Underground Film Journal

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Mary Ellen Bute: Experimental Animation Pioneer

By Mike Everleth ⋅ July 19, 2010

Embedded above is a brief segment from the 1999 British TV show Dope Sheet on Mary Ellen Bute, the experimental animation pioneer who produced over a dozen abstract animated films between the 1930s and ’50s. While her contribution to experimental film has largely been overlooked except by hardcore animation buffs, there’s been a slow resurgence in interest in her work.

[NOTE: Dope Sheet video removed from YouTube.]

Her name crossed my path in a significant way this past week or so while I was building the beginning stages of my underground film timeline. The timeline currently credits her with just 11 films, 10 of which are abstract animations and one, The Boy Who Saw Through, is a live action short film that, according to the above documentary, stars an extremely young Christopher Walken. The documentary also credits Bute for having made 15 animated films between 1935 and 1956.

However, there’s some dispute between the information I currently have. For example, the timeline says her first film, Synchrony was produced with Lewis Jacobs and Joseph Schillinger in 1934, while Wikipedia claims the film was unfinished in 1933 and IMDB doesn’t list the film in her credits at all.

More detailed information on Bute can be found on the web if you dig around for it. Animation World Network has a nice bio, although they claim she only produced 11 animated films.

The  2006 Cinematexas experimental media festival (now defunct) held a retrospective of Bute’s work.

Bute also made one feature film, 1966’s Passages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which took home the award for Best First Feature at the Cannes Film Festival. The film was the first editing job for Thelma Schoonmaker, who would go on to win three Oscars for editing films by Martin Scorsese: Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed. (Unfortunately, the doc spells her last name completely wrong on-screen.) Roger Ebert reviewed the film in 1968 when it screened in Chicago. He gave it 3 stars and wrote of the film: “I could appreciate what was happening even if I didn’t always understand it.”

There’s lots of great bits in the documentary, including lots of clips from her actual films. Plus, there are several scenes of her working and personal anecdotes by people who worked with her including Schoonmaker and fellow animator Hilary Harris, who talks about pouring coffee and cream into a large fish tank to create cool swirling effects.

However, my favorite bit comes from author Cecile Starr (Experimental Animation), who is close to 80 in this segment, who suggests that Bute and experimental animation, which has been sorely overlooked and under appreciated by film audiences, is someday going to get the respect it deserves. Even though Bute’s films had once screened at Radio City Music Hall — which may have made her one of underground film’s most widely seen filmmakers — she, unfortunately, died practically destitute in 1983 after having pumped all of her money into her films.

But Starr’s optimism that this animation pioneer will finally be widely hailed as the true visionary she was and her work be popularly accepted is inspiring. So, spread the word!

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