Walt Disney's Laugh-O-grams, 1921-1923

Presented at SFSFF 2011

Musical Accompaniment
Donald Sosin on grand piano

Essay by Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman

Before Mickey Mouse, before the Fairbanksian moustache, and even before the Alice comedies, came Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-grams. Disney’s first animated films began in 1920 as after-work projects when Disney was a commercial artist for an advertising company in Kansas City. He made these cartoons by himself and with the help of a few friends.

He started by persuading Frank Newman, Kansas City’s leading exhibitor, to include short snippets of animation in the series of weekly newsreels Newman produced for his chain of three theaters. Tactfully called “Newman Laugh-O-grams,” Disney’s footage was meant to mix advertising with topical humor. Of these fillers, only the pilot survives, a two-and-a-half minute sample reel that reveals the format: the hand of a lightning sketch artist composes gently satirical drawings that come to life in a final animated sequence. The last scene of the pilot, which editorializes on local police corruption headlines, was animated by Disney alone. It is one of the few surviving scenes he ever completed by himself.

The Laugh-O-grams were a hit, leading to commissions for animated intermission fillers and coming attractions slides for Newman’s theaters. Spurred by his success, the 19-year-old Disney decided to try something more ambitious: animated fairy tales. Influenced by New York animator Paul Terry’s spoofs of Aesop’s Fables, which had premiered in June 1920, Disney decided not only to parody fairy-tale classics but also to modernize them by having them playing off recent events. With the help of high school student Rudy Ising, who later cofounded the Warner Brothers and MGM cartoon studios, and other local would-be cartoonists, Disney worked for six months putting together his first fairy tale cartoon.

Little Red Riding Hood is a Jazz Age pastiche featuring a wolfish city slicker who drives a magic car, a grandma off to see the movies, and a hero who rescues his sweetheart from a wing-flapping airplane. It is very much a beginner’s effort—simple sketches of characters posed in front of minimal backgrounds, the animation derived from the slash-and-tear technique Disney was learning from Edwin Lutz’s classic animation textbook, the Paul Terry Aesop’s Fables, and John Bray’s Krazy Kat cartoons he and his friends cadged from a local film exchange. Working at first out of his garage, Disney improvised even with his equipment. His Universal camera was mounted on a stand made by stretching a plank across four-by-fours.

Disney made six more Laugh-O-grams in Kansas City, which all survive, thanks to the remarkable detective work of animation collectors and historians working in collaboration with the Walt Disney Archives, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Library of Congress. Simple and naïve, they also indicate a remarkable progression.

Most apparent are the rapid advances Disney and his growing gang of collaborators were making from one cartoon to another in little over a year. In The Four Musicians of Bremen, made directly after Little Red Riding Hood, Disney, no longer content to sketch in a simple, unadorned story line, started creating ingenious gags—like luring jazz-crazy fish out of the water with jiving musical notes—and tried to build on them, creating smooth transitions from one to another. He also experimented with milking gags—how many ways can you dodge a cannon ball?—and improving his comic timing. Jack and the Beanstalk is still unavailable to the public, but Goldie Locks and the Three Bears shows Disney paying attention to comic atmospherics, setting the mood with a pastoral sunrise. He then introduces what is likely the first of his many diabolical Rube Goldberg contraptions, in this case a cuckoo clock and a stove tricked out to streamline the production of pancakes.

It’s impossible to watch these cartoons and not see the shape of things to come. The storm at sea in Jack the Giant Killer is a raw prefiguration of those elegant sea storms in Silly Symphonies like Father Noah’s Ark and Music Land, culminating in Little Toot. The comic, fearsome animals with all their sharp teeth and gleaming eyes that glance our way before pouncing on our heroes get started here too. Above all, Disney’s gift for music and rhythm is apparent from the first toot of Mom’s mail horn in Little Red Riding Hood. The Laugh-O-grams are silent movies born to swing. From the start, Disney conceives his cartoons as a form of visual novelty jazz, filled with mock concerts and dance routines. Many of them amount to silent musicals, a foretaste of the syncopated Mickey and the jazz-mad Silly Symphonies. They also offer the earliest versions of the Magic Kingdom, where kings live in palaces amid Midwestern small towns and little girls are given royal parades down Main Street.

Also noticeable, however, is the strain of ongoing financial pressures. Disney’s Kansas City studio was in financial trouble from the start, and, thanks to predatory business deals and his own inexperience, he suffered bankruptcy before practically any of his cartoons were released. He thought he had found a distributor for his Laugh-O-gram fairy tales in a fly-by-night company called the Pictorial Clubs of Tennessee, which promised $11,100 for six cartoons but never paid. Overworked and desperate, by the end of 1922, Disney’s crew was working without pay and several quit. So while the actual drawing and design of the Laugh-O-grams steadily improve as the crew gains experience, the animation itself tends to regress, growing simpler and more crudely timed.

Salvation came in the form of four-year-old Virginia Davis and Disney’s latest brainstorm of placing a live girl among cartoon figures. True, he simply inverted the Fleischer formula of putting a cartoon character in a live-action scene. But the idea revitalized Disney, inspiring his most imaginative and versatile creation yet. Brimming with self-confidence, he persuaded most of his crew, including Iwerks, Harman, Ising, and even Virginia’s parents, to leave Kansas City for California where they could start over again. The adventure continued.

Disney sued Pictorial Clubs for breach of contract, eventually winning the suit but receiving very little recompense. His loss, however, is our gain. It was long thought that none of the pre-Alice Kansas City films were ever released. Like countless other silent shorts, Disney’s fledgling efforts were consigned to oblivion after the coming of sound. Pictorial Clubs, however, found ways of profiting from these films and, after the success of Mickey Mouse in 1928, the Laugh-O-grams were fitted with soundtracks and circulated internationally under different titles. The tangled story of how they were finally identified and rescued is best summarized in David Gerstein’s Ramapith blog.

Four of the prints at the festival come from versions circulated by a British company, Wardour Film Ltd., which, in 1929 and 1930, released them as the Peter the Puss series, designed a title logo to make Peter look like Felix the Cat, and then gave them non-fairy-tale titles. The title credits give some idea of the tough law-of-the-jungle independent trade that Disney and other young animators encountered in the 1920s; the movies themselves show the kind of resilience that enabled him to endure.

NEWMAN LAUGH-O-GRAMS Sample reel directed and animated by Walt Disney in his garage at 3028 Bellefontaine Avenue. Kansas City premiere at Newman Theater March 20, 1921. Print courtesy of Walt Disney Archives

LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD Directed by Walt Disney, with animation by Disney, Rudolph Ising, and others unknown. Produced in Disney’s garage circa October 1921–May 1922; original release unknown. Reissued by U.K.’s Wardour Film Ltd. as Grandma Steps Out. Print courtesy of Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

THE FOUR MUSICIANS OF BREMEN Directed by Walt Disney and animated by Disney, Rudolph Ising, and others unknown. Produced in the Disney garage circa April–May 1922. Distributed nontheatrically by Pictorial Clubs Inc. of New York on a regional circuit. Reissued by U.K.’s Wardour Film Ltd. as The Four Jazz Boys in 1930. Print Courtesy of Walt Disney Archives

GOLDIE LOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS Produced at 31st Street September–October 1922. Directed by Walt Disney and animated by Disney, Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising, Carman “Max” Maxwell, Lorey Tague, and Otto Walliman, with photography by Red Lyon. Distributed nontheatrically on a regional circuit by Pictorial Clubs Inc. of New York. Reissued by U.K.’s Wardour Film Ltd. as The Peroxide Kid 1930. Print courtesy of MoMA

PUSS IN BOOTS Produced at 31st Street circa September–October 1922. Directed by Walt Disney and animated by Disney, Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising, Carman “Max” Maxwell, Lorey Tague, and Otto Walliman, with photography by Red Lyon. Reissued by U.K.’s Wardour Film Ltd. as The Cat’s Whiskers 1930. Print courtesy of MoMA

JACK THE GIANT KILLER 1922, directed by Walt Disney and animated by Disney, Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising, Carman “Max” Maxwell, Lorey Tague, and Otto Walliman, with camera by Red Lyon. Reissued by U.K.’s Wardour Film Ltd. as The K-O Kid. Print courtesy of MoMA

ALICE’S WONDERLAND Produced at the Laugh-O-gram studio at 3239 Troost Avenue in Spring 1923 and delivered circa October 14, 1923. Starring Virginia Davis as Alice and Walt Disney as the animator, with Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, and Rudolph Ising as the other animators. Production, direction, and animation by Walt Disney, with camera by Ub Iwerks and Rudolph Ising, and technical direction by Hugh Harman and Carman “Max” Maxwell. Distributed nontheatrically on regional circuit by Pictorial Clubs Inc. of New York. Print courtesy of Walt Disney Archives
Professor Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman are the coauthors of Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney (2000) and Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series (2006).