Monday, March 10, 2008

The History of Animation 11 - Walt Disney: Newman's Laugh-o-grams (1921)

What you're about to see is the first film and animation that Walt Disney ever did. Read on.


"Laugh-O-Gram Studio was a film studio located on the second floor of the McConahay Building at 1127 East 31st in Kansas City, Missouri.

Laugh-O-Gram Studio, before it was recently restored...

Full picture:

"The studio played a role in the early years of animation: it was home to many of the pioneers of animation, brought there by Walt Disney, and is said to be the place to have provided Disney with the inspiration to create Mickey Mouse.
The studio building has fallen to ruin and efforts are being made to restore it. The Disney family has promised $450,000 in matching funds for the restoration.

"In May 1922, Disney founded Laugh-O-Gram Films with $15,000. The company got an $11,000 contract to produce six cartoons for Pictorial Clubs, Inc., which went bankrupt. Among his employees were several pioneers of animation: Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising, Carmen Maxwell, and Friz Freleng.
The company had problems making ends meet: by the end of 1922, Disney was living in the office, taking baths once a week at Union Station."


From the comments:

"As far as anyone knows, Walt did everything himself, except of course the opening shot of him at his desk. Whoever filmed that no one is certain of. Walt would continue to do short 1 minute or so cartoons like this where he would comment on happenings in Kansas City until 1922 when he decided to start doing narrative cartoons, leading to the founding of Laugh-O-Gram Studios.

Newman's Laugh-o-grams (one animation is at 02:50)

"[This is] Disney's first ever film. He borrowed a camera from Kansas City Film Ad (where he was working at the time), and began creating it in the fall of 1920. The finished product was shown at the Newman Theater (hence the name) on March 20, 1921."


There were many of these shown at the Newman theater (some were animated, and some were just illustrations):

- Cleaning Up!!?

- Kansas City Girls are Rolling Their Own Now

- Take a Ride Over Kansas City Streets

- Kansas City's Spring Cleanup

These were all problems in the local government (political cartoons).


A drawing Walt made of him and his Red Cross buddies:


"In the summer of 1918, Walt was 16 -- too young for the military. When he heard that the Red Cross Ambulance Corps would accept 17-year-olds, he lied about his age, joined, and began training. All the same, he almost missed his chance when he came down with influenza in an epidemic that killed about 20 million people worldwide. The war ended. But the Ambulance Corps still needed 50 more men, and Walt was the fiftieth selected. He was on his way to France. For the next year, Walt drove an ambulance, chauffeured officers, played poker, started smoking, and wrote letters. Contrary to myth; because he was never dishonorably discharged from the army (a particularly peculiar myth; he was never in the army). He made money with another young man painting helmets with camouflage colors, banging them up to look battle-scarred, and then selling them to Americans in search of realistic souvenirs.

"Walt returned home from France in the fall of 1919, determined to become an artist. He moved into the old Disney house in Kansas City with his brothers, Roy and Herbert (and Herbert's family), and tried unsuccessfully to get a job as an artist at the Kansas City "Star." Roy helped him get a position as an apprentice at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, where he drew horses, cows, and bags of feed for farm-equipment catalogues. Of course, he didn't ask what he'd be paid: the princely sum of $50 a month. Unfortunately, just before Christmas, there wasn't enough business to keep him on the payroll, and Walt was laid off. So he and another laid-off artist, Ub Iwerks, decided to start a commercial-art business together, called Iwerks-Disney (because the other way around it sounded like an eyeglass company!).

"Iwerks-Disney had one big client off the bat; the father of Walt's old friend Walt Pfeiffer hired them to work on the United Leatherworkers Journal. But business wasn't booming. Walt was offered a $40-a-week job at the Kansas City Slide Company (later renamed the Kansas City Film Ad Company), making animated commercials. He took the job, and a few months later Ub joined him. Cartoon-making was in its infancy. Even the best -- like Krazy Kat and the Katzenjammer Kids -- were jerky, repetitive black-and-white efforts based on popular newspaper comic strips. But the public was still intrigued and amazed by the new form of entertainment. As was Walt. He wanted to improve upon the clumsy means of animation used at Kansas City Film Ad. He read books about animation and discovered how the leading New York animators worked. And he started making his own cartoons.

Walt Designed this cover while working at Kansas City Film Ad (and thus how he got his relationship with the Newman Theater):

"Walt agreed to pay his father $5 a month to rent the family's garage as a studio (though Roy never recalled ever seeing any money actually change hands). After work, Walt stayed up late into the night working on animation. At the time, Kansas City theaters rented cartoons from East Coast animators. Walt decided he could compete with them by creating his own with a local twist. He successfully sold the idea to the Newman Theater and began making his own Newman Laugh-O-grams. Typically, he priced them too low and made no money. But he was in the cartoon business. His folks had returned to Kansas City, but they didn't stay for long. In 1921, Herbert, Ruth, Flora, and Elias moved to Portland. Then Roy came down with tuberculosis and went to a hospital in Arizona. Walt, all alone, found a place in a rooming house.

"Walt threw himself entirely into cartooning, bringing in several young, unpaid apprentices. Using an amazing gift for salesmanship, Walt raised some $15,000 from investors, quit his job, and incorporated his tiny company, called Laugh-O-gram Films. He made a deal to sell a series of fairy-tale cartoons for $11,100, accepting a down payment of $100. After six months of work, his client claimed bankruptcy. Walt never saw another penny. Despite desperate efforts to make money, Walt couldn't pay the rent and moved into the Laugh-O-gram office. His workers left him. He barely had enough money to feed himself. Then, he got $500 for a dental hygiene film and poured it into a new effort called "Alice's Wonderland." But before it could be completed, he had to declare bankruptcy. With the unfinished film in hand, he took his remaining few dollars and purchased a train ticket to California."



"1919 - Walt Disney returned from a stint as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross Ambulance Corp and began looking for work as a cartoonist. Initially, he wanted to land a job as a political cartoonist, but, unable to find work in that arena, he took a job in advertising art at the Pesmen Rubin Commercial Art Studio. There, he met another enterprising young artist, Ubbe Iwwerks (he later shortened his name to Ub Iwerks) and the two became fast friends.
The two decided to go into business together and formed Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. (They had considered the name "Disney-Iwerks" but rejected it as they thought it sounded too much like an eyewear factory.) The enterprise only lasted a couple of months, though, when Disney landed a job with the Kansas City Film Ad Company (later to be known as the Kansas City Film Ad Company.) Walt persuaded them to hire Ub on as well.

"Disney was doing crude animation for Film Ad, but was frustrated by some of the limitations imposed on him. So, at nighttime in his own garage studio, he began making his own films which he sold to the Newman Theater Company. And thus the Newman Laugh-O-Grams were born.
In the beginning, the Laugh-O-Grams were only about a minute long. Titles included "Cleaning Up!!?", "Kansas City Girls are Rolling Their Own Now", "Take a Ride Over Kansas City Streets" and "Kansas City's Spring Cleanup." Disney based his subject matter, and won over the Kansas City audience, on problems and corruption within the local government. Once these proved successful, he moved on to longer shorts, using well known fairy tales and children's stories as his subjects.

"Only a few of these shorts have survived to the present time. But they made Disney's mark, even if only locally, and started him on his way.
(Note : Disney also made a few 300 foot shorts from 1922-1923 called "Laffets" that combined live action and animation. They included "Golf in Slow Motion", "Descha's Tryst with the Moon", "Aesthetic Camping", "Reuben's Big Day", "Rescued", "A Star Pitcher", "The Woodland Potter", and "A Pirate for a Day." There was also one Sing-a-Long reel released in 1923 for the song "Martha: Just a Plain Old Fashioned Name.")"


Side note: The Laugh-o-gram studio is being rebuilt by Thank You Walt Disney, Inc., a company devoted to restoring Walt's studio and finding other ways to preserve his memory.

The following is from their website:

"In order to preserve Walt’s history, we are restoring the Laugh O Gram Studio. Our focus has now turned to the interior of the building, our programming, and areas of interactive interest. Walt would want a place to dream.
Walt’s office will be re-created the way it was in 1922, when he fed the mouse, which later inspired him to create Mickey Mouse.

"Part of our programming for Laugh-O-Gram Studio includes an interactive animation lab that will educate kids of all ages on the art and history of animation. We will teach this art starting at the root of animation and move our audience through time to today’s technology.
Our Laugh O Gram Studio will have a CafĂ© “House of da Mouse” as well as a merchandise area.
The addition of a production studio is in discussion with the Board of Directors and would add a significant opportunity to draw more business into downtown Kansas City and provide earned income to continue our project down the road of success."

"Thank You Walt Disney, Inc. has both a motto and a message. First the motto: "Save the house where the mouse was born." And then the message: Kansas City and Walt Disney share a significant piece of history. For it was in Kansas City that the famous creator of Mickey Mouse labored in his first cartoon studio. The company Walt called Laugh-O-Gram was, in fact, located on the second floor of an all brick building that hugged the corner of 31st and Forest Avenue in the city's midtown. Inside their humble walls, the spirit of creativity was alive and well.

"As the story is told, on one fine day a sparkly little four-legged creature scurried out from his home in the floorboard. The lure was the tantalizing aroma of crumbs left over from Disney's lunch. At first tentative, then driven by a gnawing hunger (for crumbs were indeed few,) the diminutive creature dashed forward, snatched the fallen bits and quickly retreated to the safety of his hole. As the scenario repeated itself with increasing frequency in the days that followed, Disney grew fascinated. Encouraging the little fellow, Disney often sprinkled a trail of crumbs. And Mortimer Mouse obligingly took the bait.
From floorboard corner to filmdom fame may seem like a long way to travel, but when the imaginative Disney decided that Mortimer, renamed Mickey, was just the infectious kind of character he was looking for, a star was born."


All right, now more of my own commentary...

To think, if these laugh-o-grams hit it big (including the Fairy Tale cartoons we'll be reviewing), Walt Disney Enterprises would be called Laugh-O-Gram Enterprises. =^)

Walt Disney got started doing illustrations at Kansas City Film Ad. It led him to making these films. He was commissioned to produce 6 cartoons for Pictorial Clubs, and so Walt's cartoons quickly became all fantasy stories. That's right, even before Oswald and Mickey, Walt was passionate about animating fairy tales.

Those next 6 cartoons were all fairy tales:

- Little Red Riding Hood

- The Four Musicians of Breman

- Jack and the Beanstalk

- Goldi Locks and the Three Bears

- Puss in Boots

- Cinderella

And then he ended off the studio with a commissioned project for a dentist:

- Tommy Tucker's Tooth (1922)

Join us for The History of Animation 11 as we explore Walt's Laugh-O-Grams!


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