Books &Commentary &Disney 27 Oct 2011 06:18 am

Walt in Wonderland – overdue review

- The book I reread this week was Russell Merritt and J.B.Kaufman‘s Walt in Wonderland. Actually, this was the third time I’d read the book, and I’ve also visited it another half dozen times just for the illustrations. Needless to say, I think this book is a treasure.

In the past three weeks, I’ve read three versions of the same material in different forms. Timothy S. Susanin’s Walt Before Mickey: Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928 led me to reread Donald Crafton ‘s Before Mickey and that led me to reread today’s book. They all come with different pleasures. Though the material was the same, in no way did I feel as though it was repetitious. All three writers have different approaches, and all three kept it lively for me.

Crafton’s Before Mickey tells the story most expeditiously. There’s a lot in this book, and the Walt Disney story is just a part of it. Susanin’s Walt Before Mickey reveals a very large gathering of data, much of which is really unnecessary to the story, but just the same was a delight to me. Merritt & Kaufman’s Walt in Wonderland expands on Crafton and holds back on extraneous material. However the book is overrun with enormously valuable visuals. Scripts, story pages, animation drawings, posters and pictures fill the space around the story of Walt Disney’s rise from nowhere through the creation of Mickey Mouse.

The authors take the time to reveal some of their methods of evaluating the material. For example, not all of the silent films exist today, so they create a complete filmography from archival texts they found. Copyright forms required synopses of the stories as well as credits for the films. This enables the authors to detail the material for us when they weren’t able to actually see the films. Prior to this book, we knew that Virginia Davis, Dawn O’Day and Margie Gay all played Alice in the Alice Comedies. However, Kaufman and Merritt were also able to identify a fourth Alice as Lois Hardwick, and they also calculate why the change. This is scholarship, well done.

Though I’ve read this book several times already, I still call this series “Alice in Cartoonland.” In fact, many people do, yet the authors point out that it was never the title of the films. They were simply called the “Alice Comedies.”

I was not much of a fan of this animation series; actually, I was not a big fan of the Disney silent films. They pale in comparison to the Felix cartoons of the same period – in fact, almost everything does (of course with the exception of the McCay films.) The Disney silent films have a lot of energy, but a farmyard sense of humor that never seemed very funny to me.

I’ve sat through numerous theatrical screenings of silent shorts (and fallen asleep in many of them). One, however, stands out memorably. There was a MoMA show which was a compilation of shorts from different studios. An organ soundtrack was attached to many of the shorts, but several were truly silent. (It’s interesting to attend an audience who doesn’t know if talking is allowed when the film is dead silent.) The program soon grew tiresome and dragged on. The last film screened was Disney’s “Steamboat Willie,” the first successful animated short with synchronized sound. Let me tell you, it was made perfectly clear how monumental this film was, and why it was so successful. That sound track was a godsend after 90 minutes of silent dross.

There is one telling sentence at the beginning of this book. “. . . the first striking fact about Disney’s 1920s films is that they take no particular direction: they don’t evolve, they accumulate.” The authors point out that knowing the films of the 30s Disney, one would expect that the work in the 20s would, likewise, be a developing road-map to the future; constant growth in the animation and production techniques. Yet, it isn’t until Mickey that we start seeing enormous growth. “Plane Crazy,” the first Mickey (still a silent film), is when we get the first truck in (Iwerks came up with this effect, created by placing books under the zooming background as it got closer to the lens of the stationary camera.) Perhaps it took the trauma of creating that first Mickey Mouse cartoon for Disney and crew to wake up to innovation. And perhaps realizing how powerful that innovation was to the animated film – the success of the first sound film, then the first color film – that Disney realized the importance of constant change and growth.

Whatever the reason, things changed with the coming of sound.

Walt in Wonderland is a key book that synthesizes this entire period in the evolution of Disney animation. It’s a little-known beginning, and the book not only details the making of all the films but gives a clear and good summary of the series that were done. You see the long shot as well as the close up, and you have no doubt as to the true history of the material.

The authors obviously did enormous research, yet the look of the book, filled with new and different visuals, is anything but scholarly. As a matter of fact, there are times when the images almost create a distraction from the writing. A tough problem for an animation book to have.

All I can say is that if you have any interest in the early Disney, the young and vibrant Disney, I’d suggest you get a copy of this book. It’s a gem.

Here’s a drawing I have from Plane Crazy.
Click the image to see the whole drawing.

6 Responses to “Walt in Wonderland – overdue review”

  1. on 27 Oct 2011 at 9:31 am 1.Peter Hale said …

    I think there might be two reasons for the difference between the Disney of the 30s and the Disney of the 20s.

    The first Walt has acknowledged himself: he, Ub, Hugh and the others were all learning as they went – and all they were trying to do was “make films as good as the Aesops’ Fables”. Paul Terry’s barnyard setting particularly appealed to the midwesterners but what they were trying to do was match the expectations of the audience and (more pressingly) the distributor. “Gags” and “Funny stuff” alternate with “smoothness of animation” in the correspondence between Walt and Winkler/Mintz. Walt’s main creative goal at this time – a desire to tell cohesive stories – is frequently thwarted by the demands to be funnier and more technically proficient. Once they achieve an acceptable level of these requirements they are happy just to repeat their ‘success’ – they are, after all, producing films to a very tight schedule, and nothing more is expected of them. But after the success of Mickey – due mainly to the use of sound – Walt needed to work harder to keep the Mouse ahead of the game.

    Perhaps a more crucial factor in reshaping Walt’s view of himself and his studio’s goals might be his relationship with his staff. Ub and Hugh Harman knew him as the leader of a gang of likeminded filmmakers. They both saw him as a colleague – full of good ideas, but fallible – and with no superiority
    when it came to skill or experience. Both left feeling that they were technically more capable of making cartoon films than Walt was.

    When Walt started hiring New York animators, he put them to work on Mickey’s cartoons, while Ub took charge of the Silly Symphonies.

    Firstly, the fact that Eastern animators were prepared to quit their jobs and join Walt indicated that he was the ‘man of the moment’. They, experienced animators, were prepared to listen to Walt’s theories and ideas on animation because he was the boss, and this was what he wanted from them.

    Moreover, he was putting them to work on his prime series – featuring the character he most empathised with. They must have been impressed with how seriously he took the handling of these films – both in continuity of story and in attention to performance in the animation; attitudes that his former staff took for granted. I think this new relationship – experienced men taking on new ideas and goals from an employer they respected – opened a door for Disney. He was suddenly an important filmmaker – and to maintain that position he had to keep growing. And his objective then became to create animated films that carried more conviction – that caricatured reality, to an increasingly sophisticated degree. Suddenly there was somewhere to go.

  2. on 27 Oct 2011 at 11:09 am 2.richard o'connor said …

    I picked this up at Mercer Street Books last Saturday and gleefully breezed through.

    The scholarship is most impressive. Add the great volume of illustrations and it becomes a real treasure.

  3. on 27 Oct 2011 at 1:03 pm 3.Michael said …

    That’s a great book store. It’s always a surprise what you can find in there.

  4. on 27 Oct 2011 at 5:29 pm 4.Mark Sonntag said …

    I have a drawing from the same scene I think.

  5. on 30 Oct 2011 at 8:53 pm 5.Michael Barrier said …

    Actually, I think it’s wrong to say that “. . . the first striking fact about Disney’s 1920s films is that they take no particular direction: they don’t evolve, they accumulate.” Set the earliest Alices alongside the last of the Alices (the few that have survived), not to mention the Oswalds, and there’s evident tremendous growth in skills of many kinds. Growth was more rapid in the thirties, unquestionably, but that’s to be expected, since not only were Walt and his crew building on what they accomplished in the twenties, but they also had a lot more money to work with–money that Walt poured into improving the films instead of enriching the studio’s owners.

  6. on 31 Oct 2011 at 6:52 am 6.Michael said …

    Actually, I’ve been waiting for one person to challenge that sentence from the book. I agree that it’s wrong though I understand what they’re saying. The films got slicker, but those I’ve seen didn’t get more entertaining. The techniques obviously improved, but once Mickey was developed I think they grew at a much greater rate. Probably because they got the animation thing down and put more into the storywork. (They did have to plan the stories more now that they were recording sound.)

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