I wrote earlier this year about how English inventor J. Stuart Blackton laid the foundation for animated films and how French artist Émile Cohl helped the medium evolve, but American cartoonist John Randolph Bray may have had the most significant impact on the American animation industry, because his studio Bray Productions established many industry trademarks. Not only that, but Bray helped launch the careers of many animators who would go on to bigger and better things at studios like Disney, Fleischer, Lantz and Terrytoons.
John Randolph Bray was born in Michigan in 1879. After attending the Detroit School of Art, he broke into the newspaper business in 1901 as a cub reporter and cartoonist for The Detroit News before moving to New York and freelancing for several national magazines. Bray’s first big success was the comic strip Little Johnny and the Teddy Bears in Judge Magazine, which Bray worked for from 1906 to 1908. That comic’s popularity helped Bray join the ranks of other early successes in the budding comic strip industry like Winsor McCay, Bud Fisher and George McManus.
The success of animators like Émile Cohl and Winsor McCay inspired Bray to enter the animation industry himself. In 1913 Bray founded Bray Productions, the first ever production studio in history that was dedicated exclusively to making animated films, and that same year he directed The Artist’s Dream, a short film about a cartoon dog that comes to life while his animator isn’t looking. Bray created the film with help from Canadian animator Raoul Barré, a man who would go on to find his own success in the animation industry alongside Bray alum and rubber hose animation pioneer Bill Nolan.
Unlike Winsor McCay who hated the commercialization of animation, Bray’s animation studio was an early example of an animation studio that made films with an industrial approach to the production and distribution process. Although Bray would try to rip off Winsor McCay’s ideas several times, which backfired on Bray and led to McCay receiving royalties from Bray’s films for several years.
Bray’s industrial process led to a high cartoon output and a high number of employees, which over the years included animation legends like Max and Dave Fleischer, Walter Lantz, Paul Terry, Pat Sullivan, Charles Mintz, Burt Gillett, Grim Natwick, Clyde Geronimi, Jack King, David Hand, Shamus Culhane, Milt Gross and Frank Moser.
One of the most important people Bray hired was Earl Hurd, an animator from Kansas City, Missouri who Bray hired as a director in 1915 and created the Bobby Bumps cartoons (which were inspired by Richard F. Outcault’s popular comic strip character Buster Brown). The Bobby Bumps cartoons were well-crafted for their time and the series was produced from 1915 to 1925. And the Fleischer Brothers, who also worked for Bray, likely got the idea for their Out of the Inkwell series from Hurd since Hurd’s films took characters “out of the inkwell” several years earlier.
But Hurd’s biggest claim to fame is inventing the cel animation process in 1914, the process where you animate a character on transparent celluloid held in place by pegs and place it against a painted background. This made production go by way quicker and Bray and every other animation studio in Hollywood would continue using this technique for years to come.
Hurd would later write, produce and direct animated cartoons for several studios, including Pathé, Paramount and Universal and he would form Earl Hurd Productions and create Earl Hurd Comedies in 1924 and Pen and Ink Vaudeville which ran from 1924 to 1925 and featured Hurd sketching cartoons on a vaudeville stage before the cartoons came to life. Hurd took a break from animation in the 1920s, but he returned in the 1930s as a story man for Charles Mintz and Columbia, later joining Ub Iwerks and finally joining Disney as an artist and writer who co-wrote Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and several Silly Symphonies and Pluto cartoons before serving as a character designer for the “Dance of the Hours” segment of Fantasia. Earl Hurd died in 1940.
Among the cartoon series Bray produced was Colonel Heeza Liar, a series that premiered in 1913 and was about a fibbing army colonel which lampooned Teddy Roosevelt. There had been animated shorts with recurring characters before, but Heeza Liar was the first to be created specifically for animation and not be based on a comic strip. The series ran until 1924.
Earl Hurd also produced The Debut of Thomas Cat for Bray in 1920 as the first animated cartoon in color, although Bray deemed the color process too expensive and continued making black & white films afterwards.
Other Bray cartoons include The Police Dog, Earl Hurd’s Bobby Bumps, Paul Terry’s Farmer Al Falfa, Silhouette Fantasies, Miss Nanny Goat, Quacky Doodles, Goodrich Dirt, the Fleischer Brothers‘ Out of the Inkwell, Pat Sullivan’s Hardrock Dome, Us Fellers, Jerry on the Job, Charles Mintz’s Happy Comedy, Krazy Kat, Bill Nolan’s Happy Hooligan, Judge Rummy, Walter Lantz’s Dinky Doodle, Lantz and Clyde Geronimi’s Un-Natural History and Lantz and Geronimi’s Hot Dog Cartoons, among others. Overall Bray produced over 500 films between 1913 and 1937, with the entertainment branch closing in 1928 to make way for documentary and educational films.
Bray was the biggest animation studio for many years. It was so successful that alums like the Fleischers, Paul Terry, Frank Moser, Charles Mintz and Walter Lantz would later form their own successful animation studios. Even when other studios tried to compete with Bray, it could backfire. The best example of this is when famous newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst founded the animation studio International Film Service in 1915 to capitalize on the popularity of Hearst comic strips like Krazy Kat, The Katzenjammer Kids and Happy Hooligan. But that studio only lasted until 1919, and when IFS folded, Bray took over the film rights to those comics, with that deal lasting until 1921.