They thought it was a marvel

Amsterdam University Press has published “They Thought it was a Marvel”: Arthur Melbourne-Cooper (1874-1961), Pioneer of Puppet Animation, by Tjitte de Vries and Ati Mul. Melbourne-Cooper is an interesting minor figure in early British film history, an assistant to Birt Acres (the first person to take a 35mm film in Britain) in the 1890s, then a pioneer of the animation film – some delightful examples survive, such as Dreams of Toyland (1908) and Noah’s Ark (1909) – as well as a being a producer of some rough-and-ready comedy films, typical of some of the low-grade British production of the time. He opened a cinema in his home town of St Albans in 1908 (an intriguingly rare example of an early filmmaker turning to film exhibition), made some industrial films, and generally had a diverting if small-scale career in the first years of British film.

What has made Melbourne-Cooper an unusual case has been the way that his cause has been advocated by a handful of dedicated souls. His daughter Audrey Wadowska was indomitable in championing her father’s cause as a film pioneer. She was a regular visitor to the National Film Archive, tirelessly holding the BFI to account for not sufficiently appreciating her father’s achievement. She collected a vast archive of documentation in support of her cause, and the Dutch researcher Tjitte de Vries took up that cause and has dedicated much of a lifetime to uncovering Arthur Melbourne-Cooper’s history.

This has led to some extraordinary battles. One has raged over a film held in the BFI National Archive (as it is now called) with the supplied titles of Matches Appeal, which features animated matches used in as a military recruiting aid while advertising Bryant & May matches. The claim is that the film relates to the Anglo-Boer war and therefore dates from 1899, making it years ahead of its time as a piece of animation. Others have denied that this could be possibly so and that the film could date as late as the First World War, but the 35mm original is lost, so the contention remains.

Arthur Melbourne-Cooper’s Dreams of Toyland (1908), from the BFI’s YouTube channel

A second battle has raged over the authorship of the films of Brighton filmmaker G.A. Smith, some of which Melbourne-Cooper’s advocates have claimed were made by him. I am not going into the minutiae of this particular argument. If you are at all interested, the arguments for and against are aired in the following:

  • Tjitte de Vries, ‘Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, Film Pioneer Wronged by Film History’, KINtop-4, 1994
  • Frank Gray, ‘Smith versus Melbourne-Cooper: History and Counter-History, Film History, vol. 11, 1999
  • Tjitte de Vries, ‘Letter to the editor: The case for Melbourne-Cooper’, Film History, vol. 12, 2002
  • Stephen Bottomore, ‘Smith Versus Melbourne-Cooper: An End to the Dispute’, Film History, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2002

All of which shows how important the little films at the dawn of filmmaking are to some, and the huge attraction that there is for the idea of authorship and the artistry of the individual. Some would argue that we should have no more biographies of filmmakers if we are to have a proper early film history, but it would be a cold history without character. The Melbourne-Cooper saga pits two different kinds of history against one another – one based on family history, reminiscence, and single-minded advocacy; the other based on primary evidence and comparative analysis. It raises interesting issues about authorship – ‘father’s’ films might have been his not because he filmed them but because he owned and exhibited them. It also shows the glamour of early film technique, with films such as G.A. Smith’s Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900), with its pioneering use of close-ups and point-of-view shots, a glamour that Melbourne-Cooper’s advocates yearn to see assigned to him (read the decidely partial Wikipedia entry on AMC and judge for yourselves).

Anyway, They Thought it was A Marvel argues its case over 576 pages, and comes with a DVD with six of Melbourne-Cooper’s animation films. Melbourne-Cooper deserves his small place in film history, not for the dubious claim to another man’s films and creativity, but as a genuine pioneer of the animation film, perhaps the first person to make such films with a child audience in mind. The book is priced €39,50, it is written in English, and it is available from the Amsterdam University Press website, while it is listed on Amazon as being available in the UK from Pallas Publications in December 2010.

(Arthur Melbourne-Cooper has a MySpace page, by the way. He currently has 74 friends. Including the BFI.)

One response

  1. Thanks for this very informative post. It was fantastic to see ‘Dreams of Toyland’ again. Haven’t seen it since an undergraduate film history course, and the lecturer at the time was under the impression that the film’s title was ‘In The Land of Nod’…

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