The Laugh-O-gram Story: Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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Last week I wrote about the history of Walt Disney's Laugh-O-gram series and how a "lost" one was found by film collector David Wyatt.

In 1996, after reading an interview with Wyatt and contacting author Russell Merritt, Scott McQueen, head of restoration at Disney, realized that Wyatt owned a treasure that was not in the Disney vaults. He contacted Wyatt and, in exchange for a restored 35-mm version of the cartoon, got to make a duplicate negative for the archives.

"We'll make sure," promised McQueen, "that Little Red Riding Hood won't get lost again."

Serious collectors concerned with preserving rare films often allow archives to make copies, ensuring the film's survival.

The print McQueen had to work with had been copied onto French-manufactured safety stock sometime in the 1930s from an already worn print. McQueen said that using state-of-art technology to restore the footage gave him a unique connection to Walt.

However, other Laugh-O-grams were still missing.

In 2005, researcher Cole Johnson screened a print from the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) collection that was identified as Alice and the Three Bears and credited to Disney. At first, it was suspected it might be part of the Alice Comedies.

However, on examining the print, it was all animation with no live-action little girl. Further research showed that its print title was actually The Peroxide Kid, that alternate title for the Goldie Locks Laugh-O-gram.

In the John E. Allen Collection, now housed at the Library of Congress, noted Disney and animation historian David Gerstein found they had The Four Jazz Boys, which was the Four Musicians of Bremen, and The Cat's Whiskers, which was Puss in Boots.


A scene from the Laugh-O-gram version of Puss in Boots featuring a black cat that would make an appearance in every cartoon.

In the process, Gerstein found another cartoon titled The K-O Kid with a synopsis that matched exactly an early review for Jack the Giant Killer. A private collection turned out to have the final missing cartoon, Jack and the Beanstalk, under its "Peter the Puss" title of On the Up and Up.

So, miraculously, all seven of Walt's early film series exist in screen-able prints and Disney has good copies of all of them.

The Laugh-O-Gram Filmography

It is important to remember that, at this time, animation was not an art form, but a clever novelty. Just the fact that drawings seemed to move was enough to provide entertainment for an audience.

Even at a young age, Walt was concerned about story, and each of the films has a somewhat linear story rather than just unconnected gag after gag as was common in other animated films. The most engaging character for an audience was the female black cat, who acts not only as a sidekick but as a silent commentator on the chaos.

For a group of young men who had no training and literally did not know what they were doing, these cartoons actually hold up fairly well with some gags that would later be echoed in some of Walt's more sophisticated cartoons.

While the cartoons used some "cheats," like having commotion take place off screen in caves and inside trees, Walt and his crew did not hesitate to include crowd scenes, which were difficult and time consuming to include. For most of the cartoons, the characters interact with dialog balloons, like in a comic strip, rather than the more traditional film slide title.

Since the films were never distributed theatrically initially, they have no official release date but I have listed the approximate dates of when work was being done on them.

Little Red Riding Hood (October 1921–May 1922)

Like the rest of the Laugh-O-grams, this one bears only the slightest relationship to the actual fairy tale. It begins with Red Riding Hood's mother making doughnuts for Red to take to her grandmother.

The mother throws the dough into the air and the cat uses a rifle to shoot holes in it as it drops into the frying pot. The cat sneaks one of the cooked doughnuts to eat and dies with his nine lives leaving his body one at a time. (This gag would later be used in two other Laugh-O-grams, but with his final life being put back into his body so he doesn't die.)

The mother whistles for Red and gives her a basket with the doughnuts. Red has her own homemade car to make the trip to her grandmother's house. It is powered by a white dog pushing from behind trying to get some sausages dangling on the back of the car.

Red gets a flat tire and replaces it with one of the doughnuts. Driving in the other direction is a slick-looking character who represents the wolf—wolf, in this case, being a slang expression for a man who makes sexually aggressive advances to women.

When they part ways, the man takes a short cut to grandmother's house and arrives first since Red stopped to play with a dancing flower by the side of the road. The man makes magical gestures with his hands and the car shrinks so that he can put it in his pocket.

The grandmother has left a note that she has gone to town to see the movies so the man takes the opportunity to sneak inside. An unsuspecting Red enters the house and the house shakes and contorts with cries of "Help!" coming from inside.

The white dog rushes to find help and discovers in a field a young boy with a single propeller plane. At times, the plane flaps its wings like a bird while in flight. The boy and the dog fly over the house with a dangling hook that lifts the house off of Red and he pulls her into the plane.

As the man in the house drives away in his car, the boy uses the hook from the plane to grab hold of the back of the car and drops it into a nearby lake. Red kisses her rescuer.

Notes:

  • That odd old man with a long beard in the picture frame was a gag from some live-action home movies that Walt shot with his staff while experimenting with his camera. In fact, Walt himself played the old man in the live-action version. Obviously, Walt found the gag funny of a face in a frame coming to life and commenting by his expressions on the action and so this may be the first "in joke" in a Disney cartoon.
  • The poster for this short is very misleading, since it depicts an actual wolf as well as a more mature and elaborately dressed young woman. In fact, all the posters for the rest of the cartoons are equally misleading in various ways. The posters are credited to an artist by the name of "Alex Kurtiss" who may have worked at the Kansas City Film Ad Company.
  • The end title card says "And they lived happily ever after" which would become the ending for all the Laugh-O-gram cartoons.
  • The alternate title for the film is Grandma Steps Out.

The Four Musicians of Bremen (April–May 1922)

The cartoon starts with the following verse:

One bright day four musicians
Set out to search for fame.
When anybody's nerves went wrong,
These four got the blame.

They went in state to every town,
In haste did they disperse.
All tho' they did their very best,
They couldn't have done worse.

it then shows four animal musicians (a donkey, a dog, a rooster, and the familiar black cat) running away from townspeople who are throwing loose bricks at them.

The fleeing foursome end up by a body of water and apparently are starving. The cat gets an idea for them to play music to tempt the fish out of the water. One fish does come up on land to dance and the cat tries repeatedly to hit it with a two-by-four piece of wood, but is unsuccessful.

Frustrated, the cat chases the fish into the water and runs into its relative, who is a swordfish that has just finished sharpening his sword tip. The swordfish has just casually cut a fish swimming by in half to test its sharpness.

The swordfish chases the cat out of the water who joins his companions and they all climb a tree to escape. The swordfish saws down the tree and the quartet tumble through the air off the side of a cliff. They fall into a chimney of a house and scaring the men inside to run outside.

The men are dressed in generic military style uniforms, but close-up shows that they are rough-and-tumble criminals wearing black masks. The criminals are not happy about the intrusion and pull out cannons to fire at the house, resulting in several holes through the structure.

The cat gets on the roof to bat away the cannonballs and ends up riding on top of one of them. He detaches his tail and, while soaring on the cannonball, uses his tail as a club to knock out (or kill?) all the criminals. Using a dainty umbrella (that will reappear in another Laugh-O-gram cartoon), he drifts to the ground, but the umbrella gives way and the cat falls to the ground.

The rest of the musicians try to catch him in a blanket but the cat falls through it and hits the ground and his nine lives start floating out of his body. The dog grabs the final life as it floats out and throws in back into the cat so "they lived happily ever after."

Notes:

  • The cartoon is based on the story by the Brothers Grimm titled The Bremen Town Musicians about four animals who try to become musicians but end up inhabiting a house of some criminals who they scare off.
  • There are painted backgrounds in this short of a generic landscape in the hopes that it might be able to be re-used in future films. Yet, this also shows that Walt was trying to increase the quality of the film by adding detail.
  • The black cat removes his tail and uses it as a bat to knock away the cannonballs fired at the house. Famously, Felix the Cat would remove his tail to accomplish tasks like using it as a fishing hook.
  • The alternate title for the cartoon is The Four Jazz Boys.

Jack and the Beanstalk (summer 1922)

Jack and his mother have no money so their cow ("it's no bull") must be sold. Jack has designed a complicated milking device for the bovine but that hasn't produced enough milk to pay the bills. Jack trades the cow for a handful of miracle beans.

The beanstalk takes Jack to outer space where he encounters the giant.

At one point, Jack paints a hole on the surface of a cloud and it somehow becomes a real hole that the giant falls through and plummets to the earth, that he hits so hard that his head pops up in China on the other side.

Notes:

  • Walt would later cast Mickey Mouse in the role of Jack in the beanstalk story in Giantland (1933) and Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947).
  • The giant's head popping up in China may have been inspired by a similar gag from the Buster Keaton silent comedy Hard Luck (1921), since Walt was never adverse to using gags he saw in silent comedies.
  • The alternate title for this film is On the Up and Up.

Goldie Locks and the Three Bears (September–October 1922)

Three black bears (Papa in patched overalls, Mother in a short skirt and Junior in short pants) are awoken by their cuckoo clock. The bird also provides eggs (a sign reads "Fresh Eggs While You Wate") for their breakfast prepared for them by the dog and cat.

The bears leave the house for a morning constitutional on a bicycle built for five (the bears and the dog and cat) and mounted on the front handlebars is a duck who is squeezed to sound like a horn.

Goldie Locks (interestingly not the generic girl character but a newly drawn character who is taller, thinner with blonde curly tresses that fly straight up into the air when she is frightened) comes across the house. The bears return and discover her in Junior's bed and chase her out of the house.

Notes:

  • Alternate title for this film is The Peroxide Kid.

Puss in Boots (September–October 1922)

While this is a traditional Midwestern small town, apparently there is a King and the name of the town is Kingville, since that is the name of the movie theater.

The young boy goes to the backyard swing where he meets a young girl. They are in love. While this is going on, a black cat flirts with a white dog, who is the King's chauffeur and working on the car.

It turns out that the girl is actually a princess and the king is not happy having her be involved with a commoner. He tosses the boy down a long flight of stairs and then grabs the cat and does the same. The cat hits its head at the bottom of the stairs and his nine lives start to depart. The boy grabs the final life and tosses it back in the cat's body.

The boy is despondent as he leans on a lamppost outside of a shoe store offering "$5 boots Only $4.99". The cat asks the boy to buy him the boots so that he can look attractive for the dog and the boy refuses.

Instead they go to the local movie theater and see a film about a heroic bullfighter titled Throwing the Bull. The title doesn't only refer to the bull but to the slang expression for boasting. The matador in the film wins the affections of the woman he loves.

Leaving the theater, the cat says he can tell the boy how to win his true love but only if he buys the cat the boots first which he does. The cat convinces the boy to disguise himself as the Masked Toreador and that there will be no problem because behind a fence the cat will use a "Radio Hypnotizer" that will transmit an electric shock to take care of the bull.

The king sees one of the flyers announcing the bullfight and eagerly attends the event with his daughter. The king is so impressed with the bullfighter taking out the bull, after some initial challenges, that he tells the matador that he can marry the king's daughter.

The boy takes off his mask and reveals himself to the visibly upset king. The boy, girl, cat, and dog jump into the king's car and speed off at 125 miles per hour according to the speedometer with the king chasing behind them.

Notes:

The movie in the cartoon, Throwing the Bull, with actor "Rudolph Vaselino" was obviously meant to parody the bullfighting film Blood and Sand (1922) featuring Rudolph Valentino. The original film was very popular with comedian Stan Laurel already parodying it by playing "Rhubarb Vaselino" in Mud and Sand (1922). Valentino was known for his slick hair from using Vaseline.

Outside is a sandwich board advertising the film and opposite it is another sandwich board advertising the Laugh-O-gram Cinderella, which had just been put into production.

The alternate title for this film is The Cat's Whiskers.

Cinderella October-November 1922

The cartoon begins showing Cinderella with "her only friend, the cat" washing dishes while her two lazy stepsisters are outside reading the books Beauty Secrets and Eat and Grow Thin. One is fat and the other is tall and gawky.

The prince riding his white horse is chasing a black bear and repeatedly shooting it in the rear end. The bear and other bears (who have been dancing and having fun) run into a cave followed by the prince, who in an offstage scuffle defeats them all and drags them out tied to a long rope.

The prince decides to hold a ball and has his faithful dog go out and deliver the invitations. At one point the dog tumbles down a hill and emerges from a cloud of dust wearing a bandage on his head and supported by a crutch. A dog bystander comes by and asks, "Are you hurt?" The wounded dog looks at him and hits him over the head with his crutch and smiles.

When it is time for the ball, the stepsisters tell Cinderella she cannot come because little "ash girls" should be in bed. A distraught Cinderella is visited by her fairy godmother who dresses her up like a 1920s flapper and provides an automobile (in the living room) to take her to the ball with the cat as the chauffeur.

At the ball, it is obvious the prince is not enjoying himself until Cinderella arrives. They dance and go outside to look at the moonlight. Even the cat and dog dance together.

Suddenly, at midnight, Cinderella rushes out, losing her shoe that hits the prince in the head. The following morning, the prince follows some shoe-shaped tracks that turn out to be made by a duck wearing shoes.

Later, while the stepsisters are discussing the ball outside their home and the beautiful mysterious girl, the prince arrives and tries the shoe on both of them until he sees Cinderella over to the side.

Notes:

  • The invitation the prince sends out states: "You are invited to the Prince's Ball at the King's Palace Tuesday, Friday the 13th."
  • The alternate title for this film is The Slipper-y Kid.

Jack the Giant Killer (November-December 1922)

The film begins at a sideshow outside of circus tents. A "Wildman" is on exhibit and there is a sign stating that this "giant captured in the wilds of Woof In Poof."

The boy is attending with his girlfriend (who in this short is named "Susie") along with a dog and the black cat. The boy tries to impress the girl by telling her a story of how one day he will visit the land of the giants in Woof in Poof.

The cartoon transitions to the boy, the dog and cat in a small sailboat loaded with provisions heading to the land of the giants. It was, as the title card states, "a dark and stormy night" once they reach open waters.

A buzz-saw-bladed fish cuts a fish in half and then the boat. It chases the trio to shore. However, rather than encountering giants, they encounter some performing monkeys including one balancing on a snake stretched between the necks of two giraffes.

Then they see the giants who look like black-bearded cavemen wearing leopard skin outfits. The giants are playing golf. The boy also discovers a sign reading "Giant Ville: Danger" and hanging above is a jail cell with the girl in it.

The giants spot him and pile on to him but he slips away while the dog and cat rig up a rope between two rocks at the edge of a cliff. The boy teases the giants into following him but slips to the side at the last moment while the rope goes taut and the giants fall over the side of the cliff into the jaws for four waiting giant sharks.

Using an elephant, the boy rescues Susie who gives him a kiss. All of this was just a story and the petulant girl, now standing back at the circus, says "You'll have to do better than that!"

Another boy walks up, bringing her some flowers and Susie goes off with him.

Notes:

  • According to the dialog, in this cartoon the boy is named "Bobby" and the girl "Susie."
  • "Woof In Poof" may be a reference to "whiffenpoof" a term for an imaginary animal like a jackalope. The term first appeared in a 1908 operetta based on the comic strip Little Nemo and later inspired the name for the famous Yale University singing group started in 1909.
  • The alternate title for this film is The K-O Kid.

Comments

  1. By vanduid

    Jim,

    Nice column; one more step back to Disney's beginnings. You mention Disney has all the Laugh-O-Grams. Do you foresee any future where we'll actually be able to see them? From your detailed descriptions of each one, I'm assuming you must have been granted special access to view them?

  2. By Jim Korkis

    Quote Originally Posted by vanduid View Post
    Jim,

    Nice column; one more step back to Disney's beginnings. You mention Disney has all the Laugh-O-Grams. Do you foresee any future where we'll actually be able to see them? From your detailed descriptions of each one, I'm assuming you must have been granted special access to view them?

    I have been fortunate to have developed many friendships over the decades with film collectors who have rare hidden treasures that they have been generous enough to share with me occasionally. I have even had the chance to see home movies made by Walt Disney. (Don't get too excited. Walt was prone to do things like spend endless minutes filming a crab scuttling across the sand.)

    Disney doesn't see there is any market for the restored Laugh O grams and so, for right now, only releases a few to a variety of film festivals. However, since they are in public domain, some independent producers like Ray Pointer have released a few of them. These are not the restored high quality copies that Disney has but copies of copies from old film libraries like Blackhawk. On Amazon, look of Pointer's The Legendary Laugh O Gram Fairy Tales DVD. This is probably the best condition version available to the general public. Disney also has recently restored some newly found Oswald cartoons as well. I would love to see a complete set of Laugh O Grams, Alice Comedies and Disney Oswalds but Disney feels it can't make enough money releasing them.

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