TCM Film Festival: Walt Disney Laugh-o-Grams

Well, here’s a bit of movie history I didn’t know at all before. Most of this is a condensed version of the introduction given by J.B. Kaufman, who is the historian for the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

Before Walt Disney came out to California and pioneered the feature-length animated film, he worked as an artist for an advertising firm in Kansas City, where he learned of animated cartoons. In 1922, at the age of 19, he started experimenting with animation, sending sample reels of advertisements to a local theatre chain. They liked it, and were soon running his “lightning drawings,” a drawing that appeared under Disney’s hand as if he was drawing it rapidly. But he wasn’t happy with advertisements, and soon wanted to do complete stories. He recruited some friends (including Rudolf Ising) to help him, having discovered that animation is work-intensive. After the success of their first short, Little Red Riding Hood, they incorporated as Laugh-o-Grams and began producing more shorts, most of them heavily modified versions of fairy tales and folk stories.

The friends tried and failed to get national distribution for their films and the company went bankrupt by the end of 1923, the films all heading into public domain to be largely forgotten for a short while. Walt headed out to Hollywood, where he would soon stop animating himself, preferring to focus on directing and producing instead. Around 1929 when the Mickey Mouse character took off, other distributors picked up on the old Laugh-o-Grams, and distributed them under new titles, but capitalizing on Disney’s name. Because of the retitling, a few of these films were actually not recognized as Laugh-o-Gram films until as recently as last year; many were thought lost, until archivists at MOMA realized they had had these films all along, just under different titles.

The films we saw in the program included a few of the “lightning drawing” advertisements, including ladies stockings and automobiles, plus a PSA of sorts showing “crime” being kicked out of town. Fun to watch him draw them, but the pictures themselves aren’t animated. Once we get to Little Red Riding Hood, though, we’re starting to see cartoon tropes recognizable from contemporary shorts like the Felix the Cat cartoons, but with a revisionist take on fairy tales that not only prefigures Disney’s own later work, but Tex Avery’s MGM shorts as well. A black cat (who appeared in all the later shorts we saw as well) helps a woman make donuts by shooting holes in dough with a rifle. One thing I love endlessly about these early cartoons (and continuing through the Looney Tunes era) is their endless inventiveness about how to carry out everyday tasks. Once the donuts are made, Red takes them out for delivery, only to be interrupted by the wolf – who is not an actual wolf, but a man-on-the-prowl. The cartoon is crude in some ways, but very clever in others; the one problem is, like many cartoons of the era, it depends too much on repeated gags with no variation. This is surely a cost thing as well, allowing them to reuse the animation, but still. It gets old.

Here’s the Red Riding Hood short:

After Laugh-o-Grams was officially formed, they swapped to a cel animation style, and were actually ahead of the curve on using detailed backgrounds, especially in the use of multiple shades of grey. Lots of the backgrounds in the rest of the shorts were really gorgeous in and of themselves, though the animation on top is a bit more plain – I don’t mean that as a bad thing, it’s merely a style observation.

Among the other cartoons shown were variations on The Musicians of Bremen (YouTube), with some pretty tremendous fish dancing (yes, really), Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Puss in Boots, and Jack the Giant Killer. All of them have the same black cat, often a white cat in tandem, and the last two have a young boy and girl as well. It’s fun to see them all together and see a stock group of characters forming (though the branding we saw naming the cat “Peter the Puss” dates from the 1929 reissues), and repeated gags rearing their heads – notably one where a cat dies and all of his nine lives float up as ghosts. [the guy] mentioned that Disney repeated this in much later cartoon as well, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it elsewhere. Still, there are some fun variations.

My first exposure to silent cartoons (other than film school footage of Gertie the Dinosaur) was a program put on at the Cinefamily several months ago, and I loved every single one of them. There’s something about the simplicity of form that really lets clever ideas have full rein. Thesea had me similarly delighted. I do get a little tired of the repeated gags, but other than that, I’d take many of these over many of the live-action films of the time.

2 comments

  1. lynn zook

    Loved your recap but wanted to let you know that JB is the historian for the Museum, not the director.

  2. Thank you! I was taking notes furiously while he was talking and forgot to fact-check his title. I’ve fixed it in the post. It was great to have him down for the festival – really informative and entertaining.

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