Canadian cartoonist and animation pioneer Vital Achille Raoul Barré was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1874. He was one of twelve children and the only one in his family with any real artistic ambition, eventually studying art in Paris, France at the Académie Julian in 1896 when he was in his early twenties, and later becoming a political cartoonist, working at the same time as fellow political cartoonist Émile Cohl who was Barré’s political opposite and who also became an animation pioneer.
Upon returning to Canada in 1898, Barré opened the door for the French Canadian comic industry, essentially inventing it, and he would later move to New York City in 1903 to find success in the States, which happened a decade later when NYC’s McClure Syndicate decided to distribute his strip Noahzark Hotel in 1913, in which Barré credited himself as “VARB.”
Barré got inspired to enter the animation industry that decade (most likely after watching one of Winsor McCay’s films) and he began working at Edison Studios, which is where he met Bill Nolan. Nolan was a Connecticut-born filmmaker who produced live-action shorts but he soon became Barré’s business and artistic partner and the duo created both live-action and animated films together, mostly commercials for various companies when they were starting out. But Nolan would become best known in the animation world for creating the rubber hose animation style that became popular in the 1920s and 1930s after Nolan first implemented it in Felix the Cat, Krazy Kat and finally Oswald the Lucky Rabbit where he worked for Walter Lantz and became one of his top animators, storymen and directors. The rubber hose style was adopted by the Fleischers for the Betty Boop and Popeye series, Disney for the Mickey Mouse series and Warner Bros. for the Bosko series.
Barré and Nolan were also the first animators to come up with the idea of hanging animation frames on pegs while flipping them on camera in order to keep their drawings aligned and eliminate the jitter effect of early animation. This is still in effect to this day. Although it wouldn’t be until animator Earl Hurd invented cel animation that the process of hand-drawn animation would be perfected.
By 1914, Barré and Nolan had the confidence to start their own animation studio independent of Edison. This became known as the Barré Studio and it was among the earliest film studios dedicated to making animated films exclusively, along with Bray Productions which was founded two years earlier. The Barré Studio also made commercials and it was one of the first studios to use animation to sell products. But they also made short films like the Animated Grouch Chaser series (1915) in addition to Phables (1915-16) and The Boob Weekly (1916), the latter written by newspaper cartoonist Rube Goldberg and animated by future Disney story developer George Stallings. Other animators who got their start at Barré include Terrytoons co-founder Frank Moser, film director Gregory La Cava and Felix the Cat producer Pat Sullivan.
Things began to take a bit of a negative turn for Barré’s animation career when newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst decided to enter the animation industry. After finding success with newsreels with International News Service in 1914, Hearst decided to expand his empire further by creating the animation studio International Film Service (IFS) in 1915 as a way of adapting Hearst’s comic strips to film (no doubt the success of comic strip artists-turned-animators like Winsor McCay influenced Hearst’s decision). IFS did not last long and its impact on the animation industry was miniscule compared to others like Bray, but it was the first animation studio to credit the animators and directors of its comic strip adaptations rather than just the comic creator.
Unfortunately for Barré, William Randolph Hearst’s strategy for hiring talent was luring them away from other studios, and with the promise of fatter paychecks, most of Barré’s crew deserted him to work for IFS. Hearst did give Barré the chance to work at IFS as well, but it was an uninspired run and Barré left shortly. IFS ran its studio in an organized manner but it felt like an assembly line, and their stiff and formulaic comic-based films did not have much life or creativity. Although they made a few good Krazy Kat films, and the studio was a launchpad for future animation talents like Walter Lantz, Ben Sharpsteen, Jack King and Grim Natwick. But what ended up hurting IFS the most was Hearst’s pro-Germany politics, which were not popular with Americans during World War I, and his business suffered as a result, causing Hearst to shut down IFS and lay off his entire staff on July 6, 1918, referred to by animation historians as “Black Monday.” Hearst sold off his film adaptation rights to Bray, who would continue making films based on Hearst strips from 1919 to 1921.
After Raoul Barré lost his staff to IFS, he had to figure out how to keep his studio afloat. Enter Charles Bowers.
When newspaper illustrator-turned-animator Charles Bowers decided to team up with Bud Fisher to adapt Fisher’s comic strip Mutt and Jeff to animation, Bowers decided to partner with Raoul Barré and use his empty studio to make the films. Bowers animated and directed the Mutt and Jeff series to great success, even surpassing the popularity of Bray’s Colonel Heeza Liar and Bobby Bumps, and they managed to hire a lot of up-and-coming animation stars like Bill Tytla, Burt Gillett, Dick Huemer, Milt Gross, Mannie Davis, Manny Gould, Ben Harrison and Ted Sears.
Barré however did not get along with Bowers, and when it was revealed that Bowers was actually swindling Barré out of his pay for the Mutt and Jeff cartoons, Barré reportedly threatened to shoot Bowers over the incident, leading to a police arrest and a psych evaluation on Barré before he was released. Bowers got away with his crimes, but he ended up swindling Bud Fisher too, and that led to Bowers eventually getting fired.
Tired of the stress of producing animation, Barré retired in 1919, selling paintings and posters on Long Island, but he eventually missed animation and decided to return to the medium one last time in 1925, working for Pat Sullivan on Felix the Cat cartoons, with the films Barré worked on considered by many to be the highlights of both Barré and Felix the Cat’s careers.
Going out on a high note this time, Barré retired for good in 1927. He lived until 1932 when he died of cancer in his home city of Montreal at the age of 58.