Thursday, 12 August 2010

Following up on Gifford: the 1930s

The fourth in a series of posts using Denis Gifford's book British Animated Films, 1895-1985: A Filmography to provide a decade-by-decade analysis of British animation's history.

Disclaimer: Although wide-ranging Gifford's book is not perfect. He missed out several films and sometimes provided incorrect dates or crew information. I have done my best to correct any errors which I have found myself repeating in these posts.

Horace Shepherd's Bingo character.

The first few years of the decade were something of a dry period. In 1930 Joe Noble's final Sammy and Sausage cartoon, Call Me Speedy, was released; the same year saw the arrival of new director Horace Shepherd's four-part series starring Bingo (yet another dog character), John Maxwell's debut The Elstree 'Erbs and another short from Sid Griffiths, Tropical Breezes.

John the Bull, the frankly bizarre tale of a prize bull who heroically sacrifices himself for his country's beef industry.

Advertising and propaganda films are represented by two 1931 cartoons endorsing the Conservative Party, titled The Right Spirit and Red Tape Farm; and John the Bull, a 1930 short promoting the National Marked Beef Campaign showing a degree of Disney influence. Meanwhile, Anson Dyer completed another animated documentary in 1932: The Story of the Port of London.

Conservative propaganda film The Right Spirit.

1933 saw Adrian Klein make his directorial debut in Colonel Capers while Joe Noble, Sid Griffiths and a third director active in the previous decade, Brian White, teamed up with cartoonist H.M. Bateman to create On the Farm. The following year White directed Treasure Island - billed as the first part of the aborted Barnacle Bill Series - while two films about anthropomorphic billiard and golf balls, The Lost Ball and The Eternal Triangle, were released and have been uncertainly attributed by Gifford to director Dennis Connolly.

George Pal's The Sleeping Beauty, covered in detail at AWN's George Pal Site.

1934 also gave us a film by a better-known director: Hungarian-born puppet animator George Pal, at the time working in Holland and later to move to America. His film The Sleeping Beauty was an Anglo-Dutch co-production advertising Philips Radio, and tweaked the fairy tale by having the prince wake the sleeping princess using a radio.

Len Lye's Kaleidoscope.

An upsurge of animated adverts and propaganda seems to have occurred in 1935. Laurie Price and Christopher Millet animated commercials for Morris Motors (Morris May Day), Worthington beer (The Midshipman and, with Ian Matherson, The Gay Cavalier), OK Sauce (The Baronial Beanfeast) and a fourth client not identified by Gifford (Carnival Capers). See How They Won, an advert for Boots, was scripted and designed in Britain but animated in America; none other than Mickey Mouse co-creator Ub Iwerks served as director. Abstract animator Len Lye directed Kaleidoscope, a film advertising Churchman's Cigarettes.

Dirty Bertie was a propaganda film made for the Central Council for Health Education and told the story of Dirty Bertie receiving a lesson from Clean Eugene; Giro and his Enemies, meanwhile, was made for the Health and Cleanliness Council and showed Giro the Germ launching an attack on Healthiville. Gifford does not list directors for either film.

A few entertainment films were also released this year. Anson Dyer directed a short under the banner of the newly-formed Anglia Films, titled Sam and His Musket; this was based on a character created by radio entertainer Stanley Holloway and was the first in a series. Dennis Connoly directed a Robin Hood film of which little is known, while Cyril Jenkins and Margaret Hoyland made a puppet film using paper dolls, The Little Paper People; Kinematograph Weekly credits the film with "having an appeal for the better class as well as the popular patron." Woofy, released by Zenifilms, was not so well received by this publication: "A feeble cartoon, the drawings are unoriginal and the sound effects are poor. Crude drawings of a dog who rescues his sweetheart from a burning house. Poor drawings, animation and sound effects make it a doubtful attraction for minor halls."

Anson Dyer's interpretation of Stanley Holloway's Sam Small character.

This more or less sets the stage for the rest of the thirties. The redoubtable Anson Dyer continued to make films throughout the decade, completing seven more Sam Small films and another collaboration with Stan Holloway, The Lion and Albert, between 1936 and '37. He went on to make a string of adverts at Publicity Films promoting Bush Radio (All the Fun of the 'Air, The King with the Terrible Temper, The King with the Terrible Hiccups and This Button Business), the Samuel Hanson company (Red, White and Blue) and Rinso (The Queen Was in the Parlour) and even becoming the subject of a documentary, You're Telling Me, in 1939.

Character-based series, once so popular, seem to have fallen out of favour in the thirties. Bingo and Sam Small were joined in 1936 by the third and final proper series star of the decade, Steve the cart-horse, who originated in the comic strip Come On, Steve! and was brought to the screen by his creator Roland Davies with the aid of legendary cartoonist Carl Giles. Steve appeared in six shorts; the contemporary reviews quoted by Gifford are generally positive, although Giannalberto Bendazzi has described the cartoons as "a failure in every respect... the inventions and plots were linked to an old-fashioned concept of animated film."

Cyril Jenkins and Margaret Hoyland, who made The Little Paper People back in 1935, created a sequel in 1939 titled Paper People Land. Dennis Connoly's National News was intended to kick off a series that, apparently, never surfaced; a reviewer writing for the Daily Film Renter dismissed the pilot as "Quite the worst cartoon I've seen to date, a cartoon that might have found favour 15 years ago."

Of the one-off shorts produced around this time, one of the more notable specimens is 1936's The Fox Hunt. Directed by Anthony Gross, Hector Hoppin and Laszlo Meitner, the film was produced by none other than Alexander Korda after he had seen and been impressed by Gross and Hoppin's Joie de Vivre, which they made in France; Kinematograph Weekly questioned The Fox Hunt's mass appeal but praised its artistic merity. Korda, Gross, Hoppin and Meitner were also connected with what was to have been Britain's first animated feature film, Around the World in Eighty Days; World War II halted production and the completed footage was eventually released in 1955 as a short film.

John Halas' Music Man.

Also of note is the 1938 film Music Man, which is historically significant as the first project that John Halas and Joy Batchelor worked on together. The company behind the film, British Animated Films, produced the documentary short How a Motor Works the same year; this was an early work by Kathleen "Spud" Houston, then Kathleen Murphy. The following year Len Lye directed another abstract film, Swinging the Lamberth Walk.

Britain picked up another foreign talent in Lotte Reiniger, who is best remembered today for directing the pioneering animated feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed in her native Germany. Her first film made in the UK was The King's Breakfast, made in collaboration with Martin Battersby and based on the work of A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepherd.

That leaves us with a number of advertising, propaganda and educational films. You could be forgiven for assuming that these would show a lower degree of creativity than the entertainment cartoons; this is far from the truth, as the decade's most highly-regarded examples of British animation come from this field. Some, inevitably, are not well remembered today (you'd be hard-pressed to find much information on the Gibbs toothpaste ad The Magic Seaplane, or Brian Salt's British Social Hygiene Council film The Road of Health) but others are genuine classics made by people now regarded as masters of the art.

George Pal's South Sea Sweethearts. Read more at AWN's George Pal Site.

George Pal continued to direct Anglo-Dutch adverts, promoting Horlicks (On Parade, Sky Pirates, Love on the Range, What Ho! She Bumps and South Sea Sweethearts) and Philips Radio (Philips Broadcast of 1938 and Cavalcade of Music).

Len Lye's The Birth of the Robot.

Len Lye directed an Imperial Airways advert titled Colour Flight in his characteristic abstract style and also ventured into stop motion with his Shell commercial The Birth of the Robot. Educational films, meanwhile, benefited from the talents of Norman McLaren, a new animator who provided diagrams for the British Commercial Gas Association's film The Obedient Flame.

Len Lye's Colour Flight.

And finally, we come to the biggest benefactor of British animation in the thirties: the General Post Office. The GPO Film Unit fostered individuality and experimentation amongst its directors, which included Lye, Reiniger and McLaren.

Len Lye's Rainbow Dance.

Len Lye's animated films for the GPO were A Colour Box, an abstract piece with a few frames about parcel post tagged on to the end; Rainbow Dance, a more representational film that mixes live action dance footage into the animation, and ends with a bit of narration about the post office savings bank; and Trade Tattoo, an unusual combination of abstract animation and live action documentary stressing the important role played by the Post Office in British industry. A contemporary review of Rainbow Dance praises the film but criticises the advert at the end as "a bad anti-climax", underlining just how much these are art films rather than mere adverts.

Len Lye's Trade Tattoo.

Lotte Reiniger provided The Tocher, one of her many silhouette-animated fairy tales, in which the day is saved by a post office savings bank book; and The H.P.O., which uses silhouettes and line drawings to tell the story of a postal service run by cherubim. Meanwhile, Brian Pickersgill made a GPO film entitled Oh Whiskers! - unusually, this said nothing about postal services, but instead taught children about healthy living.

Lotte Reiniger's The H.P.O.

And finally there is Norman McLaren's Love on the Wing, in which an ever-changing line drawing conveys the tale of a love triangle between a hero, heroine and villain - all the while promoting airmail.

Love on the Wing by Norman McLaren.

The thirties were a strange decade for British animation. While the American industry was creating Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Goofy, the UK had almost abandoned the concept of series characters despite the various attempts to create the next Felix in the previous decade. Propaganda and adverts grew noticeably in proportion to entertainment films, and yet in a seeming paradox this led to a flourishing of experimental work from some of animation's most remarkable auteurs.

Propaganda would, of course, rise to new heights in the following decade. In the next post in this series I will look at how British animation was used in the wartime and post-war years.

Other posts in this series:
1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9


  1. Thanks for taking the time to pull together these great summaries of Gifford's book. Just one note to say that thankfully Gross and Hoppin's FOX HUNT [on which both Spud Houston and Carl Giles also apparently worked] does survive and is held preserved in the BFI National Archive.

  2. Thanks for this information, I've amended the post.