Disney's silent and wonderful world

July 17, 1994|By Neil A. Grauer

For more than 50 years, the Disney Studio has created at least one feature-length animated classic for one generation of youngsters to pass along to the next. From "Snow White" in the late 1930s to "The Lion King" today, each decade's children have had wondrous cinematic memories to present to their offspring and indeed to the children of the 21st century.

But what of the cartoons that entranced the first generation of kids to see the Disney name flicker on the silver screen -- the moppets of the 1920s who are today's grandparents and great-grandparents? Thanks to "Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney," by film historians Russell Merritt and J. B. Kaufman, this "lost generation" of Disney creations has been rescued from the foggy mists of memory and presented again -- at least on paper -- to those who may recall them fondly or never even knew they existed.

In their fascinating, richly illustrated text, the authors detail the first eight years of Disney's career -- from 1921 to 1928 -- during which he produced an estimated 100 short cartoons that have been largely ignored in previous books about him. These were the years before Mickey Mouse voiced his initial, falsetto squeak, supplied by Disney himself, in "Steamboat Willie." That 1928 cartoon was the first to feature sound and set Uncle Walt on his path to glory.

Yet while that primitive soundtrack may have been the first thing to draw the public to Mickey Mouse, the authors observe that "it was Disney's visual and storytelling skills -- developed and polished throughout the silent period -- that sustained Mickey's extraordinary popularity."

Disney honed those skills, as well as the savvy to reap merchandising bonanzas from his cartoon creations, with characters now long-forgotten and hidden in the mammoth shadow of the Mouse: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Julius the Cat, the chief animated sidekick to a succession of child actresses billed as "Alice." As Mr. Merritt and Mr. Kaufman note, Disney liked to say that his animated empire "all started with a mouse," but actually it all began with "a little girl" -- several of them, in fact.

Each performed as the charming, live-action interloper in the otherwise all-cartoon world of Disney's first successful short subjects, named in hindsight as the "Alice in Cartoonland" series but known at the time as just the "Alice Comedies."

Originally produced in Disney's hometown of Kansas City, Mo., beginning in 1923, this series was successful enough to enable Disney to move to Hollywood and build the fabled studio on Hyperion Boulevard, where the first Mickey Mouse, the "Silly Symphonies" and even "Snow White" were made.

Eventually wishing to concentrate solely on animation, and tiring of the technical difficulties of combining the live-action little girls with cartoon characters, Disney dropped the Alice series in 1927. He began producing the Oswald cartoons that foreshadowed Mickey even more.

Disney himself is thought of today as either "an original American genius" or "a megalomaniac" intent on "American cultural imperialism," the authors write, but the Walt of the 1920s was merely an "ambitious young man who struggled to establish his first animation studio." He was, they say, continually "fleeced" by the tough distributors who controlled the cartoon characters that he and his hard-working artists created.

It was one such distributor who dumped Disney as the animator of Oswald and gave the character to a young rival, Walter Lantz, prompting Disney to scramble to create another meal ticket. It turned out to be Mickey Mouse.

That Disney would become a hard-nosed businessman, intent upon maintaining an iron grip on his characters, as well as an innovative impresario of animation, all can be traced to his

experiences during the silent era, the authors say.

In addition to a detailed filmography of the 54 silent Disney films ,, known to have survived, Mr. Merritt and Mr. Kaufman provide a brisk narrative of this period. In it, Disney not only developed as a director and producer, but he employed many artists who would go on to fame elsewhere, such as Rudy Ising and Hugh Harmon at MGM and Friz Freleng and Carl Stalling at Warner Bros. Other early associations he had are just as intriguing. Among the early distributors of Disney's silent cartoons was Film Bookings Offices, owned by none other than Joseph P. Kennedy!

Perhaps equally of interest, but oddly unmentioned by the authors, are the hints of ethnic humor and even some social commentary in Disney's early works, as evidenced by a few of the illustrations. In one, a peddler from whom Oswald steals a hot dog yells for help in both English and Hebrew lettering. In 1924's "Alice and the Dog Catcher," youngsters -- and a pooch -- who belong to a secret society wear paper bags on their heads bearing the letter "K" and hold up signs saying "KKK" and "?" Was Disney spoofing the Klan, then a potent political force?

First published abroad in connection with a 1992 Italian film festival celebrating Disney's silents, "Walt in Wonderland" now is being distributed here by the Johns Hopkins University Press. One wishes that the captivating still photographs and drawings it features could be brought back to life again on video, just as some of the earliest Mickey Mouses are available now to a generation that knows him only as a corporate icon, not the spunky little fellow who captured the heart of the world.

Mr. Grauer is a writer and caricaturist who lives in Baltimore.

N Title:"Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney"

Authors: Russell Merritt and J. B. Kaufman

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press

Length, price: 164 pages, $39.95

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