Go ask Alice: Russell Merritt introduces Walt Disney's Alice Comedies to audiences at the San Francisco International Animation Festival.

Russell Merritt at the SF International Animation Festival

Sura Wood November 9, 2009

Celebrating the Bay Area’s status as a hotbed for animation creators as well as enthusiasts, the now annual San Francisco International Animation Festival kicks off Wednesday, November 11, with an historic live event that features Lawrence Jordan among others. It then officially opens Thursday, November 12 with the premiere of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s fantasy featuring George Clooney. And it continues through the weekend with experimental shorts, commercial features and family cartoon classics that push the boundaries of the medium. Among them are rarities gleaned from the archives: Walt Disney’s Alice Comedies, a series of Disney shorts produced between 1923 and 1927, in which a live-action girl is inserted into an imaginary cartoon world. J.B. Kaufman and Russell Merritt, authors of Walt in Wonderland and Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies will introduce a selection of films and lead the program, presented with the help of the Walt Disney Family Museum. Merritt, a lively raconteur and Professor of Film Studies at UC Berkeley, where, for over 20 years, he has taught animation, art-house cinema and film history, will share a portion of his vast knowledge of film lore, Disney and otherwise, with the audience. First, he offered a preview for readers. (SFIAF runs November 11-15; the Alice Comedies program takes place November 14, 1:00 pm at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema.)

SF360: Could you talk about the Alice films you chose for the festival and why you picked them?

Russell Merritt: The list isn’t complete yet, but Alice’s Wonderland and Alice’s Wild West Show are sure bets. Alice’s Wonderland was the series pilot, and Disney pulled out all the stops for it. It was the only one made in Kansas City, and shows what Disney’s first animation studio looks like. Alice interacts with Disney and his artists before being whisked off into an animated dreamland. Alice’s Wild West Show was Virginia Davis’ own favorite, giving her a chance to show her stuff as a Tomboy. She wrestles a bully to the ground and with the help of her toy six-guns whips a rebellious kid audience into shape as she tells her animated tall tales of the Wild West.

SF360: What led to their being made?

Merritt: In 1923 Disney, facing bankruptcy with assorted local slide and film projects, was looking for a series that could be distributed nationally. He successfully pitched his idea to a national states rights distributor, Margaret Winkler—about a live 4-year-old girl hurled into an animated world of animals.

SF360: Were they successful?

Merritt: They were stepping stones. The series brought Disney to Hollywood and within three years, they were successful enough that Winkler was able to get Joseph Kennedy’s FBO to release them with their features. By the time the series was finished [Disney was eager to move on to cartoons separate from live action], Winkler and her husband, Charles Mintz, were able to land a contract with Universal, which in turn led to the birth of Disney’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, his first genuine star.

SF360: Virginia Davis, who played Alice in this series of shorts died in August. Who was she and how did the filmmakers find her?

Merritt: She was a 4 year-old girl who already had experience as a model and performer. Disney saw her on screen in a Kansas City film ad for a local bread, company and signed her up in April 1923.

SF360: Could you talk about their importance, style and how they were produced?

Merritt: At this point, Disney is working within the confines of popular 1920s cartoon formulas. The animation stays limited to matchstick figures with rubber hose limbs, but the cartoons also show his first experiments with creating screen personality. The gags are conventional, but he’s learning how to stage. He is also a cultural magpie, stealing and borrowing what he can from a broad range of sources, from Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks to Felix the Cat and Koko the Clown, comic strips, local headlines, song lyrics, and Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies.

SF360: What do they tell us about the direction of animation?

Merritt: They illustrate the dominance—the tyranny—of the spot gag in commercial American silent film animation.

SF360: Was Disney one of the first studios to integrate live action and cartoons?

Merritt: No. By the time Disney appeared, there had been a long tradition of integrating live action and animation, most famously with the Fleischer Brothers’ Koko the Clown series. Disney is simply reversing the Fleischer formula, where Koko slips off the easel to interact with the real-life world. By contrast, Disney’s Alice, a live girl, enters a cartoon world.

SF360: What spurred Disney to go in this direction?

Merritt: The success of the Fleischer films and the popularity of Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies.

SF360: He developed new technology to facilitate this hybrid, right?

Merritt: No, but being 3,000 miles away from New York where the other cartoon studios were located, he had to work out the technical details for himself. He later claimed his greatest mentor was an animation textbook by E.G. Lutz called Animated Cartoons. But he and his crew had already had two-three years experience in animation by the time they started combining live action with animation.

SF360: The Alice comedies came out five years before the debut of Mickey Mouse. What did they telegraph about was coming in animation in general and the evolution of Disney’s work in particular?

Merritt: It’s more accurate, I think, to see Mickey Mouse as a reaction to the Alice and Oswald Comedies. Sound—especially pre-recorded music—liberated Disney’s imagination in extraordinary ways, enabling him to develop what was best in the Alice comedies—the love of dance, jive, syncopation—and abandon Alice’s eclectic world of miscellaneous animals in favor of a fully integrated blend of comic characters in tune with Mickey’s pent-up energy, his effervescence. You can find the source for a lot of Mickey Mouse gags in Alice—an early Mouse cartoon called When the Cat’s Away is a virtual remake of Alice Rattled by Rats —but the differences are as important as the similarities.

SF360: Disney is often talked about as a pioneer in his pairing of music and imagery. What was his philosophy, if he had one, and what was so special and/or innovative about how he thought of music and its role in his films?

Merritt: Rhythm, pace, and pulse were the mother’s milk of his cartoons. Even when he couldn’t control the music [music for silent films was provided by local theaters], he always gave musicians great opportunities to rag their pianos and syncopate their music. The Silly Symphonies he introduced with Skeleton Dance in 1929 are the logical extension of the idea—the first series organized around dance and music rather than continuing characters.

SF360: What about his choice of composers?

Merritt: Inspired. He starts with Carl Stalling, the Charles Ives of animation, and by the time of the Second World War has hired arguably the most influential of all cartoon music composers: Frank Churchill, Al Malotte, and Oliver Wallace. Stalling’s special gift was finding comic ways to reinterpret classical music and finding ways to mix pop tunes, folk tunes and symphonic music together.

SF360: What do you think is the greatest myth about Disney?

Merritt: That he was an anti-Semite.

SF360: The Disney imprimatur became synonymous with wholesome, sanitized, sentimental entertainments but there were dark undercurrents running through his work. He didn’t start out as a family entertainment guy, though, did he? Could you talk about this disconnect?

Merritt: From the start, American cartoons were meant to appeal to children. But Disney doesn’t see himself as a family entertainer until the ’50s when he is caught up in Disneyland and his TV shows. At the peak of his career as an artist in the Depression, he always claimed the studio was making films for itself–cartoons that the filmmakers themselves found funny or entertaining. That attitude can be found in the ’20s films too. In the extensive correspondence between Disney and his distributors, never once is there mention of children. The question was whether the general audience found a cartoon entertaining.

SF360: Is it true Mickey Mouse (or was it Disney cartoons in general?) was beloved by dictators such as Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini? What accounts for this?

Merritt: Twentieth century dictators seem to have a real affection for movies in general [our own World War II leaders, FDR, Churchill, DeGaulle not so much]. Mickey Mouse seems to run the gamut, from Hitler, Goebbels and Mussolini to Stalin and Mao. Then again, Hitler had a weakness for dogs; Mussolini for jazz. Stalin liked to cut out children’s pictures from magazines. Psychotics are unpredictable.

SF360: Word is that Disney wasn’t collaborative; he was a harsh critic and an autocratic boss. What were his greatest strengths and weaknesses?

Merritt: Oddly, it’s hard to separate the strengths from the weaknesses. He was a driven perfectionist, a taskmaster who could be ruthless and charming at the same time. He also had difficulty separating his best ideas from his worst, understanding what was original in his work and what was over-derivative. He created primal images of an American fantasy world, but was downright scary as a social engineer dreaming up his real-life planned communities.

SF360: Who are his direct inheritors?

Merritt: That’s a hard one because he was so protean and his gifts were so suited to the times. I think George Lucas inherited his ability to combine nostalgia with cutting-edge technology. The old Skywalker ranch always seemed to me a variation of Disneyland’s Main Street, where the comfortable old world helps counteract what is scary about the brave new world of strange technology. On the other hand, Disney would have counseled Lucas against getting bogged down with sequels. John Lasseter, of course, but Lasseter has a long-term commitment to animation that Disney never had. In some ways Pixar most closely resembles the classic Disney studio model, with art training classes and an active mentoring program, and Lasseter shares Disney’s love of commercial experimentation. But Lasseter has never shown Disney’s cutthroat instincts. It’s difficult picturing Disney championing international animators like Miyazaki or joining festivals that weren’t centered on his own company.

SF360: What would he think of today’s computer animation and the diminishing presence of hand-drawn imagery?

Merritt: He’d be fascinated. The film medium for him was always dynamic, and he was eager to get involved in the newest technologies. He took to cutting edge technologies like a mermaid to the sea. He made a fortune innovating with sound, Technicolor, the multi-plane camera, television, animatronics, and all those cutting edge technologies in the parks. I don’t think you can look to him, as you can to Miyazaki or Norstein, as a Keeper of the Flame.

SF360: As someone who’s a student of and authority on the early days of animation, what do you think about the advances in the field, 3-D, computer generated imagery, etc.?

Merritt: The more you study animation history, the more exciting and reassuring those advances become. At whatever historical point you test it, animation attracts experimenters and tinkerers. Mostly, animation gets to new technologies before live-action film does. It’s not a good medium for artists locked into fixed forms.

SF360: Has anything been lost?

Merritt: Of course. It’s like asking whether anything gets lost as newspapers are replaced by Web sites. The handmade craftsmanship of drawn animation has an intimacy, warmth and tactile pleasure that pixels can’t match. More subtly, the work product that accompanies drawn and cutout animation, from the sketches to the painted cels, have unique, irreplaceable charms that computerized printouts lack. Part of the nostalgia for handdrawn animation is seeing what was and is possible with handmade artifacts.

SF360: Any thoughts about this SFIAF program and the selections tell us about where animation is today?

Merritt: I think the program will reinforce the abiding, relentless popularity of the gag-centered cartoon series, but will also be a reminder of what a volatile, unpredictable art form animation can be. No one watching these films in the ’20s could have anticipated the Mickey Mouse tsunami, or would have foreseen that within 20 years, all Hollywood animation would be in sound and color. They certainly wouldn’t have predicted that the man who created these cartoons would in a few years revolutionize the industry.