Walt Disney’s Newman Laugh-O-Grams Ranked

Before Mickey, before Oswald, before even Alice, Walt Disney created a little production company in his hometown of Kansas City called Laugh-O-Gram Studio. Commissioned to create 12 cartoons, Disney and the studio ended up making eleven Newman Laugh-O-Grams, one of them separately commissioned by a local dentist and another serving as the pilot for the Alice Comedies series (which I’ll get to at some point). Of the ten “canonical” Newman Laugh-O-Grams, one is truly lost (MARTHA [1923]) and two more are otherwise not readily available (JACK AND THE BEANSTALK and GOLDIE LOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS [both 1922]). What remains is a record of Disney’s earliest address of fairy tales; these shorts update the stories to the modern day. The studio also incubated talent that would build Disney’s own ventures and influence the animation field beyond: Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Friz Freleng, and Carman Maxwell all started with the Laugh-O-Grams. What they produced together are shorts that are very evocative of Felix the Cat (down to a cat character named Julius who would survive through the Alice series), but with a design that would come to be more closely associated with the black-and-white cartoons of Disney. The Newman Laugh-O-Grams are relatively simple affairs, but they have some good gags and are equal to their competitors of the time (as mentioned, Felix the Cat, but also Out of the Inkwell and the cartoons of Paul Terry). The Laugh-O-Gram Studio went out of business just two years after it was formed in 1921, but there wasn’t much down time: Disney embarked on his own venture (well, with his brother Roy) with the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in Hollywood and started their new flagship series, the Alice Comedies, in 1923. But without further ado, I’ve ranked and evaluated the seven Newman Laugh-O-Grams available today below. They were all directed by Disney himself and all released in 1922 unless otherwise noted (as in one instance).

#7 — TOMMY TUCKER’S TOOTH

TOMMY TUCKER’S TOOTH is the short commissioned by the aforementioned local Kansas City dentist to promote his business and dental hygiene. It’s a commercial, almost entirely live action and without many laughs to be found in its humor. It’s an interesting part of Disney history, and not much more.

#6 — NEWMAN LAUGH-O-GRAMS (1921)

This short, contained in a newsreel program, launched the series. Like TOMMY TUCKER’S TOOTH, the majority of its significance lies in its place in the history of a great cinematic power. But unlike TOMMY TUCKER’S TOOTH, NEWMAN LAUGH-O-GRAMS was Disney’s first commercial product and an interesting “hand of the artist” cartoon.

#5 — CINDERELLA

It’s worth mentioning that these Newman Laugh-O-Grams were populated by a pretty static cast of characters, placed into different stories and situations. It’s not unlike how the comedy stars of the silent and classical era were not literally the same characters in each of their movies, but retained a certain characterization (Chaplin as the Tramp, Lloyd as the Boy, Laurel and Hardy as, well, themselves, etc.). That being said, the shorts involved the same unnamed boy, girl, and dog, as well as the character who would become known as Julius the Cat. CINDERELLA is no exception, which has some great visuals, including a starkly lit, cutout-esque sequence that calls to mind the superior CINDERELLA cartoon short of 1922 (Lotte Reiniger’s German production of the same name).

#4 — LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD

Donuts that become car tires? Cartoon logic was fully embraced right away LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, the first full-fledged short after the announcement cartoon NEWMAN LAUGH-O-GRAMS. I also like the interpretation of the “Big Bad Wolf” as a rich, human gentleman and an old man coming to life and hanging out a portrait on the wall. This is the true debut of Disney’s potential.

#3 — JACK THE GIANT KILLER

Often conflated with or mistaken for another Laugh-O-Gram (JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, not available online as far as I can tell), JACK THE GIANT KILLER tweaks its titular tale by bringing the unnamed boy (well, I guess he’s Jack here) to a fantasy land across the ocean and into contact with a whole tribe of giants. The water effects, something Disney would become known for especially with PINOCCHIO in 1940, stand out in this, by comparison, primitive short from 18 years earlier.

#2 — PUSS IN BOOTS

The king in PUSS IN BOOTS is Disney’s first large, looming villain figure in the vein of Pete, Stromboli, and more. There’s a great sense of space and depth in the short’s earlier sequences at the estate of the king and his daughter, who the boy is courting against her father’s wishes. PUSS IN BOOTS features the best background illustration work in the NEWMAN LAUGH-O-GRAMS as well.

#1 — THE FOUR MUSICIANS OF BREMEN

But I’m a sucker for funny animals, and the “Town Musicians of Bremen” tale has always been appealing to me. I also think Disney and his colleagues illustrated animals better than they did humans at this point in their career (and for some time to come), so there’s a lot less of the “jank” you could find in the movements of the humans in the other NEWMAN LAUGH-O-GRAMS. THE FOUR MUSICIANS OF BREMEN also has the best visual gags of any of the shorts regardless. It’s the standout short of the series by a considerable distance.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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