Monday, January 5, 2009

We Begin Again - Newman Laugh O Grams

If you read earlier along in this blog, you’ll see that I made an aborted attempt to try and start this project back in 2007, to begin in 2008. A new job and a potty training child derailed that attempt, but this time I am back and ready to go.

So, to recap, the idea is to watch all available shorts and feature length films that were produced by Walt Disney, in the hopes of learning a little more about the man, his life and some of the things his films can tell us. We’ll start with the Newman Laugh O Grams, which are a complicated matter, so probably a good place to begin. I've already done this review, but I figure it is only fair to start again from scratch, so here we go.

The Newman Laugh O Grams were short films that were produced by Walt Disney himself, some of the few things that Walt actually animated. By the time we got around to Mickey Mouse cartoons, Walt didn’t do much drawing anymore, but had discovered his true talent as a producer. The Newman films were produced by Walt alone, after he and his friend Ub Iwerks had failed at their own commercial art studio.

Walt took a job at the Kansas City Slide Company, which produced commercial cards to go in front of the films at the Newman Theatre. At the time, the Midwest theatres got all their cartoons from New York. Walt convinced his boss to accept films that he would produce, and he rented a garage from his father to shoot his rough animation.

The surviving films can be seen on the DVD The Legendary Laugh-O-Gram Fairy Tales, produced by Inkwell Images. I recommend the disc if you are into early animation. I’m only interested in this stuff for what it tells me about the man who would later create such amazing masterpieces, but it’s well worth watching. You can also view them on YouTube.

The films begin with Walt sitting at his desk, and as he begins sketching, we see the cartoon take shape on his drawing board. This was a common tool of the day, and was used in many cartoon series, such as Out of the Inkwell. The first drawing is the image of a cop kicking a criminal out of Kansas City, followed by a storefront window of ladies’ hosiery. Both have some social commentary impulses to them, but it’s hard to say what they are trying to communicate at the time.

These two static drawings are followed by flat drawing of a car bouncing on potholes, again, assuming that there is social commentary involved about the state of the roads in Kansas City.

The last film on the disc is a true animated cartoon, with moving characters. The shot features cops going into the precinct, then being stripped of their uniforms and booted out onto the street in a clean up of the force.

All of these films reflect the cutesy animation style of the time, with cherub cheeks on the women and round doughy figures for the men. What’s interesting is that Walt chose to tackle social issues in these films, even though in his later years he would be averse to such things in his movies. Very rarely, with the exception of the war films, would Disney ever get involved in current events. Was this just a young artist who was trying to put out anything he could, or did Walt really have a socially conscious side that he repressed for commercial sake? That’s something to explore in later blogs.

The quality on these films is obviously rough. All animation of the time was very herky jerky and not smooth and seamless like we expect from films like Snow White. However, there is artistry present. All the drawing includes subtle details, like shading on the ladies’ hosiery, stripes and stubble on the crooks, and other small details. Even here, you can notice an eye for detail in Walt’s drawings.

There’s not a great deal to say about these films, because they are so elementary. But, the next thing on the list for Walt was selling a series of six fairy tale cartoons for $11,100. Unfortunately, he was not yet a great businessman, and accepted a downpayment of only $100. The films were produced, however, and the first of those will be the subject of tomorrow’s blog.

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