1916: the first quarter of the animated cartoon bowl is underway. Winsor McCay observes from the sideline after John Bray punched the ball from his hands and filed enough patents to dominate the field. Max and Dave Fleischer eagerly signed on with Bray. Paul Terry was there too, grudgingly, after Bray dropped a flag on the play when Terry tried to open his own franchise. Young Walter Lantz ran a camera for Hearst’s International Film Service, where Bill Nolan and Grim Natwick landed after a big player buyout that left Raoul Barré injured and nearly out of the competition.
Barré’s relief, more of a respite, came in the form of a comic strip duo named Mutt and Jeff.
Bud Fisher created Mutt and Jeff in San Francisco, a city with considerable animation pedigree. Paul Terry’s brother John had the Movca Film Service there, cranking out knock-off Charlie Chaplin cartoons with Jerry Shields. Pinto Colvig and Boyington Ford operated a studio there before the First World War, Willis O’Brien’s initial forays into stop-motion took place in Frisco.
Fisher retained all rights to comic strip usage. By 1916 Bud Fischer was living in a Manhattan loft on the ninth floor at 373 4th Avenue. The comic strip was going strong. Gus Hill’s play pulled in the crowds, bringing Fisher a healthy sum in royalties. He decided to put Mutt and Jeff into animated cartoons.
Herbert Miles, who’d set up the first film exchanges in California, also migrated from San Francisco to New York. Miles invested money to save the failing Union Photoplay Company at 286 Fifth Avenue. Charles R. Macauley had organized Union Photoplay a couple years earlier after being fired from the New York World because of political activities. Macauley produced a live-action version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and some half-reel animations for the Strand Theater, before running into financial difficulties. Herbert Miles bailed Charles Macauley out. They reorganized in the Candler Building as the Kine Cartoon Film Corporation.
Kine Cartoons raided the print media for the best artists, including Percy Crosby of the New York World; Foster M. Follett of the New York Sunday World; and noted political cartoonist Frank Nankivell. Kine Cartoon Films didn’t last long, but it did bring Follett and Nankivell into the animation business.
Notable among the growing ranks of animators was Harry S. Palmer. He’d studied art in Europe and illustrated for newspapers all around the U.S. before returning to New York. Palmer next made a name for himself as a war correspondent and artist while on assignment abroad, even covering the Boxer Rebellion in China. The Centaur Film Company of Bayonne, New Hersey employed Palmer to animate a series called MADE IN AMERICA CARTOONS. After the fourth film Harry Palmer went to Flushing, Queens to work on KRITERION KOMIC KARTOONS for the Pyramid Film Company.
At Pyramid Palmer had Denver, Colorado newspaper artist Clyde Spencer assisting. The whole animation department was only four men, expected to turn out five-hundred feet of film per week. Half-a-dozen films were completed before Palmer moved over to Gaumont’s studio in Flushing. Gaumont secured rights to make cartoons of Arthur Momand’s newspaper strip KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES. Production on KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES was interrupted when John Bray sued Harry Palmer for patent infringement early in 1916, so Gaumont had Palmer start a SEE AMERICA FIRST cartoon series, and then another known as KARTOON KOMICS.
Billing himself as “the Apostle of Fun”, Carl Francis Lederer produced and directed four cartoons on New York. Leon Searl, who’d animated for Hearst at IFS, worked on Lederer’s films. Vitagraph released the first two, while the Lubin Manufacturing Corporation handled the others. Lubin also distributed Leon Searl’s MILE-A-MINUTE MONTY cartoon. Lederer took a job at the Barré Studio and focused his efforts on patenting an optical system to improve animation backgrounds.
So, New York hosted an active animation scene by 1916 when Bud Fisher decided to get into the field. At that time, Charles Bowers did editorial illustration for newspapers at his studio in Mount Vernon, the town just north of the Bronx. Bowers worked out an arrangement with Bud Fisher. They formed the Mutt and Jeff Cartoon Company to make animations of Fisher’s newspaper strip characters. Bud Fisher opened a Times Square sales office in the Studebaker Building. Charles Bowers made arrangements with Raoul Barré in the Bronx to use the Fordham Arcade Building space. They formed a partnership as the Barré-Bowers Studio. Publicity releases made it appear Fisher directed each film himself, while in fact, he was not involved with production.
Charles Bowers, a dynamo of energy, animated and directed MUTT AND JEFF while Barré handled other projects. Hungarian-born Adolph Zukor distributed MUTT AND JEFF on a state’s-rights basis. Public response to Bray’s COLONEL HEEZA LIAR and BOBBY BUMPS cartoons had always been favorable, if not overly enthusiastic. The same held for William Randolph Hearst’s IFS toons. But something exciting happened here. Within three months of the first release film exchanges were calling for MUTT AND JEFF to be turned out at a faster rate so they could meet the demand from exhibitors. Hearst claimed the right to produce his own Mutt and Jeff cartoons because the comic appeared in his newspapers. Bud fisher filed an injunction, forcing Hearst to back off. Then, as a Canadian citizen, Bud Fisher was drafted into World War One and sent to Europe. MUTT AND JEFF became even more popular while Fisher was overseas.
Bud Fisher returned to New York in 1917, discharged at the rank of Captain. Residing at 258 Riverside Drive, he used the 4th Avenue loft as a studio. Fisher learned that while he was in uniform Charles Bowers made some power-plays in his absence. Bowers had started the Mutt and Jeff Film Exchange and brokered a state’s rights deal for William Fox to distribute MUTT AND JEFF domestically in place of Zukor’s Celebrated Players.
Success caused a number of problems for Bud Fisher. He was back in court after Gus Hill refused to pay any more royalties from the stage plays. Hill claimed MUTT AND JEFF cartoon screenings in movie theaters caused ticket sales of their live theater shows to drop. Hill asserted that those animated cartoons violated the exclusivity clause of his contract with Fisher. In fact, Gus Hill declared that Bud Fisher owed him damages. The crux of the debate was whether animated cartoons, being drawings, were closer to newspaper strips, or being films, were dramatic representations the same as stage shows. Either way, Fisher continued producing cartoons, and the number of other animation shops in Manhattan continued to increase.
The Screen Sketching Service, owned by animator Alex Cruickshank, set up next to the Lyceum Theater in the Tilmar Building at 145 West 45th Street. German artist Luis Seel moved into the Tilmar Building as well with his Animated Title & Cartoon Company, leaving his war-torn homeland behind. America entered the First World War in 1917. German troops were killing U.S. troops on European battlefields. William Randolph Hearst’s support of German policies caused some people to brand Hearst a traitor. The millionaire publisher suddenly had money troubles. In the summer of 1918 Hearst dismissed the entire IFS staff, but kept the company name intact. By December the war ended with the U.S. and its allies victorious.
Bowers occupied the manager’s office concocting stories, while his secretary Grace Stafford sat in the business office filling out exposure sheets used to pace the films. Barré didn’t like Bowers and wasn’t around much. Occasionally Bud Fisher breezed through with a showgirl, or two, hanging on his arm. Vernon Stallings was there, and a new guy, Dick Huemer, an up-and-comer. Huemer dropped out of high school to do a year at the Art Students’ League before joining Barré-Bowers as a tracer. Dick Huemer’s natural talent soon moved him in among the men and women of the inking department. Ted Sears did lettering.
Raoul Barré learned Charles Bowers was cheating him and, in a fit of rage, threatened to shoot Bowers. Police took Barré to a sanitarium for psychological observation before releasing him. Barré broke up the partnership, returning to the less stressful world of newspaper illustration. Bowers remained in the Fordham Arcade Building turning out MUTT AND JEFF cartoons.
The Fox Film Corporation received a steady stream of letters from theater owners stating how popular MUTT AND JEFF cartoons were. Some considered them the most important films on the bill. Everything seemed rosy until shop supervisor Dick Friel informed Fisher that Bowers pocketed money. Fisher investigated, firing Bowers and promoting Friel to manager. Fox Films started sending a guy around to check on their interests.
Bud Fisher made a deal for the Jefferson Film Company to take over Production. The Jefferson Film Company bought all contents of the studio, along with Dick Friel and Grace Stafford’s contracts. Somehow Bowers convinced Fisher to give him another chance. A second MUTT AND JEFF production studio was set up in a two-story brick building next to the Mount Vernon City Hall. Izzy Klein helped Bowers organize the place. Between Mount Vernon and the Bronx, a MUTT AND JEFF cartoon got released every week. Meanwhile Manhattan got more crowded with animation studios.
The Leumas Cartoon Service popped up at 17 West 45th Street in 1919, advertising heavily as “producers of animated films for every purpose”. Leumas was the brain-child of respected Broadway costume designer Samuel Zakud. Leumas vanished as quickly as it appeared.
The Daniels Studio in the Candler Building was garnering a reputation for animated titles and trailers done by the team of Frederick Dahme and Luis Seel. Late in 1919 they became Screen Follies, Incorporated, taking out full page ads in the trade publications to promote their up-coming weekly animated SCREEN FOLLIES, promising to render “plenty of beautiful women”.
Harry Palmer tried again, having purchased rights to a newspaper strip called A REGULAR FELLOW, but it was hard to replicate the phenomenal success of MUTT AND JEFF. Frederick Dahme and Luis Seel’s SCREEN FOLLIES were well received when they appeared in 1920, but ended after a few releases. Luis Seel returned to his native Germany, involving himself in the Munich film scene. That August Fred Dahme reorganized as F.A.A. Dahme, Inc., maintaining the space spread about the Candler Building’s second floor and continuing with advertisement animation and movie titles. The Candler Building, named for the owner of Coca Cola, housed several film production companies. Simplex manufactured projectors on 34th Street, setting up rentable screening rooms on the Candler’s fifth floor. Simplex augmented business with a lab for editing, doing titles and animated ads on the third floor. The Art Film Company at 45 West 45th Street also animated titles.
Les Elton produced the animated IT’S A BEAR independently, releasing it through Universal. Elton received a patent on his process for combining animation and live-action. He put it to use on a series called CINEMA LUKE. Three of those were made as part of the Universal Screen Magazine.
During 1920 Dick Friel sent Foster M. Follett and Ted Sears to the MUTT AND JEFF studio in Mount Vernon to augment Charles Bowers’ crew. Additions to that staff included cartoonists Louis Glacken, Leighton Budd, and newbie Carl Meyers. At the Bronx MUTT AND JEFF studio Bill Tytla got hired to letter title cards. Ben Harrison arrived from Massachusetts hoping to be a newspaper cartoonist, only to clean up pages for MUTT AND JEFF. Manny Gould befriended Ben Harrison. Seventy cartoons were released in the series that year.
Early in 1921 Dick Friel left MUTT AND JEFF to write for a live-action studio. Burt Gillett became production manager at the Fordham Arcade locale. Output dropped to half. Mutt and Jeff were still very popular, but a little black cat named Felix appeared to challenge them. The unpredictable Bowers vacated the Mount Vernon shop. He moved into a two-story building a mile or so up Webster Avenue from the Fordham Arcade. The second floor was actually smaller, because of a roof patio above half the first floor. Bowers closed the Arcade Building location, cramming Gillett and all the animators into that tiny second floor. Bowers used the spacious ground floor to experiment with stop-motion puppets for his own projects. Bowers still wrote cartoons for MUTT AND JEFF. Gillett resented Bowers’ intrusion.
An audit of Bud Fisher’s company ledgers showed his cartoon production companies were nearly bankrupt, partly from Fisher’s own lavish spending, and partly from more of Bowers’ creative bookkeeping. Fisher fired Bowers again. Production dropped again, but the series still did well. The Bud Fisher Film Corporation and the Mutt and Jeff Cartoon Company were deactivated. All business was done through the Jefferson Film Company.
By 1922 Paul Terry and Max Fleisher had both broken loose of Bray to open their own studios. Other little shops came and went. The Animated Advertising Company could be found at 160 West 46th Street, and the Animated Advertising Service at 130 West 42nd Street. Early that year, just as Bud Fisher’s contract with the Jefferson Film Company ended, the Jefferson Film Company changed its name to the Supreme Cartoons Corporation, continuing to make MUTT AND JEFF.
A single MUTT AND JEFF cartoon got released in 1923. During that lull in production Burt Gillett, Manny Gould, Dick Huemer and Ben Harrison all took jobs with Max Fleischer. Dick Friel, already distanced from the Mutt and Jeff quagmire, went to work for The Lee-Bradford Corporation at 701 Seventh Avenue. Arthur Lee and F. G. Bradford imported British films to the U.S. Now they branched out and made eleven RED HEAD COMEDIES cartoons. Dick Friel wrote and directed, animating alongside Frank Nankivell, Walter Stark, and newspaper cartoonist Andrew “Hutch” Hutchison. The theme concerned humorous takes on history with titles like CLEOPATRA AND HER EASY MARK; WHAT DID WILLIAM TELL; and WHY SITTING BULL STOOD UP. Kelley Laboratory, over in New Jersey on the Palisades, developed a system of layering multiple negatives to make color film. RED HEAD COMEDIES used the Kelley process, being the first animated series in color. After that Lee and Bradford moved on to other things.
Reel Colors, Incorporated used the Kelly process that same year for HISTORIETS, which were presented as: illustrated, animated and “Cartoonized” in “Multi-Color”. Reel Colors had a lab in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, but the art studio was at 85 Riverside Drive in Manhattan. HISTORIETS covered: Famous Sayings of Famous Americans; Love Affairs of Famous Men; Witty Sayings of Famous Frenchmen; Witty, Naughty Thoughts; and Lives of Famous Stars. The series was short-lived.
Luis Seel returned from Germany in 1924, moving back into the Candler Building, this time on the third floor, just as Simplex wound down its animation lab there. Seel’s gimmick was to produce a new “leader” for theaters every month. His old partner Fred Dahme was now a competitor, having moved to the Tilmar Building.
Not a single Mutt and Jeff cartoon was made in 1924. Bud Fisher did win his lawsuit with Gus Hill, retaining the right to make his cartoons, which were judged to be distinct from live-action movies. Whatever went on between Bud Fisher and Charles Bowers evades my comprehension. With Fisher’s permission once again, Bowers revived MUTT AND JEFF in 1925. Fox Films were no longer involved. The Short Films Syndicate, in the Godfrey Building, would distribute.
Bowers found space in Long Island City, in a three-story frame building on Jackson Avenue near Queen’s Plaza. Bowers set up in the drafty third floor loft as the Charles Bowers Studio. Burt Gillett, Ben Harrison, Manny Gould, and Izzy Klein all came back for more. Burt Gillett’s brother Clyde owned a camera and animation stand, so he was hired to run that department. Partitions, shelves, cabinets, and drawing boards converted the empty loft into a studio. Bowers was hardly ever around. He spent most of his time at another space in Astoria working on puppets. Burt Gillett looked after the Jackson Avenue shop. Sid Marcus, an experienced animator from IFS, was brought in. George Rufle from Pennsylvania signed on.
Burt Gillett, Ben Harrison, and Manny Gould staged a coup, evicting Bowers from the Jackson Avenue loft, renaming it Associated Animators. When they went to lunch Bowers came in with a moving crew and stripped the place down to the walls, leaving nothing but Clyde Gillett’s camera and stand. Associated Animators rallied to get production going. It was a precarious industry. Alex Cruickshank’s Screen Sketching Service still held on. The Animated Advertising Service was now at 239 West 42nd Street with different owners. Associated Animators moved a few doors down the block from there to the 200 West 42nd Street. New Yorkers still loved MUTT AND JEFF but their popularity waned out in the sticks. Associated Animators stayed afloat doing segment called FUN FROM THE PRESS for a screen magazine produced by Literary Digest. W. W. Hodkinson distributed.
A guy named Lester Cornwall started L. B. Cornwall, Inc. in the Studebaker Building. Cornwall’s vice president, William A. Gilmartin, had animated for Hearst’s IFS, then gone into magazine sales when that all fell apart. Gilmartin and Al Rose animated the EBENEEZER EBONY series. These were distributed through the Wilson Exchange in the Godfrey Building. The Wilson Exchange was part of Sering D. Wilson & Company, which acquired rights to the Kelley Color process In March 1925. Sering D. Wilson, at 25 West 43rd Street, sent Frank A Nankivell and Andrew Hutchison to the Tilmar Building, where they made KARLO KOLOR KOMEDIES starring Karlo the Dog. The Wilson Exchange also distributed reissues of Lee-Bradford’s RED HEAD COMEDIES. Florida investors soon bought the entire Sering operation and moved it south to do live-action production.
In 1926 the Animated Advertising Service could be found at 582 Ninth Avenue, soon to be gone for good. That summer Bill Nolan, Milt Gross, Vernon Stalling, Dick Friel, and several others convened at the Richmond Hotel on Staten Island for the First Annual Animated Cartoonists Dinner. Charles Bowers was back for one last hurrah in 1926, doing fourteen MUTT AND JEFF cartoons at his Astoria studio. That space, 75 Mill Street, was also listed as 37-19 First Avenue, a couple blocks from the 92nd Street Ferry terminal. All cartoons Bowers made were released through the Short Films Syndicate. At the end of that year Bowers abandoned MUTT AND JEFF for good and began acting in a line of live-action “Bowers Comedies”, using stop-motion animation among his bag of special effects tricks.
Mutt and Jeff appeared in newspapers and comic books for decades to come, but their days as animated cartoons were over.