Monday, June 13, 2011

Classic Cartoons Preserved

Of the indigenous American arts forms, few are more satisfying, as delightful, and as ultimately ineffable as animated cartoons.  Often mistakenly dismissed as entertainment for children, many animated cartoons rank among the great American film classics.  Surely What’s Opera, Doc? (1957) where Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd crucify Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is the work of a certain type of genius, as are the Popeye cartoons produced by Max Fleischer in the 1930s and the great Felix the Cat cartoons of the silent era.

Sadly, the very thought that so much of this material was disposable led to poor (or no) preservation, and often restoration of many fragile films is an effort requiring prohibitive amounts of time and money.  Add to that, there are gaps in the animation record that film historians have been trying to fill for decades.  Interested readers would do well to check Of Mice and Magic by Leonard Maltin (1980) and Before Mickey by Donald Crafton (1982).

One of the most prolific animation studios during the silent era was Bray Studios.  Founded in 1914 by J. R. Bray, Bray Studios was the first successful production company solely dedicated to animated films.  Such celebrated animators as Max and Dave Fleischer, Walter Lantz, Milt Gross and Pat Sullivan were all part of the Bray stable at one time or other.  Bray produced many series cartoons that would help shape and define the medium, including the Fleischer Out of the Inkwell cartoons, Krazy Kat and Happy Hooligan.

The Golden Age of Bray’s animation output was the era from World War I to the end of the 1920s, but animation continued, in a limited way, until as late as 1963.  The complete history of the company has become lost to scholars and archivists, and many of the classic films missing.

Happily, young animated film historian Thomas Stathes has started work that will find and restore some of these films, as well as create a complete history of Bray and its output.  That is all here at his new Web site, The Bray Animation Project, found at:  We caught up with Mr. Stathes recently and he shared some of his story with us.

You are such a young man – what spurred your interest in lost and vintage animation?

I've never been able to figure out the exact origins of my interests. Like most children, I was very interested in cartoons but was attracted very early on to the few black and white cartoons I could see at the time, in the early 1990s. I suppose a childhood fascination with history and past forms of graphic design attracted me to the earlier films, but I cannot explain the fascination in any more detail than that, as it's also part mystery to me. As I grew slightly older, I started reading into the history of animated cartoons and began to realize that so few actual examples could be seen, this prompted me to begin searching for the films. 

There are a lot of great animated classics out there.  Why have you focused so clearly on what is missing?

Everyone loves and patronizes the classics. The lost and obscure films are so much more interesting to me for the very reason that finding them is like a treasure hunt. What's more, our rich animation history should be preserved, so aside from my personal joy gleaned from searching for and finding these films, I feel the need to rescue them when so few others have made the same kind of concerted effort.

What first attracted you to the Bray output?

As we've established, J.R. Bray's studio was the first successful model for an outfit that produced primarily animated cartoons. This fact alone makes the studio's films extremely historically and culturally relevant in terms of film studies. Unfortunately, however, some historians and many casual fans who have seen the few circulating Bray cartoons over the past 40 years have been stuck on the fact that some of the films were not always aesthetically pleasing or overly fluid in terms of animation. As I entered my teenage years and became more of a film print collector, it became clear to me that the Bray cartoons were a sort of 'underdog' in the silent animation category and needed to be further located and studied. I believe the general outlook on Bray cartoons in previous years had caused some disinterest in organizing a large hunt for the films, or at least before the launch of this project. On the Web site, I openly state that the project seeks not to critique the films artistically, but to collect and preserve them for their historical significance.

Tell us about the Web site?

The Web site features several useful tools. First and foremost, surfers can enjoy plenty of text and imagery as educational tools. Of direct interest to archivists and collectors is the animated cartoon filmography, which is presented as one full list and also broken down into series, artists, or characters on their respective pages. The filmography is color-coded based on film survival; for example, titles in red are not known to exist while titles in gray are known to be in other collections and titles in green are the films I have personally found to date. In addition, there is a discussion board for all interested parties to peruse.

How many cartoons are now on the site and how many will you be adding over time?

Currently, there are approximately a dozen cartoons which can be viewed on the site, as linked to YouTube. Over the next few months, I look forward to uploading several more. It would be great to have at least one cartoon viewable on each series or character page; if such an example exists.

What are your future plans, both for the Bray Animation Project and in general?

I expect to gradually add more to the project Web site such as text and images, as well as cartoons. More importantly, though, is that the website will hopefully attract collectors and archivists who can verify films surviving in other collections. From that point, I hope more of the films can be acquired or copied so that the project collection can become more and more complete. Within one week of launching the Web site, I've already received leads for three or four films that I originally had marked as red, or "lost", so I am especially hopeful that the site will bring together 'outlier' knowledge and films related to the Bray Studios. In a general sense, I will always continue to collect all silent-era animated films, and may create websites for other studios in the future.

Readers interested in both early animation and Bray should visit The Bray Animation Project. 

No comments: