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MOVIE REVIEWS : Animated Rarities at UCLA

July 23, 1991|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Historians estimate that one-half to two-thirds of the films made before 1950 have disappeared. For animation from the silent era, the toll is probably even higher--which makes tonight's program of animated shorts in the "Fourth Annual Festival of Preservation" at UCLA such a treat for anyone interested the medium: The Academy Foundation staff has assembled a group of early animated films that have long been unavailable or existed only in worn, faded prints.

Probably the most interesting selection in the show is the assortment of "Newman's Laugh-O-Grams" (1920). Named for a Kansas City theater owner, the "Laugh-O-Grams" were the among the first films made by Walt Disney, who did much of the animation himself (and who appears in a live-action sequence as a 19-year-old). A hodgepodge of topical gags about life in Kansas City, these brief cartoons only hint at Disney's future dominance of animation.

Even rarer are three "shadowgraph" films--two of them long believed lost--by Tony Sarg, who used back-lit cut-out figures to create an effect reminiscent of Asian shadow puppets. "The First Circus" (1921), "Adam Raises Cain" (1922) and "The Original Movie" (1922) combine charming designs reminiscent of folk art with some surprisingly sophisticated animation. These films probably haven't been screened publicly in at least 50 years.

"Animated Hair Cartoon" (1925) ranks as the oddest and most obscure work in the show. A novelty short drawn by one "Marcus," "Hair" seems to be the sole survivor of series in which cut-out pieces of pen-and-ink caricatures of early movie stars re-arrange themselves to form an entirely new portrait. In one strikingly improbable moment, Charlie Chaplin turns into Rudolph Valentino.

The evening closes with three sound films directed by Ub Iwerks (Disney's former partner, who designed the physical appearance of Mickey Mouse), which might have been conceived as silents: Virtually all the gags are presented visually. The most entertaining of the three is "The Office Boy" (1932), which involves an attractive secretary, almost certainly animated by the late Grim Natwick, the creator of Betty Boop.

"Animated Film Preservation From the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive" with organ accompaniment by Robert Israel screens at 7:30 p.m. in the Melnitz Theater at UCLA; admission is $5.

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