Laugh-O-Gram Films

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Discovering Walt

(Isobouts J,P. 2001. The Magical Life of Walt Disney: Discovering Walt. New York: Roundabout Press, Inc.)

Walt’s First Job

When Walt returned to his family in Chicago, Elias found a job for his son at the O-Zell factory. But Walt informed his father that he didn’t want a factory job; he wanted to become an artist. Elias didn’t approve. He had supported Walt’s art education, but getting a job as an artist sounded like a crazy idea.

Still, Walt had made up his mind. So he left his parents’ home in Chicago and went back to Kansas City. There, he moved in with his brother Herbert, Herbert’s wife, Louise, and their little daughter, Dorothy, in the old Disney house on Bellefontaine Avenue. Roy, who has just been discharged from the navy, joined them as well.

First, Walt tried to get work as an artist for the Kansas City Star, but they wouldn’t even hire him as a truck driver. Big brother Roy came through, though, with the suggestion that he try to get a job at the Pesman- Rubin Commercial Art studio. Pesman-Rubin made advertisements, and Walt was asked to bring in samples of his work. So he showed them some sketches he’d made and was hired on the spot. At Pesman-Rubin, Walt met a quiet young man named Ub Iwerks, who would become very important to Walt as the years rolled on. In the meantime, both Ub and Walt were put to work, making catalogues for farm equipment.

When he got the job, he rushed to tell his aunt Margaret the good news – that he was being paid to draw pictures. Sadly, Aunt Margaret was ill at the time and didn’t get as excited as Walt thought she would.

Shortly before Christmas, business got bad, and Walt and his friend Ub were both laid off. So they decided to go into business together. They called their company Iwerks-Disney, because Disney-Iwerks sounded like a comapny that made glasses. Unfortunately, they couldn’t make enough money to stay in business for very long. So when Walt was offered a job in February 1920 at the Kansas City Film Ad Company for $40 a week (a good salary in those days), they agreed he should take it. Ub joined him there a few weeks later.

UB IWERKS

Kansas City was just the first stop in a long, productive friendship and working relationship between Ub Iwerks and Walt. In 1924, Ub followed Walt to Hollywood, where he became a partner in the Disney Bros. Studios. 

Ub’s strengths were artistic. He was an extraordinary gifted (and speedy) animator. Ub was able to turn out some seven hundred drawings a day. Today, a skilled animator usually produces around one hundred drawings in a week.

In 1930, Ub would take a chance to start his own studio, producing a series called Flip the Frog. Although Ub’s shorts were well animated, he didn’t have Walt’s gift for storytelling and humour. Flip the Frog never became as popular as Walt’s cartoons.

In 1940, Ub would return to the Disney studio. Walt’s old friend eventually became an expert in special effects. Ub won two Academy Awards for his inventions, one of which made it easier for studios to put live actors and animated characters in one scene.

Walt’s First Cartoons

It was at Kansas City Film Ad that Walt was first introduced to animated films – cartoons. They were still very primitive. Walt was told to put small, pinned cutouts of a character on a board, under a film camera. He would move the limbs slightly, shoot a frame, move the limbs again, and so forth. When you ran the film, this would create the illusion of real movement – just like a flip book. Walt had seen animated cartoons made in New York that used a series of drawings – rather than cutouts – each in a slightly different position than the last. To him, these animated drawings were much more lifelike.

To learn more about animation, Walt went to the Kansas City Library and read every book he could find on the subject. He then borrowed a camera from his employer and created a makeshift studio in the garage Elias had built behind the Disney home.

In time, he began to produce real cartoons by drawing a series of characters in different positions. And his characters would perform some of the funny gags Walt remembered from the vaudeville shows he’d seen in high school.

After he’d finished several short cartoons (“shorts”), he showed the reel to the owner of the local Newman Theatre, who ordered a new cartoon for every week. Walt called his shorts “Newman Laugh-O-grams.” Each reel was intended to carry advertisements, but Walt always tried to make them funny.

While Walt was having a great time learning new ways to create cartoons, things were not going so well for Elias. The O-Zell Company went bankrupt. Elias moved back to Kansas City with Flora and Ruth. The Disney house now held eight people. And though it wasn’t a big place, it was a reasonably happy time. Walt enjoyed being surrounded by family.

Within months of Elias’ return in 1921, Roy fell ill with tuberculosis. That disease was very fearsome at the time – and very contagious. So Roy was sent away to a special hospital in Arizona for tuberculosis patients. Then Herbert got notice from the postal service, where he worked, that he and his family were being transferred to Portland, Oregon. Elias and Flora decided to sell the house – so full of family only weeks before – was drained of loving sounds to which Walt had become accustomed.

Walt’s sister, Ruth, remembered that, on the day he took his family to the train for a tearful good-bye, “he couldn’t keep his face straight. He suddenly turned and left. He was upset. He realized, I know, that he was going to be alone then.”

Walt found a room in a rooming house, and he made up his mind to start his own animation company . He raised some $15,000 from investors, quit his job, and on May 23, 1922, founded the Laugh-O-gram Films.

He was only twenty years old. Soon, Ub Iwerks and five  other animators joined him. 

Laugh-O-gram was a fun place to work. Walt and his team felt that they were at the forefront of a new form of entertainment. As his first project, he decided to make series of cartoons based on classic fairy tales. He made a deal with a company called Pictorial Clubs, which promised to distribute the films to theatres. At the same time, Walt also became the Kansas City correspondent for Universal Films, shooting newsreel footage of news events that took place in the area.

Gag photo No. 1

Gag photo No. 2

Swope Park photo No. 2

Roy’s Helping Hand

Unfortunately, Pictorial Clubs went out of business before it could pay Walt for the cartoons he had made, and Walt had nobody to distribute the cartoons he’d completed. Since he had used up his investors’ money to make the cartoons, Walt had nothing left to pay the rent. As he recalled, “I moved into the studio. I slept on a bunch of old canvas and cushions on the chairs. And there was no bath there, so once a week I’d go to the union Station and go in; for a dime, I could get a bath.”

Fortunately, Roy hadn’t forgotten about his little brother. Every now and then, Walt would received a letter which said, “Kid, I haven’t heard from you, but I just have a suspicion you could use a little money. I am enclosing a check. Fill it out in any amount up to $30 on the check.” And so, Walt said, “I’d always write $30 on the check.”

Even when he was living on canned beans, Walt didn’t give up. He got a job making a film about dental hygiene for a local dentist, who gave him the grand sum of $500. Did Walt save the money? No. Did he move back into a real apartment or start to eat well? No. Instead, he decided to create a whole new kind of cartoon, which cost him every penny he had.

His idea was to put a real, Live person in an animated world. He named the new cartoon Alice’s Wonderland, and he asked a local four year-old, Virginia Davis, to play the part. Walt filmed the little girl in her parent’s home and against a big white screen, and later he and his animators added the animated characters. But before Walt could finish the film, he ran out of money again.

By July of 1923, Laugh-O-gram was out of business and Walt had sold his movie camera. All he had left was a cardboard suitcase, a change of clothes, and an unfinished film reel of Alice’s Wonderland. But rather than giving up, Walt decided to go where all the movie-makers go: Hollywood.

(Links: Walt Disney Essay Kansas City 1922Walt Disney: How He Did It)

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