Thursday, October 06, 2011

Jack the Giant Killer (1923)

(Laugh-O-gram, US 1923) Reissue: The K.O. Kid (1929) D: Walt Disney; anim: Walt Disney, Ubbe Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudy Ising, Carman “Max” Maxwell, Lorey Tague, Otto Walliman; filmed: Laugh-O-gram studio, 1127 E. 31st St., Kansas City; 35 mm, 720 ft, ca. 9' (22 fps); from: The Museum of Modern Art, New York. English intertitles. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, with e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Stephen Horne, 6 Oct 2011.

Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman (GCM Catalogue): "By the time Disney put his final Laugh-O-gram into production, his company was in desperate shape. Disney the naïve country boy had been swindled by city slickers. A year after signing his contract with Pictorial Clubs of Tennessee, he had received virtually no money for his work. And now, with the Tennessee branch of Pictorial Clubs going out of business and the parent organization refusing any responsibility for the contract, the demise of Disney’s company was only a matter of time."

"Disney’s resilience was being tested. By all accounts, his Kansas City studio was a wonderful clubhouse for a gang of pranksters and adventure-happy youngsters barely out of high school. As Walt Pfeiffer, one of Disney’s employee-friends said, “It was more fun than pay. You didn’t look at it as work.” But as the company continued to sink, it inevitably suffered defections – including, for a while, the loss of its most talented animator, Ubbe Iwerks. It took all of Disney’s considerable salesmanship to convince those who stayed behind that the company had much of a future."

"It was in this atmosphere that Jack the Giant Killer, the last Laugh-O-gram, was put into production. It shows both Walt’s dizzying bravado and the dire state of his resources. It is, in some ways, the grandest of all his Laugh-O-grams, notable for its minutely detailed backgrounds, the proliferation of characters, the full range of gray tones in the drawings, and – above all – a fascination with atmospherics. He sets up his circus with three introductory scenes he would have thought extravagant and unnecessary in his earlier cartoons, sample side-show attractions that prepare us for our discovery of his admiring kid protagonists. Even more notable, the sea storm that carries Bobby and his friends – arguably the highlight of the cartoon – is a major breakthrough in Disney animation, a self-contained gem of special effects, most likely created by background painter Otto Walliman. When Bobby explores the island of Woof in Poof, each site reveals attractions more elaborate than the last, culminating in a demented trapeze act where a monkey tiptoes across a snake stretched across the necks of two giraffes."

"The animation, on the other hand, is stiffer, more wooden and more segmented than ever. It’s as though all the energy had been leached out of the action itself, reduced for the most part to jerky back-and-forth motions. Jack the Giant Killer may be the most vivid example of a practice Rudy Ising later described where animators simply traced the characters directly from Disney’s model sheets, and animated only the necessary body parts. The chases, especially when compared with his earlier work, seem dull and uninspired. The fixated, gleeful swordfish in The Four Musicians of Bremen who pursues the cat with such grim determination gives way to a dull copycat sawfish who simply goes through the motions of pursuit, animated against underwater backgrounds redrawn from the earlier film. The giants’ underground hunt for Bobby, painted on cels that would later be recycled in Alice’s Wonderland to fine comic effect, seems similarly anemic and drawn-out."

"But none of this gives the impression of a filmmaker ready to throw in the towel. What is retrograde competes with breakthroughs in both designs and storytelling techniques. While Disney continued to scrounge for money to keep his company afloat, his unflagging enthusiasm kept him eager to keep improving his cartoons and look for better ways to promote them." – Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman

AA: Jack tells a tall story to the girl he's wooing about fighting giants on Woof in the Poof island. The sea voyage includes a fight with a special swordfish with a circular saw. The giants fall into the mouths of sharks. I agree with Merritt and Kaufman that the storm is the highlight. Yet it is pretty rough stuff. The print is ok.

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