Ernest H Mills


Ernest Herbert Mills was born in 1874 in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, the eldest of the six children of William F Mills, ironmonger, and his wife Ellen. In 1900 the family firm, Mills & Co, was liquidated. William borrowed money from friends to start up anew, but the business failed in 1904. William and Ellen moved to Herne Bay, Kent, where William concentrated on his artistic talent as a painter.

By the age of 16 Ernest was employed locally as an artist/photographer. During the 1890s he moved to London and was employed by the editor William Thomas Stead to photograph persons of note for the monthly magazine The Review of Reviews. He married Ethel Jane Hall in 1898 and they set up home (and studio) in Hampstead. Mills became a noted portrait photographer, specialising in photographing celebrities in their own homes.

In the first eight years of the twentieth century they had three daughters, Hilda, Gladys and Gwendoline. In 1910 a son, David, was born but sadly he died in infancy. Ernest had now extended his occupations to include cartoonist and stage entertainer, performing a humerous 'Lightning Artist' act.

In 1916 Mills was hired by Frank Zeitlin to draw and animate war propaganda films for a new company, Kine Komedy Kartoons. (Mills may have previously assisted stage magician Louis Nikola to make his animated film Magic Squares in 1914 but there is no evidence for this speculation.)

Mills' first films for Kine Komedy Kartoons were released in the latter half of 1916. According to Gifford they were releaed under the series title Britannia's Budget, but although that name appears on a few cinma listings in the press neither The Bioscope nor The Kinematograph Weekly, the trade papers, refer to such a title.

The first, The Battle of Jutland, was released by Davison's Film Sales Agency. Kinematograph Weekly (17 August 1916) described it as:

... a clever and lightning sketch cartoon by that versatile and well-known artist, Ernest H. Mills. "The Jutland Battle" is, perhaps, more an artistic sketch than a cartoon, the 500 feet being replete with effects of mist and smoke, and seascape and sky delineation of a high order of merit. It is difficult to believe almost that the pictures presented are merely black and white sketches, except for the evidence of their being produced on the screen by the artist. The quick changing, even to turning the board upside down to reveal a second picture, is remarkably well done. And lastly we must compliment the producers on the really handsome and clever introductory slide. The release date is September 21st, and it should prove an interesting item screened between strong dramas. Exhibitors would do well to make note of it.

The Jutland Battle is actually the title of the Kineto War Maps No. 14 film, released 17 August 1916. I don't know if the reviewer has made a mistake or whether the title of Mills' film was changed before release to avoid confusion.

The second, Supremacy, released in late September, benefitted from inclusion in Ruffells Exclusives' trade show for the temperance drama The Devil at his Elbow. The Kinematograph Weekly (5 October 1916) noted:

     The Kine Komedy Kartoon Ko., (by permission of Messrs. Ruffell's) screened a one reel cartoon comedy by Mr. Ernest H. Mills at the latter company's trade show on Friday last. The cartoon is entitled "Supremacy," and depicts, in a chain of drawings that are excellent in detail and perspective, and with beautiful effect, the national supremacy in air and in water. The artist, we understand, was an eye-witness of the bringing down of the Zepp. at Cuffley, and the whole incident is impressively portrayed. It is a decidedly artistic and topical cartoon.

It is instructive to compare this description with that of the third film, released at the end of October by Triangle Plays, with a trade showing in advance of its release, which saw it get greater promotion. The Bioscope (12 October 1916) wrote:

     On the same occasion there was shown a clever animated cartoon, entitled "What London Saw at 2.18 a.m. on September 3rd, 1916." It deals mainly with the destruction of the Cuffley Zeppelin, of which historic episode an extremely ingenious and effective illustration is provided. Thrillingly realistic crayon pictures of the midnight drama are skilfully alternated with portraits of Lieut. Robinson, V.C., and with other topical and patriotic sketches. There is also a novel "impression" of the Zeppelin's fall as seen by its destroyer from mid-air, besides an interpolated pictorial treatise on the art of netting submarines. A notably clever and original little production, the film has been made for the Western Import Company, Limited, by the K.K.K. Company and Ernest H. Mills. It is between 500 and 600 feet in length, and will be released through the Triangle office on October 30th (in London) and on November 6th (in the Provinces).

From the similarities in these two reports it would seem that Supremacy consisted of two sequences: one showing the netting of a German submarine (probably the UB13, netted off the Belgian coast on 24 April 1916 by the naval drifter Gleaner of the Sea) and the other showing the downing of the airship SL-11 (one of 16 "Zeppelins" on a bombing raid over London) at Cuffley, in Hertfordshire, north of Enfield, on 3 September, 1916. It would appear that someone at Triangle's London office (UK distributor for the Hollywood production company Triangle Plays) saw the potential of the film, bought it from the original distributor and re-issued it under the more topical title What London Saw....

Cinemas who rented the film were encouraged to give it prominent promotion. The Kinema, West Ealing, took a half page advertisement in the Ealing Gazette (Saturday 28 October 1916) promoting What London Saw above the rest of its programme:

Described on the Screen by an Eye-witness with Wonderful Reality.

In August 1916 the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro had printed an account of Britain's new Secretary of State for War (since 6 July) under the title Le Roman de David Lloyd George, and this was reported in the British press. When Asquith was forced to resign, in December, Lloyd George became Prime Minister, and Mills took The Romance of David Lloyd George as the subject for his fourth film. The Bioscope (4 January 1917) reported:

     One of the most interesting, and at the same time topical films which Broadwest Films will be releasing on January 22nd is a cartoon picture, entitled "The Romance of David Lloyd ." One usually associates comedy with cartoons, but this film is decidedly on the dramatic side. A notable feature connected with this picture is the fact that Mr. Ernest Mills, to whose credit the film stands, was fortunate enough to obtain sittings from Mr. Lloyd George, and it is on these sittings that the picture is founded. In an altogether novel and interesting way, it is said, the artist portrays incidents in the life of the Premier with the utmost fidelity—his younger days in his native Welsh village, his first visit to the House, on which occasion he was lucky enough to hear Gladstone speak; his dramatic escape from Birmingham Town Hall when he was mobbed while making a speech during the Boer War, his Insurance Act, the Old Age Pension, and many other incidents. A Trade Show of this subject is to be held at the Super Cinema, Charing Cross Road, W.C., on Tuesday, January 9th. A novel feature about this Trade show is that the film, 800 feet in length, will be shown continuously from 11 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., so that exhibitors may drop in at any time and may be assured of viewing the whole of the film with only a few minutes, if any, wait.

The caveat "it is said" implies that the article is based on a publicity handout from Broadwest, the distributors who had contracted to release KKK's films during 1917. Mills had previously taken several portrait photographs of Lloyd George at his home. MP for Caernarvon Boroughs since 1890, Lloyd George was an opponent of the Boer War, which was the reason he had to escape the mob in Birmingham. He served in the Liberal government from 1905 and when Asquith became Prime Minister, Lloyd George replaced him as Chancellor of the Exchequer, hence the reference to the Insurance Act and Old Age Pension.

Dudley Buxton and Anson Dyer had now joined Kine Komedy Kartoons, fulfilling the 'Komedy' element. Someone apparently connected to KKK was to recall at a later date:

Anson Dyer, Dudley Buxton, and A. J. Shepherd used pen and ink. They were called "black and white cartoonists." Ernest H. Mills alone used the crayon, and produced serious work. His cartoon of Mr Lloyd George was sold to the proprietor of a cinema theatre in London for £800, and afterward it was disposed of to the Broadwest Film Company, which rented it to provincial and overseas exhibitors for £12 a week. [....] It consisted of shaded crayon drawings of his birthplace, his first visit to Parliament, his early life and exploits, followed by topical scenes depicting a night attack on the Western Front, and a munition factory working at full speed, merging into pictures of cathedrals surmounted by angels of peace and war graves.
[Gisborne Times, 25 May 1935]

Interest in the film was so great that Broadwest reported a record number of bookings:

Some days before the Trade Show almost every available copy had been booked for release date. This caused the Renting Department to increase the number, and now they have only one or two vacant copies for London for the release date of January 22nd. Not only at cinemas all over the United Kingdom is this subject being booked, but also at Music Halls and Theatres.
[The Bioscope, 11 January 1917]

This is, of course, publicity from Broadwest so there may be an element of exaggeration, but there was clearly much interest in the film. Mills' next film, The Entente Cordiale, was also well received at the Trade showing and Broadwest took out full-page advertisements in the trade papers. The Bioscope (15 March 1917) wrote:

     One of the most pleasing features of the success attending the Broadwest programme is the reception which is being everywhere accorded to their series of cartoons. Their latest, "The Entente Cordiale," from the pen of that well-known and deservedly popular artist, Mr. Ernest H. Mils, is a real winner, and the inclusion therein of a portrait of the late King Edward, from sittings especially given to the artist, is an attraction very keenly appreciated.

Again, the 'private sittings' appear to refer to photographs taken several years earlier.

In April, having released two films by Mills and one by Dudley Buxton, Broadwest suddenly ceased distributing Kine Komedy Kartoons' productions. Although KKK's production schedule may have proved slower than expected it would seem that their popularity stil made them a fairly safe investment, so this move appears strange. Broadwest was now distributing two of its own feature-length live-action films, so it is possible that they were cutting back on handling shorts in order to conserve resources.

On 6 April 1917 America entered the War, and Mills prepared a profile of President Wilson along the lines of his film on Lloyd George. It was released, without any ballyhoo, probably by Jury's Imperial Pictues.

Also there will be screened "The Romance of President Wilson," a cartoon film showing the influences which have gone to mould the character of the President of the United States.
[Dundee People's Journal 8 September 1917]

Russia the Resolute, a tribute to Revolutionary Russia's determination to defeat Germany, was rather overtaken by events. Although Foreign Minister Milyukov was assuring the Allies of Russia's support the goverment were split on the issue. Lenin encouraged the Soviets (Regional Russian workers' parliaments) to oppose the Provisional Government, and Bolshevik propaganda undermined the war effort. When War Minister Kerensky ordered an offensive against the German front in June it did not gain much ground, and in the face of a German Counterattack the Russians were driven back with some units refusing to fight. Mills' film was released on 10 September by Jury. The Bioscope' review (2 August 1917) read:

     Although this clever cartoon was produced before the recent debaclé in the Russian armies, it is very clever and interesting, if only for the skilful portraits of the ex-Tsar, the Grand Duke Nicholas, General Brusiloff, and the Dictator Kerensky. Especially clever is the picture of the Tsar with Rasputin and the Kaiser whispering devilish advice in his ears.

Mills' seventh film was titled The Nelson Touch and compared Admiral Beatty to the hero of Trafalgar. The film was released on the 28 November 1817 with Admiral Beatty's name added in front for clarity — a week earlier the Commander of a successful tank attack had preceded the advance with the message "England expects that every tank to-day will do its damnedest", and the press had used the phrase "the Nelson touch" in reporting the story. The Bioscope (6 December 1917) describes the film thus:

     Ernest H. Mills, whose topicality and inspired drawings have placed him in the front rank of cartoonists, presents a series of sketches of the Victory and Admiral Lord Nelson, the nation's hero of bygone days, and the modern battle flagship of Admiral Beatty; hearts of oak and gunners of old, men of iron, and the fighting sailors of today. Patriotic cartoon.

After all the scenes of battle and portraits of leaders Mills finally got to make a more light-hearted piece of propaganda with Kaiser Bill—Showman. I have not been able to find a synopsis for this film, but the Whitstable Times (12 April 1818), reporting on the programme at the Oxford Cinema, which had a local exclusive arrangement to screen the KKK films released by Walturdaw during 1918, said:

     Another of those splendid cartoons which the "Old Oxford" are becoming noted for, is included in the same programme. This latest is by Ernest Mills and is entitled "Kaiser Bill—Showman." The cartoon is highly amusing and a thoroughly interesting skit throughout.

This film ended the initial run of films that Mills made for Kine Komedy Kartoons. It was released in early 1918, probably February, and he completed no further cartoon films that year, concentrating instead on his print work and stage performances. An article in the Strand Magazine (December 1918) HOW TO BECOME AN ARTIST IN TEN MINUTES ... an interview with ERNEST H. MILLS gives a taste of his lightning artist act.

When Zeitlin secured the film rights to J A Shepherd's Zig Zags at the Zoo illustrations, towards the end of 1918, he pursuaded Mills to return to animate them. Shepherd seems not to have been happy with the results of Mills' work on the Zig Zags films. In an article in the Weekly Dispatch (21 August 1919) promoting his involvement with KKK Shepherd is quoted as saying:

     "I have already produced three films, but I have only just got properly going. The first two were done from models, and were unsatisfactory. The third, called 'The New Keeper's Dream' which is now out, is much better. But I have since adopted the American method of production, and hope to get better results still."

"Done from models" may be a misquoted reference to the cutout jointed figures used by Mills. The actions may not have been able to do justice to Shepherd's lively drawings. Whether Mills worked on the third film is uncertain — he made a final film in his own style, The Tiger, Clemanceau, about the French Premier and Minister of War, which was released (not as part of the Phillips deal but separately by Ashley Exclusive) the same month as the third Zig Zags film. Perhaps this was Zeitlin's way of both profitting from Mills' return to the studio and compensating him for his lack of success with the Zig Zags.

While retaining their Hampstead address until 1925, the Mills family had moved to the coast, firstly at Broadstairs, Kent throughout the 1920s, then to Worthing, Sussex, in the early 1930s. Mills would perform locally, both at local theatres and in support of local events, as well as continuing his illustrative work. In 1924 he appeared in an advertisement in The Tatler endorsing the health tonic Phosferine

He regularly contributed to the weekly society magazine The Sketch, and a series of drawings of the dogs of the Royal Family that began in 1931 led to a new side-line in dog portraiture.

In October 1933 Mills began a series of sketches for the Worthing Herald entitled Worthing Personalities, and a reporter was sent to interview him at his home in Charmandean, to the north of Worthing.

     Mr Mills prefers to be called an "artist-entertainer," for while he does serious work, he is equally at home with the lighter side of his art. His studio, overlooking the wooded Downland, is a testimony to his versatility.

The article lists portraits on show of George Bernard Shaw, Earl Haig, Lloyd George, G F Watts, Clive Brook, Fay Compton, Lord Northcliffe, Ellen Terry, Ivor Novello, General Booth and Mark Hambourg "to mention a few" and relates how he had entertained the Royal children at Marlborough House, having performed his cartoonist act for thirty weeks at the Palace Theatre, London, and appeared at Maskelyne and Devant's for six months. After noting the abundant sketches of dogs and children and recalling Mills' published works as a photographer, the interview concludes:

     Yet another glimpse into his activity was given to me when I saw his mdel theatre. It has a revolving stage, flood lighting and its own municipal orchestra. He also showed me some original animals he used when producing film cartoons (of which he was a pioneer in this country), and I saw chickens with movements even to the claws, horses and their riders with many joints, a crab that crawls, and a puppy that would go on a shilling. Mr Mills told me that among his film cartoons were "The Life of Lloyd George," "The Battles of Jutland," "Trafalgar," and "What London Saw," all done single-handed.
     Mr Mills is as entertaining off the stage as on, and the hour I spent with him passed all too quickly. Mr Mills tells me he is always pleased to welcome interested vivitors by appointment. His telephone number is 2731.
[Worthing Herald, 7 October 1933]

Ethel Mills died on 28 Jul 1937. Ernest H Mills died, at home from a heart attack, on 18 May 1942.


The Battle of Jutland(Kine Komedy Kartoons, 1916) Designer, Animator
Supremacy a.k.a. What London Saw
at 2.18 a.m. on September 3rd, 1916
(Kine Komedy Kartoons, 1916) Designer, Animator
The Romance of David Lloyd George(Kine Komedy Kartoons, 1917) Designer, Animator
The Entente Cordiale(Kine Komedy Kartoons, 1917) Designer, Animator
The Romance of President Wilson(Kine Komedy Kartoons, 1917) Designer, Animator
Russia the Resolute(Kine Komedy Kartoons, 1917) Designer, Animator
Admiral Beatty—The Nelson Touch(Kine Komedy Kartoons, 1917) Designer, Animator
Kaiser Bill—Showman(Kine Komedy Kartoons, 1918) Designer, Animator
Zig Zags at the Zoo No.1(Kine Komedy Kartoons, 1919) Animator
Zig Zags at the Zoo No.2(Kine Komedy Kartoons, 1919) Animator
The Tiger, Clemenceau(Kine Komedy Kartoons, 1919) Designer, Animator
(?)Zig Zags at the Zoo No.3(Kine Komedy Kartoons, 1919) Possibly not the animator

Links to Other Sites

Internet Archive:The Strand Magazine, 1918b Vol. LVI, Jul-Dec HOW TO BECOME AN ARTIST IN TEN MINUTES ... an interview with ERNEST H. MILLS (Dec 1918) - an article based on Mills' stage act.

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Peter Hale
Last updated 2022