Sunday, June 18, 2023

Short Film: Oh' Phelia – A Cartoon Burlesque (UK, 1919)

Ophelia (1851–52) by Sir John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, London)
Oh, woe is the fate of Ophelia, the betrothed of Hamlet, driven to suicide by the insanity around her — her lover, who rejects her, murders her father — singing as she sinks below the water into which she fell while picking flowers…
The Short Film of the Month for June 2023 is another blast from the ancient past, in this case from over 100 years ago, from the land of Shakespeare, by a gent by the name of Anson Dryer (18 July 1876 – 22 Feb 1962), below, "the forgotten pioneer of British animation and a brilliant cartoon artists whose memory and legacy seem to have completely vanished [The Shortlisted]."
As far as we could discern, Dryer started his career as an animator on the John Bull Animated Sketchbook series (1915-16), a series of some 22 animated wartime propaganda shorts for the home-front audiences of Britain. "Anson Dyer worked as a stained glass window artist until 1915, when at the age of 40 he began producing lightning sketch propaganda films. By the end of WWI, Dyer was one of a very small handful of key figures in the fledgling British animation industry. His reputation earned him the backing of Cecil Hepworth, pioneer director and producer and one of the biggest figures in British cinema of the time. Sadly, competition from American cartoons (along with Hepworth's bankruptcy) made British animation an unprofitable business, and by the late 1920s Dyer had moved away from filmmaking. He returned with a new cel animation studio in 1935, though, and managed to continue in the business into the 1950s. [BFI]
While at Hepworth, between 1919 and 2020, Dyer made a variety of animated shorts based on the Bard's work, including The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, 'Amlet, The Taming of the Shrew, the regrettably racist-looking Othello, and this one here, Oh' Phelia – A Cartoon Burlesque. At the time they were made, the shorts were well received, but like so many things time has seen that these early treats be forgotten.
As the short's full title infers, Dyer's treatment of Ophelia's tale is hardly serious: he removes the tragedy and plays everything for laughs, complete with a happy ending, despite all the tears that drop throughout the roughly ten minutes running time. The humor is dated and a bit inane and hardly sophisticated, as is the overall style of animation, but that is all part of the charm of this oddly wacky, and most definitely silly, short. (Example of such "humor": Ophelia's father, Polonius, dies not by the sword but by a kick in the ass, and Gertrude the Queen consorts not in her bedroom but in the kitchen.) The visual homages to popular stars of the day are obvious: Hamlet, as in Dyer's 'Amlet and in Romeo and Juliet, is an obvious homage to Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character, but here with an apparent hangover and messier hair; Laertes, for whatever reason a gun-toting cowboy, is an obvious visual homage to William S. Hart (6 Dec 1986 – 23 Jun 1946), while Ophelia, less obviously so after her bob but (as is Juliet in Romeo and Juliet), is a nod towards Mary Pickford.
It is doubtful that the music to embedded version below is the original music, but the completely silent version offered by the BFI is simply a bit too dry. Hardly a masterpiece and definitely dated, Oh' Phelia – A Cartoon Burlesque is a silly little blast from the past. That it shows its age is an understatement, but it remains good for a giggle and a smile. Enjoy.

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