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A Silent Treasure Chest

Andrew Osmond interviews David Wyatt, a British film collector who is responsible for returning two "lost" Disney cartoons to the light of day.

Editor's Note: We have all wondered what it must be like to come across a priceless lost print or a dusty trunk in an attic filled with mint condition classic cels. Here Andrew Osmond interviews David Wyatt, the film collector who discovered two of Walt Disney's earliest cartoons, the silent Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella.

Four frames from the Laugh-O-Toon Little Red Riding Hood. Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures Marketing and Howard Greene. © Disney.

"I'm a film fan more than a Disney fan. I began collecting films as a kid aged 11, silent comedies like Chaplin and Charlie Chase. I've always been into comedy. But at first I wasn't particularly interested in silent cartoons. I mean, when you look at early animation objectively, a lot of it isn't too inspiring. An Avid Collector"Later on though, I had a friend who was only collecting cartoons. Somehow we started to swap over! Later still, I met another collector, a Fleischer Brothers fan who got me into their films, especially the ones with Cab Calloway. I liked the Fleischers' Out of the Inkwell series with Koko the Clown, and many of the Felix films. I even held cartoon screenings at a London cinema: Warner Bros. and Tex Avery. I promoted those for a while, but once I helped convert some audiences and give those films a following, I tended to move on. I looked for something different, something obscure, that deserved to be dug out and seen again.

"At the time I found the Disney films, I had a job at the BBC, making children's television. I was involved with Vision On, a mix of live-action and animation, which was the first outlet for David Sproxton and Peter Lord while they were at school. [Sproxton and Lord provided cel animation skits involving a superhero called 'Aardman,' who naturally lent his name to the company the duo later set up.] One of Vision On's spinoffs was a programme called Jigsaw, a puzzle show with an animated jigsaw piece as the host. I was involved in a series of chasing-the-robber sketches, with lots of pixilated effects involving actors and objects, sort of Keystone Kops humour.

"While I was at the BBC, one of the big London film libraries was bought out by another company. The contents of the library was sold off, and I got a catalogue listing some of the films on offer. I was reading it on the train to work, and by the time I arrived I was so excited that I bunked off work for the day and went straight there!It was in north-east London, and I found out that the catalog was the tip of the iceberg. The film room was vast, a real Aladdin's cave -- I just said, 'Wow!' I went there day after day. The people there obviously hoped I would spend a fortune, because they plied me with lager and sandwiches! To be honest, I was panicking at the high prices. I wish I had had more money at the time. There was so much good stuff, all from the silent era, and I could only get the tiniest fraction.

Discovering the Gems"Anyway, I bought some Felixs and Fleischers, and things like a print of the Willis O'Brien version of The Lost World (1925).Among the films I picked up were Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, two of Walt Disney's Laugh-O-Grams. [Historical note: The Laugh-O-Gram series was made by Walt in 1922, not to be confused with his earlier 'Newman Laugh-O-Gram' shorts for a Kansas City cinema in 1920. The 1922 cartoons were 'radical' retellings of six fairy-tales, with numerous modern-day twists. For instance, the wolf in the modernized version of Little Red Riding Hood is a lecherous cad, while the hero saves the day in a plane years before Mickey's Plane Crazy. The girl travels in a cart pulled by her pet dog, who's enticed by a string of dangling sausages, a gag repeated in the 1998 film Mulan! Two others from this series exist in the Disney archives, Puss in Boots and The Four Musicians of Bremen, however, Jack and the Beanstalk and Goldie Locks and the Three Bears are still missing.] At the time, I had no idea these films were 'lost' as such. In these cases, you usually don't know if there's one copy or a hundred circulating, at least unless a title's publicized by a studio or archive. "Some years later -- this was the 1980s -- I went to the Pordenone silent film festival (named after the Italian town where it's held). Both my copies of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood were screened there, and this got the attention of Russell Merrit and J.B. Kaufman, who were researching their book on silent Disney. [The book, Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney, was published by John Hopkins University Press in 1994.] They borrowed the films from me, and stills appeared in their book, along with my name. Then, twoyears ago, I was contacted by Scott MacQueen, the Disney archivist who hosts the Disney's Unseen Treasures tour, who got the films reinstated in the Disney archives. "Academically, it's very good these films have been returned. Obviously, they represent some of Walt's earliest work, and an important milestone in cartoon history. But as films, I don't think they'll set modern audiences rioting in the streets! I've now moved on to a long research project on the silent Felix the Cat cartoons, where again a lot of the filmsare missing. If any readers have information, please get in touch with me!"

Little Red Riding Hoodwas screened as part of Disney's Senior Manager of Library Restoration Scott MacQueen's travelling Disney's Unseen Treasures presentation, which has appeared in venues ranging from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. to London's National Film Theatre.Thanks to David Wyatt for the interview.