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Directors: Charles Bowers & Raoul Barré
Release Date: 1916
Stars: Mutt and Jeff
Rating: ★★★★

Cramps © Bud FisherIn this cartoon Mutt and Jeff share an apartment and sleep in the same bed. At night Jeff gets a terrible belly ache, and Mutt tries to prepare a medicine to cure his pal. At one point, however, he thinks he has killed his friend, while he, instead, has cured the little fellow.

‘Cramps’ is a pure gag cartoon that uses quite a lot of text balloons without getting too “talkative”. Instead, the drawing, the staging and the animation are all outstanding. One can really feel the bond between the two friends and we’re totally with Mutt in his attempts to save his partner from the aching pains. The short shows that the Mutt and Jeff cartoons were among the best animated studio shorts of the 1910s. It also reveals that Mutt and Jeff wear their gloves even in bed.

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

‘Cramps’ is available on the DVD ‘Mutt and Jeff – The Original Animated Odd Couple’

Directors: John Coleman Terry & Hugh Shields
Release Date: June 1916
Stars: Charlie Chaplin
Rating:

Charlie's White Elephant © Pat SullivanBy 1916 Charlie Chaplin had only been working in the movies for two years, but he was already famous enough to have songs written about him and to have animated cartoons featuring his tramp character.

‘Charlie’s White Elephant’ is a prime example of Pat Sullivan’s those Charlie Chaplin cartoons, which numbered ca. twelve in total. The short features Charlie and ‘Fatty’ both courting a girl who orders them to find a white elephant first. Charlie finds a normal elephant and paints it white, but neither he nor Fatty gets the girl.

‘Charlie’s White Elephant’ is credited to Paul Terry’s older brother John Coleman Terry. According to Donald Crafton (in his excellent book ‘Before Mickey’) ‘Charlie’s White Elephant’ was animated by Otto Messmer, the later animator of Felix the Cat, but in the comments below this post David Gerstein assures us he had nothing to do with this particular short, although he did animate some Charlie Chaplin cartoons later on. Thank you, David, for the clarification!

In any case the animator captures Chaplin’s body language very well. But most of the cartoon is filled with remarkably stiff animation, based on only a handful of drawings and many cycles. Moreover, there’s some odd staging with a lot of action taking place in the distance. The end result is more interesting for its historical value than as an entertainment piece.

Watch ‘Charlie’s White Elephant’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Charlie’s White Elephant’ is available on the DVD-sets ‘Chaplin at Keystone’ and ‘Chaplin – The Essanay and Mutual Comedies’

Directors: Charles Bowers & Raoul Barré
Release Date: 1916
Stars: Mutt and Jeff
Rating: ★★★½

Domestic Difficulties © Barré StudioWhen compared to other studio animation film of the era, Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff cartoons come across as remarkably sophisticated and lush.

Made by animation pioneers Charles Bowers and Raoul Barré at the Barré Studio, the Mutt and Jeff cartoons are very akin to Fisher’s original comic strip, relying heavily on text balloons. In this respect these cartoons are no different from the other studio animation films of the time, However, the animation is much more intricate and less stiff than animation films made at Bray’s studio, and the drawings have an unparalleled clarity, foreshadowing Hergé’s ligne claire. Nevertheless, even this cartoon relies heavily on repeated animation, with many cycles used twice or more.

In this short Mutt sneaks out to go drinking with his mate Jeff, but he’s punished by his wife, who awaits him at home with a rolling pin. There are several gags in this cartoon, but the best is when the whole background keeps revolving around the two drunk characters. This is a very original and wonderful way to depict the drunkenness of the two.

On their way home the two friends sing ‘Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula’, a big hit in 1916. Notice that Mutt and Jeff wear Mickey Mouse-like gloves, showing that these attributes are much older than the mouse.

Watch ‘Domestic Difficulties’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Domestic Difficulties’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938’

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’ is available 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’ is available 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’ is available 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’ is available 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’ is available 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’ is available 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’ is available 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’ is available on the DVD & Blu-Ray-set ‘Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios Animation Pioneers’

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’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  1910
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Le retapeur de cervelles © PathéThis short starts with a couple visiting a psychiatrist.

The woman exclaims that her husband is rather cuckoo, so the psychiatrist takes a look inside the husband’s head using a ‘cephaloscope’. As may be expected in an Émile Cohl film what the doctor sees is shown in animation: a series of weird images, tied by Émile Cohl’s trademark metamorphosis.

When the psychiatrist has seen enough, he drills a hole in the man’s skull and pulls out the crazy thoughts, which manifest themselves as more animation on a black screen, much in the vain of Cohl’s debut film ‘Fantasmagorie‘ (1908). Thus the man is saved and the film ends.

Cohl’s stream-of-consciousness way of animating works quite well for a film about craziness, and the framing story is amusing enough to keep the film interesting, even though it’s certainly not one of Cohl’s masterpieces.

Watch ‘Le retapeur de cervelles’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Le retapeur de cervelles’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  1910
Stars: Lucien Cazalis
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Jobard a tué sa belle-mère © Pathé‘Jobard a tué sa belle-mère’ is not an animation film, but one of ten comedy shorts Émile Cohl directed in a collaboration with actor Lucien Cazalis for Pathé.

The ten films all feature the character Jobard, played by Cazalis. It’s a pity that ‘Jobard a tué sa belle-mère’ appears to be the only one to have survived in some quality, because the film shows Cohl’s skills as a live action comedy director. Indeed, the film is a prime example of early French comedy film.

In this episode Jobard scares his mother-in-law to death. Literally. Or so he thinks. So he sets out to buy a wreath, which he loses immediately at a cafe. So he buys a circular bread instead, which he accidentally replaces with a tire. In the end he ends with a cushion, accidentally stolen from the police office.

Lucien Cazalis, who plays Jobard is quite a good comedian, and the film clearly shows that French comedy had a huge influence on American slapstick comedy. It’s a pity Lucien Cazalis has been completely forgotten, today, for he clearly deserves more recognition.

Watch ‘Jobard a tué sa belle-mère’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Jobard a tué sa belle-mère’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  1910
Rating: ★★★
Review:

La musicomanie © Émile Cohl‘La musicomanie’ opens with a live action sequence in which a man and a woman make music in a small room with instruments that appear and disappear.

Nothing of their antics is remotely interesting, but when the man goes to sleep he dreams of instruments and music notes. The man’s dream is an elegant animated sequence in which Cohl uses his trademark metamorphosis technique, now using instruments as a theme.

As always, Cohl’s stream-of-conscious-like metamorphosis animation is interesting to watch, even though this film brings nothing new. When the woman wakes the man, the film ends.

Watch ‘La musicomanie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘La musicomanie’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

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