Bright Lights Film Journal

Happy 100th, <em>Bobby Bumps, Surf Rider</em>!

While it’s always difficult to make such a claim with assurance – for decades Disney’s 1937 Goofy feature Hawaiian Holiday was confidently thought to hold that honor – Bobby Bumps takes us right back to the very beginnings of the form. It appears highly unlikely that any earlier cartoon addressed the sport.

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On August 27, 1917 Bobby Bumps went surfing. Envious as he sighted surfers flying into the beach, the young boy knocked together a makeshift board, paddled out, and then took one of the strangest rides ever back in, accompanied by his faithful pup Fido and, eventually, the family maid Goldy. This August will mark the anniversary of that wild ride and an important moment in the history of surfing and its varied representations within the larger culture.

On that date exactly 100 years ago, New York’s Bray Studios released a 3-minute, 45-second silent animated film entitled Bobby Bumps, Surf Rider. This appears to be the first appearance of surfing in animation. While it’s always difficult to make such a claim with assurance – for decades Disney’s 1937 Goofy feature Hawaiian Holiday was confidently thought to hold that honor – Bobby Bumps takes us right back to the very beginnings of the form. It appears highly unlikely that any earlier cartoon addressed the sport.

Title card

To return to the days of Bobby Bumps means necessarily traveling in the erudite company of Tommy José Stathes of Cartoons on Film, the expert on the kid; his father Earl Hurd; and godfather John Randolph Bray. According to Stathes, long before his 1914 founding of the first successful cartoon studio, Bray was a newspaper cartoonist with an eye for the next new thing. Often that thing would be the “adaptation” of the good ideas of others, such as cartoons blatantly modeled on competitors’ hits or the decision to follow pioneers like Edwin S. Porter and Winsor McCay into the animation game. At times it would be something genuinely novel, such as Bray’s creative assembly of the day’s technical advances to step beyond artisanal one-off animation into a new age of mass-produced films.

Before anyone else, Bray saw that animated features could enter theaters and be more than just the novelty items associated with live vaudeville shows they generally were at the time. Drawing on his success with one of the first animated cartoons The Artist’s Dream, the new Bray Studios quickly drew the attention of Pathé and Paramount. These then-emerging production companies ordered miles of film. Of all Bray’s decisions, perhaps his best was to hire an extremely gifted cartoonist named Earl Hurd. In the years to follow, Bray Studios would bring in other noted talents like young Max Fleisher and Walter Lanz of, respectively, Betty Boop and Woody Woodpecker fame. But Hurd was not only an extremely gifted artist, he also was the origin of many of the patented technical advances, including cel animation, that gave Bray Studios its industrial production capacity. Between 1914 and 1927, the company would make over 500 films. When you look back at the abundance of crudely illustrated – but each year improving – early silent cartooning by Bray and his competitors, you realize there was a complex animation ecosystem out there well before Disney and Mickey Mouse.

Earl Hurd and Bobby Bumps

Bobby Bumps was Earl Hurd’s creation. A sweetly mischievous boy in a line stretching from Tom Sawyer to Dennis the Menace to Bart Simpson, he appeared originally on paper with a couple of slightly different monikers and in two Universal cartoons. Bray Studios was then to bring Bobby into a series of about 50 animated shorts from 1916 to 1919, at which point Hurd left the company and continued to use the character a dozen times elsewhere until 1925. Bobby Bumps, Surf Rider was probably produced when Bray Studios held office space on Manhattan’s 26th Avenue, just overlooking Madison Square Park.

Bobby and his bright bulldog Fido inhabit a middle-class world framed by hoity-toity parents and a bossy maid in period “mammy” blackface. Playing off these foils, boy and dog have three- to five-minute mini-adventures with fussy neighbors, anthropomorphic local animals, school, Fourth of July, and other prime opportunities for impish misbehavior. With apologies for spoilers, the plot of Surf Rider combines the simple and the strange. Up for more than the body surfing of the short’s first few seconds, Bobby and Fido spy standing bathing-costumed surfers riding waves in the straight-on fashion of the times. “I wisht’ we had a surf board!” yearns Bobby’s speech bubble to his pup, and the hunt is on. Sneaking to the window of maid Goldy’s workroom, the rascals take advantage of a moment of inattention to swipe her ironing board and go surfing.

As they ride tandem, Goldy wises up and heads for the water, where a shark’s fin starts circling. A battle royal ensues, during which the no-nonsense maid subdues the predator and transforms it into her private longboard. She’s soon catching waves and tracking our two culprits. Finally, Goldy jumps onto their board for a crazy “trandem” ride that morphs into a spanking session. In the last scene, chastised boy and dog put the maid’s wet clothes through the wringer. The short ends with the “hand of the cartoonist” awarding the “Champion Surf Rider” badge to Goldy, with laughs all around.

How did the then-unfamiliar subject of surfing make its way into popular animation in 1917, when only an infinitely small percentage of the American public had ever seen a surfer in the flesh? As it was for nearly all questions on the topic at that period, the answer is likely the great Duke Kahanamoku. After the 19th-century ravages of disease, bad religion, and economic exploitation, surfing’s early-20-century “recovery” period saw Duke hit the road worldwide with the wave-riding gospel. More than a century before William Finnegan would win a Pulitzer for Barbarian Days and alert the wider world to New York’s role as a surfing destination, Kahanamoku famously introduced the sport to the East Coast. Following training sessions at the University of Pennsylvania and a dominant double medal swimming performance at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games (see below), he swam and negotiated waves at Rockaway Beach and brought huge crowds to the Atlantic City pier to watch him ride a board specially shaped and delivered by his brother.

The ripples from these episodes would continue for years as the now-prominent Duke took his surf show on the road to California, Australia, and New Zealand. Hurd and Bray were very likely aware of these events and in any case, like colleagues in the then NY-centered cartoon field, always on watch for exotic material. As professionals in the fledgling cinema industry, they likely also knew Robert Bonine’s pioneering 1906 Waikiki footage for Edison as well as a 1911 Pathé frères travelogue featuring Hawaiian surfing. Bray had a close relationship with Pathé, which distributed his first animation and later contracted with his studio for as much footage as it could provide.

Topical responsiveness and the simple need to generate material may also explain why Hurd put Bobby on that board. Bobby Bumps, Surf Rider was one of 16 such adventures in 1917; in other words, one film every three weeks. The nature of intensive serial cartooning is that artists must remain alert to the recent news and the day’s trends in order to keep up with their audience’s changing concerns. Bobby Bumps, Submarine Chaser, for example, came about halfway through a war in which the Allies lost 5,000 ships to U-boats. Just as the second wave of the Spanish flu pandemic hit in 1919, Hurd came up with Bobby Bumps’ Pup Gets the Flea-enza. For these heavier issues as for a more playful subject like surfing, staying up to date was important. In a sweltering August when the memory of Duke’s East Coast appearances was far from ancient history and a few scenics, or early travelogues, had already featured Hawaiian wave riding, Hurd could clearly recognize in surfing not only a colorful new thing but one that might just be around for a while.

An innovative frame from Bobby Bumps Puts a Beanery on the Bum

In any case, what did the cartoonist stand to lose? Next to a full-length feature film, a three-minute exercise in animation is a low-risk affair in terms of both time and financial investment. In the years to come, starting with Julia Crawford Ivers’s 1923 The White Flower, a few full-length feature films would turn to surfing as exotic background and incidental narrative element. But no studio would dare roll the budgetary dice on a major film truly dedicated to the sport until 1959. To sign off on Gidget, the Hollywood suits would need the assurance of a burgeoning surf culture visible from Pacific Coast Highway and their Malibu decks, as well as a safely sanitized adaptation of a novel from the NY Times bestseller list. Yet the same studios could easily toss off a Hawaiian Holiday in 1937 or send Tom and Jerry surfing in 1952.

As the animation industry went through the head-spinningly rapid technical and aesthetic evolution that would give us these and other cartoons, the Bobby Bumps shorts soon came to seem creaky and out of date. Bray never stopped promoting, though, selling them in the 1930s to an outfit that manufactured 16mm prints for home projectors. They also made up part of a distribution deal for 1950s television. Late in that decade Bobby Bumps appeared for the last time on TV. Since then, Bobby Bumps, Surf Rider has had a single public showing, in March 2016 at the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center in San Clemente, California.

Bobby Bumps is a signal moment in the long history of Western representations of surfing beginning at least as early as Cook voyage botanist Joseph Banks’s 1769 written account of Tahitian wave riders. After Melville’s 1849 novel Mardi, it seems to be the second important use of surfing in a fictional setting and the first such in cinema. The short is not only significant as an historical marker, however. Bobby Bumps, Surf Rider raises issues that will go on to mark repeatedly the presentation of surfing in cinema, fiction, song, and other aspects of popular culture. Like Gidget scoping the delight others take as they glide shoreward, Bobby wants in. When he snatches the maid’s ironing board, he subversively transforms the domestic work tool into a private pleasure machine. And he will not be the first or last surfer to see that desire for surfing’s magnificently useless absorption in the present moment come up against a formidable custodian of order and responsibility. Swiping that board, Bobby recalls another boy his age and, clearly, another of his thematic predecessors. Huck Finn also knew that living a life of adventure and discovery took a little mischievous doing. For one thing, it meant slipping out of the house and heading down to the shore.