Mary Ellen Bute was a pioneering independent American filmmaker who, over the course of twenty five years, produced a collection of innovative short and feature length films, her most famous being an adaptation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In addition to filmmaking, she was the founding member of the Women’s Independent Film Exchange.

Born in 1906, Mary Ellen grew up in Texas. She studied painting in her home state and in Philadelphia and, although inspired by Klee and Kandinsky, she became frustrated with the limitations of the traditional canvas. Her desire to explore a more animated artistic practice led her to Yale’s new Drama School to study stage lighting from in 1925.

After graduation, one of Mary Ellen’s first collaborations was with musician Joseph Schillinger who worked with mathematics, music, light and sound. To showcase their innovative work, Schillinger and Mary Ellen worked together to produce the short film Synchromy. Although the film was never completed, Schillinger’s theories proved hugely influential for Mary Ellen and she continued to experiment with light, sound, music and mathematics throughout her career.

Mary Ellen went on to make experimental short films throughout the 1930s and 40s her first being Rhythm in Light in 1934. The film synchronizes black and white images to Anitra’s Dance from Peer Gynt and uses cellophane, ping pong balls, egg beaters and experiments with focus to create abstract forms. She continued to experiment with black and white film, and classical music in Synchromy No 2 (1936) and Parabola (1938), before producing Escape and Spook Sport in which she started to work with colour which gave an extra dimension to her swirling liquids and abstract shapes.

In 1956, she moved away from animation and into live action with The Boy Who Saw Through which starred a young Christopher Walken. This marked a development in Mary Ellen’s filmmaking and throughout the 1960s she worked on her first feature length film Passages from Finnegans Wake which was based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

Passages from Finnegans Wake was a critical success. It debuted at Cannes Film Festival and was named ‘Best Debut of the Year’ in 1965. The film is a very successful adaptation of a complicated novel; it is particularly good at transposing Joyce’s stream of consciousness into joyful animation and evoking Joyce’s state of semi-consciousness through Mary Ellen’s characteristic abstraction.

Mary Ellen continued to work in adapting works of literature for the remainder of her career. Throughout the 1960s and 70s she worked on an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth and a film about Walt Whitman which was given the working title Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. Unfortunately, neither film was completed.

In April 1983, Mary Ellen received a special tribute and a retrospective of her films at the Museum of Modern Art. Sadly, six months later she died of heart failure in New York City. She was 76.

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Sara Sherwood

Written by Sara Sherwood

Sara works in theatre and lives in London. She spends the majority of her time thinking about celebrity culture and the wives of 19th century politicians.

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