Ask almost any baby boomer who grew up on television programming of the late 1940s and early 50s about their earliest memories of cartoons. Many will mention Farmer Alfalfa. Or Farmer Gray, depending on which stations or kiddie show hosts they watched in those early years–different hosts gave him different names. Nearly all of these folks who mention the character will also reference ‘hundreds’ of mice. Few may have realized that, while the Farmer Alfalfa cartoons running on television at that time were already old, the films starred one of the earliest recurring cartoon characters, and one that enjoyed an incredibly long career compared with his cartoon contemporaries.
Farmer Al debuted in Paul Terry’s second cartoon, Down on Phoney Farm, distributed by Thanhouser in 1915. Terry soon signed with the burgeoning Bray Studios and took the character further, creating a series of eleven films starring the cantankerous old coot. After leaving Bray and going through a couple stints with Edison and Paramount, Terry finally formed the Aesop’s Film Fables studio in 1921, where he and his staff would truly breathe life into the grouchy, yet still lovable Alfalfa. Some four hundred and forty Fable cartoons were produced from 1921 to 1929, many of which depicted the trials and tribulations between Farmer Al and his cat, other barnyard animals, insects, and hundreds of mice who often plagued his homestead.
While some of the Bray Farmer Alfalfa cartoons were run on television in the 50s, it was the Aesop’s Fables cartoons that garnered widespread exposure to the earliest baby boomers. By the 1940s, Terry had sold the rights to the old silent cartoons, and varying numbers of them were handled by firms such as Sterling Television (as “Snappy Cartoons”), Guaranteed Pictures, and most notably, Commonwealth Pictures, which put more than three hundred of the films into distribution. It was the early TV ‘kiddie show’ hosts who picked up these packages and ran them as part of their programs, often narrating the silent films in lieu of sound or music tracks. In the New York City area, many remember Junior Frolics, hosted by “Uncle Fred” Sayles, who religiously incorporated Aesop’s Fables, Out of the Inkwell, Bobby Bumps, Alice Comedies, and other early series into his show. The sound-era Farmer Alfalfa cartoons, as Terrytoons product handled by CBS, also saw widespread usage and fame on 1950s television–first as part of the Barker Bill show, and later as part of the syndicated Farmer Alfalfa and His Terrytoons Pals show.
So much can be said about the thematic content and psychology of these cartoons; the passive-aggressive relationship that the Farmer and the animals alike have with one another. I’ll simply say that Farmer Alfalfa has always been a personal favorite, and extremely historically significant in terms of early animation research.
In that regard, it’s my pleasure to pay homage to the historic character this coming Saturday in New York City at BAMcinematek. As part of my historic animation presentation within the annual Animation Block Party festival, I’ve decided to honor the Farmer with a selection of ten cartoons spanning the character’s theatrical career. Notable selections will include the super-rare pilot cartoon from 1915; Farmer Alfalfa Sees New York (Bray Studios, 1916); Dinner Time (Van Beuren Prod., 1928), which was the first sound-synch cartoon that inspired Disney to release Steamboat Willie with a soundtrack; and the later Talking Magpies (Terrytoons, 1946), which features Farmer Al in color alongside early Heckle & Jeckle prototypes. The films will be presented as brand new HD scans from 16mm prints in my collection, in DCP form. Here’s a fun teaser–a clip from Barnyard Artists (1928), in HD:
Visit BAM’s website for more info on the screening here. A post-screening Q&A panel will feature veteran animator, historian, and Terrytoons alum Howard Beckerman; historians (and Cartoon Research columnists) David Gerstein, Charlie Judkins, and yours truly as well. Let all your animation loving and baby boomer friends alike in the NYC area know about this!