We asked silent era animation historian and archivist Tom Stathes to take us on tour of his personal thoughts through an interview conducted over email shortly after the 2010 holiday season. So, without further ado...
1. BUFS would like to know about your first experience projecting a film. What are your roots in underground cinema?
TOM STATHES: "I started projecting films casually for one or two friends at a time almost immediately when I first collected around the age of 10 or 11, which was only a decade ago. I didn't get a whole lot of enthusiastic response from peers at that age, as you might imagine. As I amassed more and more for my collection, I decided a couple summers ago that I should start sharing these old films with the public. I had my first public "Tom Stathes Cartoon Carnival" screening in June of 2009 and I've just finished my 8th screening. The response has been very rewarding, and times and tastes are a little bit different ten years after I began collecting, at least here in NYC. The young arts communities are a bit more keen to discover these forgotten obscurities and ingest them happily."
2. Early animated films have preserved the art of homonyms, sight gags, and multiple story arcs. In your view, what makes a good early animated film stand out from the others?
3. The destruction of some films such as Winsor McCays "The Centaurs" reveals the importance of preserving film, in terms of preserving the history of man. Can you tell us why you collect and preserve certain films?
T.S.: Starts a Lodge is part of a small group of what I refer to as "everyday silent cartoons." These are the films that have been circulated and shown the most to the public for the past two or three decades. Though I tend to shy away from this group because it has already had so much exposure, "Starts a Lodge" is an important entry in a very important . Bobby Bumps was the creation of Earl Hurd who utilized celluloid sheets (cels) to perfect and streamline the animation process. His patent became an important factor in the Bray-Hurd Process Company (1915), a joint venture with animation pioneer J.R. Bray and these two issued licenses to other animators like until the early 1930s.
"Starts a Lodge" is crucial today because it shows Bobby Bumps, a little white boy, sinisterly initiating his black friend Chocklit into a [Masonic] lodge or kid's club. The presence of Chocklit in the Bobby Bumps cartoons might easily be misconstrued today for being a racist counterpart of the cartoons but as I've seen in viewing many Bumps cartoons, Bobby and his friend are equals and simply a product of their time. Viewing hundreds of doesn't dilute the issue of racism that exists in early film, which it does, but it desensitizes the harshness of these characters and allows one to see that sometimes their treatment is not always purely negative.
5. McCays' 'Chalk Talks' led to his animated films. Disney then mimicked McCay and Chaplin which, eventually ushered in his successful (which was a parody on Buster Keaton's 'Steamboat Bill Jr.'), and a began new way of looking at animation and ideas that came from those parodies. Which children's stories influenced your cinematic voice?
6. What do you see in cinema that you can not find anywhere else?
7. What can you tell B.U.F.S. about your current film screenings?
8. History has a funny way of repeating itself, what do you hope comes back that we don't get from films today?
That was an interview with Tom Stathes, 21 year old proprietor of Cartoons On Film. The Berkeley Underground Film Society thanks him for his time and insights into the art of early animated films. His website notes; "I've been collecting vintage animation for over a decade. In pursuit of this forgotten art form, I have found that much of it is simply unavailable. Although I've located a good amount of silent animation, it still eludes the public. That is why I started COF—to share these masterpieces and prevent them from being forgotten ever again. My colleagues, collaborators, and friends share my goal."