The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is running an exhibit called Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives until May 4. I recently visited it and enjoyed the experience a great deal. It featured hundreds of trinkets, pictures, costumes, handwritten notes from children and presidents alike, but what interested me most were the early short animations Disney made in the 1920s with and his friend and collaborator, Ub Iwerks.
The exhibit spurred me to seek more early Disney work, much of which is available on YouTube. A handful of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit — done for Universal before Disney and Iwerks struck out on their own — and Mickey Mouse adventures have struck me with their irreverence, hints of lasciviousness, and general prankishness. Disney, the consummate wholesome family entertainer, had an anarchic spirit before he had to navigate the Hays Code and the expectations of upholding a family friendly brand.
For instance, see this Oswald short, Sky Scrappers.
Oswald’s world is wholly different from, say, Snow White’s. This is partially owed to the limitations of animation techniques available to Disney and Iwerks in 1928 — the timing is a bit off, characters move stiffly and unnaturally, etc. — but the goals they sought were also different. Whereas Disney’s later features tended to endorse a set of chivalric values, Sky Scrappers gets comparatively filthy. Ortensia, Oswald’s girlfriend, arrives to his construction worksite to share lunch with him. Oswald’s coworker sees her, operates a crane to lift her skirt, and pulls her up the iron frame of the building to steal her from Oswald. She falls out of her underwear and scrambles to get back into them. The rival, who resembles Disney’s later Mickey Mouse antagonist/A Goofy Movie lovable crank, Pete the Cat, laughs his head off at the notion that Ortensia would even try to resist him. There’s a real sense of sexual malice in this exchange, and Oswald’s rival is a threat unlike anything in later works; he is effectively a rapist.
Beyond the sexual elements, the early Disney-Iwerks shorts depict a world that is, for lack of a better word, mushy. Instead of the features’ aching beauty of the painted backdrops, Oswald’s and early Mickey’s landscapes are malleable. The Oswald cartoon, Trolley Troubles, from 1927 shows this well.
Animate and inanimate objects alike — trains and railroads here, but also hot dogs, cows, and a number of other things — bend and twist to what Oswald — and by extension, Disney and Iwerks — want them to be. Unobstructed creativity runs throughout all these shorts, and they are free of the stricter visual rules of many of the features.
Disney and Iwerks shape the world to fit their vision, and play with what it means to tell a visual story, often with darker connotations than perhaps they intended when trying to make people laugh. By forcing a hot dog to lather itself in mustard as a death ritual, they hint at our world being a place of “compromise” with more powerful entities, much like their dealings with Universal that eventually led to losing the rights to Oswald. In their animated world, though, they are in charge. They manipulate objects and creatures to an almost surreal extent, warping their meaning from utilitarian things and beasts of burden to extensions of our drive, creativity, but more often, futility. Ropes attach to nothing but air and characters realize much too late before falling to injury, annoyed.
Disney and Iwerks’s early shorts are snapshots of artists struggling with freedom, succeeding on a technical level but restricted and frustrated by what their bosses wanted. Their characters constantly fall into traps set by the world, but through creativity they pull through. They always pull one over on the world, usually through manipulating it beyond what reality would allow, much like hired artists at the helm often must sneak their true intentions into their work subversively.