Mary Ellen Bute

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Mary Ellen Bute (November 21, 1906 – October 17, 1983) was a pioneer American film animator significant as one of the first female experimental filmmakers. Her specialty was visual music and, while working in New York between 1934 and 1953, made fourteen short, abstract musical films. Many of these were seen in regular movie theaters, such as Radio City Music Hall, usually preceding a prestigious film. Several of her later abstract films were categorized as part of her Seeing Sound series.


A native of Houston, Mary Ellen Bute studied painting in Texas and, subsequently, Philadelphia, then stage lighting at Yale University. She studied the tradition of color organs, as a means of painting with light. She worked with Leon Theremin and Thomas Wilfred and was also influenced by the abstract animated films of Oskar Fischinger.

Bute began her filmmaking career collaborating with Joseph Schillinger on the animation of visuals. Her later films were made in partnership with her cinematographer Ted Nemeth whom she married in 1940. Her final film, inspired by James Joyce, was Passages from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, a live-action feature made over a nearly three-year period in 1965-67.

In the 1960s and 1970s Bute worked on two films which were never completed: an adaptation of Thornton Wilder's 1942 play The Skin of Our Teeth, and a film about Walt Whitman with the working title Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.

Bute was a founding member of the Women's Independent Film Exchange. She chose film historian Cecile Starr to distribute her short films.

Mary Ellen Bute died of heart failure at New York City's Cabrini Medical Center. She was five weeks short of her 77th birthday. Six months earlier, on April 4, she received a special tribute and a retrospective of her films at the Museum of Modern Art.

An archive with some of Bute's personal papers is at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. A finding aid describes this collection. Film historian Cecile Starr's extensive collection of Bute papers is now at Yale. A small collection is at Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles. Several of her films are at the Yale Film Study Center, Center for Visual Music George Eastman House, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Anthology Film Archives, and a number of other institutions and archives; Cecile Starr's 16mm collection is with Center for Visual Music, Los Angeles along with other prints from Starr's 16mm experimental film collection). A traveling Retrospective film program with all of her abstract short visual music films has been presented since 2006 in the US, Australia and Europe by Center for Visual Music, with prints from their Cecile Starr Collection. Several of her films, in new HD transfers, are on CVM's vimeo VOD channel and on their recent Visual Music 1947-1986 from the CVM Archive DVD.


There have been discrepancies over the dating of Mary Ellen Bute's films, primarily due to inaccuracies in published in online articles and websites. The dates below are verified by documents from her distributor Cecile Starr and Bute's publicity materials and programs in the collection of the Center for Visual Music.

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