Anyone who is familiar with the world of silent films will know that research in the area is hampered by an unfortunate fact: namely, that so many of the films from the period are lost. This becomes more of a problem the further back into film history one goes. The earliest pieces of film were treated as disposable novelties, the infamous case of Georges Méliès’ works being melted down to make shoe heels being a clear example of this.
Even when films from the dawn of cinema still survive, their surrounding history is often clouded. From release dates to authorship there are many gaps in our knowledge of film’s pioneers, and piecing together a comprehensive of any given turn-of-the-century filmmaker’s career will be wrought with difficulties.
A perfect case study is that of Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, a British filmmaker who lived from 1874 to 1961. Cooper is a significant figure in cinema history, in large part because a case could be made for him being the first person to ever make an animated film. But this claim has been disputed, and until the publication of Tjitte de Vries and Ati Mull’s 2009 book about Cooper and his films, They Thought it was a Marvel, it was hard to come by solid information on the matter.
Cooper made hundreds of short films across a career which lasted, according to the broadest estimate, from 1895 to 1930; only six of them survive today. Three of these were made in the twentieth century: A Dream of Toyland (1907), Noah’s Ark (1909) and Road Hogs in Toyland (1911). The other three are Matches Appeal, Animated Matches Playing Volleyball and Animated Matches Playing Cricket, whose dating is far more contentious – but we will come to that point later.
Cooper can be compared to his contemporary Georges Méliès, as both used camera tricks to create worlds of fantasy. But while Méliès was a stage magician who made his films with a theatrical air and a sense of showmanship, Cooper comes across more as an enthusiast tinkering away in a small studio with boundless energy. His animations are resolutely small-scale, made using matchsticks or ordinary shop-bought toys, but the tiny spaces are filled with movement.
Little people made of matches scuttle about playing sports, getting into more and more of a muddle in the process. Toy animals – scurrying mice, scampering dogs and clumsy elephants – make their way into a model ark two by two. A miniature street corner bustles with dolls, teddies and toy cars, each interacting with each other in different ways.
Of Cooper’s six surviving films the most memorable is A Dream of Toyland, widely referred to as Dreams of Toyland. Telling the story of a boy visiting a toy shop and subsequently dreaming of toys coming to life, the film consists of an animated sequence – the actual dream – bookended with live action.
The animated portion takes place in a single shot; the only overriding narrative is that the action gets more and more chaotic as the sequence goes on. In every part of the screen there is a story playing out: toys tussle with each other as they barge across the road, a golliwog tries to restore order but fails, a teddy bear falls from a model bus and picks himself up.
Although primitive in most respects A Dream of Toyland is still watchable today. Like all of Cooper’s extant shorts, it possesses a genuine charm alongside its historical significance.
This brings us to Matches Appeal, Animated Matches Playing Volleyball and Animated Matches Playing Cricket, which, depending on who you ask, were either the earliest or the latest of Cooper’s surviving films.
All three shorts were made at the same time and feature tiny puppet figures made from matchsticks. They promote the match company Bryant and May, although Matches Appeal – more popularly known as Matches: An Appeal – is the most specific, as the lead match character draws a message on a blackboard:
For one guinea, Messrs Bryant & May will forward a case containing sufficient to supply a box of matches to each man in a battalion: with name of the sender inside
N.B. Our soldiers need them”
Cooper later claimed that Matches Appeal was made during the Boer War, with researchers initially deciding that 1899 was the most likely year of production. This is significant as James Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, widely cited as the earliest animated short, was released in 1906; if this dating is correct then Cooper’s three match shorts are the earliest known animated films.
Matches Appeal is generally identified as the first of the three, but this is not certain: de Vries and Mull speculate that Cooper made the two sporting films first, and was commissioned to create the more propagandistic Matches Appeal as a result of their success.
But not everyone agrees on the date of 1899. An argument has been made that the films could not have been created during the Boer War, and must have been made instead during World War I; this would place their release well after Humorous Phases. Many histories of animation have mentioned this dispute, but they generally do not go into any detail about the arguments.
Light was finally shed on the matter by They Thought it was a Marvel. The theory that Matches Appeal dates from World War I was put forward by Dr R.S. Schultze, curator of Harrow’s Kodak Museum, who claimed that dating marks on the film’s negative point to a release from 1915 to 1918. He also found no evidence that there was ever an appeal for matches to be given to soldiers in the Boer War, but that such an appeal was made by Bryant & May during the First World War; and finally, he believed that the animation technique was too sophisticated for 1899. After his research, Schultze concluded that the film was made in 1915.
Tjitte de Vries and Ati Mull are not convinced by this argument, however. In their book they express bemusement at Schultze’s comments about dating marks on the negative: he is presumably referring to Kodak’s practice, originating in 1916, of marking the year of a film with a shape – 1916 was represented by a circle, 1917 by a square and 1918 by a triangle. Because of the simplicity of these shapes, argue the authors, it is unclear why Schultze identified the date marks as indicating an uncertain year from 1915 to 1918. As both the film’s negative and the copy thereof that was viewed by Schultze are now lost, it is impossible to verify his claim.
Responding to Schultze’s argument that there is no specific evidence of a match shortage amongst troops in the Boer War, Mull and de Vries discuss historical references to a wide range of shortages faced by British soldiers in 1899. These range from an ammunition shortage to a food shortage, and so the authors conclude that a match shortage could easily have occurred as well
The writers also dismiss the claim that the film was too sophisticated to have been made in 1899. They comment that the short ultimately expands upon existing trickfilm methods and point out that, with over 70% of the films from this period lost, it is impossible to trace development in technique with any real accuracy.
It is unlikely that we will ever know for sure if Matches Appeal and its two companions were made in 1899 or 1915; this case ultimately stands as another example of how even a medium as young as film can have its origins cloaked in obscurity. However, Tjitte de Vries and Ati Mull make a strong case in They Thought it was a Marvel that Arthur Melbourne-Cooper was indeed the world’s first animated filmmaker.