The Trouble with Train Trouble

For many years the story of Halas & Batchelor began with a film called Train Trouble, a five minute cinema commercial for Kellogg's Cornflakes.

Train Trouble image

It tells the story of a squirrel who works at a railway signal box. His sole responsibility is to pull the junction levers on time to divert the trains from track to track and allow the smooth passing of rail traffic. He has just one problem. Every morning he runs late for work because (ahem) his wife is too slow in cooking his breakfast, and so each morning he must gulp it down, dash to work, and only narrowly avoid a catastrophic railway accident. Every day.

The solution to this comes from... no, don't get ahead of yourself, not from getting up a bit earlier. And no, not from making his own breakfast, what a preposterous idea. No the solution comes serendipitously when his friendly neighbourhood bear accidentally leaves the wrong basket of groceries at their home, and the squirrel family discover the life-saving properties of breakfast cereal. Mrs Squirrel can devote her one pair of hands to another household task than cooking eggs and bacon, Mr Squirrel can saunter to work on time without troubling his digestion, and the express trains can pass on schedule without major incident. A victory for all concerned, including Halas & Batchelor and the client Kellogg's.

For many years Train Trouble has been cited as the first film production of Halas & Batchelor Cartoon Films in 1940; an impressive debut as the film is a very polished piece, in full colour, with good character animation, detailed backgrounds and a lively score.

As we have already seen on the blog, this is John's memory in his dictated memoir and it is also reported in Roger Manvell's history on the 40th anniversary. It was listed as 1940 in the BFI database for many years, and assorted catalogues and websites.

However recent research has thrown a spanner in the works, starting for me when I first saw Radio Ructions a second Kellogg's commercial from 1947 which features exactly the same squirrel character, this time employed as a radio announcer with similar, but less life-threatening, timekeeping issues. Although there was a dirty great big war in the middle, which placed something of a brake on cinema advertising on this scale, seven years seemed a long gap in terms of this "sequel".

One of the tricks of the trade of the film archivist in pinpointing the production of a film is the date markings that were printed onto the edge of film stocks by many manufacturers. Though not the first to do so, the biggest film manufacturer Kodak began to put date markings on their films in the mid-1910s and this was soon codified into a pattern of symbols in a twenty year cycle.
 date markings image

It gets complicated by the fact that there is an unknown period of time between the piece of film being manufactured and then being used in a camera (or printer). And even more importantly it gives you the date that this particular copy of the film was made, which may not be original. So a film negative captured on a piece of stock from 1920 could be used to make a new positive print in 1925. If the original negative was then lost, and the positive print was all that survived, the only remaining copy would carry the later marking.

On examining the original camera negatives for Train Trouble [held at the BFI National Archive] ( the markings indicated that the film stock was manufactured in 1945.
1945 date code

This is the piece of film that was fed through the rostrum camera and shot the original artwork, and that cannot have happened before this date.

Of course, the film stock is not the only source of dating a film and needs to be cross checked with any surviving primary sources - reviews, production papers, catalogues - and good secondary ones. In this case, Vivien recently turned up some pretty decisive primary evidence in the form of an invitation to an "Exhibition of abstract cartoons" at the British Council Theatre on the 19th December 1946. Train Trouble is clearly dated as being made that same year.

1946 screening list

The invitation itself is immensely revealing of the ambitions of John and Joy - to push the idea of animation as an art form, whether that be commercial or "high" art. Whilst neither H&B film mentioned would fit most people's definition of an "abstract cartoon", they were stepping stones to films like The Magic Canvas (1948) which most certainly would, and the unit was clearly proud of them.

So what is less clear is where the 1940 date came from and why? One possibility is that the film was started in 1940, or at least before the unit became exclusively involved on Ministry of Information work, and was not completed till after. Many branded goods disappeared for the duration of the war, with companies on reduced resources combining to produce goods in generic packaging. In fact, a surviving copy of one the new candidates for H&B's first film The Fable of the Fabrics, a commercial for Lux washing soap, has a tacked on coda ending apologising that the product is no longer available. Sounds like a story for another post.

Unfortunately Train Trouble is not currently available online, but there will hopefully be developments in this area in the next couple of years.


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