The Bootleg Files: Alice the Fire Fighter

BOOTLEG FILES 657: “Alice the Fire Fighter” (1926 animated short by Walt Disney).

LAST SEEN: On several online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright opens it up to endless duping.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Although it has been restored, it is stuck in public domain hell.

In 1924, an aspiring animator from Kansas City named Walt Disney caught his first big break when he signed with the independent Winkler Pictures to create a series of short films that combined animation with live action. Disney came up with the concept of a having a then-contemporary riff on “Alice in Wonderland,” with a live action little girl interacting with comic cartoon characters. This series became known as the Alice Comedies, and 57 one-reelers were created over the next three years.

Disney’s concept was interesting, but over time the Alice character became secondary to an animated feline called Julius, whose physical appearance and comic shtick bore more than a passing acquaintance to the Felix the Cat character that was the top animated film icon of the 1920s. Indeed, the presence of Alice became so inconsequential that Disney used four different girls as the character and no one commented on the cast changes.

The 1926 entry “Alice the Fire Fighter” is typical of this series: a skein of rapid-fire sight gags offered in a hit-or-miss tumble. It is never truly laugh-out-loud and it actually wears out its welcome before the nine-minute running time is over. However, when it does find its target, it can raise a quiet smile or two.

“Alice the Fire Fighter” begins with a towering hotel being roasted by a fire. Anthropomorphic animals run back and forth around the building in a panic, and their cries are captured in the silent movie format with the word “FIRE” blaring across the screen. A tiny mouse (clearly a forerunner of Mickey) rings an oversized fire alarm bell, and the word “CLANG” is printed above the bell with each new gong. But over at the firehouse, the fire fighters are sleeping in their beds – we know that because “Zzzzzzzz” can be seen rising from the beds.

Eventually, the fire fighters wake up and they all look like Julius the Cat. And each bed has been accommodating multiple cats, thus offering a fire brigade that could rival a small army. There is also Becky, a horse who sleeps in a crib – she is awaken from her sleep and slips into horseshoes in order to pull the main fire engine to the blaze.

At the burning hotel, guests are running out of the entrance carrying their suitcases, furniture and bathtubs. One little dog patiently pushes an oversized upright piano into the street – and when he hears pleas for rescue from an upper floor window, he starts to play the piano in order to create music notes that float into the air and form a staircase for the trapped hotel guests to descend to safety.

Alice shows up as the fire chief, waving her arms and stamping her feet to direct her all-feline fire brigade to stop the disaster. (Due to the primitive nature of the early animation, Alice never truly interacts with the cartoon characters in the manner that later Disney films were able to achieve.) Two fire fighting cats unfurl a giant ladder, but they placed this rescue apparatus too far from the building. Rather than move the ladder, other fire fighters actually push the building closer to the ladder. (This is, arguably, the funniest thing in this film.) A fire fighter at the top of the ladder plucks hotel guests from a top floor window and crassly dumps them to the ground, where they fall on their heads and bounce off.

Then, there is some extended business with a hose that only dribbles little bits of water, forcing the fire fighting cats to fill one bucket at a time and race it up the ladder to throw on the flames. Eventually, the hose works properly and the hotel guests are able to slide down the water stream to safety.

However, one female cat is stuck in a top floor room and is coughing up smoke balls. Julius circles around the old-fashioned fire engine and climbs on top of a dark puff of smoke that belches from the machine, riding it into the air to rescue the distressed damsel. Once on the ground, Julius takes out a rolling pin and rolls it across the female cat’s body, forcing the inhaled smoke from her. Revived, she joins Julius in a prolonged kissing session, cheered on by Alice and the other characters in the film.

The ultimate problem with “Alice the Fire Fighter” and the other Alice Comedies was a lack of charm. Alice had little to do but try (and fail) to be cute and Julius – either as a solo character or, in this case, cloned into scores of lookalikes – was left doing a constant barrage of sight gags just to keep the pace moving. Also, the silent film medium was not Disney’s métier – once he produced his first sound film with “Steamboat Willie,” the full extent of his artistry blossomed by having a soundtrack that gave a significantly expanded dimension to the comedy and much-need personalities to the characters.

Disney did not retain the rights to the Alice Comedies, and over the years some of these films became lost. Some shorts were located in the Netherlands, and surviving prints of “Alice the Fire Fighter” have Dutch-language opening and closing credits. This short, along with the surviving films in the series, are in the public domain and have been copied endlessly for home entertainment and online video postings. And while it is certainly not representative of the Disney style, it offers a curious view of where the master animator began to find his style.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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