The Beautiful Anarchy of the Earliest Animated Cartoons: Explore an Archive with 200+ Early Animations

Ear­ly in his col­lect­ing odyssey, ani­ma­tion his­to­ri­an, archivist, and edu­ca­tor Tom­my José Stathes earned the hon­orif­ic Car­toon Cryp­to­zo­ol­o­gist from Cinebeasts, a “New York-based col­lec­tive of film nerds, vid­iots, and pro­gram­mers inves­ti­gat­ing the fur­thest reach­es of the mov­ing image uni­verse.”

More recent­ly, George Wille­man, a nitrate film expert on the Library of Con­gress’ film preser­va­tion team dubbed him “the King of Silent Ani­ma­tion.”

The seed of Stathes’ endur­ing pas­sion took root in his 90s child­hood, when slapped togeth­er VHS antholo­gies of car­toons from the 30s and 40s could be picked up for a cou­ple of bucks in gro­ceries and drug­stores. These finds typ­i­cal­ly includ­ed one or two silent-era rar­i­ties, which is how he became acquaint­ed with Felix the Cat and oth­er favorites who now dom­i­nate his Ear­ly Ani­ma­tion Archive.

He squeezed his par­ents and grand­par­ents for mem­o­ries of car­toons screened on tele­vi­sion and in the­aters dur­ing their youth, and began research­ing the his­to­ry of ani­ma­tion.

Real­iz­ing how few of the ear­ly car­toons he was learn­ing about could be wide­ly viewed, he set out to col­lect and archive as many exam­ples as pos­si­ble, and to share these trea­sures with new audi­ences.

His col­lec­tion cur­rent­ly con­sists of some 4,000 ani­mat­ed reels, truf­fled up from antique shops, flea mar­kets, and eBay. In addi­tion to his Car­toons on Film YouTube chan­nel, he hosts reg­u­lar in-per­son Car­toon Car­ni­vals, often curat­ed around hol­i­day themes.

Stathes’ pas­sion project is giv­ing many once-pop­u­lar char­ac­ters a sec­ond and in some cas­es, third act.

Take Farmer Alfal­fa, (occa­sion­al­ly ren­dered as Al Fal­fa), the star of 1923’s The Fable of the Alley Cat, an install­ment in the Aesop’s Fables series, which ran from 1921 to 1929.

His first appear­ance was in direc­tor Paul Ter­ry’s Down on Phoney Farm from 1915, but as Stathes observes, baby boomers grew up watch­ing him on TV:

Near­ly all of these folks who men­tion the char­ac­ter will also ref­er­ence ‘hun­dreds’ of mice. Few may have real­ized that, while the Farmer Alfal­fa car­toons run­ning on tele­vi­sion at that time were already old, the films starred one of the ear­li­est recur­ring car­toon char­ac­ters, and one that enjoyed an incred­i­bly long career com­pared with his car­toon con­tem­po­raries.

The Fable of the Alley Cat honks a lot of famil­iar vin­tage car­toon horns — slap­stick, may­hem, David tri­umph­ing over Goliath… cats and mice.

Stathes describes it as “a rather sin­is­ter day in the life of Farmer Al Fal­fa — It’s clear that the ani­mal king­dom tends to despise him! — and his doc­u­men­ta­tion is metic­u­lous:

The ver­sion seen here was pre­pared for TV dis­tri­b­u­tion in the 1950s by Stu­art Pro­duc­tions. The music tracks were orig­i­nal­ly com­posed by Win­ston Sharples for the Van Beuren ‘Rain­bow Parade’ car­toons in the mid-1930s.

The mis­matched duo, Mutt and Jeff, got their start in dai­ly news­pa­per comics, before mak­ing the leap to ani­mat­ed shorts.

Ani­ma­tion con­nois­seurs go bananas for the per­spec­tive shift at the 14 sec­ond mark of Laugh­ing Gas (1917), a rar­i­ty Stathes shares as a ref­er­ence copy from the orig­i­nal 35mm nitrate form, with the promise of a full restora­tion in the future.

(A num­ber of Stathes’ acqui­si­tions have dete­ri­o­rat­ed over the years or sus­tained dam­age through improp­er stor­age.)

Dinky Doo­dle and his dog Weak­heart were 1920s Bray Stu­dios crowd­pleasers whose stint on tele­vi­sion is evi­denced by the mid­cen­tu­ry voice over that was added to Dinky Doo­dle’s Bed­time Sto­ry (1926).

The char­ac­ters’ cre­ator, direc­tor Wal­ter Lantz appears as “Pop” in the above live sequences.

Car­toons On Film has coaxed Koko the Clown, Flip the Frog, Bon­zo the Pup, and Mick­ey Mouse pre­cur­sor, Oswald the Lucky Rab­bit, out of moth­balls for our view­ing plea­sure.

Stathes’ col­lec­tion also dredges up some objec­tion­able peri­od titles and con­tent, Lit­tle Black Sam­bo, Red­skin Blues, and Korn Plas­tered in Africa to name a few.

Stathes is mind­ful of con­tem­po­rary sen­si­bil­i­ties, but stops short of allow­ing them to scrub these works from the his­toric record. He warns would-be view­ers of The Chi­na­man that it con­tains a “racist speech bal­loon as well as an inter­ti­tle that was cut from the lat­er TV ver­sion for obvi­ous rea­sons:”

Such was the vul­gar ter­mi­nol­o­gy in those days. To ques­tion or cen­sor these films would be deny­ing our his­to­ry.

Begin your explo­rations of Tom­my José Stathes’ Ear­ly Ani­ma­tion Archive here and if so inclined, con­tribute to the cost­ly stor­age of these rar­i­ties with a Ko-fi dona­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Ear­ly Japan­ese Ani­ma­tions: The Ori­gins of Ani­me (1917 to 1931)

The First Ani­mat­ed Fea­ture Film: The Adven­tures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger (1926)

Watch Dzi­ga Vertov’s Unset­tling Sovi­et Toys: The First Sovi­et Ani­mat­ed Movie Ever (1924)

The First Avant Garde Ani­ma­tion: Watch Wal­ter Ruttmann’s Licht­spiel Opus 1 (1921)

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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