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.


  1. "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."

    One interesting thing to remember also is that as well as fighting for commercial stability, he was fighting for the continuation of the artform itself. Animation was still then a very young artform; Disney had had some success as had Winsor McKay and the Fleischers. But no one knew at that time whether animation was going to be a flash-in-the-pan "here today, gone tomorrow" thing or whether it was going to last. I think the two worked hand in hand; Disney's struggle for artistic perfection and quality was what eventually made animation commercially stable.

    If you can find it (and it's out of print and very hard to find these days) also look up the author's book on "Silly Symphonies." It's one of the best books on animation I've ever read, although I think at times they do try to dig too deep to find psychological underpinnings.

  2. Good point, Patrick. I think the story of Walt Disney's entire career is learning to balance the artistic with the financial. That's why his partnership with Roy is so important to his identity.

    That's a great point about the survival of the art form, too. But do you think that Walt was concerned with that, or do you think he just wanted to make cartoons?

    The more I read and watch, the more I think that Walt in the 20s was just trying to make cartoons because he didn't want to do other things. I mean, his father had such menial jobs, and moved the family around doing hard labor, that I think Walt was rebelling against that. It feels to me like he wanted to become an artist not just because of his boundless imagination, but also because he wanted to be 180 degrees away from what he knew about work from his dad.

  3. But do you think that Walt was concerned with that, or do you think he just wanted to make cartoons?

    At this point I think he just wanted to make a name for himself and cartooning was what he was interested in and what he did best. But the tentative fluidity of the medium couldn't have been far from his mind. It occurs to me that, especially watching the early "Alice" shorts with the live action "bookends", had animation proved to be just a flash in the pan, Walt could have very easily made a name for himself doing live-action films. Luckily for us, it didn't go that way.

  4. True. It's also interesting that had someone picked up the Laugh-O-Grams from Kansas City, Walt likely would never have become what he did. Like you say, he was fighting to survive, and even just making enough to keep the studio going would have made a big difference. He could have stayed in Kansas City, and never would have been prodded by Winkler to create characters like Julius, then Oswald that led to Mickey. Just an interesting thought.

  5. Oh good, I'm glad you have this book. It is great.


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