British Animated Films
Review by Ken Clark
Denis Gifford has spread his net wide to include not only entertainment model and cartoon films but also representative advertising shorts; instructionals, and diagrammatics; amateur and student productions, and others. Regrettably, in drawing the readers attention to the great scope of the medium he has made obvious the shortcomings of this first edition.
In the absence of an outpouring of long series of entertainment cartoons and our apparent inability to establish ‘stars’ with as much charisma as Felix, Oswald the Rabbit, Flip the Frog, Krazy Kat, Little King, etc, etc, etc, indeed, with only Bonzo the Pup leaving any lasting impression on the public during the formative years, it is not surprising the general feeling prevails that Britain made very few animated films before Sir J. Arthur Rank came to our rescue. Mr Gifford’s film index fills in many of the gaps in our awareness, while failing to record the miles upon miles of national commercials, together with so many uncredited insert sequences – the diagrammatic instructional material – which alone would fill the covers twice over.
Some of the inclusions are curious. For example, the first five titles to appear in the book were not ‘animated’ by stop-motion as we know it, this is carefully pointed out in the text. They were made by under cranking the camera so that when projected the live-action drawing is dramatically speeded up. The explanation deserves a place in the preface by way of introduction to the techniques which followed, but it is questionable whether or not the titles should have appeared in the film index.
The sixth entry is Arthur Melbourne-Cooper’s Matches – An Appeal (189). the author states: “The date of this film is controversial, as recent research sets it as produced in the Great War of 1914”. In the first place, this is Melbourne-Cooper’s film, but he did not make any films during the conflict because he enlisted, was sent to Woolwich on a training course and became Government Inspector of Ammunitions at Luton, where he stayed for the duration. It is true, a few of Cooper’s films were reissued early in the war, but not necessarily credited to him. On tape recordings held by a member of the family, he is quite clear about the origin of his film, which appealed to the public to send badly needed matches to our troops fighting in the Boor War. During its production the first reel of animation was lost. When his daughter found the negative some years later in an old camera case, Arthur used it at the commencement of a second film entitled Animated Matches (1908) (Reissued later as Magical Matches).
As a direct result of Englishman 1. Stuart Blackton’s visit to interview Thomas Edison, the lightning cartoonist’s act began its slow transformation into the cartoon film we enjoy today. If Blackton’s New York newspaper employers had not sent him I wonder if, or when, The Enchanted Drawing might have been made. Interestingly, Mr Gifford reveals that it was following a frame-by-frame close examination of a copy of Black-ton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) our own Walter Booth was inspired to make The Hand of the Artist. This fact lends credence to the claims that the film contained the first examples of fully animated cartoon work. Neither the B.F.I. nor the N.F.A. possess a copy, but one is held in the American Archives and the author of the book ‘Before Mickey’ has examined it carefully. He claims that it is not animated, that the rapid-hand still drawing becomes a live-action sequence. This contradiction ought to have been resolved, once and for all. It is now quite apparent that Melbourne-Cooper did not rule supreme when it came to animating toys and objects. Walter Booth’s career followed a similar pattern to that of Cooper’s, both included the production of live-action film work in their repertoire, differing only in that Cooper established his own studio, Alpha, while Booth chose to work for others.
Indeed, Booth proved quite imaginative, animating needle and cotton, scissors, pictures on a sooty card, putty and clay, animated cut-out jointed figures (further exploited by by so many others as the 1st World War began, and later into the Twenties), and in The Tangram (1914): “Animated pieces of traditional Chinese puzzle form themselves into King Henry VIII, Lloyd George, and act out a Chinese love drama.” An intriguing set piece!
The book gives rise to an important question: What yardstick ought one to apply when deciding which film should be credited in a British Filmography. The question of credit is of paramount importance if the index is to be regarded as authorative. Clear distinctions must be made for the sake of historical accuracy. What is a ‘British’ film? Feature cartoons have been made in this country for American producers with American money but no-one would deny they are anything other than British films; to be more precise: British-made films. If the premise is correct, then Plague Dogs should not have been included. Although the film was made in America for an American producer using principal personnel co-opted from the British team responsible for making the same producer’s other film Watership Down, there is a vital distinction, one is British, the other is an American production.
Likewise, although the ideas and money for the celebrated series of puppet advertising shorts extolling the virtues of ‘Horlicks – the evening beverage’, originated at the 1. Walter Thompson’s agency in London, the Dutchman George Pal was commissioned to make them at his studio in Eindhoven. Are these entitled to a place on the list? To my way of thinking, we cannot lay claim to Pal’s puppet films if we feel justified in taking the credit for Animal Farm, Yellow Submarine, et al.
Furthermore, it is claimed The Queen Was in the Parlour was the first in a series of six Rinso advertising shorts made by Anson Dyer, but that is incorrect. Originally, the films were to have been made by George Pal in Holland, and he actually made this first commercial using the conventional cel-animation method. He had already made two others advertising another product by the same method. Then Pal decided to flee the country before the arrival of the Germans, and the contract for the remaining five went to Anson Dyer. These were all completed and released but do not all receive individual credits in the book. How can I be so sure Pal and not Dyer made the film? Quite simply, I have seen it. A copy existed in the hands of a private collector up to two years ago. The only part of the production one could fairly claim to be truly British other than the sponsorship was the musical soundtrack played by Jack Hylton and his band.
Turning our attention to the smaller studios, it is pleasing to find Adlets mentioned, but, alas, not Animads (a subsidiary unit to Langton’s of Blackpool), or Superads, The Cartoon Ad Co., Younger Films, Community Films. Stewart-Hardy Studios – there were two until a while ago – these were productive units for many years and deserve adequate representation, and my near-neighbour calling himself Ken Gay Animations has surely earned a place in the scheme of things with his work for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Time Life, and our TV companies, although perhaps not in this book for, as Denis Gifford points out in the preface, the catalogue is only concerned with films made for the cinema – a self imposed restriction he ignores many times.
Publicity Pictures/National Interest first made B/W then colour soft-sell advertising cartoons regularly from 1926 – 1939, with numerous productions specially for the War Department both during and after hostilities. None of their earlier ‘Loony Libels’ receive a mention, and only a few of the later ‘Cheery Chunes’. The Unity Films series Language of Cricket (1926) was actually made for them by Publicity Pictures, a fact Mr Gifford could not have known unless he had spoken to my very good friend Laurie Price, who worked alongside the Australian Hiscocks. ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and Reg Wyer’s animation team, headed by Laurie, was also responsible for all the entries in the book attributed to Luscombe British – Pioneer. Luscombe Thoms, manufacturer of glass slides, happened to be Laurie’s former employer. Laurie invented a little character he called Orpheus to jump from word to word in the series of ‘song cartoons’.