small viewers, big audience: the children’s films of Rex Film

Children love films. They have been part of audiences since the first cinemas appeared. But although ‘suitable’ programmes made up of educational and responsible films soon appeared, it took a surprisingly long time in the Netherlands before children’s films were made that were simply enjoyable and exciting.

In the Netherlands, one man personally changed things: Henk van der Linden. From the 1950s on, the films made by his production company Rex Film drew full houses, year in and year out.

the first children’s films

The first Dutch children’s film was made in 1918. Dick Laan — who later achieved fame as the author of the Pinkeltje books — directed De belooning van Hi, a short film about a boy who wants to join the scouts.

This was the first of a number of children’s films that Laan would direct, but when he stopped in the late 1920s because of the emergence of films with sound, the production of children’s films in the Netherlands also came to a halt.

foreign supply

Children’s programmes in cinemas were then filled with foreign films: slapsticks and cartoons, often combined with travel and nature films.

school and clubhouse

It wasn’t until 1937 that the next Dutch children’s film appeared: Uit het leven van Dik Trom by G.B.H. Niestadt. This marked the start of a series of children’s films shot on 16mm in the 1940s and 1950s. These films were made to be screened in schools, youth clubs and community centres.

Children’s films and matinees in cinemas still featured foreign films or compiled programmes.

  • Drie jongens en een hond (1954)

  • De nieuwe avonturen van Dik Trom (1958)

Henk van der Linden

This was the film landscape in which Henk van der Linden (1925) grew up. As the son of a cinema director from Hoensbroek, Van der Linden was a film fan from a young age. He made his first films and reports — since lost in a fire — during World War II.

After the war he spent his compulsory military service at the Army Film and Photo Service (LFFD). Among the people he worked with there were the experienced cameramen Henk Alsem and Eddy van der Enden.

travelling cinema

After his military service, Van der Linden presented film programmes throughout Limburg with a travelling cinema, at the invitation of a Catholic organization called ‘Het Limburgs Thuisfront’. He screened normal films for adults in the evening, and films for children in the afternoon.

bored audience, lucrative programme

This work made him aware of the meagre range of films on offer for children’s programmes. His young audiences had little interest in dull documentaries and educational films, preferring instead games and mischief.

Despite that, discontinuing the children’s programmes was not an option, since running a travelling cinema would no longer be lucrative. So, in consultation with Het Limburgs Thuisfront, Van der Linden decided to make children’s films himself.

the first children’s films on 16mm

The first children’s films by Henk van der Linden were shot on 16mm, because they were made for the 16mm projector in the travelling cinema, but they fit perfectly within the framework that he stuck to for the rest of his career. These are films that focus on excitement and adventure.

The leading roles were played by children, while adults mostly had to make do with supporting roles. Actors came from the director’s immediate surroundings: his son Cor and daughter Jos, their friends and other acquaintances.

family affair

The entire production process — from writing the script to editing the finished version — was overseen by Van der Linden. For technical matters, he made use of the laboratories of Cinetone Studio’s and Haghe Film.

In the end, his whole family was recruited to work on the productions. After her study in Aachen, Van der Linden’s wife Mia became a make-up artist and talent scout and was in charge of props and catering. Van der Linden’s father Cor built sets and was a foley artist during the synchronization.

promotion to 35mm

The first films were an instant success: Drie jongens en een hond, De dikke op oorlogspad and Kampeeravonturen. So successful in fact that Van der Linden decided to switch to 35mm, enabling his films to be screened in normal cinemas.

He started with a remake of Drie jongens en een hond — with cameraman Van den Enden. He also did the camerawork on the next film, Sjors van de rebellenclub. But when Van den Enden received a scholarship to the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Italy, Van der Linden decided to take on this job too. From that moment on, Van der Linden was also the cameraman on his own films.

Vier rakkers en een oude jeep

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jump in scale

Sjors van de rebellenclub was distributed in the Netherlands by Standaardfilms, the country’s biggest independent film distributor. For Van der Linden, this jump in scale was very exciting. Although Lou Vierhout, the artist who drew the hugely popular cartoon ‘Sjors en Sjimmie’, was enthusiastic, publisher Spaarnestad was not convinced.

rights

That was because Spaarnestad wanted to see the finished film before taking a decision on granting rights. So there was a lot at stake. Luckily for Van der Linden, after viewing the film Spaarnestad agreed. After this first ‘Sjors en Sjimmie’ film adaptation, therefore, another six follow-ups could be made.

success

Both Drie jongens en een hond and Sjors van de rebellenclub were so successful that Van der Linden decided to stop with his travelling cinema and focus fully on the production of children’s films. Now that he had his hands free, he and his team produced one or more films each year. This made the Dutch children’s film a permanent fixture on cinema programmes. Films such as De avonturen van Pietje Bell and Sjors en Sjimmie en de toverring attracted a quarter of a million viewers.

Avonturen van een zigeunerjongen

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De avonturen van Pietje Bell

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exploring boundaries

Almost all the films were shot in Limburg, but Van der Linden did leave the province on rare occasions. In 1968, for instance, much of Een Nederlandse Robinson Crusoë was filmed in Costa Brava in Spain. However, the crucial scene with the crashing aeroplane was filmed in the swimming pool behind Van der Linden’s bungalow in Limburg.

television

In 1972 Van der Linden ventured into television with the six-part series De Robins en de $100.000 schat. It proved to be a miscalculation. He filmed it in black-and-white, even though Dutch television was transitioning into colour at the time. Because of that, the series was never broadcast. But the cinema film that Van der Linden then compiled with the material was broadcast, just like many of his other films.

De Robins en de $100.000 schat remained Van der Linden’s only attempt to produce work for television. Cinema was and remained his domain.

successful to the very last film

Van der Linden’s annual production of children’s films stagnated in the early 1980s. The rise of the video rental market caused public interest to decline, and Van der Linden decided to take things easier. A number of new films did appear, with Billie Turf in the title role, but in 1985 Van der Linden made his last feature film — with the telling title Wie het laatst lacht. The three ‘Turf’ films in particular are still a big success.

criticism...

The films of Henk van der Linden always provoked discussion. The target audience continued to enjoy them, but critics were less enthusiastic. Some found his films too amateurish, while others had difficulty with the stories, which usually revolved around suspense and adventure and lacked a message or a more ‘mature’ approach that addressed issues affecting young people.

... and praise

But there were also critics — and professional colleagues — who appreciated the direct, unadorned stories packed with action and suspense. For many people, Van der Linden’s Sjors and Sjimmie, Billie Turf, Dik Trom, Pietje Bell and all the other leading characters are the film heroes of their youth — just as they were for filmmaker Maria Peters, who followed in the footsteps of Van der Linden with popular films such as Kruimeltje and her two 'Pietje Bell' adaptations.

the audience was proved right

To judge by box office figures, Van der Linden was often right. A 1991 list of the 100 most popular Dutch films since 1954 features no fewer than ten of his films — more than by any other director.

the ultimate audience favourite

With De nieuwe avonturen van Dik Trom, Van der Linden even set a Dutch record that will probably never be broken: after its 1958 premiere, the film was screened every week in one or more Dutch cinemas for 28 years.
Using figures recorded by cinemas, Van der Linden has calculated that 1,263,250 visitors saw the film in the cinema — and this number surpasses the two million mark if you also include the 16mm rentals and screenings in Suriname and the Caribbean.

the moral: take your audience seriously

Dutch films for children and youths are very much part and parcel of cinema today. They attract huge audiences and are internationally acclaimed. The children’s film in Van der Linden’s day didn’t enjoy anywhere near the same status, but he did help pave the way for taking children seriously as a viewing audience.