Posted by Susan Doll on September 29, 2014
Next Monday, October 6, TCM presents an evening of early American animation, a must-see for cartoon fans of all ages. The line-up begins with the cartoons of Winsor McCay, followed by animation from two companies lost to the history books, the Bray Studio and the Van Beuren Studios. At 12:15 am, Lotte Reiniger’s unique Adventures of Prince Achmed airs, followed by the 1939 version of Gulliver’s Travels and the Japanese feature Magic Boy. Chuck Jones’s beloved Phantom Tollbooth concludes the evening’s entertainment, which has been dubbed “Back to the Drawing Board” by TCM. Of the vast array of styles and stories represented in this selection of pre-classic animation, I am most excited to see the work of the Bray Studios and Prince Achmed by Reiniger (above).
I am embarrassed to say that until recently, I had never heard of the Bray Studio. This year marks the 100th birthday of the formation of the company, and founder John Randolph Bray deserves the attention such a milestone brings. Bray was a comic strip artist when he was inspired to try animation after seeing Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo and Edwin S. Porter’s stop-motion short The Teddy Bears. Perhaps “inspired” is too kind a word, because legend has it that Bray “stole” McCay’s techniques and ideas after the popular cartoonist allowed the newcomer to tour his studio. Around 1913 – 1914, Bray founded his own studio in New York City—the heart of American animation before Hollywood—and began to patent his ideas. He even tried to sue McCay, claiming patent infringement on some of the very techniques he had adopted and adapted from the older animator.
Bray’s significance to animation has been largely overlooked in popular histories, coffee-table books, and retrospectives, but he made at least two important contributions to the art form. First, he streamlined animation by devising means and methods to eliminate the need for thousands of individual drawings for each cartoon. For his first completed cartoon, The Artist’s Dream—which is part of TCM’s line-up on October 6, he printed the background onto hundreds of sheets of tracing paper via a photo-reproduction process instead of redrawing it by hand over and over. Later, he and animator Earl Hurd patented a process in which a single background image was used for each scene. Transparent pieces of celluloid, or cels, were laid one at a time on top of the stationary background image. The artist drew the moving parts of the characters or objects onto the transparent cels. The combined image was then photographed.
Bray was a better businessman than most animators, or at least his wife was. She was ruthless in watching over the family business, securing and protecting its process patents over the years. Bray was always looking for the best distribution outlet for his studio’s work, moving from Pathe to Paramount to Samuel Goldwyn. He never ceased to expand his enterprises, and during World War I, he struck a deal with the army for producing animated training shorts on how to operate weapons and equipment. His work for the military revealed the value of film as an educational tool. Bray’s studio became a leader in producing films and animation for the government, educational institutions, and corporations.
Bray’s other notable contribution was to hire several artists who became the next generation of great animators. Bray eventually lost interest in animating, preferring to run the front office to steer his company forward. Remember Heckle and Jeckle and Mighty Mouse? Paul Terry, founder of Terrytoons and originator of those two series for television, got his start at Bray Studios. He created a character for a series called Farmer Al Falfa. Al Falfa was a version of the old man archetype found in comedy skits in vaudeville—a bearded, elderly gent who is spry and feisty for his age. Walter Lantz, better known as the creator of Woody Woodpecker, was also an animator at Bray Studios. Lantz worked on the Jerry on the Job series. Jerry on the Job was a popular comic strip syndicated in the Hearst newspapers. Hearst had dabbled in the cartoon business, turning Jerry on the Job into a cartoon series, but Bray’s studio took over production in 1920. Jerry was a mischievous young lad who kept company with his little dog, a common character type for comic strips and early animated cartoons. Lantz’s version of the series was set entirely in a railroad station. Lantz also created his own boy-and-his-dog series for Bray titled Dinky Doodle, which combined animation with live action.
The most famous animator to come out of Bray Studios was Max Fleischer, who later created Betty Boop and Popeye with his brother Dave. Max joined Bray Studio in 1916, supervising the how-to and training films that the company produced for the armed services. By 1918, he had developed the rotoscope, a device used to copy live motion into animation. He launched a series called The Clown, featuring a title character who was something of an unruly, trickster. After Fleischer left Bray, the Clown became better known as Koko the Clown of the legendary Inkwell series. The Fleischers sometimes combined rotoscoped action, conventional animation, stop motion, and live action as in The Clown’s Pup, showing next Monday night on TCM.
If you have never seen The Adventures of Prince Achmed, set the DV-R for 12:15am EST on October 6. Lotte Reiniger used the lost art of silhouette animation to depict the story of the title character, a prince from an exotic land who is tricked and manipulated by a sorcerer. In the beginning, Achmed is whisked away on a magical horse to an enchanted island where he falls in love with a princess. The sorcerer intervenes with Achmed’s happiness by kidnapping the princess and carrying her off to China. In true fairy-tale fashion, the Prince pursues his beloved to the ends of the earth. The magical atmosphere is enhanced by the use of silhouette animation, in which the characters were rendered as articulated, black cut-outs reinforced with tin. The figures were tied at the joints by wire or thread so their limbs could move and change positions. The arms and legs were moved only a fraction at a time by assistants while Reiniger shot each change in motion on an animation stand one frame at a time. The original release included color tinting in which vivid backgrounds behind the black silhouettes created a rich effect.
Animation fans will relish seeing the work of legendary pioneer Winsor McCay, including Gertie the Dinosaur, How a Mosquito Operates, and Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend. But my favorite piece of animation from McCay is an exception to his usual style. Four years in the making, The Sinking of the Lusitania turned out to be McCay’s last completed animated short. The animator used newspaper accounts and transcripts to create an authentic and realistic interpretation of the decade’s most controversial event. In May 1915, a German submarine sank the ocean liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, creating outrage in England and America. The ship went down within 18 minutes of the first torpedo, killing 1198 of 1959 people. Among those killed were several high-profile celebrities, including Elbert Hubbard, Charles Klein, millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, and showman Charles Frohman. The event turned public opinion against Germany and became a clarion call for World War I.
Dramatic in tone and dark in look, The Sinking of the Lusitania stretched the boundaries of what animation could be. The film begins with the submarine lurking in the foreground, rendered in perspective and foreshortened to exaggerate the sense of depth. Once the first torpedo hits, smoke billows out the stacks of the ocean liner in the middleground. As the lifeboats are being lowered, the second torpedo hits, prompting the intertitle: “No warmth given, no mercy shown.” In the film’s most eerie scene, bodies fall or jump from the ships while heads bob up and down in the frigid water. In the last shot of the film, a mother and child are shown sinking into the abyss, followed by a title card that declares that the officer who was in charge of the German U-boat had been decorated by the Kaiser. Written in the rhetoric of war, the intertitle suggests that it is acceptable to “hate the Hun.” It is a remarkable piece of animation, at once revealing the power of art as propaganda while capturing the attitudes and emotions of the era.
I miss the originality and unique rendering of hand-drawn cartoons, which have been pushed off the big screen by computer-generated animation. America’s pioneering cartoonists remind me that early animation was inspired by illustration, fine arts, and even vaudeville—a unique convergence of influences. The work of early animators was bold and expressive as only something created by the human hand can be.
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