Notes on the Origins of American Animation, 1900-1921

Animated drawings were introduced to film a full decade after George Méliès had demonstrated in 1896 that objects could be set in motion through single-frame exposures. J. Stuart Blackton's 1906 animated chalk experiment Humorous Phases of Funny Faces was followed by the imaginative works of Winsor McCay, who made between four thousand and ten thousand separate line drawings for each of his three one-reel films released between 1911 and 1914. Only in the half-dozen years after 1914, with the technical simplifications (and patent wars) involving tracing, printing, and celluloid sheets, did animated cartoons become a thriving commercial enterprise. This period--upon which this collection concentrates--brought assembly-line standardization but also some surprisingly surreal wit to American animation. The twenty-one films (and two Winsor McCay fragments) in this collection, all from the Library of Congress holdings, include clay, puppet, and cut-out animation as well as pen drawings. Beyond their artistic interest, these tiny, often satiric, films tell much about the social fabric of World War I-era America.

The enchanted drawing

The Enchanted Drawing (1900, Edison). Animator/actor: J. Stuart Blackton.
Although this is not an animated film, the origins of animated film can be glimpsed here. J. Stuart Blackton, then a cartoonist for the New York Evening World, is photographed in Thomas Edison's New Jersey "Black Maria" studio performing a vaudeville routine known as the "lightning sketch," supplemented by stop-camera tricks that bring the drawn objects to life. Copyrighted in 1900, it was probably filmed three or four years earlier.

Fun in a Bakery Shop (1902, Edison). Director/cameraman: Edwin S. Porter.
Another proto-animation film, incorporating what might be called a "lightning sketch" version of claymation. Presented as a one-shot film, it too uses a stop-camera trick.

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906, Vitagraph). Director/animator: J. Stuart Blackton.
This earliest surviving American animated film--in the strict sense of single exposures of drawings simulating movement--uses chalkboard sketches and then cut-outs to simplify the process. The opening title, animated with bits of paper, repeats a trick seen the previous year in Edison films. J. Stuart Blackton had in 1897 co-founded the Vitagraph Company, producer of the film. The flickering seen here was common to the earliest animation and resulted from the camera operator's failure to achieve consistent exposure in manual one-frame cranking.

[Women's Styles] from Keeping Up with the Joneses (1915, Gaumont). Animator: Harry S. Palmer.
[Men's Styles] from Keeping Up with the Joneses (1915, Gaumont). Animator: Harry S. Palmer.
These two samples are from a series begun in September 1915 based on the Keeping Up with the Joneses newspaper comic by "Pop" Momand. The films begin with "out of the inkwell" drawings of the sort seen in Winsor McCay films and later elaborated by Max Fleischer. Like other comic strips and animated films of the era, notably Bringing Up Father (published from 1912; filmed 1916-18), Keeping Up with the Joneses features a husband oppressed by a wife's obsession with high society and consumer fashion. The series ended abruptly in February 1916 after its animator, Harry S. Palmer, lost a patent infringement suit brought by John Randolph Bray over the use of transparent celluloid sheets.

He Resolves Not to Smoke from Dreamy Dud Series (1915, Essanay). Animator/writer: Wallace Carlson.
Dud Leaves Home from Us Fellers Series (1919, Bray). Animator/writer: Wallace Carlson.
These two variants of Wallace Carlson's "Dreamy Dud," a boy with an overactive fantasy life and a down-to-earth dog, reveal how animation history does not always parallel artistic progress. The 1915 film from the Essanay Studio has a simpler line-drawing method but a sharper wit, and is indebted in style and content to Winsor McCay's dreamy hero, "Little Nemo." The later version, from Carlson's 1919-20 Us Fellers series, is more complicated but less comic, relying on the elaborate backgrounds available through the Bray Studios' patents.

Bobby Bumps Starts a Lodge (1916, Bray). Animator: Earl Hurd.
Probably the most popular of the several mischievous boy heroes in early animation was "Bobby Bumps," whose series (1915-23) was inspired by R. F. Outcault's comic strip "Buster Brown." Its creator, Earl Hurd, owned a 1914 patent for the use of celluloid and his employment by J.R. Bray (at whose studio this film was made) consolidated a near monopoly on streamlined animation technology. Racial stereotypes, from J. Stuart Blackton's "Cohen" and "Coon" caricatures in Lightning Sketches (1907) onward, are depressingly endemic to early animated films. In Bobby Bumps Starts a Lodge, there is, at least, a certain equality in the resolution.

Krazy Kat Goes A-Wooing (1916, International Film Service). Animator: Leon Searl.
Krazy Kat--Bugologist (1916, I.F.S.). Animator: Frank Moser.
Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse at the Circus (1916, I.F.S.). Animator: Leon Searl.
Surprisingly, the animal hero became widely popular in American animation only in the 1920s, especially with "Felix the Cat." The earlier Krazy Kat series (1916-29), based loosely on the comic strip by George Herriman, features lovelorn Krazy and the brick-tossing object of his strange obsession, Ignatz Mouse. As with the next four films, these brief films were initially part of William Randolph Hearst's International Film Service newsreels.

The Phable of a Busted Romance

The Phable of a Busted Romance (1916, International Film Service). Animator: Raoul Barré.
The Phable of the Phat Woman (1916, I.F.S.). Animator: Raoul Barré.
Never Again! "The Story of a Speeder Cop" (1916, I.F.S.). Animator: Raoul Barré.
Mr. Nobody Holme--He Buys a Jitney (1916, I.F.S.). Animator: Leon Searl.
These short satires of contemporary life are based on Tom Powers's newspaper comics. The comic-strip structure is barely altered in the two "Phables," from a seven-film series of 1915-16 animated by the Canadian cartoonist Raoul Barré before he moved on to direct adaptations of the Mutt and Jeff strip. Providing odd marginal commentary in each film are the stick-figures "Joys and Gloom."

Mary & Gretel from Motoy Film Series (1917, Toyland Films). Animator: Howard S. Moss.
Alice in Wonderland meets the Garden of Eden in this surreal fable of a drunken rabbit, bowling dwarfs, and the two bewildered girls of the title. The short-lived "Motoy" stop-motion puppet series was animated by Howard S. Moss in 1917.

The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy (1917, Edison). Animator: Willis O'Brien.
Fifteen years before creating his King Kong, former cartoonist Willis O'Brien animated these clay-modeled dinosaurs and giant ape. He produced eight such one-reelers for the Edison Company in 1917.

W.S.S. Thriftettes (ca. 1918, BDF Films). Animator unknown.
AWOL--All Wrong Old Laddiebuck (ca. 1919, American Motion Picture Co.). Animator: Charles Bowers.
Two World War I propaganda pieces, for home-front and overseas consumption, respectively. W.S.S. Thriftettes is a promotion for war savings stamps, reputed here to help confine Germany's Kaiser to a circus cage. AWOL, with simple but effective line drawing from animator-entrepreneur Charles Bowers, is a cautionary tale for troops impatient to return home after the November 1918 armistice and brings the "Joys and Gloom" to elaborate life.

Policy and Pie from Original Katzenjammer Kids Series (1918, International Film Service). Director/ [animator?]: Gregory La Cava.
Rudolph Dirks's comic about the immigrant German Katzenjammer family (first published 1897) had been made into live-action films in 1912. This animated version is labeled "Original" because its producer, W.R. Hearst's International Film Service, had won a suit against Dirks (a former Hearst newspaper cartoonist), forcing him to rename his strip after the mischievous Katzenjammer children, "Hans und Fritz." Future Hollywood director Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey, Stage Door) supervised this film and the earlier Hearst shorts in this presentation. Anti-German sentiment brought The Katzenjammer Kids film series to a halt later in 1918.

Fragment from Gertie on Tour (1921, Rialto Productions). Animators: Winsor McCay, John McCay, and John Fitzsimmons.
Fragment from The Centaurs (1921, Rialto Productions). Animators: Winsor McCay, John McCay, and John Fitzsimmons.
Among the final films of master cartoonist Winsor McCay are these pieces animated in collaboration with his son John and longtime assistant, John Fitzsimmons. They may have been released as part of the 1921 series Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. Only these fragments seem to have survived.

The First Circus from Tony Sarg's Almanac (1921, Herbert M. Dawley). Animators: Tony Sarg and Herbert Dawley.
Illustrator and marionettist Tony Sarg's Almanac series (1921-23) showcased his mastery of an archaic form, the shadow silhouette. Co-animator Herbert Dawley had produced Willis O'Brien's post-Edison claymations of prehistoric animals, and some influence or common interest is apparent here. The color tints are copied from an original print.

Note: These notes were previously released as accompanying liner notes to The Library of Congress Video Collection, Volume 3: Origins of American Animation, 1900-1921.

by Scott Simmon