Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age

Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age

by Michael Barrier

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In Hollywood Cartoons, Michael Barrier takes us on a glorious guided tour of American animation in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, to meet the legendary artists and entrepreneurs who created Bugs Bunny, Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse, Wile E. Coyote, Donald Duck, Tom and Jerry, and many other cartoon favorites. Beginning with black-and-white silent cartoons, Barrier offers an…  See more details below


In Hollywood Cartoons, Michael Barrier takes us on a glorious guided tour of American animation in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, to meet the legendary artists and entrepreneurs who created Bugs Bunny, Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse, Wile E. Coyote, Donald Duck, Tom and Jerry, and many other cartoon favorites. Beginning with black-and-white silent cartoons, Barrier offers an insightful account, taking us inside early New York studios and such Hollywood giants as Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM. Barrier excels at illuminating the creative side of animation--revealing how stories are put together, how animators develop a character, how technical innovations enhance the realism of cartoons. Here too are colorful portraits of the giants of the field, from Walt and Roy Disney and their animators, to Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. Based on hundreds of interviews with veteran animators, Hollywood Cartoons gives us the definitive inside look at this colorful era and at the creative process behind these marvelous cartoons.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Why is Marjorie Belcher the world's most durable film star? Because she was the model for Walt Disney's Snow White and for the Blue Fairy in 'Pinochio'.... This is one of the many odd facts to be gleaned from Michael Barrier's account of the development of Hollywood animation. Bet you didn't know, for example, that Sneezy the dwarf was originally to have been Deafy—until someone, long before the days of political correctness, spotted the unconscious slur. Or that Pluto was at first to have been called Rover.... His book is rich in nuggets that bring the era, from roughly 1910 to the mid-1960's, vividly to life."—The Economist

"This long awaited book by Michael Barrier, a pioneer in the field of animation studies, raises the bar for serious analysis of Hollywood animation and animators during the 'Golden Age' of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Barrier's research is rich and impeccable, his arguments articulate, and his uncompromising, astringent conclusions will be a source of scholarly debate and discussion for years to come."—John Canemaker, animator and author of Before the Animation Begins, Tex Avery: The MGM Years, Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat, and professor and head of animation studies at New York University Tisch School of the Arts

"The highly readable result is neither weighted down with scholarly discourse nor demeaned by trivial anecdotes. Hollywood Cartoons might well become the standard survey in its area. All libraries should consider for purchase." —Neal Baker, Library Journal

"Barrier's book is a major contribution to our understanding of the work of not only the Disney animators, but also of men like Max and Dave Fleischer, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, John Hubley, and the brilliant Warner Bros. crew, especially Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones.... The book is likely to become a standard history of American animation up to Disney's death in 1996."—Palm Beach Florida News

"Barrier's book is a major contribution to our understanding of the work of not only the Disney animators, but also of men like Max and Dave Fleischer, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, John Hubley, and the brilliant Warner Bros. crew, especially Tex Avery, Friz Feleng and Chuck Jones.... The book is likely to become a standard history of American animation up to Disney's death in 1966."—Charles Matthews, The Washington Post

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Hollywood Cartoons

American Animation in Its Golden Age
By Michael Barrier

Oxford University Press

Copyright ©2003 Michael Barrier
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0195167295

Chapter One


The photographs, filled as they are with solemn young men (not many women) dressed in vests and ties, and working at desks in spartan settings, could have been taken in almost any New York office building in the twenties; they do not suggest an artistic undertaking. It's only because the papers in front of these earnest toilers are drawings that their workplaces are recognizable as animated-cartoon studios rather than insurance companies.

Such people numbered a few hundred at most, a tiny fraction of the thousands who made up the rest of the film industry. Almost all cartoon studios were still in New York in the twenties, even though live-action filmmaking had largely moved to California years before. Animated cartoons had always been a cinematic afterthought: when regular production of cartoon shorts began in the middle teens, the industry's weight was rapidly shifting away from such one-reel (or less) films and toward multiple-reel shorts and features. Cartoons appealed at first as novelties, particularly when they added movement to familiar comic strips. By the twenties, though, animation had longsince, lost its novelty value, and many cartoon studios that had never offered much else were either out of the business or on the way there. In 1922, fewer than 23 percent of the nation's theaters offered cartoons on their programs (as opposed to the almost 73 percent that offered two-reel comedies).

Early on, filmmakers tried to bring efficiency to the manufacture of what was, after all, a complex and expensive industrial product, without destroying what made people want to see the films in the first place. It was an inherently difficult balancing act, especially where cartoons were concerned. An animated cartoon could easily require thousands of drawings, each differing a little from the next, and making those drawings could take a long time; finding some way to generate drawings faster could seem all-important. As the photos of cartoon Studios from the twenties suggest, with their businesslike atmosphere, cartoon producers did find ways to achieve a sort of efficiency, but what made regular production possible also robbed many of the films of interest. There is nothing so inefficient as the efficient production of a product that hardly anyone wants.

Winsor McCay, the New York newspaper cartoonist who was also the first American animator of consequence, made films that people wanted to see. But as if anticipating the dilemma his successors would face, he sidestepped the production problems more than addressed them. When McCay animated characters from his Sunday comics page, "Little Nemo in Slumberland," in 1911, he made his cartoon not primarily for movie theaters but as an addition to his vaudeville act. Although a one-reel film incorporating the roughly two minutes of Nemo animation also appeared in movie theaters, simultaneously with McCay's own use of it, he withheld two subsequent films, How a Mosquito Operates (1912) and Gertie (1914) (for which he animated a dinosaur) until he had exploited their stage appeal. Another popular newspaper cartoonist, Bud Fisher, followed McCay's example by having a young cartoonist named Paul Terry (they had worked together at the San Francisco Chronicle a few years earlier) make an animated film based on Fisher's comic strip "Mutt and Jeff"; Fisher, like McCay, had his own vaudeville act.

Terry's film has not survived. McCay's have, likewise accounts by his assistant John Fitzsimmons of how two of them were made. McCay's methods were radically at odds with rapid production on a regular schedule. For instance, his third film, Gertie, was the first to require much of a background. Fitzsimmons provided it by tracing a McCay drawing of the background onto each of the many hundreds of McCay's detailed drawings of the dinosaur herself. Even the most talented cartoonist would have found it extraordinarily difficult to produce a regularly appearing series of short animated cartoons by working as McCay and Fitzsimmons did; the question was whether there was any other way to do it.

The first attempt at such a series was, like McCay's Little Nemo cartoon, based on a comic strip. The French cartoonist Emile Cohl, who in the preceding four years had made dozens of short films—some containing animated drawings—for Gaumont and Pathé came to the Eclair studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in the fall of 1912 to make a series based on George McManus's comic strip, "The Newlyweds." It began appearing in theaters in March 1913, by which time McCay had made only his first two films.

All but one of the Newlyweds films have disappeared, so it's not possible to say with any assurance how Cohl—whose French films were in many ways more innovative than contemporaneous American films—solved the production problems that such a series posed. He was able to make only one cartoon a month, though, as opposed to the planned release of one every two weeks, so it seems likely that the series' demands were not particularly easy for him to meet. To judge from the sole surviving example, He Poses for His Portrait, released in July 1913, Cohl did not even attempt character animation like that in McCay's films. His characters—shown as negatives, white lines on black—are instead frozen in a tableau, each one highlighted in turn as their dialogue appears on the screen; movement comes mostly in bursts of free-flowing metamorphosis animation of the kind Cohl had employed in his French films (a whale becomes a meat grinder, into which a cat disappears; the cat emerges as white balls, which change into a goat, and so on). When characters do move, it is as cutouts. Cohl returned to France after eighteen months, leaving behind neither a continuing series nor trained assistants; shortly after he left, a fire destroyed almost all of his work for Eclair.

Cohl's biographer Donald Crafton cites an incident when Cohl was ordered by his superiors at Eclair to admit to his studio two visitors who showed an intense curiosity in his methods. Crafton speculates that one of the visitors was Raoul Barré a French Canadian cartoonist who had moved to New York in 1912, but that visitor more likely was John Randolph Bray, a cartoonist who had worked since the early years of the century for humor magazines like Judge. By 1913, when the visit to Cohl's studio probably took place, Bray was deeply involved in making films on a different model from either McCay or Cohl, and he was making them for Pathé, like Eclair, a French firm, whose American studio was just down the road from Eclair's, in Jersey City.

Bray sold The Artist's Dream, his first film—in which animation and live action alternate, the two never combined in the same scene—to Pathé in 1913. Before he completed The Artist's Dream, Bray said a dozen years later, he learned that McCay "had been experimenting along the same lines," and that is likely enough, since Pathé scheduled the release of The Artist's Dream for 12 June 1913. By that time, only the first two McCay films had been exhibited, the second in 1912, when Bray supposedly was already at work on his own film. (The climax of Bray's film, in which an animated dog explodes after eating too many cartoon sausages, suggests strongly that Bray had seen How A Mosquito Operates, in which the title character suffers a similar fate.) Bray distinguished himself from McCay, saying, "I wanted to simplify and perfect the process, so that the cartoons could be supplied as a regular motion-picture feature—as many of them as the public might want." When Bray's second cartoon, Colonel Heeza Liar in Africa, was released in December 1913, it was not as a novelty, but as the first in a series with that character.

Bray had, in fact, merely begun to simplify and perfect the process by addressing the early animators' largest problem, the one that McCay simply ignored and that Cohl circumvented through his use of cutout figures: how to combine characters (which had to move) with backgrounds (which ordinarily wouldn't). Bray's solution, which he reduced to a patent application on 9 January 1914, was to print multiple copies of the background for each scene, draw the characters on those printed sheets, and scrape away those parts of the background that the characters disturbed. (Alternatively, when the animator knew that part of the background would be disturbed for more than a few frames of film, he could have some of the sheets printed with part of the background blanked out. Then, when he had drawn the characters, the missing part of the background could be traced from one of the complete sheets.) Bray's method did not really differ much from McCay's, except that it mechanized the reproduction of the backgrounds; even at that, it called for assistants' tracing some parts of both characters and backgrounds.

Bray's initial patent application was rejected on 27 February 1914 by a patent examiner who had seen McCay's Nemo cartoon and who believed, correctly, that what Bray was trying to patent was not sufficiently different from the means used to produce McCay's film. Bray's attorney labored successfully to distinguish Bray's methods from McCay's, and the patent was ultimately granted on 11 August 1914. Under the pressure of actual production, Bray's methods did not live up to his patent's claims for them: he made only seven cartoons in all of 1914. Bray apparently animated his own limited output in 1914 with the help of a few assistants; it was probably not until late in that year that he hired other cartoonists as animators and set up a New York studio capable of systematic production.

Competitors were close behind. By early in 1915, Raoul Barré had formed a studio of some kind to make cartoons for the Edison company in a series called Animated Grouch Chasers; the first was released in March. By the end of 1915, he was making cartoons based on Tom Powers's "Phables" newspaper comics for release as part of the Hearst newsreel. Barré did not use printed backgrounds like Bray's, but neither did his films require tracing nearly as extensive as McCay's. He was from all appearances the first cartoon maker to realize that it didn't matter whether what was put under the camera was a single drawing, as with the McCay and Bray methods. All that mattered was what the camera saw, and it could see as a single image what was actually a composite of several pieces of paper, pressed together under a piece of glass.

As one result, Barré could employ what came to be called the rip-and-slash system. It entailed tearing holes in the paper drawings so that, for instance, the moving part of a character's body was visible on one sheet while the stationary part was visible through the hole, on another sheet under it. When the two sheets were laid together, the camera saw them as one (at least if the torn paper's edges were feathered adequately), eliminating the need to redraw the stationary part.

Such a system could have embraced torn background drawings as well as torn drawings of characters, but Barré evidently chose to use translucent sheets, probably of celluloid, on which the backgrounds were drawn or pasted. Putting such a sheet over the animation drawings separated the characters from the backgrounds more effectively than Bray's invention did; but since the backgrounds were actually on top of the characters that were supposed to be in front of them, Barré's solution created problems of its own. Background drawings had to be high on the screen or otherwise placed so that the characters wouldn't disturb them; when such a disturbance was unavoidable, the animator had no choice but to trace the background drawing onto the animation drawing for however long the disturbance lasted.

Barré is generally credited with inventing not just rip-and-slash animation, but also what very quickly became the universally adopted method for keeping animation drawings in register, that is, each drawing in proper relation to the next. It involved installing two or more pegs at the top or bottom of the animator's drawing board and using drawing paper with holes punched to fit over the pegs. Bray's method for registration, which involved aligning the "guide marks" on each printed sheet, was clumsy by comparison. Animators began very quickly to draw on boards equipped not just with pegs but with panes of glass illuminated from below—lightboards, as they were called—so that the animator could more easily see previous drawings as he made a new one. That need would have grown more pressing as drawings began to be broken up into several layers.

Earl Hurd, who had been a newspaper cartoonist in Chicago and New York, came up with a method for separating characters from backgrounds that surpassed both Bray's and Barré's. Unlike Barré, who never patented anything, Hurd reduced his idea to a patent application on 19 December 1914. Hurd's patent called for drawing the animated figures on translucent sheets of paper and celluloid, painting them, and then placing them over a single background drawing when they were to be photographed. Bray's earlier patent had called for exploiting translucent paper's advantages in the actual animating—the idea was that an animator would be able to see the previous drawing as he made the next one—but he had not realized, as Hurd did, that translucence could be exploited in the photographing of the drawings as well.

By the time Hurd applied for his patent, Bray's method had already proved to be unworkable. Bray used printed backgrounds for a few early cartoons, like Colonel Heeza Liar in Africa and The Grafters, but they were hopelessly inflexible. In The Grafters, probably the first cartoon with cat and mouse antagonists, the staging is often dictated not by the comedy's requirements but by the backgrounds, so that, for instance, all the action in one scene takes place on the far left side of the screen, in a long shot. Bray cartoons from later in 1914 and 1915 show him trying to wriggle out from under his method's inadequacies, mainly through the use of cutouts for both backgrounds and characters.

Hurd received his patent in June 1915. At some point during that year, he went to work for Bray, bringing his patent—and thus a solution to Bray's problem—with him. (He also brought along his character Bobby Bumps, who had appeared in a couple of cartoons released by Universal.) Bray probably used translucent sheets of paper in producing a few cartoons at most before all the animation drawings for his cartoons began to be traced in ink onto sheets of celluloid—"cels," as they came universally to be called.

Bray himself received two more patents, one each in 1915 and 1916. Through his own patents, and Hurd's, he was trying to stake out all of animation as his preserve, in effect emulating the Motion Picture Patents Company's efforts to license all film production and exhibition (efforts that had ended in January 1915 with an adverse court decision). Bray's patents gave birth not only to litigation, beginning with his 1915 suit against a short-lived series called Keeping Up with the Joneses, but to a continuing campaign by Bray and his formidable wife to persuade aspiring animators that they had to accept Bray's yoke.

Even though Bray was trying to establish his suzerainty over theatrical animation, his and Hurd's patents never completely stymied his potential rivals. He even gave one of them a backhanded boost. When Bud Fisher approached Paul Terry about undertaking a Mutt and Jeff series, Terry declined because he had already agreed to make cartoons for Bray; he recommended that Fisher talk to Barré instead. The publicity for the new series mentioned only Fisher, but Barré was apparently involved with it from the start. The first of the new Mutt and Jeff cartoons was shown in New York in March 1916.

It was only through his use of celluloid that Barré came within hailing distance of the Bray-Hurd patents, and in later years he claimed that he had used celluloid as long ago as the summer of 1913, early enough to sink Hurd's critically important patent (Barré may have been making novelty films of some kind for Edison then). As Barré and other cartoon makers used celluloid more extensively, they did so in ways that owed little or nothing to Bray's films. For example, it was not anyone associated with Bray, but rather William C. Nolan, an animator at Barré's studio in 1915, who came up with the idea of making wider background drawings and then moving them under the camera, a little in one direction or the other, each time a frame of film was exposed. Such movement encouraged the illusion that the camera was moving on a track parallel to moving characters. Animators very quickly realized that they could combine celluloid overlays of foreground elements with Nolan's innovation: foreground shrubbery that moved on and off the screen more rapidly than the background drawing, as if it were closer to the camera, enhanced the illusion of depth.

As in Barré's case, there was enough ambiguity surrounding the Bray-Hurd patents—and enough that they did not address—to encourage other cartoonists to disregard them or work around them. In December 1916, Bray defeated a conflicting claim by Carl Lederer, another animator at Barré's studio. Lederer evidently made a renewed effort to nullify Bray's patents, only to drop it in January 1918, not because he had been defeated again, he said, but because "I found that the subject matter covered by the Bray patents is in universal use today." Bray himself vowed to pursue infringers vigorously—and he sometimes did—but he may have been deterred by awareness of how fragile was his patents' validity. In any event, by 1918 his patents had become mostly a nuisance. Other cartoon makers had surpassed him technically; they had found ways to make cartoons on a regular schedule, not only by exploiting the flexibility that separating characters from backgrounds gave them, but also by adopting shortcuts of other kinds. They used cycles, for instance, in which a few drawings representing a single movement, like a stride in a run, were seen over and over again.

Their much larger problem was how to make their cartoons appealing to audiences.

* * *

The pioneer animators were not green cartoonists. Emile Cohl was in his fifties when he made the Newlyweds cartoons; Winsor McCay was in his early forties when he made his first animated film; Raoul Barré turned forty in 1914; John Randolph Bray was thirty-five in that year. All these men were accustomed to drawing for publication, that is, to doing work that required speed and proficiency. When Bray and Barré began setting up real studios, they attracted other cartoonists of the same kind. By the end of 1915, Bray had assembled a group of former newspaper cartoonists—Paul Terry and Earl Hurd were two of a larger number—who made the films for him, each specializing in his own characters. The cartoonists at Barré's studio likewise included men who had come to animation after years as newspaper cartoonists or as contributors to humor magazines.

Late in 1915, Bray switched distributors, leaving Pathé for Paramount; he was now obligated to produce one cartoon a week. By September 1916, when he was deep into the Paramount release, his staff included nine cartoonists, as well as four camera operators and thirty assistant artists. Such assistants, at his studio and others, shouldered the more nearly mechanical tasks involved in production, much as Fitzsimmons did for McCay. When the animation was on celluloid, as at Bray's studio, an assistant might trace the characters in ink from the animators' pencil drawings. When the animators' own inked drawings were photographed, as at Barré's studio, an assistant might fill in the solid black areas or even erase the pencil lines. A talented newcomer need not remain in such a job long, however: when Richard Huemer started at Barré's studio in July 1916, he was animating after three weeks.

The more seasoned cartoonists, including Bray and Barré themselves, had made the transition to animation with apparent ease, because animating was for them not all that different from simple cartooning. Although Bray showed himself in The Artist's Dream to be capable of depicting a dog's movements with surprising subtlety, other Bray studio films that survive from the teens tend to be fairly elaborate in drawing, like the nineteenth-century magazine cartoons they evoke, but barely serviceable as animation. Instead, a drawing may be held for many seconds on the screen or animation repeated throughout a film; likewise, rather than make, say, ten individual drawings to represent a rapid action, an animator might make only five drawings, or three, and have each drawing shot for two or three successive frames ("on twos" or "on threes").

Even Winsor McCay had resorted to such expedients as cycles and repeated animation, but only within the context of animation that was otherwise painstakingly realistic. In How a Mosquito Operates, McCay's animation of the mosquito as it attacks a sleeping man is startling—and even painful to watch—because the mosquito is so very large in relation to the man and plunges its huge beak so deep into the man's face. But McCay animated the swelling of the enormous insect's body, as it gorges itself on blood, with disarming subtlety: the mosquito fills out gradually and persuasively—not simply increasing in size, like a balloon filling with water, but as if its body had a certain structure, now distended. McCay animated his dinosaur, Gertie, with the same combination of grand scale and surprising delicacy; she is like a mischievous and unpredictable trained animal, suggesting variously an elephant, horse, or big cat. In the Bray cartoons, by contrast, there is nothing resembling real movement; everything is stiff and mechanical, in keeping with the industrial model that Bray had embraced so confidently.

Barré had embraced it, too, but he may have been looking back over his shoulder at McCay's example with some wistfulness. Even in 1916 at the Barré studio, Dick Huemer said, "there was some attempt to improve animation," as well as evening art classes with a model: "We would come back at night to study the human form." George Stallings, who animated for Barré, wrote to Huemer in 1963 about aspirations Barré had expressed even earlier, probably in 1915 during the Edison release: "Barré's one ambition ... was to raise the quality ... of animation so high that the others could not compete with him. He had a planned program for this all outlined and threw all of his profits back into it, whenever he had any, but he couldn't get far on twelve hundred dollars a picture." Nothing speaks of such ambition in a Grouch Chaser like Cartoons at the Beach, which is primitive in both drawing and movement; the occasional heavily rendered drawing invites comparisons with an overripe tomato. Never Again! (1916) is comparably crude: only a police chief's mouth and arm move—in cycles—as he gives orders to Si Keeler, a seedy old traffic cop, in the first scene, while one held drawing suffices for Keeler himself.

Generalizing about the animated cartoons of the teens is treacherous because so many of the films have not survived and not all the surviving films are accessible, but the overwhelming impression is of films poorly animated, populated by highly artificial characters, and offering mostly jokes of the lamest kind—often in dialogue balloons, enhancing a resemblance to filmed comic strips. Cartoons never ran more than ten minutes or so, and they often shared a reel with a newsreel or a nature film. They were, in sum, films of a highly marginal kind, and there's some evidence, in trade-paper reviews and personal recollections from the time, that by late in the teens audiences were growing impatient with cartoons' weaknesses.

There's evidence, too—more often in accounts from the period than in the surviving films—that some people working in animation tried to respond by improving their product. One of them was Gregory La Cava, a New York newspaper cartoonist who, according to Nat Falk's early history, worked first in animation for Barré and then made animated cartoons for Rube Goldberg, by 1916 a famous newspaper cartoonist. It's not clear when La Cava took charge of the cartoon studio that William Randolph Hearst established within his International Film Service to make films based on his comic strips; the first Hearst cartoons, from early in 1916, which included Barré's Phables and Krazy Kat cartoons animated by Bill Nolan, were probably farmed out. La Cava was certainly running the studio by sometime in the fall of 1916, when the first Katzenjammer Kids cartoons appeared. La Cava made improved cartoons, in Falk's account, by increasing the average number of drawings from 2,000 to 3,500, by introducing what Falk called a "more natural animation" as opposed to "stiff angular movements," and by substituting titles for balloons-in short, by moving the cartoons away from their comic-strip origins.

Someone had to make those additional drawings, of course, and so the animator who could draw quickly took on added value. Frank Moser was the exemplar. He was yet another newspaper cartoonist; he had worked as one in Des Moines, Iowa, before finding a job of some kind in New York. He evidently did not get into animation until he went to work for the Hearst studio, most likely in its earliest days in 1916. By 1918, when the Hearst operation briefly shared space with Barré's studio in the Bronx (it subsequently moved to Hearst's live-action studio in Harlem), Moser had become famous among animators as a "speed wizard," Dick Huemer said. "He was then considered the best animator in the world—and the highest paid, too—because he could turn out these fantastic amounts of footage; he just slashed the stuff out. Worked on paper, pen and ink ... batted it out."

The early animators had inherited, from newspaper comics and magazine cartoons, characters that were drawn and animated as relatively rigid vertical forms. What Falk called "more natural animation" involved not just more drawings—and thus more movement—but also character design with a greater reliance on curves. (The use of curves may even have grown in response to the increased number of drawings, curves being easier and faster to draw.) Vertical forms tend to stutter when they're moving across the screen, whereas curving forms tend to flow. It was, in various accounts, Bill Nolan who first demonstrated the potential in a more curving and pliable kind of animation, but he was certainly not alone. Another cartoonist who later won some credit for such an innovation was Charles Bowers.

Like so many others in the field, Bowers was a newspaper cartoonist until the middle teens, when he entered animation; he was by 1918 a partner in Barré's studio. Bowers's contributions are hard to assess in the absence of so many films, but there is this praise in an unsigned obituary in a 1947 newsletter of the cartoonists' union (clearly written by some former colleague, possibly Ted Sears, who began working at the Barré studio around 1917): "He was one of the first to eliminate angular stiffness from animation and substitute smooth action based upon the movement of curved forms. He also added perspective and solidity of figure construction to an art that had long been two-dimensional." Such terms could be applied without strain to parts of a surviving Bowers film called A.W.O.L.; it appears to have been made not long after the armistice, probably in 1919, as a cautionary tale for restless soldiers.

The small budgets and tight schedules that were so confining to Barré in the middle teens were no less confining later in the decade. When several animators worked on a film, as was increasingly the case, there was typically only the most limited effort to pull their disparate contributions together. While he was with Barré, Dick Huemer said in 1973,

Barré would hand out the idea of the story. He'd say, "We're making a picture about Egypt this week; have pyramids in it, and sphinxes, and camels." ... So, we'd go back to our boards. We would animate for a week—just about a week—cut it off, and then soon it would be spliced together.

The process may not always have been quite that stark, but the animators unquestionably worked with only the most limited kind of guidance—on another occasion, Huemer recalled "a very rough scenario.... Probably on a single sheet of paper, without any models, sketches or anything."

The Barré-Bowers partnership had broken up by the fall of 1918, after Barré suffered some sort of mental collapse. The Mutt and Jeff series itself ended by early in 1923, from all appearances a victim, like other cartoons, of the postwar recession that overtook the American economy in the early twenties. The film industry as a whole was hit hard, but cartoon studios—making a product few people cared about—especially suffered.

A few studios in addition to the Mutt and Jeff operation had enjoyed at least mild prosperity in the years just after World War I. In September 1919, Bray broke with Paramount and began distributing his Pictographs—potpourris that mixed travelogues and nature studies with animated films of various kinds—through Samuel Goldwyn, on a schedule that called for three reels a week, three times as many as before. In October, the Bray studio announced a deal under which it would make cartoons with such Hearst characters as Krazy Kat and Happy Hooligan; in fact, it planned to package some of the Hearst studio's cartoons with those it made itself. Paramount responded immediately to the loss of Bray's cartoons with cartoons of its own, as part of a weekly Paramount Magazine. Earl Hurd took his character Bobby Bumps from Bray to Paramount after the break, and Frank Moser left the Hearst studio to produce another series for Paramount, Bud and Susie.

Within two years, though, Paramount had first dropped the Magazine, then withdrawn from animation entirely, and the Hearst studio had closed. The Bray studio's role in the film industry—and in animation in particular—was declining rapidly. Goldwyn had acquired what was billed as a "controlling interest" in Bray Pictures Corporation early in 1920, but the Goldwyn-Bray Pictograph ended in 1921, and Bray's alliance with the Goldwyn company apparently ended around the same time. In 1922, Bray began distributing what was now called the Bray Magazine on a "states-rights basis," that is, selling the exhibition rights to regional distributors, a definite step down from his earlier arrangements.

New Bray cartoons starring the revived character Colonel Heeza Liar—a preternaturally vigorous old man who had no comedy in him—were made by George Stallings with the help of two younger animators, Walter Lantz and Clyde "Gerry" Geronimi, who had worked with him at the Hearst studio. As if in testimony to animation's declining popularity, the new films combined animation with live action; the combination work involved blowing up frames of the live-action film so they could be reshot with the character animation on celluloid over them. Bray fired Stallings, Geronimi said, because he "had a habit of coming in late," and put Lantz in charge of the studio's animated films, with Geronimi as his assistant. In 1924, Lantz—who also acted in the live action—laid Heeza Liar aside in favor of a series built around a boy protagonist, Dinky Doodle.

Bray himself had abandoned any active role in production of his cartoons. His interest had shifted away from theatrical films of all kinds and toward films for schools, filmstrips in particular (his company began offering a filmstrip projector in 1924). He was observing the logic of the industrial model he had always followed. For a small studio like his, that logic pointed toward films that served markets less volatile than theatrical audiences. Otherwise, his ambitions for animation were exactly as limited as they had always been: to hold the number of drawings to a minimum. For a 600-foot cartoon, he told a magazine interviewer, "we manage to get along with only 2,000 to 2,500 drawings"—fewer than La Cava was putting into the Hearst cartoons a half-decade earlier. Bray had no larger ideas for organizing the production of his animated films. There was, however, a predictable concern with the most minor costs. "Walter had charge of the drawing supplies," the animator David Hand said, "and if a pencil wore out, you went to Walter and he gave you one more."

Animation in the early twenties was guttering out much as might have been predicted; the yearning for greater efficiency, exemplified by Bray's pride in the poverty of his product even as his studio slid out of the cartoon business, had triumphed too often. A few cartoon studios did manage to thrive in the twenties, though, even if on a small scale. Their films invited audiences to find novelty not in the medium itself, but in what the cartoonists were doing with it.

* * *

J. R. Bray and Max Fleischer met around 1901 at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Bray was working in the art department and the eighteen-year-old Fleischer was, as Bray wrote in a third-person "History" many years later, a "cub artist, retouching photographs." Fleischer moved to Boston to work for an advertising agency (Bray may have gotten him the job) and later became the art editor of Popular Science magazine. He and Bray met again, probably in 1917, at Paramount's offices, where Fleischer was waiting to show a sample cartoon he had produced. According to the "History," "Bray told Fleischer that he had an exclusive contract with Paramount and suggested he show it to him..... Bray agreed to try the cartoon on the public. It immediately was a success, so Bray engaged Fleischer and his brother to make a series at Bray Studios for regular release."

Fleischer had come up with a method that yielded animation that was, like McCay's, far more lifelike than Bray's or that of the other animators of the teens, but Fleischer's method was much closer in spirit to Bray's than to McCay's, because its animation was not really animation at all. It was instead a tracing from live-action film that was projected from below, frame by frame, onto a glass surface the size of the animation paper. Like Bray, Fleischer sought patent protection: he filed an application for a patent on his method, called rotoscoping, on 6 December 1915. (Like Bray's, Fleischer's application was rejected at first but eventually approved, in Fleischer's case on 9 October 1917.)

Fleischer and his younger brother Dave had tested the new method by filming Dave in a black-and-white clown suit—the distinct patterns made for easier tracing—and it was that same clown who became a continuing character in the Fleischers' cartoons for Bray. Fleischer cartoons began appearing in Paramount-Bray Pictographs by June 1918. The rotoscoping made the desired impression. One early review, of what was probably the clown's first appearance in a Pictograph, described him as "a wonderful little figure that moves with the sinuous grace of an Oriental dancer."

When the Bray studio's production of both entertainment films and industrial subjects picked up after World War I, the two were sometimes combined, as in an animated Pictograph segment that demonstrated how a gasoline engine worked. Max Fleischer's involvement in such films was surely substantial, given not only his background—especially his association with Popular Science—but also the infrequent appearances of his clown cartoons; they were subordinate to his other work. It was not until September 1919, when Bray moved his Pictographs from Paramount to Goldwyn, that the clown cartoons, now dubbed Out of the Inkwell, became a series within the Pictographs.

In mid-1921, when Bray's entertainment films were of declining importance both within the studio and in the industry as a whole, the Fleischers set up their own studio. Their timing, and the move itself, may have been dictated by the general slump in animation and the concurrent termination of the Pictograph. The Fleischers first distributed their new Out of the Inkwell series themselves, on a states-rights basis; by sometime in 1922, though, they had signed with a distributor—not one of the major film companies, but Margaret Winkler, a young woman who had just gone into business for herself after seven years with Warner Bros. as a secretary.

The Inkwell films relied heavily on live action, even though the rotoscoping of Dave Fleischer diminished rapidly as the foundation for the clown's actions; rotoscoping is detectable only at the beginning of Modeling (1921), for example. Instead, the films presented the clown as a creature who emerged from a live-action inkwell and played against a live-action cartoonist, Max Fleischer himself. The animation was mostly on paper.

Dick Huemer started animating for the Fleischers, probably in early 1923, when the total staff was, he said, "ten at the most" (it had grown to nineteen by late in the year, when the studio moved to larger quarters at 1600 Broadway). Roland Crandall was the only animator apart from Burton Gillett, who preceded Huemer by only a little and, Huemer said, "got me in there." Before long, Huemer told Joe Adamson, the Fleischers were paying him the impressive sum of $125 a week: "They would get crushes on people, a boss would, and say, 'Oh, this is the best animator in the business, he's a wizard! Can't lose him!' So they would pay him a good salary." It was to make Huemer even more productive that the Fleischers proposed to him, probably in 1924, that Arthur Davis become his assistant.

Davis was to be an assistant in a new sense of the term. By the early twenties, there was wide acceptance of the idea that there was a sort of hierarchy of animation drawings. Winsor McCay himself advocated a "split system" in a correspondence course that Federal Schools published in 1923, telling the students that they should break movement down to single drawings by making a new drawing midway between two others, starting with the two at the beginning and end of a movement. Many other animators were already working in a more sophisticated fashion, by making the most important drawings first and anchoring the rest of their animation in them. The poses that defined a movement came to be called "extremes," the others, "inbetweens," because they were literally in between: they smoothed the transition from one extreme to another.

An alternative adopted by some animators was to work "straight ahead," that is, to start at the beginning of a scene and make one drawing after another. That method could produce animation of a particularly fluid kind, but it also entailed risks—a character could easily grow or shrink over the course of a scene—and it was by no means the norm in the twenties; as Dick Huemer said, "We worked from pose to pose with inbetweens." The animators themselves drew the inbetweens, though, and it was that procedure that the Fleischers proposed to change in Huemer's case by making Davis a sort of subanimator who would draw the inbetweens for Huemer's scenes. "It was their idea.... They talked me into it," Huemer said in 1973. The Fleischer animators inked their own drawings, on paper ("You wouldn't dare let anybody else touch your precious stuff," Huemer said), and so Davis, as Huemer's inbetweener, inked the inbetweens, adhering to Huemer's style.

Huemer worked very little with Max Fleischer. "Max and Dave went off by themselves and thought up the stories," Huemer said, "some basic idea of the clown, say, getting involved with a masquerade party.... They would also then go off by themselves and shoot the live action." Once it was shot, Max was no longer involved. Dave Fleischer, on the other hand, "would come sit next to an animator, and they would talk.... Not writing anything down, just talk—a private gag meeting. That was the only preparation for the animation."

The Fleischer studio was in that respect much like Barré's Mutt and Jeff studio, where Huemer had worked not long before. What distinguished the Fleischer cartoons from Barré's, and from most other studios' cartoons, was their reflexive nature; whatever their ostensible subject, they were always cartoons about what it was like to be a cartoon. That self-awareness sometimes extended beyond the characters—the clown, called variously KoKo or Ko-Ko, knew he was made of pen and ink—to the filmmakers themselves. Cartoon Factory (1925), for instance, is built around the idea of mechanization, which embraces even the production of multiple Maxes (cutout photos of Max in a tin-soldier suit). Max appears in stop motion at the start, pressing levers to stir up all his drawing tools.

Max Fleischer had, of course, worked at J. R. Bray's side for several years, and he may have taken the industrial model all too seriously. He set up his own distributing organization, Red Seal Pictures Corporation, in 1923, and by 1925, Red Seal was releasing monthly "featurettes" that included not only the Fleischer Inkwell cartoons and Song Cartunes (the latter were film versions of the song slides that had been part of theater programs for decades), but also a variety of live-action shorts. Red Seal released 141 shorts in 1925, as opposed to only 26 in 1924.

It was clearly too much. In October 1926, Max Fleischer asked for appointment of a receiver in bankruptcy, contending that, despite Inkwell Films' solvency, "the action of a film laboratory has forced it to seek the protection of the courts to work out its problems." In November, Alfred Weiss, a film-industry veteran, bailed out Red Seal and Inkwell Films, paying $218,000 of the firms' liabilities and becoming president of both. Paramount announced in May 1927 that it would begin releasing the Inkwell cartoons, which were to be "presented" by Weiss but "produced" by Fleischer. The Red Seal episode ended, as Dick Huemer told Joe Adamson, "in the backer [Weiss] taking over the whole thing, and Max being ousted.... However, they weren't able to get the clown away from Max. So he set himself up over [in Long Island City], opened a little studio and continued making song cartoons." That apparently happened around the beginning of 1929 and was the occasion for the formation of a new corporation, Fleischer Studios, in May 1929. When the Fleischers moved back to Manhattan in October 1929, a Film Daily announcement said that their studio had "no connection whatsoever with Out-of-the-Inkwell Films, [sic] Inc."

Despite such distractions, at least some of the Fleischer cartoons had passed beyond mere self-awareness to become as knowing in their handling of animation's properties as Buster Keaton's live-action comedies were in their examination of film itself. They employed metamorphosis—a device integral to animation since the earliest animated films—with an unprecedented relish. In KoKo the Kop (1927), Fitz the dog, fleeing after he has stolen a bone that Max has drawn, "hides" by becoming a window with a girl hanging out of it (he turns back into himself as KoKo kisses the girl). But, more striking, objects repeatedly change their nature without changing their appearance. The characters lift up and rearrange seemingly solid and immovable background elements, as if they were stage props. Thus rearranged, the background elements again appear to be fixed in place—as in fact they are. In the same manner, Fitz picks up the front half of a large rock; the remaining half appears to be a hole—and thus, it is one, which Fitz escapes into. Appearances are simultaneously true and false.

Cartoons like KoKo the Kop seem not to have emerged from any systematic exploration of the medium, but to have grown out of the contradictions built into the way the Fleischers made cartoons. For all that they adhered to a Bray-like model in so many ways, they did not follow through; at crucial points there was an abrupt transition from industrial efficiency to a much looser and more eccentric sort of filmmaking.

A few animation drawings from the Inkwell films have survived, and on the evidence of those drawings—and the films, too—the Fleischers manipulated paper far more intricately than did other animators who put the paper animation drawings under the camera, as opposed to tracings of those drawings on celluloid. Working with paper drawings alone was much more restrictive than working with cels. Animators could, by tearing the paper, achieve only some of the flexibility that cel animation offered. Putting the characters on cels eliminated the need to worry about the characters' disturbing the backgrounds (at least as long as the drawings on the cels were opaqued, or painted, as they almost always were). Animators who worked with paper could never shed that worry. On the other hand, cel animation could match some of paper animation's virtues, since animators could divide individual drawings among more than one level of celluloid; a moving character or part of a character could be on one sheet and a stationary character or body part on another. Stacking sheets of celluloid in that manner produced noticeable differences in paint color—a white or gray seen through three sheets of celluloid was darker than a white or gray on top of the pile—but that was a minor annoyance compared with the time saved by not having to trace drawings that did not change from one exposure to the next.

Cartoon makers who stuck with paper because of its lower cost or more handsome appearance (the inked lines on eels tended to be crude-looking compared with the inked drawings on paper) still used cels to some extent, particularly for background overlays. But although the Fleischers put KoKo on cels over rear-projected frames from live-action film whenever the clown left the drawing board (the Rotograph, a device of Max's invention, yielded results similar to those in the Bray films made by Walter Lantz), they resorted to cels seldom if ever in the pure cartoon sections. There, the Fleischer staff tore and cut the paper animation with an ingenuity that probably became an end in itself. "Some of it was like lacework," said Al Eugster, who started work at Fleischers' in 1929. "I don't know how the cameraman ever handled that." It is impossible to believe that the other studios' methods were not more efficient.

The Fleischers also worked without exposure sheets, a tool in use at some studios since the middle teens; such sheets told the cameraman how many exposures, or frames of film, should be devoted to each drawing. Instead, as Roland Crandall wrote a few years later, "most of the planning, matching and timing was done under the camera"—a practice no doubt mandated by the paper animation's complexity, and one at war with anything like efficient production. Similarly with their assigning Art Davis to Huemer to draw his inbetweens: however sensible such a move might have been, considered in isolation, as a way to increase Huemer's production, it probably would have made more sense, in those terms, had it been combined with careful planning of what Huemer was animating.

There is in the Inkwell cartoons continual friction between a rigorously mechanical approach to animated filmmaking, on the one hand, and an utterly whimsical, not to say careless, attitude toward stories and animation, on the other. As in Huemer's recollection, it seems in the films that Max Fleischer is in charge up to a point and then Dave Fleischer takes over, their radically different temperaments governing different aspects of each film. Thus it is that KoKo—clearly more Dave's creature than Max's—is constantly testing and poking at the mechanical apparatus that is Max's preserve and that (as the film is at pains to show) makes the clown's very existence possible.

In only one other series of cartoons in the twenties was there the same sort of examination of the medium, with the difference that in the other case a single sensibility was in charge. It is Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat cartoons that reveal most clearly just how much—and how little—a creative animator might accomplish within the confines of the silent cartoon of the twenties.

* * *

Pat Sullivan, an Australian-born newspaper cartoonist, was making animated cartoons with the character Sammie Johnsin, a black child, by early in 1916, working with at least two assistants. Sullivan's career over the next few years was erratic, like himself (he was imprisoned for nine months in 1917-18 on a rape conviction), but by the fall of 1919, he was making cartoons for the weekly Paramount Magazine. Like Earl Hurd and Frank Moser, he helped fill the gap left in Paramount's program after Bray decamped with his Pictographs. When Sullivan signed a contract with Paramount in March 1920, one of the specified subjects of his cartoons was a black cat, Felix, who had been introduced (as "Master Tom") in a Paramount Magazine cartoon called Feline Follies.

Sullivan was hit hard by the 1921 slump that brought an end to the Paramount Magazine and then to all of Paramount's cartoons. He emerged from the wreckage with ownership of his character, but at first he had no place to go with Felix. By late in 1921, though, he had become Margaret Winkler's client, even before the Fleischers signed with her. Felix Saves the Day was released in February 1922 as the first free-standing Felix cartoon.

Sullivan was an animator—he learned the trade at Barré's studio in the middle teens—but he was, to judge from such surviving evidence as his 1919 Bray cartoon called Origin of the Shimmie, never a very good one. He was, besides, an alcoholic. By the early twenties, he had abandoned even a supervisory role to Otto Messmer, a younger man who had worked with him as a subordinate since the Sammie Johnsin days. The Sullivan studio moved around Manhattan in the twenties, from Forty-second Street to Sixty-fifth Street near Lincoln Square, and finally, for most of the decade, to Sixty-third Street near Broadway. Although Sullivan had a small office off the large second-floor workroom that made up most of the Sixty-third Street studio, he rarely came there. As Messmer said, "Once he had the studio going, that was it. He just owned it."

Throughout the twenties, Messmer said, "there was never more than one animator helping me," plus assistants (some of whom probably did some animation as well) and the cameraman. Messmer made layouts—rough sketches showing the other cartoonists what the backgrounds should look like—and he animated, he said, "at least 70 percent" of each cartoon. He was also the series' de facto writer: he made up enough titles for a year's output, and those titles dictated the general shape of the stories. "Since you had given the titles," he said, "it was easy to concentrate." Al Eugster, who traced the pencil animation drawings in ink, said he "never did see a script. Otto used to have maybe some small notes—small pieces of paper—and the rest of it in his head. When an animator finished a sequence he'd come over to Otto and pick up some more work, and then ad-libbed.... They'd sort of gag it up as they went along."

The Felix cartoons were Messmer's creations far more than Sullivan's, but it was only Sullivan's name that appeared on the cartoons and in publicity for them. Messmer admitted that he was frustrated "a little bit" at not getting screen credit for the Felix cartoons. "But, you see, it was kind of a contented feeling that what we're doing is going; it's a nice feeling. A feeling of security." Such passivity was extraordinarily convenient for Sullivan, who reaped not only all the glory but also, of course, most of the money that the cartoons generated.

There was soon plenty of both. Like the Fleischers' Inkwell cartoons, the Felix cartoons met the requirements of the more demanding theatrical environment of the middle twenties. There is abundant evidence—in everything from warm trade-paper reviews to licensed toys to Buster Keaton's unmistakable parody in Go West of Felix's ruminative pacing—that critics and audiences recognized the cartoons' superiority to most of what had gone before. As the Fleischers did in 1923 when they set up Red Seal, Sullivan left Margaret Winkler for what promised to be a more lucrative distribution arrangement, in Sullivan's case with Educational Film Exchanges: for the 1925-26 season, he committed Himself—and Messmer, of course—to producing a new cartoon every two weeks.

So popular had Felix become that Winkler, after losing the Felix series, started a competing series with a feline star: she got the rights to Krazy Kat, absent from films since the teens. After the demise of the Hearst studio, Bill Nolan had worked for two or more years as what Messmer called his "guest animator"; Nolan began making the Krazy Kat cartoons for Winkler at a studio in Long Branch, New Jersey, in the summer of 1925.

A healthy percentage of the Felix cartoons have survived, and it's not readily apparent from many of them, particularly those from early in the decade, what aroused so much enthusiasm. Cartoons like Felix Goes Hungry (1924) are basically a stream of loosely related incidents, resembling in that respect short comedies like Keaton's The Goat; Felix occasionally mugs at the camera in closeup, taking his audience into his confidence as if he were a second-rate comedian in live action. Broaden the sample, though, and the basis of Felix's appeal becomes clearer.

In Oceantics (date uncertain, but probably 1925), Felix wants a round of Swiss cheese in the window of a grocery store. He reaches with his prehensile tail toward what appears to be a distant house, but when he lifts the front door off the house, it remains the same tiny size as Felix brings it toward the grocery. He places the door, still tiny, under the grocery's window, opens the door, reaches through the doorway up into the display space, and removes the cheese. He then takes the round of Swiss to a billboard that advertises player pianos, cuts the cheese into a thin strip, like a piano roll, and runs it through the piano on the billboard, producing music. By seizing the door, Felix collapses the illusion that the screen is a three-dimensional space; but he then insists that his audience accept the illusion represented by the billboard. He does both quite elegantly, without any hesitation or awkward transitions.

It was thanks mainly to Felix himself that Messmer's cartoons surpassed the Fleischers' Inkwell cartoons, which they otherwise so much resembled, in the piquancy of their continual scrutiny of the peculiar characteristics of the animated screen. More so than KoKo, Felix had the rudiments of a personality; the cartoons focused not entirely on sly transformations, but also on Felix himself—he was curious and rather hard-boiled—as he instigated and responded to them. Because Felix was wholly Messmer's creature, he could act as a surrogate for both his creator and the audience, exploring on their behalf a strange and treacherous place. Given the sharply different interests that Max and Dave Fleischer brought to their cartoons, there was no way that KoKo could play a comparable role.

Felix was rather square and angular in his early appearances, differing from earlier cartoon characters mainly in the simplicity of his black body. Here Messmer had a stroke of luck: Bill Nolan, when he was Messmer's guest animator, brought with him the drawing and animating style he had adopted at Hearst, the style that emphasized curves rather than straight lines. Felix reflected Nolan's presence by becoming a more rounded, and thus more immediately appealing, character. In his circular construction, as well as in the general simplicity of his design, the revised Felix was a character who facilitated animation in a way that most earlier characters had not; KoKo's design, with its floppy clown suit, was fussy by comparison.

Through Felix, Messmer led the eye away from the many elements that his cartoons shared with the failed series of the early twenties. As it so often did—because the background drawings, on torn paper or celluloid overlays, framed the action—the use of paper animation in the Felix cartoons encouraged dull, uniform staging, in medium to long shots, with few closeups. The Felix cartoons also looked rather stark in their lack of grays, another by-product of paper animation; almost everything was pure black or white, except for celluloid overlays with gray areas. It was in their animation, though, that the Felix cartoons were most revealing about the circumstances in which animated cartoons were being made in the twenties.

Despite the speed and regularity that the Sullivan studio's output required, it remained at its heart a one-man operation. Messmer differed greatly as an artist from Winsor McCay—Messmer was wholly a cartoonist, whereas McCay drew in an elaborate illustration style—but as filmmakers they worked much alike. They did as much of the work themselves as they could, delegating and taking shortcuts as little as possible. In Messmer's case, though, the schedule's pressure meant that he had to delegate and take shortcuts much more often than McCay did. Besides having people like Eugster trace the pencil drawings in ink, he met some of the pressure for production by animating frequently on twos (although "if it was running, or falling," he said, "you had to have it on ones") and relying heavily on what were by then the customary devices for economizing on animation: held drawings, cycles, repeats.

Such expedients, useful enough in individual cases, were damaging in their cumulative effect: the animation in the Felix cartoons is almost never more than functional, and the cartoons sag badly when what is actually on the screen counts for more than the thought behind it. That is why Messmer's fantastic transformations are most effective when they emerge incongruously in an otherwise "normal" setting, as with the grocery store in Oceantics. In a full-blown fantasy sequence where everything is of a piece, like the hallucinations the drunken Felix endures in Woos Whoopee (1928?), the films' limitations loom larger. As ingenious as he was, Messmer could make cartoons only by compromising right up to edge of mediocrity.

Messmer enjoyed as much freedom as he did only because he worked inside the cocoon of Sullivan's indifference; for all the apparent injustice of their arrangement, Messmer may have known that there were no other circumstances under which he could be so fully immersed in what really interested him. His speed and efficiency were the price he paid for that privilege.

Other cartoonists viewed speed and efficiency very differently: they were what cartoonists had to provide if they were to be taken seriously by the larger film industry. The cartoon producer in the twenties who most successfully accommodated himself to the industry's demands was not Pat Sullivan or Max Fleischer, but Paul Terry.

Terry had left Bray's studio by early in 1917, when he sold a cartoon with his character Farmer Al Falfa to the Edison company; then he made a few parodies of feature films before entering the army. After he was discharged in 1919, he supervised Paramount's cartoons until he struck a deal the next year to make an Aesop's Fables series. Terry's first contract was with an actor and screenwriter named Howard Estabrook, who actually came up with the idea for the series; Terry made only a few cartoons, though, before Estabrook sold his contract to Fables Pictures, Inc., a company formed late in 1920 to produce the cartoons. Terry said many years later that he owned only 10 percent of Fables Pictures; ownership was mostly in the hands of the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, which could guarantee playing dates in its theaters. Pathé scheduled the release of the first of Terry's Fables for 19 June 1921.

Theater owners still wanted short subjects for the sake of a "balanced program," but the industry's economics, centered now on features, dictated that those short subjects be made quickly and cheaply. Accordingly, the Fables moved through the new studio on a rigorous schedule that saw one cartoon completed every week. Terry's account book for 1923-25 indicates that during the first week of a three-week schedule, John Foster, a veteran of the Barré studio, worked on the story for a new cartoon; the second week, Frank Moser and other experienced men animated; the third week, less experienced men finished up. This torrent of work came from a staff that usually totaled only seventeen or so. Terry put the character animation on cels, over background drawings on paper, as Bray had since the midteens—a far from automatic choice in the early twenties, when studios like Sullivan's were doing exactly the opposite. Although using cels for the animation wa s initially more expensive than using paper, cels could be washed and used again, and turnover would have been rapid on a once-a-week schedule.

The Felix cartoons were surely more popular than the Fables, but popularity is always fragile, as the short-lived careers of live-action movie stars had already demonstrated many times. Moreover, Sullivan's indifference, however useful it was to Messmer in some ways, held its hazards, too: Messmer recalled that Sullivan resisted making changes in the studio—using cels for more than overlays, for instance—by saying, "You don't change when you're making money." Terry had a much firmer grasp of the industry's realities.

It was Terry, far more than Bray, who established cartoon production on an industrial basis. The key to his achievement did not lie in how efficient he was at producing the cartoons, although in some ways he dearly was efficient: Terry's characters, most of them animals, were usually so brutally simple in design that they could be drawn and traced onto cels swiftly even by inexperienced help. Neither Terry nor any other cartoon producer of the teens or twenties ever devised a sophisticated division of labor, though; in that respect, the cartoon studios lagged far behind the live-action producers. Instead, Terry achieved efficiency on the screen itself by using shortcuts of all kinds, and with unprecedented vigor.

Every other cartoon maker had used shortcuts, to be sure, starting in the teens, but a filmmaker like Bray had used shortcuts without regard to what the results would look like. It was because he leaned so heavily on held drawings, in particular, that his cartoons were unappealingly stiff. It took Terry only a year or so to shake off such influences. After that, he relied much more than his predecessors had on those shortcuts, like cycles and repeat animation, that put his characters into motion. Like so many makers of live-action slapstick comedies before him, he attacked his audiences with the equivalent of brute force: furious activity, unmotivated violence. Such cartoons commanded an audience's attention, if not necessarily its admiration; they were plausible ingredients in a theater's program, as cartoons of the old Bray kind no longer were. There was visible in Terry's Fables a future of the kind that Bray had aspired to but never really achieved: one in which cartoons were a fungible product, appearing with great frequency and on a regular schedule.

As raw as the individual Fables inevitably were, the weight of the series as a whole—a new one every week!—could not but impress aspiring producers of animated films. One young cartoonist who admired Terry's work first saw the Fables in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early twenties. "Even as late as 1930," Walt Disney said, "my ambition was to be able to make cartoons as good as the Aesop's Fables series."



Excerpted from Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier Copyright ©2003 by Michael Barrier. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Michael Barrier is a recognized authority on film cartoons. For many years he was the publisher and editor of Funnyworld, the most widely respected magazine devoted to the animated film. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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