Tagged: silent film

Cartoon Roots, Vol. 2: The Bray Animation Studios

Tom Stathes was a former a student of mine from CUNY Queens College and has since graduated to become a recognized film archivist and historian on silent animated films. Last winter, Stathes released a DVD and Blu-ray collection of silent film cartoons from a personal archive that he has amassed over many years.

For a second act, Tom is putting together a second DVD and Blu-ray set in the Cartoon Roots collection. The collection will feature the works of Bray Studios, an early New York City–production company in operation between 1913 and 1927.1 To raise the money to properly produce this videodisc set, he has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

In the annals of silent film history, animation is often overlooked except for a handful of production companies in operation at the time. Tom’s diligent collecting, curating, and finally publishing the works he has collected over the years provides a fresh look at films produced a century ago to round out our understanding of silent film and animated film. Please consider contribute to this campaign.

Contribute to Bray Studios Animation!

  1. Like many others, the studio folded in the late 1920s concurrent with the coming of sound, which was an immensely disruptive transition for the film industry. 

Tom Stathes’s Cartoon Roots on Blu-Ray and DVD

One of my former students at Queens College was Tom Stathes.

In class after class filled with “special snowflakes,” students who demand constant attention only to fail the class anyway, Tom stood out as an exceptional luminary. Not only was he an excellent student, he also amassed an impressive collection of animated films from the silent and early sound era.

With help from many people, including celebrated silent-film accompanists, Ben Model and Robert Israel, Stathes has released a Blu-ray and DVD set of fifteen animated films.

Tommy roots550

The collection, titled Cartoon Roots, is, according to Stathes, a “sampling of many of the important characters, series and studios’ cartoons that populated the silent era of films,” which is Stathes’s favorite period, and “some very exciting rarities from the early sound era.”

Get it as a late Christmas gift for yourself or that film nerd in your life. Or, if you’re teaching a silent film class in the future, round out your curriculum with animated films that were never part of the silent film canon.

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Six Stills from Six Silent Films

A few weeks ago I posted images of six films I screened in my History of Cinema class at Queens College. As part of the final exam, students were to name five of the six films and provide the country of production and, if appropriate, the avant-garde movement.

Here are the answers:

Anemic Cinema

Anemic Cinema

Celebrated artist Marcel Duchamp produced this film using a spirograph and other graphics that rotated on screen. Like much of Duchamp’s work, the film was a Dadaist work that utilized word play. In this still, the text translates to “If I give you a penny, will you give me a pair of scissors?” According to Katrina Martin, however, Duchamp is playing with colloquial French expressions and this actually translates to “If I give you a penny, I will give you a fuck.”[1]

The Man with a Movie Camera

Man with a Movie Camera

What can I say about this film? There are two items in the picture, a man and a movie camera, so I figured that would be easy. I was also looking for an image from this film that would show off two influential art movements in the Soviet Union: montage and Constructivism.

The challenge was to find a still that had montage within a single shot. Montage generally edits two shots together to create a specific and deliberate meaning, but I can’t show that in a single still. This one demonstrate the ability of montage to show “editing” within a single shot. Moreover, Constructivist integrated machinery into everyday objects, including the human form.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Not to spoil too much here, but in this still, Alan reacts to seeing Cesare in his room. He is terrified. In this shot, Cesare’s figure casts a shadow against the wall on the right side of the frame. The set of the room is highly stylized. It is not shown in classical Renaissance perspective, but instead has very sharp angles. This approach to composition was common in German Expressionism.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror


This is another German Expressionist film but from 1922 and directed by F.W. Murnau. The shadowy composition is again present here and is there to cast a sense of terror. Moreover, no one who has seen this film will forget Count Orlock’s appearance. It has to be one of the most chilling figures in cinema.

Un Chien Andalou

Un Chien Andalou

This is the seminal surrealist film, produced in France, by future film icon Luis Buñuel and celebrated painter/sculptor Salvador Dali. Early in the film is perhaps one of the most unforgettable images in cinema history: the cutting of a woman’s eye. The film rejects any narrative causality and instead follows the logic of dreams, as surrealists were wont to do.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans


Yes, it’s another film by a German filmmaker, F. W. Murnau. But this film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, was produced in the United States, not Germany, and was stylistically similar to Expressionism, although it was made well after the movement had its hey-day in Germany. This still is from the first third of the film. The man, played by George O’Brien, is about to kill his wife, played by Academy Award–winning Actress Janet Gaynor, and make it look like she accidentally drowned. You can see the compositional similarities between this image and that of the still from Caligari. Also, O’Brien’s posture is not unlike that of Orlock in Nosferatu.

Students in my class would have undoubtedly noticed that I absolutely love this film—it’s easily one of my all-time favorites—and some would remember it because I heard a few people crying at the end of the film.

As *Sunrise* is perhaps the last silent film made in Hollywood, it also might be the best.

  1. Martin, Katrina. “Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema.” Studio International 189, no. 973 (February 1975): 56.  ↩

Not a Bachelor

When you get to be a thirty-something year-old in New York, or any big city really, your wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend likely goes away without you. I think the commonly used term for this state is being a “bachelor” or some derivation of being single. However, that’s not an accurate term since it implies that you’re newly single not that you’re without your partner for a temporary period of time. There has to be a better term.

Linder Grasswidower Bed

A few weeks ago in my silent film class, I screened a series of European films. One of the films featured the pioneering French silent comedian Max Linder. The film was called Troubles of a Grasswidower (1908). In the film, Linder’s character’s wife leaves for a bit. (“I’m going home to mother”) The comedy is a pretty standard formula for a time when gender roles were quite strictly defined, not unlike Mr. Mom (1983) where household chores are challenging. In Troubles of a Grasswidower, Max has to maintain the home while his wife is away. He struggles with chores familiar to us, such as washing the dishes and making the bed, and other deprecated tasks, such as plucking a chicken.

Linder Grasswidower Chicken

While the film makes for entertaining physical comedy, I have been sharing the title with many of my friends about the common situation of being without your partner. The Oxford English Dictionary offers two definitions, although the entry indicates that the following is the more common usage:

grass widow (n.)
A married woman whose husband is absent from her.

As one would expect, there is the derivative of the term for men, too. What’s good for the gander is apparently good for the goose:

grass widower (n.)
a man living apart from his wife.

While many of us in this situation are not married, thus the term does not entirely apply to us, it is still a wonderful, antiquated term to reintroduce to contemporary usage. And when I think of bachelor, it implies you’re partying. That’s not alway the case for me. In an age when bartenders and barbers dress up like film pioneer W.K.L Dickson, you’ll forgive me for mistaking our era for the late nineteenth century.

WKL Dickson Camera Test

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