The Oldest Surviving Animated Films Part III (1915-1922)
1. The Farmer Al Falfa series (1915-1956)
Starting in 1915, American cartoonist Paul Terry released a series of shorts starring the character Farmer Al Falfa, the first being Down on the Phony Farm (1915). Soon after, Terry was hired by Bray Studios, where he made eleven more Farmer Al Falfa shorts, only two of which have survived: Farmer Al Falfa’s Revenge (1916) and Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York (1916).
Terry briefly worked for Edison Studios, where he released Farmer Al Falfa’s Wayward Pup (1917), another short that has stood the test of time. He then founded Fables Studios, and produced a series of cartoons based on Aesop’s Fables. Some of these cartoons featured Farmer Al Falfa, though not necessarily as a main character.
Finally, in 1929, Terry founded Terrytoons Studio and continued making cartoons until the studio closed in 1968. Among the surviving shorts are Farmer Al Falfa’s Prize Package (1936), and Swooning the Swooners (1945).
2. The Mutt and Jeff series (1916-1926)
Mutt and Jeff (1907-1983) was a widely popular comic strip created by Bud Fisher, which focused on the get-rich-quick schemes of greedy gambler Augustus Mutt and his reluctant partner-in-crime, Jeff.
In 1916, Fisher partnered with Barré Studio to produce animated films adapted from the comic. By 1926, Fox Film Corporation had released 292 Mutt and Jeff shorts, which were shown before feature films in movie theaters.
The oldest films that have survived are Domestic Difficulties (1916) and On Strike (1920). Later surviving films include Accidents Won’t Happen (1925), The Globetrotters (1925), Soda Jerks (1925), Playing with Fire (1926), When Hell Froze Over (1926), and Dog Gone (1926).
In 1973, eleven Mutt and Jeff shorts were colorized, re-edited, and released as a feature film entitled Mutt and Jeff Meet Bugoff, produced by Radio & Television Film Packagers. It received a limited theatrical release.
This series was also the subject of a straight-to-DVD documentary entitled Mutt and Jeff: the Original Animated Odd Couple (2005).
3. The Krazy Kat series (1916-1940)
The character of Krazy Kat first appeared in the comic strip Krazy Kat, also known as Krazy & Ignatz, which ran from 1913 to1944. The strip focused on Krazy, a carefree, dimwitted cat of indeterminate gender (referred to as both “he” and “she”) who expresses unrequited love for a short-tempered mouse named Ignatz.
The first animated short to star these characters was Introducing Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse (1916), released by International Film Service. They would go on to appear in 231 films, the oldest surviving being Krazy Kat & Ignatz Mouse Discuss the Letter 'G' (1916).
Starting in 1920, when Bray Productions took over the series, Krazy began appearing in shorts without Ignatz. Winkler Pictures and Colombia Pictures continued this trend, until Screen Gems finally released the last two shorts of the Krazy Kat series: The Mouse Exterminator (1940), which did not feature Ignatz, and News Oddities (1940), which has been lost.
Krazy and Ignatz reunited for a short-lived cartoon series Krazy Kat (1963), which lasted one season.
4. The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)
The work of accomplished cartoonist Winsor McCay, The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) was the first animated documentary ever made. At twelve minutes, it was also the longest animated film of its time.
McCay, who illustrated comic strips for several newspapers, made the film as a means of rebellion against his employer, media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. In 1915, when torpedoes from a German submarine sank the British liner RMS Lusitania, killing 1,198 people on board, Hearst ordered his employees to downplay the event, because he opposed the United States getting involved in World War I.
McCay resented having to illustrate anti-war and anti-British editorial cartoons for Hearst’s newspapers. He started working on The Sinking of the Lusitania during his free time after work, and it took him almost two years to complete. The final product consisted of over 25,000 drawings.
During a time when animation was known solely for light entertainment, McCay was the first to use the medium to depict serious subject matter. Though its anti-German sentiment might not appeal to modern audiences, the film successfully conveys the tragedy of the event in a heartfelt manner.
5. Out of the Inkwell (1918-1929)
Starting in 1918, animator, director, producer, and inventor Max Fleischer created a series of shorts entitled Out of the Inkwell while working for Bray Studio. The series began with three experimental shorts that Fleischer used to demonstrate the Rotoscope, a device he invented consisting of a film projector and an easel.
Fleischer’s shorts would often begin with him either drawing on paper or opening an inkwell to release the characters into reality. The oldest surviving film of the series is The Tantalizing Fly (1919), which is the first recorded appearance of Koko the Clown, a popular character modeled after Fleisher’s brother Dave.
Other surviving shorts include The Circus (1920), The Ouija Board (1920), The Clown's Little Brother (1920), Modeling (1921), and Invisible Ink (1921).
Koko began appearing in the series regularly in 1920. By 1921, both Fleischer brothers had earned enough money and prestige to leave Bray Studio and found their own company, Inkwell Studio. They hired Dick Huemer, the animator of the Mutt and Jeff cartoons, as director of animation.
In 1927, Out of the Inkwell was bought by Paramount and renamed The Inkwell Imps. In all, the series was made up of 118 films released over the course of eleven years.
6. The Felix the Cat series (1919-1930)
Felix the Cat is one of the most recognizable cartoon characters in history. From 1919 to 1930, he appeared in 169 silent cartoons and 12 sound cartoons. Later came the animated TV shows Felix the Cat (1958-1962) and The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat (1995-1997), along with Felix the Cat: The Movie (1988).
His first appearance was in Feline Follies (1919), back when his character was named Master Tom. He then appeared in The Musical Mews (1919), and was renamed in his next film, The Adventures of Felix (1919). Out of these three, only Feline Follies has survived.
Other surviving Felix films include The Circus (1920), Felix the Hypnotist (1921), Felix Saves the Day (1922), Felix Strikes It Rich (1923), Felix Dopes It Out (1925), The Non-Stop Fright (1927), and Romeeow (1929).
In 1936, Van Beuren Studios produced three new Felix shorts: The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg (1936), Neptune Nonsense (1936), and Bold King Cole (1936). These shorts were included in Rainbow Parade (1934-1936), a series of 27 shorts that were distributed to theaters by RKO Radio Pictures.
7. Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend (1921)
Pioneering cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay created the comic strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-1925), which involved characters having comically bizarre dreams after eating a Welsh rarebit before bed. McCay, who was known for adapting his own work to the screen, also directed three animated films based on this comic strip.
The first, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: The Pet (1921), was about a colonel who dreams that his wife has taken in an unidentifiable stray animal. This new pet eats everything in sight, and keeps growing bigger the more it consumes.
In Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: The Flying House (1921), a woman dreams that her husband has converted their home into a flying machine to avoid paying the mortgage. He takes her on a ride around the world and even to the moon.
Finally, in Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: Bug Vaudeville (1921), a hobo dreams of various insects putting on a vaudeville show for him. This includes a grasshopper juggling an ant, a mosquito performing a balancing act, and a cockroach riding a bike backwards.
8. Flip's Circus (1921)
Flip was a character in Winsor McCay’s popular comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland (1904-1926), which focused on a little boy’s elaborate dreams. A green-faced clown constantly chewing on a cigar, Flip was established as a foil to Nemo early in the series, as he intercepted his travels to Slumberland purely for mischief’s sake.
Flip was given his own film adaptation, Flip’s Circus (1921), which featured him running a circus full of strange-looking animals. He attempts to train a giant reptilian creature (possibly a dinosaur), who swallows him and spits him back out.
The captions in this film make little sense in relation to the animated sequences, which gives the impression that some footage is missing. At some point a car suddenly appears onstage with no context, and the reptilian creature devours the engine. There are also scene fragments of a man with a strangely elongating body standing outside the circus tent, holding flowers.
9. The Centaurs (1921)
Some believe that portions of Winsor McCay’s The Centaurs (1921) has been lost, due to partial decomposition of the film. Others believe he simply never finished it, due to production costs.
Whatever the reason, the surviving footage features a female centaur walking through a live-action forest, followed by a scene of a male centaur throwing rocks at birds. They meet in a meadow and briefly flirt before the male centaur takes her to meet his parents, who welcome the female centaur with open arms.
Oddly, a baby centaur—presumably their child—then enters the frame and does acrobatic tricks for his grandparents. It certainly seems like any lost or unfinished footage might clarify the plot’s progression and timeline.
10. Aesop’s Fables (1921-1933)
American cartoonist Paul Terry produced over 1,300 cartoons between 1915 and 1955, including the Farmer Al-Falfa series. In 1921, he founded Fables Studios, and produced a series of cartoons loosely based on Aesop’s Fables.
For comedic effect, each cartoon would end with a tacked-on moral, which would have little to nothing to do with the cartoon itself. Terry once remarked, “The fact that they’re ambiguous is the thing that made ’em funny.”
The cartoons quickly became popular with the general public, soon after the release of The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs (1921). Walt Disney would later disclose that Terry’s cartoons were an early source of inspiration for him.
As the series progressed, the focus shifted mostly to anthropomorphic animal characters, such as cats and mice, and occasionally a disgruntled Farmer Al-Falfa. Though it began with silent films, Terry eventually began producing them in sound, starting with Dinner Time (1928), the first cartoon with a synchronized soundtrack, and one of the first publicly shown sound-on-film cartoons.
Finally, in 1929, Terry founded Terrytoons Studio and turned over Fables Studios to cartoonist John Foster. Terry continued to work on Aesop’s Fables until 1933. A small percentage of the 445 cartoons in the series have survived, mostly the later ones that were released in the late 20s.