Bray Productions was the dominant animation studio based in the United States in the years before World War I.
The studio was founded in December 1914 by J. R. Bray, perhaps the first studio entirely devoted to animation, and series animation at that (he was probably beaten a few months earlier by Raoul Barré's studio). Its first series was Bray's Heeza Liar, but from the beginning the studio brought in outsiders to direct promising new series. Carl Anderson, later known for the comic strip Henry, directed The Police Dog from the beginning of the company. The year 1915 brought Earl Hurd and Paul Terry; the former became J. R. Bray's business partner and directed Bobby Bumps, the latter was employed under duress and directed Farmer Al Falfa. The Fleischer brothers joined in 1916. In 1919, the rival International Film Service studio folded and owner William Randolph Hearst licensed Bray to continue the IFS series, which included Jerry on the Job films adapted from Walter Hoban's comic strip. Many staff members of the former studio transferred to Bray, and most of the new cartoons were directed by the same man who directed them for IFS, Gregory La Cava.
Bray's goal was to have four units working on four cartoons at any one time; since it took a month to complete a film, four units with staggered schedules produced one cartoon a week for use of the "screen magazines" (a one-reel collection of live-action didactic pieces and travelogs in addition to the cartoon, that was played before the feature). Bray started with Pathé as his distributor, switched to Paramount in 1916, and then switched to Goldwyn Pictures in 1919. Of the units, one produced his Colonel Heeza Liar, one produced Hurd's Bobby Bumps, and one produced non-series cartoons, usually topical commentaries on the news directed by Leighton Budd, J. D. Leventhal, and others. The fourth unit was the one that kept changing hands. It produced Terry's Farmer Al Falfa in 1916, until Terry left year later and the Farmer when with him. It then produced Max Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell until 1921, when he left and Koko clown when with Max. The influx of IFS series at the same time broke up the four-unit system—in 1920 there were ten series going simultaneously, with Heeza Liar in hiatus from 1917.
Bray was constantly looking to expand his studio. He financed the semi-independent studio of C. Allen Gilbert to create a series of serious Silhouette Fantasies on classical themes (he actually did some of the animation work for this series). In 1917 he bought out his distributor's screen magazine to produce one of his own, moving him into the realm of live-action shorts producer. During World War I, he assigned Leventhal and Max Fleischer's units to create training and educational cartoons for the U.S. Army. These did so well that after the war Bray was swamped with orders from the government and big business to make films for them. Over a period of years, Bray moved the focus of his company from entertainment to education, putting Leventhal and E. Dean Parmelee in charge of the technical department. Dr. Rowland Rogers became educational director, while Jamison "Jam" Handy was put in charge of a Chicago–Detroit branch for creating films for the auto industry, Bray's largest private client.
The 1919 move from Paramount to Goldwyn also included a re-incorporation of the studio, now called Bray Pictures Corporation. The studio was putting out more than three reels of screen magazines, the educational and training films, and experimental films such as an unnamed sound-on-film cartoon by Walt Lantz (co-producer/director) and Hugo Riesenfeld (composer) in 1927 for Movietone, inbetween the releases of Don Juan and The Jazz Singer and coincidentally shortly before Bray Pictures' demise. The Debut of Thomas Cat, the first cartoon made in color (although some claim the first animated short was made by Natural Colour Kinematograph Company, which was In Gollywog Land (1912, UK), a stop motion film in Kinemacolor who also contained live action)—Brewster Color, invented by Percy Brewster of Newark, New Jersey—was released on February 8, 1920.
The expenses quickly outweighed the revenue, and in January 1920, Samuel Goldwyn bought a controlling interest in Bray Pictures and ordered a massive reorganization. Max Fleischer and J. D. Leventhal's positions as executive producers of the entertainment and technical branches of the studio were greatly strengthened, and the company was streamlined to work more like Goldwyn Picture Corporation, with two cartoons released a week. The result was a massive exodus of talent, including Max Fleischer and even Earl Hurd. Goldwyn dropped Bray Pictures like a hot potato. In the wake of this disaster, first Vernon Stallings, then Lantz, were put in charge of Bray's entertainment cartoons, both acting as "co-producers". Stallings directed Krazy Kat and the revival of Heeza Liar, while Lantz directed Dinky Doodle. Among the big names who passed through the studio were Wallace Carlson, Milt Gross, Frank Moser, Burt Gillett, Grim Natwick, Raoul Barré, Pat Sullivan, Jack King, David Hand, Clyde Geronimi and Shamus Culhane.
J.R. Bray paid little attention to the animation side of things during the 1920s, focusing instead on beating Hal Roach as the king of two-reel comedy, with the disastrous series "The McDougall Alley Kids". When this adventure failed, he slipped out of the business. The entertainment branch of Bray Pictures Corporation closed. The educational/commercial branch, Brayco, made mostly filmstrips from the 1920s until it closed in 1963. Jam Handy's offshoot company (The Jam Handy Organization) made several thousand industrial and sponsored films and tens of thousands of filmstrips, many for the automobile industry, until it closed in 1983.
In evaluating the quality of the Bray product, there is a strong conflict between the cheap cost-cutting exemplified in the business practices of J. R. Bray contrasted with the equally-strong artistic sensibilities of the directors Bray hired, most of whom quit rather than bend to the pressure to cheapen their product. The success of Bray Productions, driven entirely on assembly-line methods, simultaneously guaranteed the survival of animated films in general and at the same time doomed them to near-extinction by the end of the silent film era.
Series produced by Bray Productions
- Colonel Heeza Liar (1913–1917, 1922–1924): directed by J. R. Bray 1913–1917; Vernon Stallings 1922–1924
- The Police Dog (1914–1916, 1918): directed by C. T. Anderson
- The Trick Kids (1916): director unknown
- Plastiques (1916): directed by Ashley Miller
- Bobby Bumps (1916–1922): directed by Earl Hurd
- Farmer Al Falfa (1916–1917): directed by Paul Terry
- Silhouette Fantasies (1916): directed by C. Allen Gilbert
- Miss Nanny Goat (1916–1917): directed by Clarence Rigby
- Out of the Inkwell (1916, 1918–1919): directed by Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer
- Quacky Doodles (1917): directed by F.M. Follett
- Picto Puzzles (1917): Sam Lloyd
- Otto Luck (1917): directed by Wallace A. Carlson
- Goodrich Dirt (1917–1919): directed by Wallace A. Carlson
- Hardrock Dome (1919): directed by Pat Sullivan
- Us Fellers (1919–1920): directed by Wallace A. Carlson
- Jerry on the Job (1919–1920): directed by Gregory La Cava, Vernon Stallings, (Inherited from International Film Service)
- Lampoons (1920): directed by Burt Gillett
- Ginger Snaps (1920): directed by Milt Gross
- Shenanigan Kids (1920): directed by Gregory La Cava, Burt Gillett, and Grim Natwick (Inherited from International Film Service)
- Krazy Kat (1920–1921): directed by Vernon Stallings (Inherited from International Film Service)
- Bud and Susie (1920–1921): directed by Frank Moser
- Happy Hooligan (1920–1921): directed by Gregory La Cava, Bill Nolan (Inherited from International Film Service)
- Judge Rummy (1920–21): directed by Gregory La Cava (Inherited from International Film Service)
- Technical Romances (1922–1923): directed by J.A. Norling, Ashley Miller, and F. Lyle Goldman
- Ink Ravings (1922–1923): directed by Milt Gross
- Dinky Doodle (1924–1926): directed by Walter Lantz
- Un-Natural History (1925–1927): directed by Walter Lantz and Clyde Geronimi
- Hot Dog Cartoons (1926–1927): directed by Walter Lantz and Clyde Geronimi
- A McDougall Alley Comedy (1926–1928): directed by Joe Rock, Stan DeLay and Robert Wilcox
- Producer: J. R. Bray
- Directors: J. R. Bray, Earl Hurd (1915–1922), Max Fleischer (1916–1921), J. D. Leventhal (1916–1921), Vernon "George" Stallings (1919–1924), Jamison "Jam" Handy (1919–), Carl Anderson (1914–1918), L.M. Glackens (1915–1919), Leighton Budd (1916–1919), Leslie Elton (1916–1919), Wallace A. Carlson (1917–1920), Milt Gross (1919–1920, 1922–1923), Frank Moser (1916, 1920–1921), Ashley Miller (1916, 1922–1923), Gregory La Cava (1919–1921), F. Lyle Goldman (1920, 1922–1923), W. C. Morris (1915–1916), Paul Terry (1915–1916), Clarence Rigby (1916–1917), E. Dean Parmelee (1918–1919), Dave Fleischer (1920–1921), Jean Gic (1920–1921), Burt Gillett (1920–1921), Grim Natwick (1920–1921), Bill Nolan (1920–21), J. A. Norling (1922–1923), Walter Lantz (1924–1925), Vincent Colby (1915), Flohri (1915), C. Allen Gilbert (1916), H. C. Greening (1916), A. D. Reed (1916), Hugh M. Shields (1916), John C. Terry (1916), Charles Wilhelm (1916), F. M. Follett (1917), Sam Lloyd (1917), Santry (1918), Raoul Barré (1919), Pat Sullivan (1919), Roland Crandall (1920)
- Animators: all of the directors, plus Raoul Barré (1915), Johnny B. Gruelle (1917), Jack King (1920–1921), Isadore Klein (1920–1921), Leon A. Searl (1920–1921), Bert Green (1920–1921), Edward Grinham (1920–1921), Ben Sharpsteen (1920–1921), Will Powers (1920–1921), Walter Lantz (1920–1921), David Hand (1925–1927), Ving Fuller (1925–26), Frank Paiker (c. 1924)
- Inker/Cel Painter: James (Shamus) Culhane (1924–27)
- Screenwriters: H. E. Hancock (1920–1921), Louis De Lorme (1920–1921), Clyde Geronimi [also animator] (1924–26), Webb Smith
- Pathé (1913–1916)
- Paramount (1916–1921)
- Thomas A. Edison, Inc. (1917)
- Goldwyn Pictures (1919–1921)
- W. W. Hodkinson (1922–1923)
- Standard Cinema (1924–1925)
- Film Booking Office (1924–1926)
- Donald Crafton; Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898–1928; University of Chicago Press; ISBN 0-226-11667-0 (2nd edition, paperback, 1993)
- Denis Gifford; American Animated Films: The Silent Era, 1897–1929; McFarland & Company; ISBN 0-89950-460-4 (library binding, 1990)
- Leonard Maltin; Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons; Penguin Books; ISBN 0-452-25993-2 (1980, 1987)
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