Going the British route this time with three intertwined companies that have provided some mighty fine shortie material over a cluster of decades.
British Instructional Films a.k.a. “BIF” was created by Harry Bruce Woolfe and H.M. Howard in August 1919. Woolfe was the more powerful force of the two, managing his company through its merging with Gaumont British in 1933 until his semi-retirement in 1944. Two major focuses of Woolfe in the early years of his company were the Great War, which he felt disillusioned about and needed psychological therapy from, and Mother Nature, which easily provided therapy from the sound of guns. The former was represented in short films like The Battle Of Jutland as well as feature-length (up to six reels) newsreel compilations like Armageddon (1922), Zeebrugge (1924), Sons Of The Sea (1925), Ypres (1925) and Mons (1926). Yet the latter interest had the biggest impact on the company's fortunes despite being restricted to the 9-11 minute format.
Over 30 “Secrets of Nature” one-reelers were in release by February 1923 and these remained a staple of the BIF and later Gaumont-British Instructional library for two decades further, being renamed “Secrets of Life”. Although there were other companies that showed time-lapse flowers blooming and roots penetrating the soil, tadpoles in development, stickleback daddies taking care of baby fish and sundews luring flies to their doom, only this company would make something as offbeat as Mitey Atoms (about cheese mites), microscopic “aquariums” in a wine-glass and Magic Myxies (about whatever they are... alien creatures from outer space?). At least one extinct species was documented for the cameras in Hold All a.k.a. Feeding Time At The Zoo: the thylacine or marsupial Tasmanian “wolf” would never be seen in any zoo after 1936.
Apparently Walt Disney was impressed enough to borrow the second umbrella title for his own 1956 True Life Adventure feature; his own series of the post-war forties and fifties used the same tricks of the trade with the only key change being Technicolor. Only a select few later “Secrets of Life” were in Dufaycolor. Apart from that, the only handicap the original series had was no use of electron microscopes and computer technology, only introduced in wildlife and science films tentatively in the 1970s. One reason for their very high quality was the number of professionals fully experienced prior to joining and now at the peak of their skills. For example, Oliver G. Pike was a veteran of bird life films for several other companies since 1907, working at first for Charles Urban's Kineto... a company that also backed more than eighty little reels of Frank Percy Smith (who also made additional all-color reels for Natural Colour Kinematograph). Smith, as the most prolific cameraman for both the “Nature” and “Life” series, even dabbled in stop-motion animation; his Bertie the Bee, a co-star in his 1925 trio of cartoons featuring Archie the Ant, appeared in a few titles as an “expert” on flower pollination.
In 1934, Smith collaborated with Mary Field on a book exposing the secrets of Secrets, titled (obviously) The Secrets of Nature. Field took over as director for the series so that Smith could stay focused on his camera work. Keep in mind that there weren't many ladies in such powerful positions in the British and Hollywood film industries at this time. Field was practically second-in-command to executive Woolfe. Even as a recently married woman in 1944, J. Arthur Rank still felt she should be the executive in charge of a company within a company (which I will get into in a bit).
Through the twenties and early thirties, both features and shorts of a documentary nature continued to be the BIF bread-and-butter, examples of the longer kind include African “docu-dramas” like Palaver (filmed in Nigeria) and Stark Nature (Sudan). Nelson (1926) marked their first fictional drama featuring all actors and was followed two years later by Shooting Stars, directed by Anthony Asquith. After establishing glossier headquarters in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire during the fall of '28, entertainment features were increased in number to keep another of their key distributors New Era satisfied. By 1930, the bigger British International Pictures had increased its stock in BIF with Pathé also backing them, but the relationship between Woolfe and the new power-house in charge was only tolerated for a few years. In the summer of 1933, Woolfe declared his independence by temporarily forming British Independent Films in an attempt to get back to documentary basics. Then mighty Gaumont gave him a lucrative offer he couldn't refuse.
Gaumont was... or shall I say still IS... most famously a French company created by Léon Gaumont (1864-1946) on June 23, 1895. It still produces films today, mostly in Europe, but also with Gaumont International Television operating in the United States. In fact, it holds the distinction for being the oldest movie company still making movies for theaters as well as for smaller screens, older than Hollywood's Paramount and Universal and also older than still chugging away Titanus of Rome and Nordisk of Copenhagen. Only one fellow company started in France can hold the second oldest title: Pathé occasionally produces films even if it is more of a distributor these days, but it was created just one year after Gaumont. Gotta hand it to the French for making companies that last!
Gaumont began making films in the United Kingdom in 1898, but the official history of Gaumont British got underway when Isidore Ostrer took control in 1922. (This is where I start covering their pre-British Instructional product on these threads, with just a slight push-back a year or two to accommodate some series. You can read their full filmography in British Film Catalogue: Two Volume Set - The Fiction Film/The Non-Fiction Film edited by Denis Gifford and updated to 1995.) Gaumont-British mostly made feature films and would become an international force in the thirties with Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. A joke made in the Selznick version of A Star Is Born has Janet Gaynor asking if all of the movie studios were located in Hollywood. The response she gets is “all but Gaumont British” since this was the one “outside” company any average movie fan of the thirties could name.
Operating now as Gaumont-British Instructional Films, Woolfe and Mary Field continued “Secrets of Nature” under a new logo “Secrets of Life” to avoid legal red-tape. Much of the in-depth analysis of the natural world carried over into man-made ventures like ship building, airplanes, farming and the history of English culture itself. New rising figures of importance during this era included Stuart Legg, J.B. Holmes and Paul Rotha. Perhaps due to the mother company being a British Hollywood factory, great care was put in production polish, with narration, music scores and editing done to make education as entertaining as possible. One curio though: despite Gaumount British making its first Dufaycolor short, Mother of Parliaments, in 1934, only a select few travelogues and nature reels were shot in either that system or Technicolor, unlike rival U.S. companies like MGM's Traveltalks. After Woolfe's retirement, new chief Donald Carter diversified the product further, even opening a new South African unit to accommodate the post-war demand for exotic travels on screen.
Children entertainment got a big boost in 1944, a few years after J. Arthur Rank reorganized the General Film Distributors empire that distributed for Gaumont, Gainsborough, Ealing and other prominent companies. He put Mary Field in charge of a special division catering to kiddie matinees and a push into features followed. Bush Christmas (1947), The Adventures Of Dusty Bates (1947, initially a serial), The Little Ballerina (1947), The Lone Climber (1950), The Mysterious Poacher (1950), The Clue Of The Missing Ape (1953), The Gold Express (1955) and Supersonic Saucer (1956) were among the more famous titles. However the shorter films themselves were not overlooked and were brimming with fresh talent both behind and in front of the cameras. Jean Simmons made her debut in Sports Day, filmed in 1944 before super stardom under the wings of David Lean, Lawrence Olivier and Michael Powell. Petula Clark also first appeared in a GB Instructional made the following year, Trouble At Townsend, even if few outside of the UK knew who she was until after their country-by-country “British Invasions” of pop music two decades later and her singing “when you're alone, and life is making you lonely, you can always go Downtown”.
I will break my golden rule on this forum and add the animated cartoons into the mix here. Rank brought David Hand overseas from Disney to launch a Gaumont British Animation department. Alas... this was a great experiment that didn't last long. After providing animated sequences for the documentaries and making sponsored ad films right after the war, this company enjoyed only a short-lived success with its “Animaland” (featuring characters who would fit in well in Bambi's forest like Ginger Nutt Squirrel, despite his European tufted ears) and the more artistically creative “Musical Paintbox”. The earliest “Animaland” shorts even paid tribute to the series that made their mother company famous: The Cuckoo starts out as a parody on Edgar Chance's 1922 “Secrets of Nature” film covering the live-action bird even if this new character more closely resembles Baby Huey.
Sadly the fifties were less kind than the thirties and forties to movie making, with a changing economy, new legislation changes and television taking their toll. The animation staff was the first to go when Rank began some downsizing at the start of the decade. Modest success came in the 16mm field, as this impressive catalog showcases: https://archive.org/...16mmentert1gbeq A few years later, GB Instructional itself became GB “Specialized” Films as it too cut back in production. By the time Donald Carter left to work in Canada, virtually all shorts bearing the GB logo were off shoots of the newsreel division... which itself ended in 1959.
However the market for shorts was not dead yet, since Rank Film Distributors continued to back a steady stream of independent travel and human interest reels just as the earlier General Film Distributors had supplemented its GB Instructional product. In fact, the big boss was even prompted to replace his dying newsreel with a very glossy and ambitious all-Eastmancolor weekly called “Look At Life”. This prevented the Rank features from ever getting lonely in theaters during the swinging sixties and, even after they ended, Rank still released new theatricals and 16mm shorts as late as the 1980s.
Below I have arranged everything by series. The dates given are either release dates as described by Gifford (mentioned above) or as trade show presentations (just before theatrical distribution) as listed in vintage Kinematograph Year Books uploaded on the Internet Archive.