Comics and movies: two art forms which were born during the fin de siècle of the 19th Century, and which both became popular in the Twentieth. Every month there is a new announcement of a television show or movie based on a comic book or strip, and millions spend billions to watch the latest blockbuster comics films featuring superheroes, anti-heroes, and lots of special effects. But how far back does that relationship go?

Over on the (private) Platinum Era Comic Books & Periodicals Facebook group, John Adcock posted a still photo of Hogan’s Alley, a 1912 film produced by Thomas Edison‘s studio.

While Richard Outcault did work for Edison early in his career (1888-1890), it is unlikely this film was in any way related to his Yellow Kid character or either of the two competing strips. (Outcault had left the New York World for the New York Journal. He continued to draw his characters, but the World kept the trademark on “Hogan’s Alley”.) Hogan’s Alley was a common phrase during the era of tenements, and this was not the only movie to use this title.

This inspires two interesting brainstorms:

What are the earliest (pre-sound) movies to feature comic strip characters? (Comic book periodicals would not exist until 1933. The aforementioned Facebook group discusses the early history and origins of comics.)

What records and media exist for these long-forgotten movies?

Let’s answer the second question first. In 1897, Edison patented the Kinetoscope, a viewing device that used a continuous roll of celluloid film to simulate the persistence of vision. As with most new technologies, competition was rapid and fierce, and copyright law was uncertain if a motion picture could be copyrighted, and how.

paper print of George Méliès in The Untamable Whiskers (1904) SOURCE: Library of Congress

The Library of Congress, which managed copyrights in the United States, accepted paper prints of movies for copyright as photographs. The entire film negative would be printed onto photographic paper and registered as a single photograph. Years later, many early films had become lost due to the highly flammable nature of nitrocellulose (AKA gun cotton, flash paper, celluloid) as well as recycling and neglect. Decades later, these paper copies were rediscovered, restored, and archived, allowing the films to be seen once again. Unfortunately, the Library of Congress began accepting actual film prints for motion picture registration in 1912, so the paper print technique vanished, leaving an early record of both documentary and narrative filmmaking. C-SPAN has a nice feature shot in 2013 at the Library of Congress Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia.

An exhaustive search would need to be undertaken to find all registered examples. (Many films are lost… all that remains are copyright records, which do not list all films made, just as current copyright records do not note all the films being made today.) There is a catalog, published by the University of California Press, still affordable. Also, the Library of Congress has both copyright data and cataloging records listing everything in their collections, and because all of these films are now in the public domain, many have been digitized and placed on their website.

How to search the copyright records? Circular 22 How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work

Looking at the digitized films, I discovered Origins of American Animation, which contains 29 animated films. Scanning the list, I found two cartoons based on “Keeping Up with the Joneses“, from 1915.

In the cataloging data, it reads:

–  Based on the newspaper comic strip by Arthur Ragland “Pop” Mormand.

Lambiek has the biography of Mormand. This strip popularized the phrase, which means to try to be as affluent as your well-to-do neighbors, both financially and socially.

That cartoon dates to 1915, some twenty years after the birth of both comics strips and movies. Is there something earlier? The Library’s media division doesn’t allow for keyword searching, so instead, I tried Google, and got 97 results! That’s only six pages of results! So…

The first result is a Krazy Kat film, from 1916Windsor McKay‘s animation is amazing, but these are original works, so those don’t count. But then I see this:

Summary
The Leander Sisters perform a clever, characteristic dance called the “Yellow Kid.” Stage is in the Sutro Baths, San Francisco, Cal., and the audience is composed largely of bathers. One sister appears to be dressed as Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid comic strip character.

Filmed in 1897, only two years after the strip premiered!

Another early film, from 1902, is this fragment based on the musical Foxy Grandpa by William A. Brady, which was based on the comic strip by Carl E. “Bunny” Schultz.

I list the pertinent results below, but only the title and copyright information. Click on the title to view the clip at the Library of Congress!

The boys think they have one on Foxy Grandpa, but he fools them   United States : American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1902.

Buster’s joke on Papa  United States : Edison Manufacturing Co., 1903.

Happy Hooligan interferes   United States : American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1903.

Alphonse and Gaston, no. 3   United States : American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1903.

[Buster’s dog to the rescue] United States : Edison Manufacturing Co., 1904.

Mr. Jack in the dressing room   United States : American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1904.

[Buster’s revenge on the tramp]  United States : Edison Manufacturing Co., 1904.

[Buster and Tige put a balloon vendor out of business] United States : Edison Manufacturing Co., 1904.

Buster makes room for his mama at the bargain counter   United States : Edison Manufacturing Co., 1904.

Krazy Kat, bugologist   United States : [International Film Service, 1916].

Krazy Kat goes a-wooing  United States : [International Film Service, 1916].

Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse at the circus United States : [International Film Service, 1916].

…and, one of the earliest pieces of animation, from 1911, Windsor McKay animates Little Nemo in Slumberland!

If someone wants to do a more detailed search, we’d love to see your findings!

2 COMMENTS

  1. One of the earliest is the 1898 British film ‘Weary Willie’ based on the comic strip ‘Weary Willie and Tired Tim’ created by Tom Browne for Illustrated Chips in 1896.

    http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/574949/index.html
    http://lewstringer.blogspot.com/2017/02/the-origin-of-weary-willie-and-tired-tim.html

    The film still exists and can be seen on the BFI Player site, although from outside the UK you will need to use a VPN of some kind.

    https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-weary-willie-1898-online

    There were quite a few subsequent films based on the strip. Does that make them the first ‘franchise’ ?

  2. Let’s try and get the name right on one of the true innovators of both animation and comics. It’s WINSOR McCay, not “Windsor”. His Little Nemo appeared first as a comic, and then as a filmed version. It’s an adaptation of a comic to a film, so, obviously, it should count.

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