Among the many recent commemorations of the centenary of First World War, its implications for animation history have received scant attention. In Britain the war stimulated considerable production of animated cartoons between 1914 and 1918, as explored in my recent book (see Cook 2018). Cartoonists, including Lancelot Speed, Dudley Buxton, George Studdy and Anson Dyer, moved from magazines and newspapers into film. They created numerous continuing series and over a hundred standalone films, typically with satirical and topical content.
The end of the war saw a dramatic shift in this pattern, with at least two decisive causes. Firstly, topical subject matter no longer held the same urgency. Secondly, as Kristen Thompson and others have discussed, the war saw the American film industry grow to a dominant controlling position in the world film market (see Thompson 1985). Specifically within the market for animated cartoons, the Bray/Hurd patents for cel animation (granted from 1914 onwards) enabled a factory-like production of animated films (see Bray & Hurd 1988). British screens were increasingly filled with American cartoons, such as the popular ‘Mutt and Jeff’ series.
‘The Wonderful Adventures of Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’ series, animated by Lancelot Speed and released in 1921, represents a significant, if largely forgotten, moment in this history. If these characters are remembered at all, it is through another WW1 connection: their names became a common nickname for the three most commonly awarded service medals for British forces. Pip the dog and Squeak the penguin first appeared in 1919 in a comic strip that was published in the children’s section of the Daily Mirror (e.g. see fig. 1). The strip was drawn by A.B. Payne, with the stories devised by Bertram Lamb, the editor of the Children’s Mirror, although he was credited simply as ‘Uncle Dick’. Wilfred the rabbit was added to the family the following year, typically behaving as the toddler with Pip as a father figure and Squeak as mother.
The strip expanded to a full page in 1921 (see fig. 2) coinciding with the release of the animated cartoons in the same year (eg. see video 1).
The film series offers a transitionary moment in British animation, balanced between characteristics that would become typical of later 1920s British animated cartoons and distinctive qualities derived from the films’ intermedial context. As suggested above, Speed had a long and distinguished career prior to his film work. Born in 1860, Speed had been a prolific illustrator of books and topical cartoonist. In 1914, when he entered the film industry, he estimated that he had published well over 3000 illustrations and cartoons. As with other cartoonists of the time, such as the celebrated Bruce Bairnsfather, Speed was the star of his wartime cartoons, appearing onscreen in lightning cartoon sequences, and his name was publicized in advertising and on film titles. While Speed’s name was still associated with the 1921 series, it was now Pip, Squeak and Wilfred who were the stars, as indicated by newsreel footage of the period (e.g. see video 2).
As David McGowan argues in an earlier post, we need to reconsider the role of stardom in animation, and this includes the shifts that occurred as the early stardom of specific cartoonists and animators was eclipsed by the stardom of onscreen characters, especially anthropomorphized animals. Pip, Squeak and Wilfred signaled a pattern that would become dominant in British animation, as characters like Bonzo, Jerry the Troublesome Tyke and Pongo the Pup rose to fame, overshadowing their creators.
Despite these changes, ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’ also offers a distinctive alternative to typical 1920s British animated cartoons. Most notably, the series retained the use of cut-out animation, a hybrid of two-dimensional drawing and stop-motion manipulation of puppets. Cel animation techniques were well known and widely adopted by 1921, with Lutz’s how-to book Animated Cartoons published in Britain in 1920 (see Lutz 1920). However, Speed did not use this approach. Cel animation typically lent itself to a stark black and white image with limited background detail. Instead, Speed adopted a cut out animation technique, which allowed him to recreate the greyscale coloring and textural qualities of his source, especially the fur of the main protagonists. Likewise, Speed incorporated considerable text into the cartoons, maintaining the image/text relationship that was crucial to the newspaper cartoon. Although the series was well-received by the public, trade press reviews at the time were less welcoming. For instance, The Leeds Mercury wrote: ‘Funny as they are when pictured in our columns, the trio are still more amusing when seen in actual movement’ (22 April 1921, 4). In contrast, trade paper Kinematograph Weekly criticized the use of subtitles and text as they ‘detract from the value of the scenes’ (27 January 1921, 72). Later historians, such as Giannalberto Bendazzi (1994: 42) and Rachael Low (1971: 283-285), have followed this judgement, seeing the aesthetic choices as a simple failure to embrace new techniques.
I would argue against this interpretation, as the decision to use cut out rather than cel animation is better understood as reflecting the desire for fidelity to the source comic strip. At the time, in the 1920s, this might have been seen as backward-looking or retrograde, but in the present day there is increasing recognition of animation as a meeting place or fusion of different practices rather than an autonomous art (see Eric Herhuth’s post on links with caricature for one very recent example). Contemporary mainstream successes, such as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), have been celebrated for their embrace of hybridity and the intermedial connections between animation and comic strips. We need to look again at some of the forgotten paths of animation history to recover other earlier examples.
Malcolm Cook is Lecturer in Film at the University of Southampton. He has published a number of chapters and articles on animation, early cinema, and their intermedial relationships. His monograph Early British Animation: From Page and Stage to Cinema Screens and his chapters in The Animation Studies Reader and Music and Sound in Silent Film: From the Nickelodeon to The Artist were all published in 2018. He is currently preparing (with Kirsten Thompson) an edited collection on the relationships between animation and advertising.
Anonymous (1921) ‘“Pip, Squeak, and Wilfred” Screened in Leeds’, The Leeds Mercury 22 April: 4.
Anonymous (1921). ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred [Review]’, Kinematograph Weekly 27 January: 72.
Bendazzi, Giannalberto (1994). Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, London: Libbey.
Bray, John Randolph, and Earl Hurd (1988). “Bray-Hurd: The Key Animation Patents”, Film History 2, no. 3: 229-266.
Cook, Malcolm (2018). Early British Animation: From Page and Stage to Cinema Screens,Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Low, Rachael (1971). The History of the British Film. 1918-1929,London: Allen & Unwin.
Lutz, Edwin George (1920). Animated Cartoons. How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development, London: Chapman & Hall.
Thompson, Kristin (1985). Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907-34, London: British Film Institute.