From the archives: Walt Disney’s silent inspirations (2011)

July 16, 2012

Much has been written about Walt Disney’s influence on filmmakers who followed in the wake of his many popular animated films. But what about the filmmakers who influenced Walt Disney?

On Saturday, film historians Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman will discuss how early comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton influenced the famed animator’s work.

There are, of course, any number of ways to approach Disney’s artistic legacy. One way is to see him as part of the rich tradition of American comedy. Merritt and Kaufman, who are also renown Disney scholars, will give an illustrated talk (with film clips) showing how silent era comedians influenced Disney’s early work, especially the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies films of the 1930s.

Mickey Mouse, with a cane, bowler and mustache, steps lively as a Chaplin-esque  Little Tramp.

Mickey Mouse, with a cane, bowler and mustache, steps lively as a Chaplin-esque Little Tramp.
(photo courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum)

Kaufman, for example, will discuss Disney’s drift away from slapstick by the time he came to make his first great features – while Merritt will show how Disney transformed classical Keaton routines into cartoon riffs designed for audiences during the Great Depression.

Like all great artists, Disney absorbed the work of the earlier masters. He built on their foundation while creating an artistic statement all his own.

Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney in the 1930s. (photo courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum)

Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney in the 1930s.
(photo courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum)

Merritt and Kaufman should be no strangers to the film going and movie loving public here in San Francisco. Over the years, they have introduced a number of screenings around town, most recently at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in July. Both have also appeared in and contributed to various documentaries and DVD extras.

Merritt and Kaufman also co-authored two books of interest, Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) and Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Walt Disney Cartoon Series (La Cineteca del Friuli, 2006). Published by academic / specialty publishers, both books are informative and a lot of fun. Additionally, on his own, Kaufman authored South of the Border with Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948 (Disney Editions, 2009).

All of which is to say these guys know their stuff. Check out their upcoming event.

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