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Director: Leon Searl
Release Date: February 29, 1916
Stars: Krazy Kat
Rating: ★★★

Krazy Kat Goes a-Wooing © J.R. Bray Productions‘Krazy Kat’ was the very first animal cartoon star featured in a cartoon series of her own.

‘Krazy Kat’, of course, was taken from George Herriman’s celebrated comic strip, which had started in 1913. The film series started three years later, and lasted until 1940. By then the character had become a far cry from Herriman’s creation.

But the earliest Krazy Kat cartoons still had a lot in common with George Herriman’s comic strip, on which they were based. ‘Krazy Kat Goes a-Wooing’, the fourth Krazy Kat cartoon, is a good example. This short animation film lasts only three minutes and seemingly re-tells one Sunday Page, using a lot of text balloons. Both the designs, backgrounds and characters are still in tune with Herriman’s creations.

Krazy Kat goes serenading her love Ignatz Mouse, but he rushes off to fetch some bricks to throw at her. Leon Searl’s drawings are appealing, but his animation is very stiff. For example, when we watch Krazy serenading, only two drawings are used.

Watch ‘Krazy Kat Goes a-Wooing’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Krazy Kat Goes a-Wooing’ has been released on the DVD-set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938’

Director: George Vernon Stallings
Release Date: September 4, 1915
Stars: Colonel Heeza Liar
Rating: ★★★

Colonel Heeza Liar at the Bat © J.R. Bray‘Colonel Heeza Liar at the Bat’ is a Colonel Heeza Liar cartoon directed by George Vernon Stallings, who would later join Van Beuren and Disney.

Stallings’s approach to animation is very comic strip-like in this short: the scenes are very flat, and although the drawing and posing are very good, the animation is extremely limited and stiff, relying heavily on repeated drawings and on poses instead of movement.

In this short the colonel joins a ball game, winning it with ease, e.g. by pitching curve balls that defy all laws of nature, and by running a home-run three times in a row. The film uses titles in rhyme, but text balloons are reserved for the umpire only.

Watch ‘Colonel Heeza Liar at the Bat’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Colonel Heeza Liar at the Bat’ has been released on the DVD-set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938’ and on the DVD ‘Before Walt’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: 1916
Rating: ★★★

Les exploits de Farfadet © Émile Cohl‘Les exploits de Farfadet’ is a very short cut-out animation film, not even clocking two minutes.

In this short a man dreams he loses his hat at sea, drowns and gets swallowed by a huge fish.

The atmosphere of this film is very surreal and, indeed, dream-like, with a clear feel of unreality, and an illogical flow of events. The man speaks in text balloons , and in the end he blames his bad dream on rum, very much like Winsor McCay’s rarebit fiends.

Watch ‘Les exploits de Farfadet’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Les exploits de Farfadet’ has been released on the DVD-set ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: 1914
Rating: ★★★★

L'avenir dévoilé par les lignes de pied © Émile Cohl‘L’avenir dévoilé par les lignes de pied’ is a short comedy in which a fortune teller, Mrs. Sarafine, decides she should marry.

At that point Mister le vicomte Kelly d’Yeaut enters (his name’s pronounced as ‘quelle idiot’ meaning ‘what an idiot’). The viscount wants to know if he should marry, and if yes, to whom. Mrs. Sarafine makes a print of his hand using photographic paper, puts it in a box, and asks Mr. d’Yeaut to take a look inside.

What follows is some pen animation in Cohl’s idiosyncratic stream-of-consciousness-like style. We watch the hand poking in a nose and in one’s eye, and morphing into a man that melts and burns away. Mrs. Sarafine concludes the lines of the hand inconclusive, and makes a print of Mr. d’Yeaut’s foot. The second piece of animation shows images of loving couples, interchanged by decorative forms, although one of the last images shows a beautiful woman changing into an old hag.

Mrs. Sarafine explains those images to Mr. d’Yeaut that he’ll be happy with the first woman he’ll speak to, which is, of course, herself. In the end the two embrace.

Cohl’s animation is rather poor in this short, but his style of morphing and association remains mesmerizing. The live action scenes are entertaining, too, with subtle comedy revealing the two distinct characters by rather small gestures.

Watch ‘L’avenir dévoilé par les lignes de pied’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘L’avenir dévoilé par les lignes de pied’ has been released on the DVD-set ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Paul Terry
Release Date: October 18, 1916
Stars: Farmer Al Falfa
Rating: ★★

Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York © Paul TerryIn 1915 Paul Terry joined the Bray studio and introduced a character of his own called farmer Al Falfa.

Farmer Al Falfa never amounted to something of an interesting character, like for example a Bobby Bumps or Felix the Cat, and I doubt whether he ever had many fans. Yet, the animated farmer lasted until 1937, and even didn’t completely disappear after that.

‘Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York’ is Farmer Al Falfa’s ninth film, and has the farmer visiting the big city, where he’s seduced by a remarkably realistically drawn woman. Later he plays cards with some cheating criminals, only to win after all.

Unlike J.R. Bray, Paul Terry was a rather poor draftsman, as this film clearly shows. The animation is weak and formulaic, and the farmer and the woman don’t inhabit the same cartoon universe. The result is a rather inferior cartoon that nevertheless foreshadows the quality of most animation of the silent era, unlike Bray’s own early high quality films.

Indeed, most of the secret of Terry’s success did not lie in the quality of his work, but in his working speed. Yet, his stay at Bray’s studio was not a happy one, and at the end of 1916 he left, only to get inducted in the army. A few years after World War I, in 1921, Terry would return to the animation business, co-founding a studio with Amedee J. van Beuren, reviving his character Al Falfa, and becoming one of the biggest players in the field.

Watch ‘Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York’ has been released on the DVD & Blu-Ray-set ‘Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios Animation Pioneers’

Director: Carl Anderson
Release Date: January 27, 1916
Stars: Police Dog
Rating:

The Police Dog on the Wire © Carl AndersonSoon the Bray studio employed more and more animators, becoming the most important studio of the 1910s, greatly helped by some patents, most importantly the Bray-Hurd patent for cel animation, which copyrighted an animation technique that would be the major technique in drawn animation until the late 1980s.

In the 1910s the young studio kept attracting some names that would become some of the most important animators and producers of the future, like Max Fleischer, Walter Lantz and Paul Terry. These new animators were allowed to start their own series, thus the Bray studio produced such diverse series as Earl Hurd’s Bobby Bumps, Paul Terry’s Farmer Al Falfa, and Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell.

One of J.R. Bray’s new animators was Carl Anderson, who made ca. a dozen ‘Police Dog’ films between 1914 and 1918, of which ‘The Police Dog on the Wire’ is one. When judged by this film Anderson emerges as one of the less inspired artists of the Bray studio. The film is remarkably plotless, with a female dog phoning ‘police dog’, while a cop called Piffles gets drunk. The animation, too, is poor and formulaic, never reaching the heights of that of J.R. Bray himself, let alone a Winsor McCay. Moreover, the frames are cramped with objects, giving the characters scarcely space to move in. Many scenes are appallingly slow and static, resulting in a film that is best forgotten.

Watch ‘The Police Dog on the Wire’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Police Dog on the Wire’ has been released on the DVD & Blu-Ray-set ‘Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios Animation Pioneers’

Director: J.R. Bray
Release Date: 1915
Rating: ★★★½

Diplodocus © J.R. Bray‘Diplodocus’ is J.R. Bray’s own version of Winsor McCay’s ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘ (1914), being so similar to the McCay’s success film that it’s plain plagiarism.

The film stars a Diplodocus instead of a Brontosaur and shows the differences between Bray’s and McCay’s drawing styles, with McCay showing more art nouveau elegance, and Bray displaying more comic strip like clarity.

Bray’s film reuses much of McCay’s material: like Gertie the Diplodocus lifts one foot, shifts from side to side, he gets startled by a flying dragon, interacts with a mastodon, eats a pumpkin etc. Like McCay’s film it’s clear that the film had to be shown together with a live narrator, who interacts with the drawn prehistoric animal.

The only new elements are the Diplodocus tying its neck in a knot, the arrival of a small monkey, and a sea serpent pulling at the mastodon’s trunk.

Bray’s animation is of a high quality, but his Diplodocus lacks Gertie’s personality. Thus this weak rip off only manages to show what great film ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ was, and still is.

Watch ‘Diplodocus’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Diplodocus’ has been released on the DVD & Blu-Ray-set ‘Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios Animation Pioneers’

Director: J.R. Bray
Release Date: January 10, 1914
Stars: Col. Heeza Liar
Rating: ★★★★

Col. Heeza Liar's African Hunt © J.R. BrayCol. Heeza Liar was the first animated series, and the character was the first specially designed for animation.

Col. Heeza Liar was the first star of J.R. Bray’s fledgling studio, only founded in 1913. The character was apparently based on Theodore Roosevelt, but he looks very different. Col. Heeza Liar’s African Hunt’ is only the second film featuring the character.

Drawn by J.R. Bray, the cartoon is filled with loose gags, in which the colonel unwillingly hatches an ostrich egg, has to climb into a palm to flee from a bear, shooting six animals within one shot, and planting a seed which grows into a palm tree instantly.

The looseness of the cartoon betrays the short’s origin as a cheater, for it shares no less than sixty percent with the preceding Col. Heeza Liar cartoon ‘Col. Heeza Liar in Africa’. In this respect, Col. Heeza Liar’s African Hunt’ is a ‘milestone’ of animation, being the first cheater in the business.

Despite being a cheater, the short is well animated. There’s some excellent perspective animation, when a kangaroo hops towards the camera, with the colonel inside, casually defying the African setting. The scene with the bear contains some great comedy. The animation over all is fair, ranging from fast to slow, and cleverly reusing animation cycles.

Col. Heeza Liar is not an immediately engaging character. And worse, as time progressed, his antics became less and less well animated. Nevertheless he would star more than fifty cartoons, lasting until 1924.

‘Col. Heeza Liar’s African Hunt’ has been released on the DVD & Blu-Ray-set ‘Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios Animation Pioneers’

Director: J.R. Bray
Release Date: June 12, 1913
Stars: J.R. Bray
Rating: ★★★★

The Artist's Dream © J.R. BrayJ.R. Bray is the father of the cartoon industry, but this short is from a period in which J.R. Bray was still a lone artist, like other animation pioneers as J. Stuart Blackton, Émile Cohl and Winsor McCay.

In fact, ‘The Artist’s Dream’ is only J.R. Bray’s second attempt at animation, and the film is still rooted in the drawings come to life tradition of the earliest animated films.

Bray plays an artist drawing a dachshund and a sausage. While he’s away the dachshund eats the sausage, and later another till he explodes. Of course, all has been a dream, which clearly shows the strong influence of Winsor McCay’s dreams of the rarebit fiend.

‘The Artist’s Dream’ shows Bray’s extraordinary drawing skills, as his drawings are very clear and contain elegant shading. His handling of perspective is perfect and no less than McCay’s. The animation, on the other hand, is less fluent than McCay’s, if still of a remarkably high quality. Unfortunately, he would not transfer this level of art to his later studio films.

Watch ‘The Artist’s Dream’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Artist’s Dream’ has been released on the DVD & Blu-Ray-set ‘Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios Animation Pioneers’

Director: Max Fleischer
Production Date: 1959
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Imagine That © Max Fleischer‘Imagine That!’ is one of the last products by animation pioneer Max Fleischer.

On January 14, 1958 Fleischer founded a new animation studio, called ‘Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc’, with which he clearly returned to his roots. ‘Imagine That!’ is a product of that studio, scripted and drawn by Fleischer himself. The short is a pilot film for a proposed new nature series for television. In this short Fleischer returns to his earliest films, starting with an inkwell. Soon, a narrator asks the spectator what bird he would like to be if he could be one. In the end he settles on the swift, for sheer looks. What follows are some facts about the swift’s nature and behavior.

Unfortunately, there’s practically no animation, and even that is limited. Even worse, the still images have an extremely old-fashioned look, and the complete film looks like a product of the 1910s, not the late 1950s. One wonders how Fleischer ever thought this miscalculated product would ever work. In any case no one was interested in this product by the old man.

Fleischer had a better chance with a revival of Koko the Clown in a new ‘Out of the Inkwell’ series. This, too, suffered from low budgets and very limited animation, but the series at least reached television in the 1960s. Nevertheless, this new series was far from successful, and ‘Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc’ was finally dissolved at the end of 1964.

‘Imagine That!’ is released on the DVD ‘Before Walt’

Directors: Stephen & Timothy Quay
Release Date: 1993
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Stille Nacht IV Can't Go Wrong Without You © Brothers QuayThe fourth and last Stille Nacht film returns to the music of His Name Is Alive, and the rabbit and doll from the second film.

The most disturbing image is that of the girl doll somehow bleeding. In another scene a death-like man tries to steal the rabbit’s egg, using string. The rabbit saves his egg by cutting the string with his teeth, and hides the egg in a glass on the ceiling. This is the most story-like part of the film, which looks beautiful, but is drenched in mystery, just like the other three Stille Nacht films.

Watch ‘Stille Nacht IV: Can’t Go Wrong Without You’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Stille Nacht IV: Can’t Go Wrong Without You’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Brothers Quay – The Short Films 1979-2003’

Directors: Stephen & Timothy Quay
Release Date: 1992
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Stille Nacht III Tales from Vienna Woods © Brothers Quay‘Stille Nacht III: Tales from Vienna Woods’ is the third of the Quay Brothers’ ‘Stille Nacht’ films, and somehow the most incomprehensible of them all.

Star of this film is a loose flying hand, which is saved from a bullet by a hanging table, which produces a long spoon to catch the bullet. The gun shot is the only sound besides the odd Czech soundtrack, featuring some orchestra and a voice reciting over it. The film is very beautifully made, and some forest feeling is created using numerous pine cones, but it’s hard to make head or tale of this highly surreal film.

Watch ‘Stille Nacht III: Tales from Vienna Woods’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Stille Nacht III: Tales from Vienna Woods’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Brothers Quay – The Short Films 1979-2003’

Directors: Stephen & Timothy Quay
Release Date: 1992
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Stille Nacht II Are We Still Married © Brothers Quay‘Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married?’ is the second of four ‘Stille Nacht’ films the Brothers Quay  made: all four are very short and shot in black and white.

The second, like the fourth, is set to a song by the band His Name Is Alive, in this case their song’Are We Still Married’, and thus essentially is a video clip. The film features a small rabbit trying to catch a ping-pong ball which flutters across the room like a moth. Also featured is a breathing girl doll.

Like the other Stille Nacht films the Brothers Quay manage to evoke a wonderful atmosphere, while using various camera techniques from the silent movie era, sometimes zooming in on a very small detail of the scene. The Jan Švankmajer influence, too, is very present. The film may be very incomprehensible, it makes a very intriguing watch.

Watch ‘Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married?’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married?’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Brothers Quay – The Short Films 1979-2003’

Directors: Stephen & Timothy Quay
Release Date: 1988
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Stille Nacht I Dramolet © Brothers Quay‘Dramolet’ is the first of four films the Brothers Quay made between 1988 and 1993 bearing the title ‘Stille Nacht’ (silent night).

This first film is by far the shortest of the four, but establishes the overall style of the series: black and white images featuring dolls and lifeless objects interacting, camera techniques from the silent era, moving in on very small details within the scene, a high level of surrealism, Jan Švankmajer-like animation, and no hint of a story.

In ‘Dramolet’ a rather rugged doll looks through a window into another room, where iron screw grows a plenty. Then he returns to his own table, where the same stuff appears in his bowl. When he tries to grab his spoon, the wall behind him sprouts several others.

This  very short film was made for MTV and is a beautiful product of the highly creative atmosphere of the time, when MTV invited artists from the whole world to create short films for them.

Watch ‘Stille Nacht I: Dramolet’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Stille Nacht I: Dramolet’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Brothers Quay – The Short Films 1979-2003’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  July 27, 1913
Rating:
Review:

He Poses for his Portrait © Éclair New York‘He Poses for his Portrait’ is the second of only two surviving Newlyweds cartoons Émile Cohl made in the United States.

Like ‘Zozor ruine la réputation de sa famille‘ the film is based on the comic strip by George McManus, and the film is essentially an animated comic strip, with text balloons playing the most important part in telling the story.

In ‘He Poses for his Portrait’ a couple wants to have a picture painted of their little baby. Unfortunately, the brat drives the painter mad. As in ‘Zozor ruine la réputation de sa famille’ there’s hardly any animation, resulting in a pretty static and remarkably boring film. By all means, Cohl’s animated comic strips should be regarded as a failure, and belong to the weakest films in his enormous output, despite their success at the time. If anything, the series demonstrated that one needed little animation to please an audience, a message which several studios would take at heart in the decades afterwards.

Watch ‘He Poses for his Portrait’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘He Poses for his Portrait’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  1912
Rating:
Review:

Zozor ruine la réputation de sa famille © Éclair New YorkAfter his move to the United States in 1912 Émile Cohl starting experimenting with putting the idiom of comic strips to the animated screen, being the first person to do so.

Cohl used ‘The Newlyweds’ my comic artist George McManus as the source for his new series, and the resulting films form not only the first animated series, but also the first pictures that could be titled animated cartoons.

This could have been a milestone in animated cinema, but unfortunately, the result is appalling: apart from the metamorphosis with which Cohl bridges scenes, there’s no animation at all, resulting in extremely static images. The text balloons fill the whole screen, more often than not obscuring complete personages.

Without the text balloons, there’s no story to follow. The result is that this is probably the first film suffering from too much dialogue, despite being silent!

Despite all its flaws, the Newlyweds films were a success, and Cohl made several of these pictures, of which only two survive: this one, ‘Zozor ruine la réputation de sa famille’, and ‘He Poses for his Portrait‘ (also known as ‘Le Portrait de Zozor’).

Watch ‘Zozor ruine la réputation de sa famille’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Zozor ruine la réputation de sa famille’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  May 4, 1913
Rating: ★★
Review:

Bewitched Matches © Éclair New YorkAfter short stints at Pathé and Eclipse Cohl sailed to the United States to join Éclair New York.

‘Bewitched Matches’ is one of the few films Cohl made in the United States before sailing back again to France in 1914.

‘Bewitched Matches’ has a rather zany fairy tale plot of a witch visiting three daughters. When their father chases the witch out of his house, the witch bewitches the matches. This leads to a long animation sequence in which the matches form images of a horse, crosses, a windmill, the American flag, a pipe smoking man, a radiant sun, an acrobat on the tightrope and a skeleton.

Neither the framing story nor the animated part is too interesting, and ‘Bewitched Matches’ should be regarded as one of Cohl’s lesser inspired films.

‘Bewitched Matches’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

 

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  1912
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

es métamorphoses comiques © Émile CohlMany of Émile Cohl’s films contain metamorphosis, but this is Cohl’s only film with the word ‘metamorphosis’ in its title.

‘Les métamorphoses comiques’ is arguably Cohl’s most avant-garde film. the short features live action images changing into animation and back again. Metamorphosis indeed runs galore, with Cohl’s typical stream-of-consciousness-like flow. Many of the images are pretty abstract, anticipating the work of Norman McLaren. Nevertheless, despite all the avant-garde frenzy, the most disturbing picture is a live action shot of a young boy smoking…

Watch ‘Les métamorphoses comiques’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Les métamorphoses comiques’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  1911
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Les exploits de Feu Follet © Émile Cohl‘Les exploits de Feu Follet’ is the first of only two surviving films Émile Cohl made for French film company Eclipse, the other being ‘Les métamorphoses comiques’.

With this film Cohl returned to the looks of his first films ‘Fantasmagorie‘ (1908) and ‘Le cauchemar de Fantoche‘ (1908): the film is shot in white on black and features a stickman. This stickman flies with a balloon to the moon and falls down into the ocean, where he is swallowed by a whale. Curiously, the whale, moon, and an eagle are drawn much more classically than the stickman, making ‘Les exploits de Feu Follet’ less consistent in its looks than either ‘Fantasmagorie’ or ‘Le cauchemar de Fantoche’.

Cohl’s timing is very sloppy in this film, and unfortunately there’s is little metamorphosis, with Cohl relying much on cut-out shortcuts. There’s practically no story, only a string of events. So, this film is not among Cohl’s best.

Watch ‘Les exploits de Feu Follet’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Les exploits de Feu Follet’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  1911
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Le cheveu délateur © PathéIn this short comedy a man disapproves of the suitor of his daughter and consults a magician, who can extract a man’s history from a single hair.

The hair reveals that the suitor has spent some time in prison, so the man throws the suitor out, leaving it to the magician to ask the hand of the daughter. ”Le cheveu délateur’ is a rather silly film, full of broad comedy.

As may be expected, the hair section is done in animation. Unfortunately in this segment Cohl’s animation isn’t too interesting, showing mostly the suitor travelling, by train, by balloon, and by elephant. Cohl’s metamorphosis technique is only used sparingly, and never leads to strange associations like in his best films.

Watch ‘Le cheveu délateur’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Le cheveu délateur’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

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