Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Following up on Gifford: the 1920s

The third 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.

Felix the Cat, arguably the first great animation star, hit cinema screens in 1919. In the last post in this series I talked about how British animators had been comic up with character-based series of their own around this time, featuring such now-forgotten characters as Slim and Pim. Interest in series characters would rise in the twenties, with UK cartoonists - some of them active in the previous decade, including Anson Dyer, George E. Studdy and Tom Webster - attempting with varying degrees of success to create the British answer to Felix.

Anson Dyer's Othello. See Screenonline for more.

1920 saw more Shakespeare spoofs from Anson Dyer at Hepworth Picture Plays with Othello and The Taming of the Shrew (Gifford notes that details on the latter film are scarce beyond its announcement, and it is possible that it was never completed) along with two new series by Dudley Buxton at Kine Komedy Kartoons, Bucky's Burlesques and Memoirs of Miffy, which lasted two films each. The year also gave us a new director, J.L. Anderson, who directed The Daring Deeds of Duckless Darebanks (spoofing Hollywood swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks) and The Smoke from Gran-Pa's Pipe (about a grandfather reminiscing about fishing, boxing and visiting the circus as a child). "The American animator J.L. Anderson was brought over to England to introduce the American technique of cel animation to British cartoon makers", says Gifford.

Part of a Pip, Squeak and Wilfred strip.

Much of the decade was spent attempting to get series off the ground. In terms of quantity the most successful pre-1925 series was The Wonderful Adventures of Pip, Squeak and Wilfred; directed by Lancelot Speed for Astra Films and based on the Daily Mirror comic strip by A.B. Payne and B.J. Lamb, the series started in 1921 and lasted for twenty-six films. Other series from this period are Tom Titt's obscure Crock and Dizzy series, which spanned twelve films and was made for B & J Productions; the three Bobby the Scout films by Anson Dyer, still working at Hepworth; two Kiddiegraph films, adapting Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs and again made by Dyer; Gaumont's The Noah Family (Gifford does not name a director) based on J. F. Horrabin's Daily News cartoons and apparently lasting for two films; the Adlets Advertising Budget series, which contained several animated shorts; and the seven Pongo the Pup films made by Dudley Buxton for Pathé in 1924. Gifford also lists three stand-alone films directed by Tom Webster, a cartoonist known for his caricatures of sporting personalities: Tishy (1922, see my post on the film for more), Jimmy Wilde and Inman in Billiards (both 1923).

One of George E. Studdy's illustrations of Bonzo.

The book lists one last film made in the first half of the decade - 1924's Bonzo. Directed by William Ward for New Era in collaboration with George E. Studdy, the film brought to the screen Studdy's puppy character from The Sketch. Gifford quotes a Kinematograph Weekly review:
A cartoon subject which will rival Felix the Cat and provide excellent items for all programmes. Bonzo is by no means a slavish copy of his predecessors. He is, in fact, a very doggy dog, whom it is a delight to watch. The producer, W.A. Ward, has collaborated admirably with the artist, and we look forward to seeing more of their work. The first example is most amusing and shows Bonzo's acrobatic efforts to capture some sausages out of his reach on a shelf, incidentally allowing for a scrap with a kitten. The conception is extremely simple, but also it is typically doggy, and there is no need for explanations to point the working of a dog's mind.
Bonzo would, like Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, star in twenty-six shorts; most of these were released in 1925. After so many false starts that year saw the beginning of a veritable torrent of animated series, giving us not only a glut of Bonzos but also the first nine films in Sid Griffiths' Jerry the Troublesome Tyke series, also starring a puppy, and the minor three-film The Bedtime Stories of Archie the Ant series by stop-motion animator Frank Percy Smith.

In 1926 Tom Webster, Dick Friel and Joe Noble collaborated on three Alfred and Steve films, starring a racehorse and his trainer (this should not be confused with a later series about a horse named Steve, which was adapted from the comic strip Come on, Steve!); Joe Noble also worked as a solo animator on the Dismal Desmond series, starring a doleful dalmatian (the first short premiered on November 18; I don't have dates for the others, if any more were made); Norman Cobb directed twelve films for Ideal Films' Sing Song Series, which were a bouncing-ball singalong affair featuring such popular numbers as Stop Your Ticklin' Jock and Burlington Bertie; Brian White directed two similar films for Pathé, There's a Long Long Trail a-Winding and Land of Hope and Glory (which portrays "typical British scenes of a patriotic and artistic kind", according to Kinematograph Weekly); the mononymous Hiscocks directed two The Language of Cricket films; and Sid Griffiths gave us another hefty shipment of Jerry the Troublesome Tyke cartoons. Also released in 1926 were two adverts for Colman's Mustard: The Happy Iron and Stopping the Rot.

Things wound down somewhat after that. The final six Jerry films came out in 1927, the same year which saw the release of eight sing-along cartoons by Luscombe British (songs covered include Am I Wasting My Time on You and The Frothblowers' Anthem). The most noteworthy effort of the year was Anson Dyer's The Story of the Flag, which was very nearly Britain's first full-length animated feature - instead, however, it found itself released as a six-part series.

Gifford quotes the Bioscope review:
Opening with much information of the antiquarian order, light is thrown on the remarkable alterations which have taken place in the Royal Standard of England, largely owing to dynastic changes, notably in the accession of James I, William III and George I.
Summaries of the first three shorts are also provided, courtesy of February 1935 Monthly Film Bulletin, 1935 being when the film was reissued for educational purposes. Part one "[i]ncludes a note on Oliver Cromwell's introduction of the Irish Harp, and a useful observation on degrading the flag"; part two "[a]dds some pictures of the Kew flagstaff and the Douglas firs in British Columbia"; and part three "[i]llustrates the Fleur-de-Lys quarters introduced by Edward I and traces their gradual elimination."

Sammy and Sausage send up Fritz Lang in Whatrotolis, viewable online here.

In the last two years of the decade Joe Noble directed sixteen shorts about a boy-and-his-dog duo named Sammy and Sausage and two starring 'Orace the 'Armonious 'Ound. The first of these, 'Orace the 'Armonious 'Ound in "The Jazz Stringer", was Britain's first animated film to boast synchronised sound. A few animated commercials were also made: Mr. ... Goes Motoring, a Shell ad animated by David Barker and designed by H.M. Bateman; The Boy who Wanted to Make Pictures, a Kodak commercial also from Barker and Bateman; and Meet Mr. York - A Speaking Likeness, an advert for Rowntree's Chocolate directed by Joe Noble. 1929 also saw the release of an information film on hygiene titled Ten Little Dirty Boys.

'Orace the 'Armonous 'Ound, the Mickey Mouse of Britain. Well, sort of.

The British animation industry blossomed during the twenties, but it's hard to shake the feeling that something had been lost. Was the experimental nature of the earlier animated films being lost in this hunt for popular series characters? This 1926 Gaumont advertisement for the animated debut of Dismal Desmond shows just how commercialised things had become:
Dismal Desmond the Doleful Dalmatian is the most popular mascot figure since Felix. His lugubrious countenance is seen in every toy shop and has been extensively advertised in the press. As a cartoon character he will create another furore that means a lot of money at the paybox. Dismal Desmond, a picture of pathos and profit.
"Animation should be art. That is how I conceived it" remarked Winsor McCay, the brilliant American animator who departed from the medium in this decade. "But as I see what you fellows have done with it, is making it into a trade. Not an art, but a trade. Bad Luck!"

Still from Tusalava.

But the very last film listed in Gifford's chapter for 1929 points in a different direction. Titled Tusalava, this abstract piece was the work of New Zealand-born animator Len Lye, who described it as "representing a self-shape annihilating an antagonistic element." Screenonline has a page on the short:
Tusalava bears similarities to several abstract films made in the 1920s by figures such as Oskar Fischinger and Hans Richter. One main difference, though, is that Lye (who was born in New Zealand) was very much influenced by Australian Aboriginal art. This influence means that Tusalava alludes to more organic shapes than Fischinger's and Richter's films, which featured more angular, geometric forms. The shapes in Tusalava jitter and wriggle as though alive, which led one critic to read into the film a narrative concerning primitive life forms.
In the next post in this series I will be looking at how commercial animation existed alongside a rise in more experimental work in the thirties.

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

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