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Fairy Tale Ending to a Real Disney Story

Film: Studio restores Walt's first animated work--long lost, but rediscovered by chance.

July 17, 1998|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Six years before Mickey Mouse made his debut in "Steamboat Willie," there was "Little Red Riding Hood"--Walt Disney's first animated work, a seven-minute silent cartoon that the 21-year-old completed while struggling as a commercial artist in Kansas City.

It was 1922 and the beginning of Disney's dream to make films that would tell stories and compete in the growing animation industry. But this and other early animated fairy tale ventures failed--a dubious start to the kingdom he would come to build.

Though it is documented in various Disney biographies and histories, "Little Red Riding Hood" has long been considered a lost treasure. For decades nobody knew where Disney's first attempt at animated storytelling was--or even if any prints existed.

But earlier this summer, the Disney studio was given access to the rarity by a British collector, who years ago quite accidentally stumbled upon the reel in a London film library and purchased it for the astonishing sum of 2 pounds--about $3.

Walt Disney Co. now possesses a copy of the priceless cultural artifact--which in 1980 was included on the American Film Institute list of the "10 Most Wanted Films for Archival Preservation"--and has just finished restoring this missing link to its storied past and to animation history.

'The Acorn That Grew Into the Oak'

Peter Schneider, the president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, called the rediscovery "thrilling," adding: "To go back and look at Walt's own work and to be inspired by it is a special joy."

"It's a very exciting discovery of an example of Walt Disney's own animation, which is extremely rare," said historian and filmmaker John Canemaker, author of "Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists." "It's also our first chance to see the origins of what would become the Disney empire and style.

"It's a bit like finding the acorn that grew into the oak."

And for buffs devoted to ferreting out the obscure and seemingly extinct links to film history, its discovery is typically serendipitous.

No one knows how "Little Red Riding Hood," unseen in America for decades, ended up in Britain. The story of its rediscovery began in the late 1980s, when British film historian and collector David Wyatt came across the fairy tale, along with a silent short of "Cinderella" that Disney had completed about a year later, in a sale of 16-millimeter prints from an old rental library in central London.

"They showed me this huge room full of 16-millimeter films, and I went quietly bananas," Wyatt recalled in an interview this week. "I don't think I realized the films were rare, but the fact that they were titles from Disney made them interesting."

Wyatt says he didn't know he had bought two lost pieces of animation history until he met, in the early '90s, film scholar Russell Merritt, who was at work on "Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney."

Wyatt screened "Cinderella" for Merritt, but he didn't realize how rare "Red Riding Hood" was until earlier this year. The long-lost film he had purchased had a different title, "Grandma Steps Out," which wasn't listed in any books or studio histories.

Scott McQueen, senior manager of library restoration at the Disney studio, had been preparing material this year for a CD-ROM biography of Walt Disney. "When I talked to Russ Merritt, I discovered Wyatt had 'Little Red Riding Hood,' and we didn't have anything on it, which I hadn't realized," McQueen said. "I contacted him, and he allowed us to copy it."

Disney has performed state-of-the-art preservation work on the copy, returning the original print to Wyatt. Serious collectors concerned with preserving rare films often allow archives to make copies, ensuring the film's survival.

The studio has not yet announced any plans to publicly screen or release the film, though it is reportedly considering several possibilities.

A Humble Beginning in Kansas City

The monetary value of the discovery is hard to pin down, collectors and animation experts say. The film "could have some value," said Burbank-based animation art dealer Howard Lowery, "if it were packaged as part of a Disney retrospective that was intended to be historical, rather than entertainment--'the first movie Walt Disney completed on his own, never before released.' "

A typical early '20s cartoon, "Little Red Riding Hood" is more interesting for what it anticipates than what it is. Little Red's mother makes doughnuts to take to Grandma while a cat (who looks suspiciously like the already famous Felix) shoots the holes into them. Red goes to Grandma's house in a cart pushed by her little dog; on the way, she meets the wolf. Grandma has left a note reading, "Gone to the Movies," so the wolf sneaks into her house and waylays Red. An aviator, summoned by her dog, rescues her.

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