The Sunday Intertitle: Walt on the wild side

A hungry cat suffers PANGS OF HUNGER, helpfully identified by a gloved hand, in Disney’s THE FOUR MUSICIANS OF BREMEN.

Been looking at early Disney — pre-SILLY SYMPHONY stuff when he was drawing and animating for himself, not just producing.

He was rubbish! But, from tiny, crappy acorns…

My theory is that animating taught Walt the basics, and he became aware of all the stuff that was too hard, or too much trouble, to do. Later, he could pay other animators and force them to do all that stuff. This was the secret of Walt’s genius, in a way — he knew what was difficult, and he wanted it done. John Kricfalusi, of Ren & Stimpy fame, makes the point that this was Disney’s weakness as well as his strength — just because something is hard to do, doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile.

Walt also had a fairly basic sense of humour, it seems to me. If in doubt, go for the arse: spank it or impale it with a swordfish’s sword… since most of his toons are pretty anodyne in other respects, this concentration on violence to the buttocks has attracted comment.

But very early Hollywood (and New York, and Kansas City) cartooning is fascinating more for its strangeness than its hilarity, at least to me. Interestingly, though Disney led the way in sound cartoons, he preserved more of a concentration on the visual than his rivals — or the musical and visual. Disney shorts, even much later ones, tend to concentrate either on accompanying existing music, or on vigorous (but uncontroversial, safe) slapstick. Warners toons use dialogue to set up slightly more complicated scenarios, and finesse the characters throughout by their verbal asides to the audience. In this, they do seem to be partaking of some of the attitude (aggressive, proletarian) of the Warners live action features.

Even at the Fleischer studios, their soundies, though just as musical as Disney’s, tend to relate to songs rather than instrumentals, and use the lyrics to suggest situations and gags. Disney, though the least naturally gifted at knockabout action, concentrated on it more — which again was perhaps his instinct to excel at what seemed toughest.

Of the silents, many of the Laugh-O-Grams are pretty lame, but the ALICE films have some merit, not least because of the way they blend live action and (basic) animation, in a fairly brazen emulation of the Fleischer OUT OF THE INKWELL series. They also throw up regular distressing/surreal images of the kind you don’t want to see revived on Saturday Mornings anytime soon —

Here’ Alice’s gang (because they rip off OUR GANG as well as OUT OF THE INKWELL) forms a secret society, the KKK. Note that the member second from the left is a dog. Also, you can’t tell from the image, but one of them is African-American. (“SHOCK CORRIDOR!” declared Fiona when I told her about this.) So it’s a nice, inclusive KKK.

I guess this makes the point that to kids, something that’s evil and inhuman might just seem a game, something to have fun with. I don’t think it’s meant to make any point at all — Disney probably thought of himself as apolitical, which of course translates as “right wing but too dumb to know it.” When Leni Riefenstahl came to town in the thirties, he was the only studio boss who’d entertain her. (He also palled around with Eisenstein, to be fair.)

For Disney’s raison d’etre, of course, you have to look to the early features, which truly are awesome achievements of their kind. In between, we have the Silly Symphonies, which don’t strike me as very appealing at all… but I’m going to have another look.


9 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Walt on the wild side”

  1. Yipeks! You’re spot on about Disney’s concentration on the musical. I’d never thought of it before but it’s is particularly clear when you realise how many songs from his features are now part of the popular canon even seventy years on, an extraordinary achievement when you think about it… or simply listening to the sound-track of something like “the Band Concert” above (hopefully) (or indeed “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”). One might also argue that the Studio’s decision to pay more attention to its songs back in the nineties resurrected the popular American Musical.

  2. Disney being a corporation has a tendency to keep doing things until they stop working, so they really pushed their initial formula into self-plagiarism, then reinvented it under Katzenberg, and proceeded to work that to death as well, including the songs.

    The features do use a lot more dialogue than the shorts tend to (I could never understand what Donald Duck was saying, but his films work purely as sound and image regardless). But they’re still certainly closer to silent films than most TV animation, which Chuck Jones dismissed as “radio with pictures.” Jones also said that Disney discovered the power of dialogue with The Three Little Pigs, “because there for the first time you had three characters who looked alike.” But I believe the pigs are distinguished more by their contrasting attitudes than by their voices…

  3. Disney was always less a filmmaker than a film producer.
    Eisenstein liked his early work, however.

  4. I recall reading on Jack Kinney’s autobiography that he and other former Disney employees were once interviewed and asked about Walt’s sense of humour: the common agreement was that Walt was keen on farm jokes, farting cows and things like that.

  5. That’s about right! Although I don’t know if I recall any farting in children’s product of that time. Hiccups were about as hardcore as you could go.

    Am digging deeper and will have more to report later this week…

  6. Randy Cook Says:

    The Kinney book recalled that the animators were trying to succinctly describe “Walt’s” sense of humor. One finally came up with the mot juste: “rural”. All laughed heartily.

    It’s a very funny book (and blasphemous for those who worship at the Altar of Walt). A behind-the-scenes look at animators in their natural habitat.

  7. The one I’ve got, because I was always getting it out the library as a kid, is the Ollie Johnstone, Frank Thomas Illusion of Life, which takes a rather respectful view…

  8. David Boxwell Says:

    Disney can be as dull as the Missouri flats from whence he originated. If you want “edge” in early American animation, look to the coasts. I’d much rather go to Fleischerland. Which is somewhere in Brooklyn . . .

  9. I’m still wowed by The Old Mill whenever I run it. But as nice as Skeleton Dance is, it doesn’t compare with the nightmare-craziness of the Fleischer toons. The staff suffered at Disney, whereas you’d have to assume everybody was having some kind of fun at Fleischer.

    What’s intriguing to me is the rogue elements I’m uncovering in early Disney… more this week.

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