‘Cartoon Roots’ a history lesson on silent animation

March 20, 2015 | G. Michael Dobbs

I’m always amazed when I encounter young film fans and they have little idea that films existed – interesting, compelling films – prior to 1980.

When I taught film classes at Western New England University in the 1990s, I was always surprised when otherwise open-minded students were aghast and agog at the thought of watching “old” movies. Their reactions to silent movies were magnified.

I’m happy to say that through skillful selection I managed to coax them into actually paying attention and perhaps enjoying many of the films I forced upon them.

Silent films were where so much of the language of cinema was created – camera and editing techniques. It was also the period in which story archetypes were developed. What might be considered hackneyed in a newer film was original during the 1920s.

A new compilation of silent cartoons shows just how much was developed for that medium during the period from 1907 to 1926. “Cartoon Roots” is an education in silent animation. Archivist Tommy Jose Stathes presents a carefully archived selection of his extensive collection of silent animation.

By the way, Stathes is a young man in his 20s.

Sold as a Blu-ray and DVD combination, the discs include a great selection of extras including galleries of production materials such as scripts as well as vintage promotional items. It is a great package.

Serious animation fans – and some attentive Baby Boomers – should recognize names such as Max Fleischer (the producer of Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons among others); Walter Lantz (best known for Woody Woodpecker); animator and writer Dick Heumer (a major figure at Disney); and Paul Terry (the head of Terrytoons, the home of Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle).

The early work of these artists is presented along with some of the earliest American animation by J. Stuart Blackton, Raoul Barre, Earl Hurd and John Bray.

The result is a mini-course in the development of animation. The discs come with an insightful booklet and Stathes includes three early sound cartoons, none of which this animation fan has had the opportunity of seeing before. I was impressed.

Three of these shorts feature a combination of live action with animation that shows just how early that technique originated. As I’m a Fleischer loyalist, I’m partial to how the technique was used in “The Circus” (1920) with Ko-Ko the Clown attempting to train a horse. Fleischer’s invention of the rotoscope is on display here as the technique allowed an animator to use live action footage as the reference for a cartoon character. The device also assisted in the blending of live action and animation.

Silent animation can be very surprising in its content. In the 1923 short “The Jolly Rounder” by Terry, a married hippo is in trouble with his wife. His buddy decides the way to cure that is for him to dress in drag and appear with his married friend to make the wife jealous and forget why she is angry with her husband – really.

Silent animation reflected – as did live action cinema of the time – the use of politically incorrect ethnic humor. Although the collection is not dominated by such material, it is there and should be considered within the context of the cartoons and the time in which they were produced.

The wonderful design of Felix the Cat, superbly directed by animator Otto Messmer, is seen in the 1922 short “Felix Comes Back.” Messmer, one of the animation’s great talents worked anonymously while his producer Pat Sullivan, who owned the character, took all the public credit. Felix has been cited by some animation historians as an example of the humor coming out of the established personality of the character rather than just a series of gags.

“Cartoon Roots” is available from Amazon.


Stathes told Reminder Publications that his interest in animation first came through his exposure at a young age to classic cartoons of the 1930s and ‘40s on home video. It was through his interest in history, though, and reading several books about animation that he learned about silent era cartoons. When he was able to see some silent animation he said they fascinated him. They intrigued his intellectual curiosity and he was drawn to their visuals.

His collection of prints started in a roundabout way. He had been given some 8mm home movie prints of cartoons, but being a child of the VHS era, he really didn’t know what they were. His godfather had a projector and showed him the films.

“I was instantly hooked,” he said. He recognized immediately a difference between looking at a projected film and one on videotape.

He began to seek out prints of films and before the advent of the Internet went to antique shops and flea markets looking for films. Now, Stathes works with other collectors and has assembled an impressive catalog of movies in a variety of gauges: 8mm, 9.5mm, 28 mm, 16mm and 35mm.

Stathes also started an in-depth research project on the John R. Bray Studio, the first successful animation studio. Bray was the producer who began breaking down the animation process into an assembly line, which made producing cartoons affordable.

Bray and animator Earl Hurd also developed the clear cel on which characters were drawn, a means that also saved time and money.

“Bray always fascinated me,” he said.

Stathes said he doesn’t have a favorite producer or studio, “I love a lot of it,” he said.

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