Animation Rarities, 1917-1928like
Program Notes by Richard Hildreth
A MODERN MOTHER GOOSE
(Issue #1 of Fleischer Fun Shop series, 1924)
KOKO PACKS UP
(Directed by Dave Fleischer; Out of the Inkwell Films, 1925)
KOKO’S EARTH CONTROL
(Directed by Dave Fleischer, Inkwell Studios, 1928)
Max Fleischer was a New York cartoonist whose interest in mechanics led to some of the wildest cartoons ever made. With his brother Dave he created the rotoscope, a device which enabled artists to trace outlines from single frames of a motion picture in order to create animated characters that move like real-life people. Audiences were entranced by the fluid movement rotoscopes could produce. The Fleischer’s character Koko the Clown made his first public appearance in 1919’s Out of the Inkwell. A New York Times reviewer wrote: “He walks, dances and leaps as a human being, as a particularly easy-limbed human being might.”
The Fleischers were also the first to produce the “bouncing ball” sing-along film, which was made possible by another technical innovation, the rotograph. When combined with the DeForest Phonofilm sound process, the rotograph was able to create synchronized soundtracks for animated films, beginning with The Koko Song Car-Tunes series in 1924 — four full years before Walt Disney would release Steamboat Willie (1928).
In 1921, Margaret J. Winkler began distributing the Fleischers’ cartoons. Winkler had been Harry Warner’s secretary at Warner Brothers prior to becoming the first woman to run an independent film distribution company. She played a significant role in early animation, also distributing, for a while, the films of Pat Sullivan (who produced Felix the Cat) and Walt Disney.
FELIX THE CAT WEATHERS THE WEATHER
(Directed by Otto Messmer, Pat Sullivan Cartoons, 1926)
Felix the Cat was the first cartoon superstar. Introduced as a comic strip in a 1919 issue of Paramount Screen magazine, by 1925 Felix’s popularity rivaled Charlie Chaplin’s. Although Pat Sullivan dominates the credits of the Felix cartoons, Otto Messmer originated the character and directed all the cartoons, from the first to the last in 1936.
Felix made Sullivan wealthy, and he enjoyed a fast life, frequenting New York’s speakeasies while Messmer ran his business. Walt Disney, looking for animators to join his California operation, tried to recruit Messmer in 1928 but was unsuccessful. Sullivan declined to invest in new equipment when Messmer warned him of Disney’s plans to use color and synchronized sound. Soon after, Educational Pictures stopped distributing Felix pictures. The next year, Sullivan set up a California operation, but its cartoons couldn’t match the technical sophistication of Disney’s. The first color short, Bald King Cole (1936), was also the last Felix cartoon to be released. Messmer continued the newspaper strip until 1955. Felix was revived for television in 1958, and the character remains popular.
ALICE RATTLED BY RATS
(Directed by Walt Disney, M.J. Winkler Productions, 1926)
Animators like Earl Hurd (in his Bobby Bumps series) and the Fleischer brothers (in their Out of the Inkwell films) featured animated characters in a live-action setting. When Walt Disney started his Alice series in 1923, he did the reverse and placed a live-action character in a cartoon world.
As the series continued, the amount of interaction between the live-action Alice and the animated characters diminished, so that by the time of Alice Rattled by Rats, the real girl is overshadowed by the cartoon star of the picture, a copy of Felix the Cat, named Julius. Interestingly, in 1924, Disney’s distributor Margaret J. Winkler (who also handled Felix films) wrote that Disney should add a cat as Alice’s sidekick, “I might suggest that in your cartoon stuff you use a cat wherever possible and don’t let him be afraid to do ridiculous things.”
Disney twice planned a feature with a live-action Alice in an animated wonderland. In 1933, Mary Pickford made a screen test for the role, but Disney lost interest in the idea when Paramount released a live-action version. Lisa Davis, voice performer for “Anita” in 101 Dalmatians (1961), recently said that she was tested for the part of Alice in another live action-animation version, but it was supplanted by Disney’s all-animated Alice in Wonderland (1951).
(Directed by Hugh Harman and Ben Clopton, M.J. Winkler Productions, 1926)
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was unlucky for nearly all the animators that worked with him. Margaret J. Winkler’s husband Charles Mintz took control of her film distribution company in 1924, when she had their first child. Mintz, then hired Wait Disney to develop a rabbit character for Universal Pictures. In early 1928, Disney asked Mintz to increase his budget, then $2,250 per film, but Mintz instead reduced the budget to $1,800, adding that Disney’s staff had been offered contracts with Mintz’s company. Stung, Disney completed his contract with Mintz while secretly developing a cartoon mouse on the side.
Spurred by Mintz’s betrayal of their former boss, animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising approached Universal head Carl Laemmle, suggesting they could make Oswald shorts faster and cheaper than Mintz. Laernmle responded by firing everyone and producing Oswald at his own studio.
JIMMY GETS THE PENNANT
(Directed by Howard. S. Moss, a Motoy Comedy Toyland Films/Peter Pan Films, 1917)
Animated puppets, not drawings, were the staple of Chicago-based Howard Moss’s films. These juvenile shorts frequently featured caricatures of screen stars like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin.
JOYS AND GLOOMS
(Animated by John C. Terry, International Film Service, 1921)
(Animated by Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan, International Film Service, 1921)
Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst watched as cartoonists Winsor McCay and Bud Fisher drew extra income from cartoons based on their strips Little Nemo and Mutt and Jeff. Never one to rest where profits might be involved, Hearst set up his own animation studio in 1915. His International Film Service (IFS) focused on adapting Hearst newspaper strips to animated form.
Indoor Sports is based on the eponymous New York Journal comic strip by Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, who signed his work “TAD.” He specialized in sports cartoons. The IFS shorts based on TAD’s cartoons were directed by Bill Nolan, editor of most of Douglas Fairbanks’s swashbucklers including Robin Hood (1922), and Walter Lantz, who later created Woody Woodpecker.
THE WANDERING TOY
(Conceived and edited by Robert E. Guillam, animated and embellished by Archie N. Griffith, Lyman H. Howe Films, 1928)
Lyman H. Howe began his show-biz life in 1883 when he quit New Jersey’s Central Railroad and hit the Chautauqua circuit of traveling educational shows, demonstrating a functional model of a coal mine. By 1890, he had replaced the mini-mine with an Edison phonograph. Unable to secure a license for a Vitagraph motion picture projector in 1896, he built his own, calling it an “animotoscope.” Howe’s initial film presentations were reels from the Edison Manufacturing Company, but, by 1903, he was purchasing films from European producers in addition to making his own. He traveled from tents and fairgrounds to opera houses and meeting halls, presenting “high-class” and educational entertainment, then established the Lyman H. Howe Films Company in his hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. When his traveling days were over, Educational Pictures distributed his films. The Howe Films Company continued producing films until 1928, long after Howe’s death in 1919.