Our reviewers look at some of the recently published books by film historians.
Preface to a Review by Ken Clark
Animated film history is now 92 years long in the sprocket. As with an unsolved Victorian murder mystery, the leads have gone cold. Long before this day, someone should have noticed the gradual loss of old and dangerous inflammable prints and collected authorative written evidence. Efforts should have been made to record the memoirs of the genre’s earliest pioneers, I am sure their conflicting recollections would have made interesting reading.
When old catalogues fail to identify the names of the original producers; when so much insert material is unlisted; and films made for export to all intents and purposes do not exist because they were never released in this country… Why then, any film historian may be forgiven a sprinkling of unintended errors and omissions. His or her overriding reason for breaking into print should be to make public the collected material in the hope that those mistakes which escaped their own careful checks will be found and corrected in time for a reprint.
Original research ought to be accepted as one accepts a scientific theory, and, instead of expecting it to be a definitive work, regarded as the starting point for examination and debate.
Animation has always been treated with disdain and disrespect by distributors and exhibitors and is often called the Cinderella branch of film-making, it is not surprising therefore, so little attention has been paid to recording the full history of the genre. Rachel Low did her best, but with weighty research to complete in the area of live-action films her coverage of animation lacked great depth. Previous authors of articles and books have tended to repeat even earlier published works thereby perpetuating minor myths and adding little to the readers knowledge.
The film as we know it evolved from the shadowgraph, from Victorian children’s toys, flipper pads, and the kinetoscope.
When movies first hit the screen, the programmes consisted of very short moments of actuality: a train steaming into a station, or waves beating on the rocks. A breathtaking, wondrous experience to be sure, but to many puritanical strait laced Victorians there was nothing admirable, educational or thought- provoking about the visual titillation. Quite the contrary, many were shocked at the thought of what ‘a penny-worth of dark’ might be doing to the morals of young and old alike. For a long time, the novelty was confined to the showman’s tent where it was thought to be exploited by men of dubious intent.
Anyone fortunate enough to own or have access to a cine-camera could make an ‘actuality’ in one day and then offer it for sale to the highest bidder, a practise which continued when short films with a storyline became the order of the day. The majority of those involved were in it for what they could get out of it, expecting the bubble to burst at any moment. Few thought it worthwhile to copyright their efforts. Thus, there were those who made and those who displayed, and the latter advertised their collection of films in catalogues.
Films were bought, re-edited, titles were removed and whole episodes joined together to make a longer production. Arthur Melbourne-Cooper suffered this ignominy when the flood sequences were cut from his film Noah’s Ark and spliced into a rival’s production. Many of Cooper’s films were released with as many as three different titles by as many distributors.
The Coopers had a very dear friend named Miss Jackie Dorey, who warned Arthur in 1914 that a few of his films were being released by another company, claiming them to have been made by another man. Gifford’s book allows us to compare reviews and story synopsis and muse upon which they might have been. In the absence of copies of the offending films maybe we shall never know the truth of the matter.
I have A.E.C. Hopkins account of the life and times of the Topical Budget newsreel company containing copious details of the dirty tricks played by the top newsreel companies of the day, not always perpetrated in a spirit of good-natured rivalry, but often involving fist-fights and the police.
In 1926 ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and his friend Reg Wyer enlisted the aid of Laurie Price to act as animator and started their own unit Publicity Pictures. Until that moment Laurie had worked for slide manufacturer Luscombe-Thoms and it was Thorns who introduced him to the entrepreneurs. Shortly after they opened for business, representatives from a similar unit formed a year or two earlier threatened to make things very unpleasant for them unless they worked exclusively for them. They refused point-blank, but suffered a harrowing few months waiting for something nasty to occur. Neither Cooper nor Hopkins had any illusions about ‘the pirates plaguing their patch’, even though in this case the rival studio grew and became a long-lived respectable company.
Naively Hoppy and his friends fell victim to con-men. He told of three brothers who ran a film agency. “One would visit a likely studio and book a ‘budget’ production; he gave them script details and a location address, and before leaving collected his commission from the grateful studio manager. When the camera team went out two weeks later to make the film, they would discover the address they had been given did not exist. Then it would be found that the firm responsible for the booking did not exist either. Oh! the three brothers would still be in business, but from behind a new nameplate in another part of town. Sharp practices such as these were occupational hazards for us until shortly before the commencement of the 1939 war.”
During the First World War animation became an instrument of propaganda, while in America it became firmly established in the field of entertainment. By the early Twenties their comedy cartoons were being offered to British showmen at reduced rental charges having first broken even in their own country. Facing an unequal struggle our animators turned to a more assured livelihood found in sponsorship. Medical and instructional diagrammatic inserts and the production of local and national advertising shorts became the order of the day.
Laurie Price’s notebook for the period commencing 1926 gives a clear picture of the traffic in 5 — 50 second local ‘flashes’ consisting of little more than animated type-matter. This low quality material cannot be found in existing records, nor does it deserve to be, however, even the longer ‘Solus’ productions are largely forgotten, and that is a pity.
With a background of traumatic upheaval consisting of two world wars and a General Strike, it is small wonder records were lost. Faced with an unenviable task, Mr. Gifford has taken the only course open to him and concentrated primarily on officially recorded releases and on catalogue listings… such is its inherent weakness.
The reason I have laboured the difficulties related to this new work has been in answer to Mr. Gifford’s critics who have been quick to point out inaccuracies in his mammoth British Film Index. Considering the size of the undertaking, it would have been a miracle if it had been wholly perfect. Instead of brickbats he has earned our respect and thanks for opening doors to further research in a number of diverse directions.