CARTOONS ON FILM
July 23, 2014 posted by Tom Stathes

“Farmer Alfalfa” on the Big Screen

courtesy of The Bray Animation Project

All images courtesy of The Bray Animation Project

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.

courtesy of The Bray Animation Project

courtesy of The Bray Animation Project

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.

bray farmer alWhile 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!

Pathe-logo

15 Comments

  • Tom:
    Looks like a lot of fun for those early animation fans like me.Too bad I can’t make it to N.Y.C.(I live in Indiana)I enjoy your website (Bray Animation Project)Thank goodness there are people like you who care enough about animation’s past to actually do something to preserve it and keep it in the public eye.Thanks for all you do!

    • Andy, thanks so much…that truly means a lot to me!

  • i, for one, have a VERY fine memory of them. The local station that had them was in Alexandria, La., the kiddie show being “Laverne Perry”…a cowboy character (whose sponsor, consequently, was his own line of cowboy shoes!)

  • I’m interested to note that you’re including “Noah’s Outing” on the program. That cartoon appears briefly in the movie L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, which is set in the 1950s: The cartoon is playing on a TV set in the background in one of the scenes, with its “comical” soundtrack providing a surreal juxtaposition with the suspensful events occuring onscreen.

    • Same thing happens in “The Comic”, the Carl Reiner film with Dick Van Dyke as a silent comic. In a present-day scene (late 60s) Van Dyke has a TV on in the background, showing Columbia’s Krazy Kat exploring a dark old house to lively “funny” music.

    • Recall one Italian film that used a Terrytoon in a scene involving a man doing foley work for it called “Volere Volare”.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tC_Ps46uA1M

  • The HD Transfer looks mighty good! Well done!

  • My first thought on seeing that headline was the weirdest Hollywood movie reboot ever.

    “Robert Downey Jr. IS Farmer Al Falfa . . . “

  • Tom:
    I too have a strong and fond memories of the films as shown on tv in the 50′s and early 60′s. Do you know who did the narration and music for the tv releases?
    Your post led me to look up of few things on the Internet and led to to a web site that indicates Paul Terry’s one time partner Frank Moser was involved in a auto accident in which he hit the child of Bruno Hauptmann, the guy who was executed for the murder of the Lindbergh baby. The full article is pretty interesting:
    http://strippersguide.blogspot.com/2013_03_24_archive.html

    • Some of the Commonwealth Pictures prints had narration recorded on the tracks…are you referring to those? Don’t happen to know who did those narrations.

  • I recently found a very early Farmer Al cartoon on You Tube which had some quite sophisticated animation, adult-themed humor (now c’mon, I don’t mean THAT,) and not a mouse in sight. Here’s a link; you might like it too…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKCcABs_-v0

    • A great one. This will be shown at the BAM screening, complete with a previously-lost beginning segment that was recently discovered in a rotting nitrate print, and I’ll eventually make the new patchwork version available elsewhere as well.

  • Tom:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fv_akAoV90A

    The above is a link to a YouTube video that has the music I was referring to. The cartoon is “Chemistry Lesson”. No narration though. As I recall, the music was very soothing to me as a child for some reason. It doesn’t really fit the action and they used basically the same music tracks for a variety of cartoons.

  • And if you lived in Boston and liked to watch the new UHF stations, you might have seen the silent Farmer Alfalfa cartoons IN THE SIXTIES on Ch. 38, possibly hosted by Willie Whistle.

  • I remember the farmer on tv when I was a little boy in the late 50′s , I am wondering if there is a source available to purchase all of the farmer cartoons on DVD ?

    Thank You for your efforts !!!

    Lawrence Stice/ lcstice52@startmail.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>