The first group of “classic” cartoons came between the period of 1916 and 1920 from the studio operations of Charles Bowers, John Randolph Bray (who, along with Earl Hurd developed the cel animation process we briefly talked about in the last installment), Bud Fisher, Max and Dave Fleischer, Ted E. Powers, Windsor McCay and George Herriman.
Most of the characters these studio operations created don’t exist today and are totally unknown to all but the oldest of readers. Krazy Kat, the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff are probably the best known names from this era, which also included Colonel Heeza Liar, Bobby Bumps and Dreamy Dud.
The era between 1900 and 1929 is so rich in quantity of animated films that the book “Before Mickey” written by Professor Donald Crafton (ISBN: 0226116670) is 436 pages long! That’s how big animation was before the modern classic era of the 1930’s!
From this primitive period in animation college students in animation and cinema majors are introduced to Gertie the Dinosaur, Colonel Heeza Liar (of which only fragments exist on some cartoons) and propaganda films such as the Sinking of the Lusitania and A.W.O.L. made by the Bowers studio to show the military after the end of World War One as a means of preventing solders from leaving prematurely.
This was one of the first instances of the use of cartoons as a military training and information tool that would see further use in the 1940’s.
Some of these efforts, including the work of Windsor McCay, were a combination of live action (featuring McCay and other cartoonists) and cartoon animation, such as with “Little Nemo” the first offering from McCay and his classic “Gertie” the dinosaur.
At this point in time there was neither sound nor color in the world of cartoon animation and several young men who would find fame and fortune in the world of animation were only just starting their careers as animators working around 1920.
Walt Disney was a young cartoonist who produced some local political films in Kansas City for consumption in local theaters. His first offerings were the “Newman’s Laugh O Grams.” As we progressed into the 1920’s he mixed live action with cartoons in his “Alice” series. The Alice series has another distinction, his producer/distributor was a woman, the lone woman working in U.S. commercial film distribution circuit.
After his long run in the 1920’s with the little live action girl Alice, her animated friends and adventures, Disney developed a new character called Oswald Rabbit, but his distributor (the woman he worked for got married and turn the production operation over to him) owned the rights to Oswald, cut Disney out of the picture and turned the character over to another young animator whose earlier efforts started around 1920, Walter Lantz.
Porn even got into cartoon work, with the classic “Ever Ready Harton” which experts say was animated by Walter Lantz as a birthday gag for Walt Disney. Other experts say it was not Lantz that did the work, but that he and Disney probably got a good hoot out of the film when they saw it and most people agree these two young animators did attend someone’s party where the film was shown.
Two other major animation figures from the 1920 period include Hugh Harmon and Rudolph Ising, a team that began their careers with Walt Disney in Kansas City, MO also making cartoons for local consumption.
And we’ll learn more about all these people as we move into the summit of cartoon animation next time with the 1930’s and 40’s...