Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Arthur Melbourne-Cooper and the Matches Appeal dispute

Matches Appeal

A short while ago I wrote my first post for the Norwich Film Festival's blog, focusing on Arthur Melbourne-Cooper and the dispute over whether Matches Appeal and his other animated matchstick shorts were made in 1899 and 1915. I picked Cooper as a subject because the information about him available online is somewhat scanty - and contentious too, as this anonymous edit to his Wikipedia article demonstrates.

Arthur Melbourne-Cooper's A Dream of Toyland, which can be viewed online here.

The single best source for information on Arthur Melbourne-Cooper is Tjitte de Vries and Ati Mull’s 2009 book They Thought it was a Marvel. This is one of the most remarkable books on animation I've read: the authors succeeded in penning a volume of over five hundred pages on a man whose combined extant filmography clocks in at under half an hour. This is a testament both to the scholarship of de Vries and Mull and to the genius of Melbourne-Cooper, whose films are still able to charm and fascinate today.


  1. Hi Neil. While I normally agree with you, I find that De Vries and Mul's book does more to cloud the situation than bring the facts to light. The length of the book is the problem for me because it is in stark contrast to the scant primary evidence. I was more lost at the end than I was at the beginning. Basic errors of judgement like claiming that one of the other matches films represents a game of volleyball when it is quite clearly football are not encouraging.

    There were many other physical characteristics and markings that help indicate the date of film stock before Kodak introduced the year symbols, and I am confident that the Kodak museum would have been very aware of these, which is what caused them to raise the issue in the first place. I find it impossible to believe that they would be confused the date markings on a 1956 safety print for print-through markings from an original negative, as Donald Crafton’s introduction speculates. The shadow of the small non-standard negative perforation on the prints available today, mentioned in the book, has been looked at again by David Cleveland and it is now clear that they are just print-through of positive perforations (introduced in 1924) from the source print.

    Ultimately the evidence rests on the word of the filmmaker, but as the Wikipedia comment you mention also points out that this is not the only controversy over Melbourne-Cooper’s films. A debate played out in the pages of the Film History journal between 1999 and 2002 over the authorship of a series of live action films, which seemed to convincingly prove that Melbourne-Cooper’s claims over a series of George Albert Smith films were false.

    Like you I don’t think we will ever truly get to the bottom of it, but I usually find it harder to believe that a filmmaker made three films that were technically 6-7 years ahead of their time and no-one noticed, than that he produced a series of films later that were a little behind the times.

  2. Someday, with a great deal of research, this question may be resolved to most people’s satisfaction – but it will require the raking up of evidence from a very wide range of sources.

    One factor to consider is the history of Bryant and May. They were notorious in the late 1880s for continuing to make matches using “yellow” (or white) phosphorus, which was toxic and caused disfigurement and death (“phossy jaw”) amongst the lowly-paid female workers, when in Europe and America yellow phosphorus matches had been banned and the more expensive but non-toxic red phosphorus was used.

    In 1891 the Salvation Army opened a match factory using red phosphorus and paying the girls twice the amount that Bryant & May did, in order to shame the company into improving its ways. The matches did not sell well, being much more expensive, and in 1901 the Salvation Army factory closed down, and was bought by Bryant & May, who then declared that they had ceased using yellow phosphorus in any of their factories.

    Clearly Bryant & May needed to improve their image, so a stunt like the Appeal would make sense. A question worth asking is what colour were the match heads associated with B&M in 1899? Did yellow phosphorus matches have a lighter colour than red phosphorus ones? If the match films had actually been commissioned by B&M they might have been fussy about the type of match being used.

    Which also brings us to the question of whether the Appeal section was planned as part of a commissioned matchstick film, or added on after. I believe that the use of the same set means that either way it was intended as a continuation of the “cricket” film, being either shot continuously or spliced onto the end of it, and only separated at a later date when the appeal had ended but the cricket film was still popular.

    If the Appeal was a stunt by Bryant & May to improve its image, then the actual ‘need’ of the soldiers is less relevant. The second Boer War continued until 1902, and further action in South Africa continued until 1915: the vagueness of the assertion it was “made for the Boer War” allows a later date than 1899 to still be applicable.

    Then there is the technical comparison with the later films which can be dated – “Dream of Toyland” (1907) and “Road Hogs of Toyland” (1911). While there is little or no advance in animation technique between the match films and the Toyland ones there is a distinct increase in complexity – the main feature of the Toyland films is that the screen is kept full of action, with a multiplicity of separate moving objects. This would suggest more than one animator at work on the scene, and this is further borne out by the odd frame (in Road Hogs) where an animator’s hand is caught in the exposure – so, at least a separate cameraman and probably more than one animator.

    If the match films had been made later than 1907 without being commissioned, they would almost certainly have contained some similar complexity or richness of action. Their small scale and simplicity suggests, to me at least, an earlier experiment. If, on the other hand this was a commission required in a short period of time, then the simplicity might be explained, but perhaps more elaborate sets might be expected, to compensate for the simpler animation.

    With these factors in mind, I think it might be more reasonable to suggest a period between 1901-1905.

    But until some correspondence or advertising material from the time comes to light to give a real clue, the debate will have to continue!