Suspended Animation #302
As a teenager, I grew up walking downtown to the local camera store and purchased Castle Films editions of clips from classic Universal Studios horror films, or Walter Lantz cartoons, to thread carefully onto my little rickety projector in order to get a very few minutes of cinema that would be shown on a outstretched white bed sheet, blank wall, or sometimes an awkwardly balanced tripod screen.
The film might break and, if so, you had to splice it back together by hand, or it might freeze in the projector and the bulb would burn the film. If you were clever enough, you could splice several small reels together for a longer show. Eastman Kodak produced 8mm beginning in 1932, specifically for home movies.
In 1934 Hollywood Film Enterprises (HFE) exclusively licensed the use of Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts, primarily for the Keystone hand crank 16mm home movie projector. HFE was a film laboratory that went into the home movie business of releasing a variety of home movie products, including edited Westerns, comedies, cartoons, and more to keep their equipment running between their regular outside orders.
Each silent cartoon ran about one to three minutes because HFE/Cine Art would take a theatrical release of a seven-minute Disney animated short and cut it down into several different films. In the process, they renamed each of these edited cartoons, leading some current collectors to believe they had discovered a new “lost” Mickey Mouse cartoon.
Football Manglers and Forward Pass were two edited cartoons taken from Touchdown Mickey. Mickey’s Brigade Turns Out was an excerpt from The Firefighters. Donald Duck’s Trained Seals was a segment from Mickey’s Circus.
It is easy to see how a consumer might assume these were the actual name of the cartoon, and were unable to locate those titles listed anywhere, leading them to believe they had discovered a previously unknown Disney animated short.
Beginning in the 1940s, HFE also offered 8mm versions. Standard 8mm originally was simply double sprocket 16mm split into two prints. HFE’s releases, supplied directly from the Disney Studio negatives, were incredibly sharp and very-well-struck prints, with very good saturation of grey tones.
Instead of using the common Kodak color film stock, Hollywood films instead used Ansco safety films for its later color releases, but they lacked the sharpness of its original DuPont stock on the black-and-white cartoons.
These cartoons were released on 100-foot reels, meaning that the cartoons now lasted four to maybe five minutes with people unfamiliar with the originals never realizing what had been skillfully edited out. Some have suggested that Disney insisted on only edited versions so as not to infringe on the originals.
Most of these were black-and-white and silent, although, in the late 1950s, about a dozen previous black-and-white titles were offered in 16mm sound and, by the 1960s, a number were available in 8mm Eastman Color. The HFE license was terminated when Disney decided to go into the home movie business for themselves.
“In 1968, it was decided that Walt Disney Productions would form their own 8mm division,” said Rand Christensen, marketing supervisor for Walt Disney 8mm division in a 1975 interview with animation historian John Cawley. “The reason was simple. If you look at our company as a whole, you’ll see that we have found that if somebody else could do it, many times we could do it just as well if not better.
“Walt Disney 8mm used to be considered the best kept secret of the company. Originally, we sold only through camera and photographic outlets because that was how it had always been done.”
Disney 8mm films went through two stringent quality-control checks before release. In addition, Disney insisted on using new stock, not “end of runs,” which were common from some other companies. Some of the releases were packaged in blister-packs so they could be hung on standing racks.
The home movie division was located in the Walt Disney Educational Media Company building in Glendale, California. Also housed in the building was the 16mm rental department for schools and groups, and the Walt Disney Music Company.
In fact, Walt Disney Home Movies division wouldn’t release any of the classic black-and-white shorts, thinking that modern audiences didn’t want to watch black-and-white cartoons, even going so far as to put an apologetic disclaimer card in the commemorative edition Mickey Mouse: The First 50 Years that included Steamboat Willie as it was in black-and-white.
The division had a small work force of only a half-dozen employees supplemented by the fact that they could utilize the services of the Disney Studios’ artists, film technicians, and sound experts to produce the final product.
The Glendale office did all the cutting of the clips. Worldwide distribution was handled by offices around the world, including London, Tokyo, Paris, and many more. Those outlets offered films and differently cut versions not found in American releases.
Sometimes releases would correspond with the re-release of a Disney animated feature, although the rule of thumb of the division was never more than two clips per feature available at any one time.
So, for instance, a clip from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs might just focus on an edited version of the “Whistle While You Work” song, which turned out to be the most popular clip ever sold by Disney 8mm. Other popular clips were Cinderella getting her dress for the ball and Bambi and Thumper ice skating.
The introduction of Super 8 film in the late 1960s, where the dimensions of the perforations are smaller than those on older 8mm film allowing the exposed area to be made larger, was adopted by Disney Home Movies in the mid-1970s. The film also had an oxide stripe on which optical (rather than magnetic) sound could be recorded, again positioning Disney from other companies and suggesting greater quality.
“At all our labs, we specify an acetate based stock as opposed to an estar based stock,” Product supervisor Bruce Brewer said. “We use acetate because it is a weaker stock and will not damage the projector if threaded wrong. It is also the current standard for home movies. Estar stock is used in cartridge machines. It is very strong and can’t be broken easily, and may even break projectors before the film is damaged.”
By the 1980s, Disney phased out selling 8mm and Super 8 films.
As the late Dave Smith, the legendary Disney Archivist told me, there is no sense in collecting these films, except for the box art or as a curiosity. They have no intrinsic value.
He said, “The old 8mm film versions of Disney cartoons are practically valueless today. Few people have projectors, the films have gotten brittle and practically all the films have been released on video cassette or DVD.”
However for people like me, there is certainly a nostalgic value to these old films.
Songwriter Richard M. Sherman recalled that his earliest Disney memories were these home movie versions: “My memories go back to when my dad would run black-and-white short films of Mickey Mouse on the wall of our New York apartment. The images filled the room. Mickey was my best friend. One day, part of the film burned in the projector and it broke my heart. Dad spliced the film but there was always a skip. I still watched it over and over.”