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The Legendary Laugh-O-Grams: Fairy Tales by Walt Disney

Laugh-O-Gram Films (1921-1922), Inkwell Images (November 10 2006), single TDK-branded DVD-R, 40 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital 2.0, Not Rated, Retail: $26.95

Storyboard:

Walt Disney’s earliest work comes to disc in a fascinating original documentary.

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The Sweatbox Review:

I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again: thank goodness for Ray Pointer’s Inkwell Images and Steve Stanchfield’s Thunderbean Animation. Without the likes of these two, much truly important animation would remain lost to time and memories. Steve’s Thunderbean series has seen many neglected character shorts and rarely seen curios and oddities making their way back to the (small) screen courtesy of professionally packaged compilations that often do the bigger studios shame. While the Thunderbean titles concentrate on 1930s and later color films for the most part, Ray’s Inkwell stretches back a little further to the beginnings of American animation, also taking the more unique route of incorporating themed cartoons into well-rounded documentary styled programs.

We all know the often told genesis of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, and a fair few will have been familiar with his Alice Comedies and Oswald The Lucky Rabbit (himself due for reappraisal later in 2007), but the films Walt made before he managed to strike gold with either of these two series have usually been known to many in name only and remain the pleasures of private collectors able to afford movie prints and the means to screen them. Ray Pointer’s latest collection assembles many of these otherwise lost gems to paint a clear picture of Walt’s first forays into animation.

In 1920, Disney was working in Kansas at the United Film Ad Service Company, which created rudimentary commercials for theatrical showing. Walt had already been bitten by the movie bug, producing several home-made live-action shorts featuring inventive plots acted out by school friends, but at United he was drawn to animation. Borrowing a film camera, he experimented with making the crude images cleaner and more fluid. When Film Ad proved uninterested in using what Walt had come up with, he approached and was able to sell his animated reel of political humor to the Newman Theater Company. The Newman Laugh-O-Grams proved to be popular enough for Walt to continue the series of one-minute shorts, which lampooned issues in Kansas City that the audience could relate to and find laughter in.

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The only one known to have survived – and the first in this collection after a very pleasing opening set up – begins as a series of “lightning sketches”, with Walt’s own hand drawing the action. Most of the humor deals with corruption in the law and ladies fashions, and the film is the source for the often shown footage of Walt at his desk as well as the comedy gag in which Kansas City cleans up its Police Dept only to then have to advertise for a complete new set of employees. It’s interesting to note, even as a mark of quality this early in Walt’s career, that the cut-out hand “drawing” the action moves not only up and down and side to side, as others might have had it in similar cartoons, but also at a diagonal angle, bringing more of a sense of life and spontaneity to the illusion.

Walt strived to develop longer cartoons like the ones being made out of New York and established the Laugh-O-Gram Studio in May of 1922 with a $15,000 loan on the back of an agreement for six cartoons for Pictorial Clubs of America. Among his staff were Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudy Ising and Friz Freleng. Walt was clearly influenced by the fairy tales he had been exposed to as a child and especially in the books he’d seen in Europe during The Great War when he had served as an ambulance driver in France and it was decided that these longer cartoons would be based on those timeless tales.

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Little Red Riding Hood has immense fun with the traditional story, opening with a wacky sequence in which Red’s mother cooks up some tasty donut treats for Grandma by way of having the gun-happy pet cat shoot the holes into the donuts as she tosses them into a pot! The short takes a couple of detours (including a great car ride animated in one shot) before Red arrives to find Grandma out at the movies, replaced by the driver of the crazy car. She’s soon rescued by a passing aviator who swoops her up in his plane as the wicked driver makes a getaway – a single shot that works well in a wide angle in which no detail is lost despite the distance. The cartoon was never publicly shown, perhaps because its poster illustrated a very different film in which Red would have been much more of a sexy siren and the wolf a real animal – in this film she’s a much plainer little girl; he’s merely depicted as the greedy human driver.

Billed as “A modernized version of that old fairy tale”, The Four Musicians Of Bremen came just a few short weeks later and already showed a great jump forward in quality. Graded watercolor backgrounds create more of a sense of depth, and the four leads are individually characterized, a trait that would serve Walt well when later bringing the Seven Dwarfs’ personalities to life. Though felines were particularly ripe for caricaturing in animated cartoons of the time, especially eye catching is the cheeky cat here, a precursor perhaps to the Alice series’ Julius the Cat. He certainly seems to be the ringleader, coming up with most of the ideas and being involved in the best business, including a fun way to catch some fish, which leads to an elaborate underwater chase, and a straight Felix lift, when the cat uses his tail to deflect an onslaught of cannonballs. The cartoon is light on recycled gags and keeps its story moving, and even if it’s a total diversion from the original plot, it makes for one heck of an entertaining cartoon.

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Alas, Jack And The Beanstalk and Goldie Locks And The Three Bears are thought to have been lost forever but we’re lucky enough to be able to enjoy the final two films in the series. Puss In Boots (incorrectly name checked as “Puss And Boots” in the pre-film notes) plays with the fairy tale formula as well as anything that the likes of Shrek might boast about, and the Laugh-O-Grams themselves have no shyness from updating the stories to contemporary 1920s settings, as the inclusion here of a film within a film (itself a unique spin on the moviegoing experience), “Throwing The Bull” starring Rodolph Vaselino, is testament. Again about as far removed from the original story as possible, the short has the Julius-like cat as a chauffer to a young dapper Dan out to woo a young girl’s heart…but not if her father, The King, has anything to do with it! A terrific short, it’s also notable for a few firsts: the King character is clearly the template for the big jolly characters that would later feature as royalty, seas titans and Santa Claus in the Silly Symphonies, and there’s a fun in-joke at the movie palace: a poster advertising the Laugh-O-Gram Cinderella, which was an upcoming cartoon still in production!

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Cinderella itself remains my favorite of the Laugh-O-Gram pictures, perhaps because I saw it first, a good number of years ago. There’s one gag in here – the famous ball takes place on Tuesday, Friday 13th – which I’ve absolutely adored since I saw it in a print included in the deluxe CAV LaserDisc box set presentation of Walt’s later 1950 feature classic version. The same boy, girl and Julius/cat characters return again in the familiar roles, and there is some fun in the Stepsisters and Fairy Godmother designs, but the quality has one again been noticeably upped to include a fairly lavish ballroom dance (the Charleston naturally) and a large ancillary cast of guests and musicians. Though the setting is certainly 1920s America and Cinders looks swell in her flapper’s outfit, what is immediately clear is the razor sharp satire and emphasis on plot. This Laugh-O-Gram sticks most faithfully to its source, really providing an expertly potted exploration of the story that packs in all the main plot points. The cutting back to the ticking clock provides real narrative structure, showing that in just a handful of films over a one year period the young Walt Disney had grasped the concepts of using animation to tell a riveting story with engaging characters.

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Successively, it’s clear these films quickly became not merely scripted gags threaded lightly together but consistently outlined narratives. Likewise the animation gathered pace and draughtsmanship, allowing for the jump from simple line and sketch drawing to elaborately painted backgrounds with full personality character animation – a strong point, for the era, and considering its director was still fairly new to the game. It is also obvious that Disney had a very clear understanding of film language and was able to transcribe that to push the animation medium forward, at first within his Kansas team, and then as he would largely concentrate a major chunk of his early years pursuing with his own Studio in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, and not for the last time, Walt found he couldn’t trust his employers and when he chased up the funds for making the six fairytale films for Pictorial he was made aware that they had gone bankrupt. Help came in the form of a commissioned film, Tommy Tucker’s Tooth, made for $500 in 1922 for Dr Thomas McCrum, which allowed Walt to continue for a few more months on a new film. The success of the Fleischer Brothers’ Out Of The Inkwell Cartoons led Walt, perhaps in a last ditch attempt to preserve his potential career, to reverse the process of having an animated character leap out into the real world, and placed a live-action girl into a cartoon background for Alice’s Wonderland (1923).

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Though there would be one last Laugh-O-Gram (in name only), a sequel to Tommy Tucker called Clara Cleans Her Teeth in 1926, it was Alice’s Wonderland that Walt took to Hollywood as a calling card, leading to his landing a deal to use the film as a pilot for a new series, which would see him make a mark outside Kansas and stamp his name into the industry’s consciousness for the first time. With expertly assembled documentary wraparounds, this DVD is a great reminder of the films on which he learnt his craft and set Walt Disney up for his first forays into professional animated filmmaking.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Since the most important thing about releases such as these are the cartoons themselves, I’ve elected to comment on the extra material here. Throughout the main program, we’re treated to sprightly voiced and snappily edited informational segments that place the works into historical context. Combining original footage, stills, illustrated page scans and an authentic vintage soundtrack, the resulting effect is extremely pleasing, as slick as any bonus found on the more lavishly budgeted sets from Disney and Warners, and correctly crediting the superb book Walt In Wonderland as a source for its details.

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Though the cover indicates a running time of 60 minutes, this includes some additional goodies, which are all played through on the disc in succession when “Play Movie” is selected. Again, these are not part of the actual Laugh-O-Gram program and so are being reviewed as extras here.

First up are excerpts from an archived audio interview with Rudy Ising, a Laugh-O-Gram Studio animator (and later MGM director with Hugh Harman), conducted (and assumedly provided for this release) by Michael Barrier in 1971. The recording isn’t of the clearest quality, and it was probably never intended for public reproduction, but I felt a subtitled transcription would have done wonders for the value of the material. It’s an amazing insight as it is, of course, but the room ambience coupled with limited microphone and tape technology of the time, doesn’t help the drawling Ising come across as clear as would be ideal.

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The seven minute interview is uniquely illustrated on screen with a varied selection of stills and archive footage, though I must say that I wish the three specks of frustrating dirt running across Ising’s face in the headshot that gets a lot of repeat viewing could have been erased out of the image. Nevertheless, this is a rare and welcome chance to hear an original participant in Walt’s first adventures speaking about those magical times.

In the “Play Movie” configuration the next bonus, the complete version of Tommy Tucker’s Tooth, gets a little pre-film contextual segment but picked directly from the menu it skips this and leads right into the film itself. Mostly a live-action picture, it became a life-saver for Walt at a time when his first business was close to collapse, and was his first educational film, being distributed to Missouri schools. It tells the tale of little Tommy Tucker, a strapping young lad who cleans his teeth, and Jimmie Jones, a skinny runt who can’t be bothered with his dental care.

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Naturally, Jimmie’s tooth starts playing up right on cue, aided with some fun “shocking pain” animated effects and little mites pounding away at the inside of his molars. The 10½-minute short ends with a visual presentation of the correct way to brush, with the reasonably good condition print accompanied by an appropriate selection of soundtrack cues.

A nice bonus are some Views From Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin And Development by EG Lutz, the famous book written in 1920 that quickly became something of a bible for those entering the business. Certainly a book name checked by Walt himself over the years, we’re presented around 17 scans from its pages, in full screen video with each image holding for roughly ten seconds. I noticed an issue trying to read the words on the pages and put this down to the NTSC video being flagged as progressive instead of interlaced, which would have smoothed things out somewhat. However, this is still a nice taster of the original, now rarely seen volume.

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Finally, a one-minute Animation Anthologies Promo for other new and re-issued Inkwell titles includes glimpses of Before Walt, Max Fleischer’s Famous Out Of The Inkwell: Bonus 2-Disc Edition, George Herriman’s Kinomatic Krazy Kat Kartoon Klassics, Max Fleischer’s Ko-Ko Song Car-tunes, Mutt And Jeff: The Original Animated Odd Couple and the new Alice In Cartoonland: Bonus Edition. All, like this release, are well worth seeking out.

Case Study:

The Inkwell Images releases have always been fairly solid if non spectacular affairs when it comes to their cover art, and The Legendary Laugh-O-Grams Fairy Tales continues the streak, bringing a little bit of yellow color to only the main title. But it works as being a quite effective way to draw attention to the nature of the material contained inside, and is very much in keeping with the title design Walt used on the films themselves. I could have perhaps done with at least a solitary image on the back but the provided text does offer up the kind of information an insert would have, and it is at least nicely spaced and doesn’t come across as heavy or cluttered. The bonus material is clearly marked and the antique feel of the printed background adds class. Non-fussy, clear and perfectly suitable.

Ink And Paint:

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Given the nature of the material with which he has to work and the more limited means of extensive digital restoration than the kind the big studios can afford, Ray must be congratulated on the stunning results he’s managed to bring to the screen here. Even given the documentary format, each cartoon is presented full and uncut with original front titles and end credits intact, a joy for purists that allows for the best of both worlds. Confusingly, some of the same footage is shown from seemingly different prints (or at least differing transfers), which led me to question some of the windowboxing on some of the films. Little Red Riding Hood especially looks cropped off from the bottom a little too extremely, but all the others fare well enough and Cinderella even has some unexpected though very welcome blue color tints in its nighttime scenes!

Scratch Tracks:

Something I’ve always enjoyed with Ray’s collections is the painstaking time and effort he puts into locating and timing the “soundtracks” to the often silent cartoons he puts out. In this case, he’s added authentic to the era musical accompaniment, which sound just as vintage recordings should. In some instances, some sound effects spots have been added too. These are usually reserved only for a few moments here and there, though I actually thought they intruded into the otherwise perfect musical “scores” and could have done just as well without them (some of the repeated gags call for repeated sounds, which sometimes grate). For the most part they at least sound like archived sounds and not newly created, mixing in well enough not to stand out like those hideous re-recorded public domain monstrosities. There are no jarring synthesizers here and the music editing is top notch: indeed it’s hard to imagine these shorts without these cues, such is the seamless way they have been incorporated.

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Final Cut:

Though those only casually interested might balk at the $27 asking price, it’s really still a snip considering the vintage of the material, the restoration involved and Ray Pointer’s overall documentary presentation. The cartoons are presented fully intact, and the informational segments only help to place them into historical context without interfering with the films themselves. Compilations such as these are really what cartoon connoisseurs should be thanking the DVD format – and producers like Ray Pointer – for, and this collection is nothing less than essential.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD
SPECIAL ORDER! BUY THE LEGENDARY LAUGH-O-GRAMS
FAIRY TALES
DIRECTLY FROM INKWELL IMAGES

 

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