline is such a big influence on the Disney films that I hope to travel there at some point during this project to get a better look. So many elements from Walt’s life there have come to life since in his work, from Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland (modeled on Marceline’s Main Street) to the farm life in the Mickey cartoons and live action films like So Dear To My Heart.

It’s understandable when you think of how things changed when Walt and the family moved to Kansas City, after a brief sojourn back to Chicago where Walt had been born. Once the Disneys arrived in Kansas City, Walt was thrown head first into the work-a-day world, with he and Roy being the ones to run their father’s paper route. The boys woke early, before 3 a.m., and delivered the papers, then attended school, came home and delivered the afternoon papers. It was a back breaking existence for two younger boys.

The Disney family home in Kansas City

It’s not a surprise then, that Walt chose to leave after his brother Roy, did, going off to World War I in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. The book tells us that although Elias refused to let him go, Walt’s mother, Flora, forged Elias’ signature, saying that she was tired of her children sneaking off in the middle of the night. It’s a striking show of resistance from Flora, in a time when women were not afforded the rights they deserved.

The story of the Laugh-O-Gram Studio is also included, but reading this book really shows you how much went into that enterprise. Think of all the life experience that Walt had up to that point, and how persistent he was. All through the paper route days, he would grab other odd jobs for spending money in the afternoons. He gathered money from investors not once, but twice, to fund his art studio with Ub Iwerks and then to begin Laugh-O-Grams. Yet the failure of two companies was not enough to dissuade him from striking out for Hollywood to create the new studio with Roy. Remarkable.

It’s the stories and the profiles of the ancillary figures that make Walt Disney’s Missouri such a valuable book, though. Stories about Walt’s teachers, neighbors and others help put his life into context, and provide little heard anecdotes that are fun and informative. Most Disney biographers talk about how Walt dressed up as Lincoln and entertained his entire school on President’s Day, but this book examines the principal who encouraged this behavior and his influence on Walt.

Now, this is not a perfect book. The two main authors, Butler and Burnes, are reporters, and the short chapters seem as though they were taken from feature length newspaper articles. Information is often repeated from chapter to chapter, which can be very annoying for hardcore Disney fans who know much of the information already. Overall, though, the information that is new is well worth the price of the book, and makes it a must have for anyone interested in the early years of Walt Disney.

Tomorrow, we’ll begin our run up to Ub Iwerks joining the studio, as I’ll be reviewing the book and film The Hand Behind the Mouse, and discussing the creative partnership between Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. See you tomorrow!
Images taken from Walt Disney's Missouri

Monday, January 26, 2009

Where The Greats Came From

As I’m reading more and more about the Laugh-O-Gram days and the early days of the Disney Brothers Studio, it is apparent how much talent actually was there, and how influential the people who worked in that small Kansas City studio were to the overall development of the animated cartoon in America.

Most people today do not realize that cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry and Mickey Mouse were not created as TV properties, like most animation today. Instead they were played before films, and were as much a part of the movie going experience as the feature.

Therefore, it can truly be said that the men who worked in the Laugh-O-Gram Studio were among the most influential filmmakers of the 20th Century, without much exaggeration. Certainly, there is no doubt that Walt Disney is perhaps the most influential studio man ever. But what about the other men that toiled away on those shorts?

In my reading of Walt Disney’s Missouri (which I plan to review tomorrow), it was truly revealed to me how much of America’s animation past began in Kansas City. Consider the fates of just a few of the animators who got their start with Walt Disney.

We know of course, about Ub Iwerks, and his involvement in the company will be discussed at length here later this week, as we prepare to see the first of his shorts for the California studio. But this is the man who helped to develop the modern animated cartoon, solving problems by creating new equipment, creating realistic movement among characters, and ultimately designing Mickey Mouse himself.

But others are arguably more well known and created long lasting characters that have relevance to this very day. Isadore “Friz” Freleng went from the Disney studio to work at Warner Bros., and ultimately created the Pink Panther. He was responsible for some great Looney Tunes shorts in the interim, winning four Academy Awards for his work as a director, and Yosemite Sam was based on him.

Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising would never go on to create such memorable characters, but both were hired early on by legendary producer Leon Schlessinger, to help with the creation of the Warner Bros. animation studio. They went on to found the Looney Tunes line of shorts, and then replicated the same product with MGM, where their shorts would eventually lead to the creation of Tom and Jerry.

Joseph “Bugs” Hardaway worked at the studio as well, and during his work for Warner Bros., he would direct a short with an unnamed rabbit. When the story department asked for a sketch of the character, he tossed off a quick sketch without a thought to it. Later, the sketch was noted as “Bugs’s Bunny,” and when Tex Avery redesigned the character, the name stuck. Hardaway would go on to work with Walter Lantz on creating Woody Woodpecker, another hugely successful character.

Among these men, all had gigantic impacts on the world of cartoons. They stood on the shoulders of pioneers like Paul Terry, Windsor McKay and Max Fleischer, but they created some of the world’s most recognizable cartoon characters, most of which are still in heavy rotation today.

However, as most books make clear, none had the salesmanship and creativity that Walt Disney possessed, and that is what made his creations the most successful. That, and the artistry of his quiet, appreciative friend, Ub Iwerks. Iwerks was likely the single biggest influence on what would be known as “The Disney Style,” so we will examine his role in depth over the next few days, before viewing his first Alice film, Alice and the Peacemaker.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Walt and Elias

This week on the blog, we’ll be slowing things down a bit, as I’m waiting to get a few more films in before moving on. Instead of reviewing more Alice films this week, we’ll take a look back at the body of work we have examined so far, and look at information necessary for moving forward.

A good example of that is the relationship between Walt and his father, Elias. Again, this project is designed to illuminate things about Walt Disney, as much as it is to see what his craft evolved into during the films. Any Disney biographer will tell you that Walt’s relationship with his father is huge part of who he is, so it is worth spending some time discussing.

I am finishing up the book Walt Disney’s Missouri today, and this along with other sources, paints a wildly contradictory picture of Elias Disney. Some biographies show him as a cruel dictator of a man, who worked his sons to the bone, beat them when they misbehaved, and was quick to anger. Others show him as a typical man of the time, who believed that the family came first, and kept his boys in line with strict rules, but who ultimately loved his kids and tried to provide for them the best he could. My feeling is, as always, that the truth lies somewhere in between.

There is no doubt that Elias Disney believed strongly in discipline and kept his household running with precision. Whenever he entered a new business venture, which was frequently, he required the entire family to pitch in. However, he also never paid his children for their efforts, no matter how old they became. When Walt’s eldest brothers, Herbert and Raymond, rented a plot of land next to the Disney farm in Marceline, Elias insisted that they give him the money they made, since they were part of the family. It was this insistence that caused the two boys to run away to the West coast. A similar situation would play out later with Roy Disney.

Walt was the only one of the Disney boys who did not run away, though. The reason why may lie in a story that is told in several of the Disney biographies. When Roy ran away, he told Walt that Elias could no longer beat the younger boy. Sure enough, the next time Elias summoned Walt for a punishment, the future movie mogul caught his father’s hand and held it, until Elias wept, realizing he could no longer discipline his boy.

The big school of debate seems to be whether Walt’s life was a repudiation of his father’s or not. There is merit to both sides, but I believe the issue is more complicated than that.

In my own life, I can relate to this. My father was a hard worker, who worked for the government in the FCC for years, then would come home on weekends and always be doing something, either yardwork, working on cars or some other household project. He worked himself to death all the time, frequently getting massive headaches from workplace stress or colds from having worked his immune system down so low. I love my father, but I don’t want that kind of life myself. While he instilled a strong work ethic in me, I find ways to make life fun (this blog would be a good example), and don’t get me started on housework. I’ve always had non-traditional jobs (radio, theme parks, television) and I plan vacations frequently.

None of this is meant as a repudiation of my father’s life. I live only a few miles away from him. Instead, I saw the choices he made, the things he had to endure, and chose a different path. The way I see it, Walt made the same decision. His father was constantly chasing the good life, trying to find the next business that would put his family’s security in his own hands. He worked hard, seldom had time for play, and was a strict disciplinarian. Walt chose a different path, not because he disliked his father, but because he did not want those things for himself.

This is why I find the Kansas City period so interesting. Walt’s father was in town when he was making the Laugh-O-Gram fairy tales. Walt used his father’s garage to make Little Red Riding Hood. But at this point in his life, Walt was his own man, taking charge of his own destiny. Although this venture would fail, he would continue down the same path in Hollywood and would make it succeed.

To me, a large part of Walt’s perseverance came from Elias. He had seen Elias hop from business to business, doing menial labor and back breaking work. Walt decided that he would not do this, and instead found his outlet in creativity, and once he found what he loved, he never swayed from it. For this, we can all thank Elias Disney.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Random Thoughts For Upcoming Films

Today we'll take a break from the Alice shorts for a while and catch up on some random notes I have thought of as we're viewing the last two years of Walt's life.

  • First and foremost, thanks so much to Tom at Tom’s Vintage Films, who has been gracious enough to assist me in gathering some of the Alice films that I do not have yet. If you have not checked out Tom’s blog and seen what he’s doing to preserve early animation, you need to do so. While this blog deals with the wide variety of Disney films, Tom is focused on preserving the original silent material of not only Disney, but Walter Lantz, Max Fleischer and more. If people like Tom don’t do this stuff, it doesn’t happen, so please consider heading over to his site and picking up one of his DVDs.

  • One theme that I am looking at as we’re moving through this first phase of Walt’s career is the anti-authoritarian streak that I discussed in Alice and the Dog Catcher. It’s definitely something that shows up in his later works on the Mickey shorts, but then fades away some as you get into the features and the live action films. Where does that feeling come from, and is the fading of it something that is natural as one grows in stature and age? That’s something to keep an eye on as we move through the Alice shorts into Oswald and Mickey.

  • Another thing to recognize here is Walt’s ability as a live action director. While it’s true that he’s mostly ripping off the Little Rascals for story ideas featuring Alice and her gang, the action is still very well done. The main thing is that the action features great acting from the principals. Some people won’t like it, but there’s better acting in these Alice shorts than in the Star Wars prequels. Walt would continue to get performers to do their best work for him later in life. Think of Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins and you get what I’m saying. The man knew how to get the most out of his actors.

  • From an animation perspective, Margaret Winkler was a constant pressure on Walt to make gags prevalent over story. As such, the animation in these early films is not great. The quality varies greatly from film to film, and even the length of the animation varies wildly. The real question is how this will change in our next film, Alice the Peacemaker, which is the first one that Ub Iwerks animated. The partnership of Walt and Ub is one of the untold stories of these early years. In an upcoming blog post, I’ll talk about this collaboration and what it meant to the evolution of Disney.

  • Finally today, some books to check out, since I’ll be posting on them soon. First is Walt Disney’s Missouri, a book about Walt’s time in Kansas City. It’s a great one to get insight as to where Walt came from and what influenced him later in life. Second is The Hand Behind the Mouse, a book about Ub Iwerks and his works with Walt Disney. Both are good reads, and they offer some insight into Walt that his biographies don’t offer.

    Thanks, and I’ll talk to you guys after the weekend.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Alice and the Dog Catcher

Stop me if I sound like a broken record, but the live action sequences in Alice and the Dog Catcher are the highlight of what is otherwise a very uninspired short. This is perhaps part of a larger discussion about the first series of the Alice Comedies, but it seems as though at this point in his career, Walt’s focus was on what was the best for the bottom line of his fledgling company rather than what made the best film.

I know, that’s heresy to some out there who believe that Walt always went for quality no matter the cost. But that’s simply not true. It’s part of the Disney legend, but the more you read about the man and what he actually did, it seems that Walt Disney was more the great compromiser than the quality first person that the legend makes him out to be.

More on that to come, but first to discuss this short, Alice and the Dog Catcher. The story is probably the simplest of the shorts so far, but that’s not a bad thing. The story opens with Alice leading a meeting of the Klik Klak Klub, a grouping of the usual gang from the previous shorts. It’s an unfortunate name in light of the later associations for KKK, but that only comes to mind for current viewers.

That image in your mind is not helped by the fact that all the kids are wearing bags over their heads, reminiscent of hoods. Or by the fact that the one African-American kid is included almost as a servant of the other kids. It’s amazing the difference that time makes. This short would likely never be released on DVD by Disney today, simply because of these concerns. Of course, nothing was meant by it then, but it’s a great study in how tastes and morals change through the years.

Regardless, our buddy Tubby comes into the clubhouse and tells them that the dog catcher is out and about, which apparently is a cause for alarm. Again, it’s interesting how this stuff is viewed differently as time moves on. Today, I don’t imagine that anyone would be all that concerned by seeing a dog catcher out catching strays, but in this short and several of the Mickey/Pluto shorts in the future, Walt Disney often portrays the dog catcher as a villain.

That plays into a larger theme that has played out over the first few shorts that most critics say reverses itself with the later films. In these early silent shorts, the authority figures are the villains, like the dog catcher, the cops in the earlier Alice shorts, and even the king in Puss In Boots. This version of Walt Disney seems much more subversive than he seems to be in the future.

So, Alice tells a story to the gang about how she once foiled a dog catcher, which is where the animation begins. The animated sequence has a little better quality, but again, is very weak. Our dog friend from the earlier shorts gets multiplied here, and several of them are picked up by an animated dog catcher. Alice runs into the one dog that got away, and starts trying to come up with ways to free the dogs.

She tries to charm her way into the dog pound, but the guard isn’t falling for it. Instead, she finds a conveniently located pile of TNT nearby, tosses a bomb into the pound and it literally starts raining dogs. That’s the basics of the animated sequence, and we switch back to live action.

The gang runs out and frees the dogs from the dog catcher’s car, then one half of the gang runs off and is chased, while Alice and Tubby steal the car for some unknown reason. This leads to some amusing chase scenes through the streets of LA, which is great for fans of the city like myself. Finally, though, the dog catchers catch up with the car, as Alice and Tubby abandon it. The dog catchers climb on board, and they end up going over a grassy cliff as the gang laughs.

The one thing that really stands out from this short is the cruelty. Throwing TNT into the dog pound, Tubby nearly driving the car into a guy on the street, and the kids laughing at the car going over a cliff are all good examples. You see this often in the silent short films from Walt, which again contrasts heavily with the carefully cultivated image of Disney that the company puts out.

This is why I am doing this project, though, is to discover more about the man through his works. The man that produced this film is obviously concerned with time and money, as the live action parts that are cheaper to produce are the bulk of the film. This is also a man who has strong feelings about kids, dogs and their relation to authority. Sure, it’s cute to have the kids upend the dog catchers, but there’s a theme here. Alice tends to meet authority often, and she is always on the other side. Something to keep an eye on as we move forward.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Alice's Fishy Story

On this historic day, as I watched Barack Obama take the oath of office, I felt very privileged to be able to do what I do here, and have the time and luxury to watch these films and comment on them, with no fear of what will happen. Only in America could I actually take on such a project, because I have the freedom to write and the time that is afforded me from hard work. So, before moving forward, I wanted to acknowledge that.

Today, we move forward to Alice’s Fishy Story, an amusing short that continues to show Walt’s growing talents as a live action director. In fact, that is what is most striking about this short and Alice’s Wild West Show, is that there is much more live action to these shorts than animation. It seems to foretell the live action comedies that Walt would become known for in the 1950s and 1960s. This is one of the interesting things that I’ve noticed as I watch these films and move forward.

So, the story here is probably the most simple of the Alice films so far. Alice is playing piano, when Tubby and his gang show up and ask her to go fishing. Apparently the beating that Alice gave him in the previous short did not dissuade him. Is there a romance blooming between Tubby and Alice? Not really, but it is amusing how there is no continuity between the shorts, like you would find in cartoons today.

Alice manages to trick her mother by training the dog to play piano while she sneaks out the window. It’s a neat little bit of fun that again brings to mind later films from Walt. Alice and the gang hitchhike to the fishin’ hole, swamping a poor man’s car and hanging from all parts of it.

They get to the fishing location and start their leisurely afternoon with Tubby catching a small fish. Alice laughs it off and begins to tell her story, which is the cue for the animation to begin..

The animated portion of the short opens with Julius the cat, who has not yet been named as such, but we know that is what he will soon be called. He is ice skating in Eskimo territory, and finds out from a newsboy that the Eskimos are starving because the fish are not biting. After trying a couple of times to use his tail to catch some fish, Julius gets frustrated.

Alice, dressed in her spring shorts, saunters up to an Eskimo and also discovers the situation. Together, she and Julius devise a plan. They raid an abandoned freighter and dump something out of the ship into the water. The fish start biting it, then surfacing through a hole in the ice, and Julius uses his detached tail as a bat to knock them out and throw them in a pile. This solves the Eskimo food crisis, as the Eskimos grab the fish off the pile and eat heartily.

Back to the real world, and a cop catches up to Alice and the gang, chasing them away from the fishing hole as the short ends.

All told, this short is not quite as good as Alice’s Wild West Show, but it again shows the growth that Walt has made as a live action director. There were exceptional live action sequences in Alice’s Wonderland, the first of the Alice Comedies, but then subsequent entries showed very poor action, with Alice reduced to hitting her head to induce the animation sequences.

By contrast, the animated sequences tend to be much more inconsistent as time moves on. The animated sequences in Alice’s Wild West Show were very packed, and although simple, they still moved forward and told the story well. Alice’s Day at Sea featured amazing animation of the ship tossed at sea. However, this short features some inconsistent work, with a harder to follow story and poor photography with Alice. She is faint in this short while in the animated world, due to a cheap process used to place her in the animation.

While we know that eventually Walt would come to be the king of animation, there is little in the first of the Alice Comedies that show this. Instead, I have been struck by how good the live action sequences have become, and how they emulate what is to come. Perhaps when we get a little further along, I’ll write about some of the outside pressures that may have an influence on that.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Alice's Wild West Show

Well, after a little thought, I have decided to go ahead and move forward with viewing the films in the order they were released. However, I have also made a much larger decision about this project.

I’m doing this on a shoestring budget, mostly cobbling things together from what I already have or can readily afford. So, I don’t have the ability to go out and purchase several DVDs for one or two Alice shorts, or even some of the other shorts that may be missing. In some cases, there are shorts that are completely gone. Therefore, I’ve decided that I’ll move forward with what I have and can get fairly easily, then try to view some of these other shorts/films later. I will likely do a separate series of posts on those films as I get them.

Today, though, that leaves us with my favorite Alice short to date – Alice’s Wild West Show. This has to be considered one of the most interesting of the Alice shorts, because of what it shows about the young director, Walt Disney. The animation and the live action pieces are quite entertaining, which is more than can be said about Alice’s Spooky Adventure.

The short opens with Alice taking tickets for her Wild West Show. She is costumed in her finest Western wear, with hat, holsters and all. She is trading tickets for trinkets from the neighborhood boys, which is quite amusing. There is an elaborate stage set up behind her, and before long the “orchestra” tunes up to start the show. This actually is a bunch of boys banging on pots and pans and playing one string guitars, but it’s quite cute. If you know much about Walt, you know he was a performer, and you could imagine him staging this kind of production in his own backyard.

The show begins with Alice meeting up with some criminals in a cowboy bar, which has such amusing signs as “No shoting aloud” and “Neer Beer.” This is just another way Walt packed this film, as there are signs with clever puns and wordplay all around. Alice shoots the criminals and the curtain is pulled for the second act.

In the intermission, Tubby O’Brien and his gang of thugs come in and steal the front row. They’re a rough looking bunch, and Alice’s cohorts take off, scared to finish the show. So, Alice improvises and begins telling the crowd about her exploits in the Wild West. That’s where the animation begins.

The first animated sequence has Alice, on a stagecoach, being chased by Indians. They are firing arrows at her, but she manages to fend them off by tossing suitcases off the back of the stagecoach, then finally facing them down inside a cave, where we can’t see the action. This was a common trick in Walt’s cartoons, as he used it in nearly all the Laugh-O-Grams.

That short bit cuts back to the live action, where the gang is booing Alice, so she begins another story. Back to animation, where Alice is in a bar, and Wild Bill “Hiccup” is trying to steal the safe. Again, another gag packed in, as the safe reads “Mfg. by the Unsafe Safe Co.” Eventually, Wild Bill escapes with the safe, but Alice and our friend the dog from the Laugh-O-Gram days chase him down.

The gang boos again, back in the live action world, and begins throwing rotted vegetables at Alice. She gives as good as she gets though, chasing them away and tackling Tubby himself to give him a thrashing. The short ends with Alice chasing him away and turning to the camera to grin, as we see her two front teeth missing.

This short is very funny, and features Virginia Davis’ best performance as Alice yet. Instead of just standing around flapping her arms, she uses her killer smile and her eyes to express emotions and thoughts. Is this Walt the director bringing this out of her? It’s tough to say, but the tone of this live action piece brings to mind the later live action Disney films.

The animation here is not any better than the other films, but Alice’s interaction is great. She throws a suitcase off the back of the stagecoach and hits an Indian, she shoots at Wild Bill, and she shakes hands with the dog. All of this seems much smoother than in the earlier shorts.

The question here is whether the consistency will remain. After all, Alice’s Day at Sea was beautifully animated, but then Alice’s Spooky Adventure was nowhere near as well done. We’ll see tomorrow, when we look at Alice’s Fishy Story.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Alice Hunting In Africa Quandary

Image courtesy of

Okay, so, time for a confession. When I began this project, I came to grips with the fact that some of the older films were no longer available. Several of the Alice Comedies no longer exist in any form I could get my hands on, and possibly even some of the Oswald films. I figured this would be a minor inconvenience.

Well, as of today, it has proved to be quite the pickle. You see, I finished the book, Walt In Wonderland today, and learned something I did not know already. When Walt signed his deal with Margaret Winkler for the first series of Alice films, he submitted Alice’s Day At Sea as the first film. This was not quite satisfactory for Winkler, who demanded more gags and less story to make the film more marketable.

Understanding her demands, Walt went back to work on a second film, Alice Hunting In Africa. The results were not much better, as Winkler refused to distribute the film, saying that exhibitors would not take it, it was so bad. So, Alice Hunting In Africa was actually completed before Alice’s Spooky Adventure. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of this film.

Now, this brings up my question. I can order a copy of Alice Hunting In Africa, but the blog would be on hold until I get it in the mail, which will probably come in a few weeks. However, there is more to the story.

Later in 1924, Winkler consented to distributing Alice Hunting In Africa, so it was released to theatres in November of that year. So, if I follow according to release dates, I would have time to get the film before doing the blog post on it. You see my conundrum here? Do I stick with the chronological order of when the films were animated, or do I worry about when they were released in theatres?

This problem will come up again later, as when Mickey Mouse comes into the picture, Plane Crazy and Gallopin’ Gaucho were completed before Steamboat Willie, but the latter is the first film the public saw with Mickey in it. It would make sense for Steamboat Willie to come first, but since the point of this project is to trace the development of the Disney films from start to finish, and the evolution of the artistry, you would want to do the other two first.

It’s a question I will ponder today and tomorrow and will come back to with my next post. So, tomorrow, we will either review the next film, Alice’s Wild West Show, or we will be filling time with some other learnings from Walt In Wonderland, as well as a look back at some of the things we have looked at so far. I know, I’m such a tease. Until tomorrow…c’est la vie.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Alice's Spooky Adventure

Back to the shorts tonight, with the second of the Hollywood shorts – Alice’s Spooky Adventure. As I’m reading through the book Walt In Wonderland, Merritt and Kaufman note that many times, Walt’s shorts go for gags over story, often failing to make a truly entertaining film. Through the Laugh-O-Grams and Alice’s Wonderland, I had not encountered this. Alice’s Spooky Adventure changes that. It’s not to say that this short is bad, but it’s definitely nowhere near as entertaining as the Laugh-O-Grams and not quite as good as the previous Alice films.

But enough of that, let’s talk about what happens. The basics of the story are that Alice and her friends hit a small ball into an abandoned house, but all the boys with her will not go in to get it. For some reason, all of Alice’s friends in these shorts are boys. Weird, I know. Anyway, Alice says she will get the ball and enters the house.

Once inside, she gets a little scared by a cat moving a box around and falls over into a sheet, the finally gets hit in the head by a collapsing roof. She dreams that she has entered a town of ghosts, which is when the animated sequence begins. As impressed as I was with the opening montage of Alice’s Day at Sea, this animation is just, well…unimpressive.

The animation features ghosts popping out of houses, which is interesting, but not great, and finally a ghost runs up to Alice and asks her to “Take it off!” This is quite the interesting proposal from a ghost to a little girl. Not sure if that was a bit of subversive humor from Disney, but it’s funny to a modern eye anyway. Alice finally pulls the sheet off the ghost and reveals a cat underneath. The cat, as I was reading in the book, would come to be known as Julius, but here is a seeming descendent of the one in the earlier shorts.

The cat and Alice manage to fend off all the ghosts, with the cat removing his tail to use as a bat, then passing it off to Alice in a neat little gag. After that, Julius professes his love to Alice, kissing her hand. She wakes up in the house, with the real cat licking her fingers. She picks up the ball and heads outside, running into a cop, who locks her up in jail. It’s a very Monty Python sort of ending, kind of running out of steam in the scene and just wrapping it up any way possible.

That’s the problem with this whole short, there’s just not much to it. There is no discernible story, and it falls right into the same formula that the first two Alice films did. Alice goes somewhere, falls asleep, dreams something silly, then wakes up. It’s just not a good movie. The animation is crude and there’s just not the same fun that is present in the other films. I will have to see more of the Alice films, but as of now, I can see why Walt progressed to things like Oswald and Mickey. There’s just not enough in the interaction between Alice and Julius to make a compelling cartoon.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I Read Books, Too

As I progress through this project, I am also trying to read as much as I can about Walt and his movie making process and the views of others as it relates to the films I am watching. To that end, today, as I am waiting to receive the DVD with the next Alice short, Alice’s Spooky Adventure, I’ll be discussing the book Walt In Wonderland, by Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman.

Up front, I want to say that I have not finished this book. In fact, I’m only beginning it again, after I started last summer and was not able to sit down and take it in properly. However, I have to say that it is an invaluable resource.

Earlier today, I was swapping e-mails with Patrick from about this blogging stuff, and trying to figure out what people want to read, since I’m not an animation historian. I don’t know a lot about “squash and stretch” animation or the way backgrounds are rendered, etc. I just don’t. And that’s not really my purpose on this blog anyway. The point is to just get a visceral reaction to the work, talk about what stands out, and join you guys in a conversation about the films.

However, if you are an animation buff, and perhaps even if you aren’t, Walt In Wonderland is the book for you. Merritt and Kaufman are noted for their intense scrutiny on the silent films of Walt Disney, which is documented in this book. There are two parts to the book – the first is an examination of the films from a critical perspective, and the second is a story of how the films came to be. Both are proving to be quite good, although a bit scholarly.

One thing that particularly struck me early on in the book was the following: “The story of Disney’s silent film career is not so much a struggle for artistic expression as it is a fight for commercial stability.” I had never thought of it that way, but that is so true. From the Laugh-O-Gram films to the Alice Comedies to Oswald, Walt was never secure. The question inherently posed by that statement is whether Walt was pursuing similar artistic devices (the recurring cat, the similar plots of the Alice shorts) to save time and money to survive, or was he simply losing interest in the subjects and looking to move on to other things? That question is not answered, but it is something I’ll be pondering as we move forward.

Regardless, I’m still working through the book, and I hope to finish it next week, but if you are very interested in the silent films, I recommend you pick it up. I got my copy off of Amazon for next to nothing, so it’s a good bargain as well. Be aware, though, that it helps to watch the shorts first. The first time I tried to read it, in preparation for doing the blog, I couldn’t get through it, because I had not seen most of the shorts. Now that I have seen some of them, I understand it much better.

All in all, it’s a great companion piece to this blog. I plan to finish reading it and then move on to another book that documents this period, called Walt Disney’s Missouri. I have read that one before, but after viewing the films that came out of that period, I want to read it again.

Until tomorrow, when we’ll hopefully be discussing Alice’s Spooky Adventure, stay classy, internet.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Alice's Day At Sea

Today’s entry in the blog marks a turn in direction for Walt, as we are reviewing the first short that was entirely produced in Los Angeles, as part of the new Disney Brothers Studio. How did we get here? Well, that is the complicated part.

See, when Laugh-O-Grams finally went under, Walt had to find something new to do. With one suitcase, his camera, and $40 in his pocket, he hopped a train to Hollywood, where movies were made. By his reasoning, if he could establish himself as a director or animator there, then he could continue making his movies.

He hooked up with his brother Roy, asking him to take over the business operations, while Walt would focus on the creative side of the business. This simple act is probably what enabled us to have the Disney magic we have today. Without Roy managing expenses to make things work, Walt would never have had the business acumen to keep going. You can read the whole story in Bob Thomas’ wonderful book Building A Company, but suffice to say that Roy Disney is every bit as important to the Disney legend as Walt.

After trying his hand at being an extra on a movie and being rejected as a director, Walt began shopping around his reel of Alice’s Wonderland. He wrote a letter to M.J. Winkler, describing the studio he had established to produce the Alice films. In fact, his studio was the garage of his Uncle Robert’s house, but Walt’s salesmanship won Winkler over.

Alice’s Day At Sea was the first of the Alice series that was completed on the West coast, and it was done almost entirely by Walt. He directed it, filmed much of it, and animated the vast majority all by himself, with assistance from Roy. As such, it is probably the truest sense of how Walt’s art has evolved from the Newman films to Little Red Riding Hood to this film. In the span of two years, how much has changed?

The answer is a great deal has changed. This short opens with an extended live action sequence, featuring Alice and her dog getting ready for a trip to the beach. The live action sequence here is extremely inventive, especially where the dog is concerned.

The film shows the dog being awakened by an alarm clock, and when the alarm won’t stop ringing, the dog chews it up and drops it in the trash can. He wakes up Alice, who motions to him, and the dog runs off camera, returning moments later driving a small Model T. It’s a very cute gag, and reminds you of things you might see Pluto doing in a Mickey cartoon.

Alice and the dog are seen driving down the palm tree lined streets of Los Angeles, which in itself is a cute scene. They arrive at the beach and soon meet a sailor who tells them a story about a giant octopus menacing a sailing ship. The sailor leaves and Alice and the dog go sit in a nearby dinghy, soon falling asleep. See, that alarm should have let the dog sleep.

I’m sure you see where this is going. To paraphrase Ellen DeGeneres from EPCOT, when someone falls asleep in a cartoon, they’re going to have a what? Yep, a dream sequence.

This is where the animation begins, and the first shots are stunning for 1924 standards. If it is entirely true that Walt did this all by himself, then he truly pulled something off. The deep black waves are buffeting a sail boat, with thunder and lightning raining down. It’s a dynamic, realistic scene that puts to shame anything that was seen in the Laugh-O-Gram Films.

That soon ends, though, as the ship hits the bottom of the sea, and Alice has adventures there with a fish band, dancing and singing, she sees our friend the cat in the form of a fish, and even King Neptune’s Zoo. Soon, though, as in Alice’s Wonderland, she is menaced by something that wants to eat her. It’s remarkable how similar the plot is of this film to Alice’s Wonderland, now that I think about it. Alice visits a new place, sees or hears some things about it, then has a dream that puts her in an animated world where she plays, then nearly gets eaten. Weird.

Anyway, a giant fish ends up eating her temporarily, but she escapes the fish only to be caught by a giant squid. It’s at this point that she wakes up and realizes that she’s tangled up in a fishing net, and she is disentangled by the sailor and his friend, who have just returned to the beach.

That’s the basics of the film, such as it is. I have to say, that after going through the Laugh-O-Grams, this film did not hold my attention like Cinderella or Puss in Boots did. It is definitely a slight improvement over Alice’s Wonderland. I’m probably eager to get on with things and get to Oswald and Mickey, to see some shorts that I recognize and things I have never seen before.

I am beginning, though, to gain a much better appreciation for the artistry of Walt Disney. The animation sequence at the beginning where the boat is being tossed on the waves is very striking, and the live action direction is very good as well. Virginia Davis as Alice is good, but I think the real attraction to the short is the dog’s acting and the animation. Alice is merely a sideshow here.

As I move through this project, though, it’s interesting to note recurring themes, like the cat, the similar plot devices in these last two Alice films, the band with dancing that seems to show up in the majority of the Laugh-O-Grams and the Alice Comedies, and a few others I can’t think of at the moment. Perhaps in a day or so, after I’ve viewed a few more of the Alice films, I’ll write a post about that. For now, see you tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Alice's Wonderland

With the Laugh-O-Gram studio struggling mightily, and debt piling up, Walt took the money he made from Tommy Tucker’s Tooth and invested it into a short that he could take around to distributors to try and get a new contract. It was an original Walt idea, but it would take all the efforts of his studio to pull it off.

At the time, there was a famous series of cartoons called Out of the Inkwell, where a cartoon would hop off the drawing board and interact with live action footage of human beings. Walt’s idea was to reverse it and have the live action person enter a cartoon world. He recruited a local child, Virginia Davis, to star as Alice, who would enter the cartoon world.

Walt turned to his fellow animators to make this happen. This was really the beginning of his producing career, relying on others to make his vision come true. This short is truly the beginning of the modern day Walt Disney Company, so it bears some careful scrutiny.

The short begins with the titular Alice making her way to a cartoon studio. Not really sure how or why she decided to do this, but it happens anyway. Virginia Davis is a charming girl, and you can tell how sweet she is just by looking at her.

Alice knocks and introduces herself to Walt, who agrees to show her around the studio. The first thing he shows her is what he was working on, which is an animation of the dog from the previous Laugh-O-Grams running around a dog house.

Then, they tour around the studio, encountering some different characters, like a band of cats, similar to our friend who had appeared in all of the fairy tales.
They also encounter a mouse that is desperately trying to get rid of the cat that has parked itself near the drawing board that the mouse is on.

Looks familiar, huh? You wonder if this is the precursor to Mickey, if that idea was already taking shape in Walt’s head. There are other vignettes in the office, like a boxing dog and cat, but what’s truly interesting is Walt’s role as the host. If you remember the Disneyland TV show, it would come as no surprise to you, but this is over 30 years before that first show aired. Walt here is seemingly the master of ceremonies of this magical studio where the drawings interact with the animators to create these magical cartoons. It’s an amazing glimpse into the future of Walt Disney that is beginning to take form in this short. For that alone, this is worth a watch.

Once Alice returns home from the studio, she goes to bed and immediately begins to dream of the wonders that she saw in the animation studio. Her dream puts her on a train headed to Cartoonland, where a welcoming committee of cartoons from the studio are waiting to greet her.

Alice arrives in the cartoon world in a mundane way from today’s perspective, but seeing her climb out of the train and walk in front of all these characters must have been very exciting for audiences in 1923, when this short finally made it to theatres.

The cartoons hold a parade for Alice, after which they share some dancing and overall fun and frivolity. This is probably the weakest part of the short, as there’s about 3 minutes taken up with very little story and not a lot of gags. It’s not that it’s bad, but there is nothing there moving the story forward or making you laugh.

Finally, the end of the short comes when a group of lions break out and start chasing Alice around, finally forcing her to jump off a cliff.

And then…it just ends. Why? Because during the making of the film, Laugh-O-Gram Films went bankrupt. The company ran out of money, and Walt had to leave the film unfinished. It’s probably not a bad thing. The short is much more interesting for its historical significance than anything else.

Compared to the Laugh-O-Gram fairy tales, Alice’s Wonderland is not a great example of linear storytelling or fine art. It is an example of great artistic innovation, and trying to push the boundaries, which Walt is known for doing in his work. But on the whole, not as entertaining as others Walt produced. This short is a great piece of American history, though, because after the bankruptcy, Walt took a copy of this film to Los Angeles, and used it to secure a new contract and found the Disney Brothers Studio, which we now know as the Walt Disney Company.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tommy Tucker's Tooth

After finishing the Laugh-O-Gram fairy tales, Walt and his fledgling company attempted to collect the money promised them, but to no avail. The company that had ordered the films claimed bankruptcy, and Laugh-O-Gram Films would soon be no more.

With rising debt, Walt had to take on whatever jobs he could get to pay the bills. Since he had a camera, he was hired around town to do live action filming, including birthday parties and other such small tasks. One of the things he ended up doing, though, was directing live action shorts as well. The most famous of these, and the one that we can view today, is Tommy Tucker’s Tooth.

Tommy Tucker’s Tooth was commissioned by a local dentist, Dr. Thomas B. McCrum, to show the benefits of good dental hygiene, and also to provide a little commercial for himself. Walt was able to cobble together a long piece of work that has some redeeming value, but overall is quite a boring piece. I was almost asleep by the time it finished, probably because I worked out first, but it’s still not nearly as entertaining as the fairy tales.

The short opens with a woman telling an assembled group of children about two young boys, Tommy Tucker and Jimmie Jones. Yeah, you know where this is going. It’s Gallant and Goofus time. Anyway, the story continues that Tommy took his teeth seriously, brushing every night, while Jimmie did not do so.

Sure enough, in time, Jimmie Jones gets some issues. The woman tells the children that bad brushing habits can be bad for three reasons. Then we go into a loooonnngggg explanation of all three.

The first is toothache. The woman explains how food left in your mouth spoils and causes acid, which leads to the only animation in this film. The acid is illustrated by “acid demons” chipping away at a diagram of teeth. The acid demons multiply and create a cavity. It’s a quite funny bit, although unintentionally.

The second problem is that your health will suffer. This leads to another unintentionally funny part, as the boys are lined up together in a very Nazi youth scene, then they are taken to a scale. Now, Tommy is a good looking boy, but he’s rather portly. Jimmie, although he bears a striking resemblance to Lon Chaney, is a regular weight. However, when they weigh on the scale, the teacher tells Tommy that he’s fine but Jimmie is underweight because he’s not brushing well. Very funny, but in the wrong way.

Our final dilemma shown in the film is the one that is the most interesting today. Jimmie and Tommy go to get a job. Apparently, according to the sign on the door, there is a “Boy Wanted.” I’m telling you, you couldn’t make this movie today.

Well, the two boys see the boss, and of course, Tommy gets hired because of his appearance, but Jimmie is rejected because of his. In the real world, Jimmie might snap and take out the boss, but in the film, he decides to go to the dentist, improve his appearance and return to finally claim a job.

The short is very silly by our standards today, but I imagine it must have been effective at the time. Jimmie Jones is a scary kid, and I’d be scared straight if I were watching this as a kid. Today, it’s not even close to successful. But that may say more about the way people are today than anything else.

What’s the most interesting thing about this short is that it’s Walt’s first live action directing job. Since it’s such a trite subject, there’s not much in the performance of the actors that tells what he will later become as a filmmaker, but it is a milestone nonetheless. Even better, the $500 that Dr. McCrum paid Walt is what he used to ultimately pay for the first of his Alice shorts, a subject we will delve into further as we go along.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Cinderella (1922 Laugh-O-Gram)

The final Laugh O Gram film completed by Walt Disney’s fledgling company was Cinderella, a modern take on the old fairy tale. You’ll remember the characters from the previous fairy tale short, Puss in Boots. They play similar roles here.

We open on a title card telling us about a girl who lives on her own with her friend the cat. Yes, my friends, the cat has returned again. The same little black cat from all of the Laugh O Gram films so far is back again for Cinderella. I know, there was no cat in the original story, but you can probably get the sense already that Disney has a thing for animals.

Cinderella is the same girl from Puss in Boots that was the object of the young boy’s affections. The roles are reversed this time. We open with Cinderella and the cat doing dishes – Cindy scrubs, the cat dries – while her stepsisters lounge in the backyard. The stepsisters are an interesting design – one fat, one thin. This is an interesting contrast to the later animated film, that we can discuss when we get there in about 30 years of Disney time.

The scene cuts over to the prince, who is played by the boy from Puss in Boots. He is chasing a bear while riding a horse and shooting, which takes quite a bit of talent. Riding a horse alone would be a feat for me, but this guy is shooting a gun and hitting a bear in the rear end while riding the horse. No wonder the card that introduced him as the prince called him “a wonderful fellow.” The dog from Puss in Boots is running along behind him as they chase the bear.

Ahead of them, several bears are having a little dance party, with one in particular dancing around in the middle while the others play music. That sequence involves some fun animation, with the main bear removing his tail to play as well. But when the bears see the prince coming, they flee into a nearby cavern to escape. It doesn’t work. The prince follows them into the cave, horse and all, and ends up dragging all the bears out with a rope.

In celebration, the prince has an invitation made for a ball, to be held “Tuesday, Friday the 13th.” I really don’t know what that gag means, but I’ll admit that it made me laugh. The prince loads the dog up with his invitations and sends the dog out to disperse them. This leads to my favorite sequence in the short, where the dog hops on a bike to deliver the invitations like a paper boy. He hits a rock and tumbles down a hill, emerging from a cloud of dust with a bandaged head and a crutch. A bystander comes by and says via word balloon “Are you hurt?” The dog simply looks at him, then bashes the man over the head with his crutch. I laughed out loud. It’s just the sort of thing that you don’t expect from a Disney cartoon, but it’s totally what would happen.

From there, you probably can guess the story. The stepsisters go to the ball, Cinderella wishes that she could, her fairy godmother shows up and bestows a flapper dress and a Model T on her, then she heads to the ball. Cinderella is the bell of the ball, which is a very contemporary (for the 20s) affair, with flapper dancing all over the place. The prince and she get together, but, as expected, at midnight she flees and her clothes turn to rags, but she leaves behind a shoe. The prince follows the shoe tracks the next morning, down on all fours sniffing the ground, only to find that the other shoe had fallen off as well and was now on a duck. However, he soon finds Cinderella, fits her foot to the shoe, and they live happily ever after.

This short was good, but compared to Puss in Boots or the Four Musicians of Bremen, it’s not nearly as inventive. This short is fairly straightforward in its storytelling, not offering new or different perspectives or innovative sequences like you see in the earlier shorts. It’s very interesting to me that this story is the only one from the Laugh O Grams that Walt chose to come back to later. Did he feel this was not done properly? Or did he just want to do a big grandiose fairy tale and didn’t care what the specific tale was?

Being the last of the Laugh O Grams seems to have hurt this short, because the cool little inside gags like the Cinderella poster in Puss in Boots are not here, nor are the extended sequences like the house being barraged with fire in the Musicians short. It is definitely entertaining, and the dog hitting the guy with his crutch is laugh out loud funny, but overall, this is the weakest of the shorts besides Little Red Riding Hood.

Note: I'm having a problem with getting my pictures to work, but you can watch the whole short here. Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Puss In Boots

Well, it’s only day four of this grand experiment, and already we’ve hit a roadblock. An explanation is long and complicated, but here goes.

So, when Walt created Little Red Riding Hood, he was still doing it in his spare time in his father’s garage. That film was for training for himself, but would later be released. The Four Musicians of Bremen was the first short intended for release. Based on those two films, Walt secured a contract to produce four more films, after his boss at the Kansas City Slide Company (later Kansas City Film Ad Company) passed on the fairy tales.

At this point, Walt raised money from friends and family, and formally incorporated Laugh-O-Gram films. He hired animators and friends like Rudy Ising, Hugh Harman, Ubbe Iwerks, Lorey Tague, Carman “Max” Maxwell and Otto Walliman. These men got together in a run down office to produce the four remaining films on Walt’s contract, with the hopes of getting a national distribution deal.

The Original Laugh-O-Gram Studio

Although Walt’s cartoons showed higher production values than most, it was not enough to entice one of the national distributors to take him on as a project. At that time, nearly all animated cartoons were being produced in New York, so Walt’s vision of a Kansas City studio was a bit na├»ve at best.

The four films were produced, though, and included Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldie Locks and the Three Bears, Puss In Boots and Cinderella. Only the latter two have survived to the present day, which is where our roadblock enters. Since we can’t watch Jack and the Beanstalk or Goldie Locks, we must pick up with Puss in Boots.

I’m also going to try something a bit different with today’s subject. Originally, these films were silent cartoons, as were most films of the time. On the spectacular Inkwell Images DVD that I am viewing these on, they have added the sounds that would have been made in the theatre. It’s very entertaining, but not the way the cartoons would originally have been seen. So, I’m going to watch Puss in Boots with the sound on mute, then with the sound on, to see if the animation holds up with silent cartooning.

Okay, so this story is not at all like the Puss in Boots story you probably know. In this short, Puss is played by our friend the cat, who was present in the first two shorts. An interesting thing to note is that the four main characters in this film, a boy, a girl, the cat and a dog are in the new title card for Laugh-O-Gram Films, so this short must have been one that was produced early on.

The short opens with the cat and boy going to visit a young girl that the boy wants to marry. He woos the girl while the cat and dog get acquainted, even kissing at some point. Let me tell you people, Walt was into some weird stuff back then. Cats and dogs kissing? Can’t explain that one.

It turns out the girl is a princess, and when the king (again played by the old man in the picture frame from Little Red Riding Hood) discovers his daughter with this hooligan, he chases the boy and the cat away. The despondent boy and his cat stand in front of a shoe store advertising “$5 Boots Only $4.99”. A nice little sight gag, there. The cat asks for the boots, but the boy refuses and they head to a movie instead.

The movie theatre is another great sight gag, with one poster showing an ad for “Rudolph Vaselino,” an obvious play off of Rudolph Valentino. The other poster shows an ad for “Cinderella” by Laugh-O-Grams Films. Neat little product placement. Could this be the first product placement? Interesting.

The movie shows the hero beating up some bulls and winning the affections of a woman. Kind of obvious where this is going, right? Well, not to the boy. The cat says he has an idea of how the boy can win over the girl, but only if he’ll buy the cat the boots first. Hilarity ensues.

With his new boots, the cat goes out on the town to put up flyers promoting the Masked Toreador’s fight against the bulls. The king finds out about the bullfight and heads down with the dog and his daughter, to see the boy in his mask take out a bull with the help of the cat and his “Radio Hypnotizer.” The king is so taken by what he sees, he tells the Masked Toreador that he can marry the king’s daughter.

At that point, the boy reveals himself, and the boy, the girl, the cat and the dog jump in a car to escape, as the king chases them down the street to no avail. The car reaches 125 miles per hour according to the speedometer, which is very fast considering that the dog is driving.

This is a fun little short, probably the best of the three so far. It easily has the most linear, compact story of the three. The gags are subtle, which is not something you usually see in these old cartoons. There are not a lot of overt crazy items like the swordfish from the Musicians short. Instead, much is communicated through word balloons, much more so than in the other shorts.

The production value is also much higher here. The backgrounds are very detailed, with the crowd renderings in the bullfight scene deserving particular notice.

Again, this cat steals the show. I think it’s fair to say at this point that the cat is the precursor to some of the later Disney characters like Oswald and Mickey. The cat is a classic cartoon character in that he can do surrealistic things in a realistic world, like remove his tail and make a question mark as he does after the king throws them out. It’s very interesting to see the progression of this film from the previous ones.

Okay, as for sound versus no sound – was there a difference? Not really. See, in the previous films, there were very few word balloons, but here, all the main characters had word balloons when they spoke. Also, since the score probably was not designed specifically for this film, it did not jump out at you. In fact, the score for all three of these shorts has sounded quite the same. I imagine Inkwell just used similar music, but I’ll have to see if that’s the same on Cinderella, which we’ll look at next. Until then, have a good one!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Four Musicians of Bremen

As we get started today, let me give great credit to a site that I just found last night, It lists all of the shorts produced by Walt, and has write ups on each one. It’s an invaluable resource, and could really be a companion piece to the shorts reviewed on this blog.

The next film in the Laugh-O-Gram fairy tale series is The Four Musicians of Bremen, a cartoon loosely based on the story “The Bremen Town Musicians” by the Brothers Grimm. In that story, four animals, a donkey, a cat, a dog and a rooster decide to give up their former lives to become musicians, but along the way end up inhabiting the house of some criminals and scaring them off. A cute little story about being content with who you are, which is a moral that comes up in some of the later Disney films.

This is a much longer short, around seven minutes, and it is much more representative of what you may have seen from early Mickey cartoons. To start with, there are painted backgrounds in this short, as Walt was trying to save money by creating lush backgrounds that he could reuse. It works fine here, as many of the scenes take place over a generic landscape.

The short starts with a poem explaining that the four musicians try their best to play their music all around the countryside, but they’re not good at it, and when people’s nerves are frayed, they take it out on the four musicians. This fades into a scene of the four musicians, a donkey, a dog, a rooster and a cat being run out of town by a mob, throwing bricks at them. Strangely enough, one of the mob looks just like the old man in the picture from Little Red Riding Hood. That guy creeps me out.

Another thing to note is that this is the second time we have seen a cat like this. The cat is very much like the cat in Little Red Riding Hood, and he is the star of this short. The other four are mainly there for window dressing and to tie in the fairy tale plot.

As the musicians escape, they come to a body of water, and while the other three weep, the cat realizes that they are hungry. He urges his compatriots to play music, which drifts into the water and starts the fish and frogs dancing. One fish comes up to dance on the land, and the cat tries in vain to hit it with a 2’ x 4’, but he is, like so many of us, unfulfilled.

The cat chases the fish into the water, which leads to the most inventive scene of the short. The cat swims up after the fish, but runs into a swordfish that has removed it’s sword and is sharpening it. Right before the cat and the stray fish arrive, the swordfish tests out his new sword by cutting a fish in half ruthlessly. I’m serious! This is the most violent thing I’ve ever seen in a Disney short. The fish just casually turns around and cuts another fish in half. It’s like Pulp Fiction in the ocean or something. This is clearly not a swordfish to mess with.

The swordfish catches wind of the cat and chases it out onto the land, picking up the three other musicians and chases them off a cliff. They fall one by one into the chimney of a house, and a band of criminals runs out of the house, scared off by the falling livestock. Which, come to think of it, is a good reason to be scared. I mean, if you were sitting in your living room, and donkey, a dog, a rooster and a cat fell down the chimney, I think you’d run, too.
So the criminals band together, get some weapons, and attack the house. The conflict is finally resolved when the cat hitches a ride on a cannonball, and detaches his tail to knock all the criminals out. The end title assures us that the musicians lived happily ever after.

In day three of watching these shorts, this was the first one that felt like a Disney cartoon. Now, it feels very primitive still, but it had some inventive gags, a lush background, and a mischievous but fun main character. Sound familiar? The formula here is not that different from Mickey Mouse. I have not yet seen all the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts or the Alice Comedies, but this reminds me a great deal of Mickey.

The animation on this was again done by Walt and Rudy Ising. There is still some great detail here. At one point when the cannonballs are assaulting the house, there is a close up of the roof, and there is detailed crosshatching on the underside of the roof. There’s no story or artistic reason that has to be there, but yet it is. Considering that these shorts were being done in Walt’s spare time, it’s amazing that he chose to put that much attention into these sorts of things.

Ultimately, this short does not tell the story of the Grimm fairy tale, but instead is an excuse for Walt to try out this cat character. The cat is loveable enough, but is very much in the trickster mode of things, pulling off capers against the other characters. We’ll see if there are more similarities as we continue. More Laugh-O-Gram Fairy Tales to come!

Images courtesy of