Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

"Noah's Beasts Were the Stars": Arthur Melbourne Cooper's Noah's Ark (1909)

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

"Noah's Beasts Were the Stars": Arthur Melbourne Cooper's Noah's Ark (1909)

Article excerpt

If the recent return of the biblical flood to cinema screens courtesy of both Darren Aronofsky's Noah (2014) and the animated feature Two by Two (2015) suggests that contemporary filmmakers find the story of the deluvian patriarch fascinating, they are by no means the first to have done so. Indeed, at the end of the "silent era," no less a Hollywood luminary than Casablanca-director Michael Curtiz would invest a considerable amount of his time and Warner Brothers' money in his own Noah's Ark (1928), a film whose extraordinary flood scene was eventually swamped by both an excess of biblical spectacle and the addition of a modern melodrama set in World War I (Shepherd, 2013: 259-290).

To find the earliest substantial cinematic interest in the biblical figure of Noah and his famous flood, however, requires us to attend to a still earlier era and the rather improbable location of Great Britain.1 When compared with countries like France and America, Great Britain's contribution to the emergence of the Bible in moving pictures at the cinema's advent was minimal at best. However, while British Gaumont's The Good Samaritan and Moses in the Bullrushes (both 1903) appear to have long since perished (Shepherd, 2014: 38), at least one other biblical film produced in Britain in the first decade of the twentieth century has been preserved for posterity: Arthur Melbourne Cooper's Noah's Ark (1909). While Noah's Ark reflects Cooper's pioneering work as a stop-motion animator, it also has much to tell us about how, why and for whom Cooper's biblical vision was created.

Cinematic Dreams of Toyland

A photographer and the son of a photographer, Arthur Melbourne Cooper discovered the world of moving pictures thanks to an apprenticeship with Birt Acres, the developer of England's first 35mm cinematographic camera.2 Precisely when Cooper began to take a more active role in producing and directing films is very difficult to determine, as amply demonstrated by recent scholarly disagreements over the attribution of certain films to Cooper or G.A. Smith (See. e.g. Bottomore, 2002) Whether or not Cooper was responsible in whole or in part for stop motion films such as Dolly's Toys (1901) or A Boy's Dream (1903), they are illuminating nevertheless for they contain various elements which would eventually appear in Noah's Ark. In Dolly's Toys, for instance, an initial live action scene of a young girl falling asleep with her doll is followed by a dream in which the doll comes to life. In A Boy's Dream (1903) the girl is replaced with a boy in whose dream a variety of toys (rather than a single doll) emerge from their toy box to offer a circus performance. Similarly, whether Cooper was responsible for the creative direction or production of The Enchanted Toymaker the following year (1904) or merely the camera work, the film's anticipation of Cooper's Noah's Ark is clear from its description in Paul's catalogue,

'A busy toy maker is confronted by a good fairy, who causes the toys to take life. The Noah's Ark enlarges and the animals majestically enter. The man locks them in and sets a toy soldier on guard. The latter fires his gun to the shopman's bewilderment. An excellent picture for children. Code word Ark, length 190 feet.' (Paul, 1904:44)

Here the dream sequence is absent and the fantastical facilitated instead by a fairy, while the box of toys in A Boy's Dream is now replaced with a toy Ark which the toys "majestically enter"-with all the biblical resonance that that such a phrase entails. The fact that both the fairy and the ark reappear in The Fairy Godmother (1906) may suggest that the catalogues have confused it with films which preceded or followed it, but if the descriptions are accurate the appearance of the fairy coincides with the nursemaid falling asleep having tucked up the children in bed. Thus, rather than being a dream, the coming to life of the toys, who now disembark the Ark, is presented as a waking reality for the children (De Vries and Mul, 2009). …

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