Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Animation

Uncle Sam Donates for Liberty Bonds (1919)

Like “Uncle Sam vs. the IWW-Bolsheviki Rat” and “United Snakes of America,” this is a late-teens propaganda movie from the Ford Company. Unlike those, it has a positive message about supporting the troops, rather than a negative one about fighting internal enemies.

The frame centers on a large chest, labeled “U.S. War Chest,” with symbolic figures to either side. To the left is Uncle Sam, in his traditional hat and coat. To the right is a robed female figure, who may represent “victory,” “Columbia,” or just an idealized American Womanhood. They open the chest and inside the lid is written, “1st Liberty Loan: Prepare for War.” The woman gestures toward the chest and Uncle Sam pulls out a sockfull of money to toss in. They close and open the chest and now it reads, “2nd Liberty Loan: Equip.” Uncle Sam throws in his cuffs and collar. The next time, it reads, “3rd Liberty Loan: Transport.” Now Uncle Sam gives his jacket. Next, it says, “4th Liberty Loan: Fight.” Uncle Sam contributes his vest. Finally, they open it to see, “Victory Liberty Loan: Pay Our Debts and Bring Back Our Boys.” Uncle Sam throws in his shirt front and his hat. The movie ends as an animator’s hand appears to sign for the Ford Motor Company underneath the words, “Sure, We’ll Finish the Job!”

I was almost surprised by a movie from an ostensibly “right wing” source that advocated Americans giving money to support the government. Today, the message of Uncle Sam’s brief striptease would probably be that Americans are already expected to pay too much in taxes, and then they are duped into voluntarily supporting the government by buying worthless bonds as well. But this is not Ford’s intent. He is demonstrating that an ideal patriot (Uncle Sam) is one who gives to support the just cause of the war, even after it seems that he has no more to give, and even after the fighting is finished. No doubt, he believed that with hard work over the next few years, Sam would soon be able to buy back all of his clothes. That kind of optimism is hard to find today.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet. Please comment if you do.

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Uncle Sam and the Bolsheviki-IWW Rat (1919)

This anti-Communist propaganda cartoon, presented in the style of a newspaper political comic, was produced by the Ford Motor Company at the height of the American “Red Scare.” It uses heavy-handed propaganda to make a fairly blunt (if dubious) comment.

As the movie opens, Uncle Sam is represented as a farmer in a barn stocked with corn. Bags of corn in front of Uncle Sam read “American Institutions” and a speech-bubble from Uncle Sam identifies the corn as “the fruits of our labor.” Then, a rat begins chewing its way through the wall. Uncle Sam crouches down behind the bags with a shovel, proclaiming, “I’ll get that varmint,” and a large black rat comes out of the hole. On it is written “Bolsheviki-IWW.” The rat is heedless of Uncle Sam and goes over to the corn, eagerly grabbing a piece in its jaws. Uncle Sam brings the shovel down on top of it, killing it, the hefts the rat out of the window with the shovel. He proclaims, “Bolshevists are the rats of civilization” and the movie ends.

Henry Ford, in addition to being a successful industrialist, was heavily active in the American far right. He was responsible for the printing of the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in this country, and his news magazine, “The Dearborn Independent” proclaimed any number of conspiracy theories that would fit right into INFOWARS today. With the successful revolution in Russia, and several lesser failed revolutions igniting throughout Europe at the end of the First World War, Ford’s crowd was increasingly concerned about the possibility of foreign influences fomenting labor unrest in the United States. The Industrial Workers of the World was a small but very radical labor union that mostly focused on organizing unskilled laborers, including immigrants. It is unlikely that the USSR, strapped for cash and fighting a Civil War at home, had much to offer their comrades in the IWW besides emotional support in 1919, but accuracy in reporting has never been important in political cartoons (or Internet memes). The real irony of this movie, though, is that it depicts organized labor as “stealing” the fruits of their own work from the embodiment of American society. How did Uncle Sam manage to steal all that corn from the rats in the first place?

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

The Centaurs (1918-1921)

This fragment of animation from Winsor McCay is listed as “unreleased, circa 1918-1921” on the “Winsor McCay: The Master Edition” DVD. I’m reviewing it now mostly for convenience’s sake – possibly it would be just as appropriate to treat it as a 1921 film, or to skip it entirely due to its unreleased, incomplete nature.

The movie begins with an image of a pleasant forest. A nude young woman appears to be walking through it, but as she emerges from the leaves, we see that her lower half is that of a horse. She walks into a clearing and picks up some flowers. Now we see a male centaur on a rocky ridge. He throws a rock at a passing buzzard, knocking it from the sky, and calls out. Then the two of them meet, and he greets her affectionately. The two walk off together. These scenes are intercut with images of what seems to be a nude old woman with glasses, but now she emerges from behind a rock and we see that she is also a centaur. She joins an old male centaur with a long white beard and the young male centaur approaches them, then introduces the female. They each greet her with a hug, and then the three stand in a circle as a bald-headed foal centaur enters the scene and prances and does tricks for them. It ends with an image of the upper (human) part of the foal winking at the audience from inside of a heart.

While this may be incomplete, there does seem to be a kind of narrative of young love, courtship, marriage and the cycle of life here. McCay is mostly remembered for whimsical fantasy such as “Little Nemo” or even somewhat satirical pieces as his “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” cartoons and movies, but here he seems to be trying for something gentle and poetic. It strikes me that, just as he challenged himself to use film to bring a dinosaur to life in “Gertie the Dinosaur,” here he is demonstrating that mythical creatures can also come to life on film. The animation is still rather simplistic by modern standards, but the use of cel technology allows a somewhat more complete image than we saw in “Little Nemo” or “How a Mosquito Operates.”

Director: Winsor McCay

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)

Winsor McCay, who styled himself the “inventor of animated cartoons,” returns with a much more serious movie than his previous “Little Nemo” and “Gertie the Dinosaur” entries. This time, it’s a propaganda piece about the event that galvanized Americans to war fever – three years after the fact.

As with his previous movies, this begins with some live action images of McCay at work on the project. Although the intertitles make much of the thousands of individual drawings that were created in the making of the film, what we mostly see is McCay researching the event by looking at a big picture of the RMS Lusitania and talking with a man about it. The first bit of animation he shows is simply the ocean waves – an effect he could be justifiably proud of. It looks to me as though he filmed several layers of background waves in order to give the effect of the rolling ocean some degree of three-dimensionality. Then our story begins, with the departure of the Lusitania from port, its sighting of the Irish coast, and the sudden attack of the German U-Boat. We see the explosion and lots of people being lowered in life boats, then a sudden second explosion and the ship’s slow descent into the ocean. All the while, tiny things (presumably human beings) are dropping off of the ship into the ocean. Every now and then we cut to an image of heads bobbing in the water near over-crowded life boats. The intertitles play up the drama and cruelty of the situation, reminding us of mothers drowning with their tiny babies at their breasts, and also showing us a brief gallery of the more famous victims. It ends by reminding us that the Kaiser pinned a medal on the captain of the sub – “AND YET THEY ASK US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”

In all, the animation of this movie is adequate, but not terribly exciting from a modern standpoint. The print appears in black and white, as opposed to the hand-painted color of parts of “Little Nemo,” and while that adds to the bleak message, it makes for a visually unsatisfying film. The intertitles come across today as highly jingoistic and naïve, although for that generation they were probably very effective. The Lusitania was their 9/11, after all, and Americans were just as shocked and outraged then as they would be eighty six years later. It took Americans longer to get riled up, in those days – it was two whole years before Woodrow Wilson declared war, after Germany announced in 1917 that it would return to unrestricted submarine warfare, despite all diplomatic efforts in the years since the attack. This partly explains the vehemence of McCay’s intertitles: He was still trying to convince isolationists and apologists for Germany that the cause was right (or at least to drown them out with patriotic cheering). It also took him almost two years to complete the movie, so it isn’t as though he got a sudden whim after the US declared war. The film is therefore an interesting piece of the history of animation, and the history of American attitudes toward war, but it’s not the most interesting movie in itself that McCay ever did.

Director: Winsor McCay

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Winsor McCay

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

 

United Snakes of America (1917)

This short propaganda film from the Ford Motor Company represents an interesting moment in American corporate history. It is also an example of the crossover between film and the newspaper “political cartoon,” in which the animation becomes part of the commentary.

The film consists of a slow reveal, in which the cartoon is drawn for us piece by piece. At first we see blocks labeled “Army” and “Navy,” to either side of the screen, and the heads of figures representing those groups are added afterwards. Then, in the center of the screen, Uncle Sam is painstakingly drawn, apparently in the midst of some conflict, but parts of him remain blank. Finally, reasons for these blanks become clear, as serpents are drawn coiled around Uncle Sam and the two military figures, filling in the areas we could not see before. These serpents are labeled with various internal enemies, including “food speculator,” “pro-German press,” “strike,” and “people’s council,” as well as (more surprisingly) “senator,” “congressman,” and “clergeman” (sic). The whole scene is labeled “The United Snakes of America (The Copper Heads).”

Parsing a dated political cartoon can be harder than we think. When this film came out, the United States was newly committed to participation in the First World War. What is mostly going on here is that Ford is identifying various groups seen to be undermining the war effort and implying that their actions are betrayals of American soldiers and the country as a whole. That’s easy enough to understand, but some of the specifics have since become obscure. The term “Copperheads” refers to a faction of Democratic congressmen who wanted to negotiate for peace with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Ford is suggesting that the current crop of un-patriotic opponents of the war are of the same ilk (the Civil War took place in the 1860s, so this is similar to someone calling their enemies “hippies” today). Some of the groups identified are familiar – people almost always blame congress when the government doesn’t act quickly enough, and since this comes from a major corporation it’s no surprise to see labor (represented as “Strike”) represented as an enemy of American strength. The “People’s Council of America for Democracy and the Terms of Peace” was a pacifist organization active during the time, and “food speculators” were commonly accused of taking advantage of food shortages in Europe to get rich at the expense of people’s suffering (“war profiteers” would soon follow, and some would accuse Ford himself of being one). The one I’m least certain about is “clergeman,” which I assume to be a misspelling of “clergymen” and would be a criticism of Christian ministers who spoke against warfare, I guess, unless it’s the name of an individual lost to time. Its position, next to “Senator” made me think that perhaps Ford was calling out a “Senator Clergeman” at first, but now I think not.

Henry Ford was of course a famous industrialist and also very politically active. He would become associated with various far-right causes, through his paper “The Dearborn Independent” and is perhaps most noted today for being directly involved in distributing and promoting the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in English. This cartoon is relatively mild compared with some of what the “Dearborn Independent” would later publish. Ironically, the Ford Foundation, founded by Henry and his son Edsel in 1936, today supports a variety of progressive cultural institutions through grants and has been accused by the John Birch Society of being part of the left-wing conspiracy that dominates the US.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 80 secs

I have not been able to locate this film for free viewing on the Internet. If you know where it is, please comment.

The Strong Arm Squad of the Future (1912)

This short piece of animation was intended to accompany a “Mutual Weeklynewsreel and can thus be seen as a kind of animated political cartoon. It attacks the suffragist movement in through the use of readily recognizable stereotypes.

A series of women in what appear to be Salvation Army-style uniforms (or police uniforms) parade past the camera in profile. They are mostly old, masculine, and ugly, with one exception. The third woman to pass is statuesque, young, and pretty, and has adorned her uniform’s cap with an elaborate feather. The worst of the bunch is #5, a truly monstrous caricature carrying a stick, whose eyeball somehow becomes detached and flies about in a circle before coming home to roost. The final woman sums up the caricature with a word balloon stating “votes for women.”

Alas, even one hundred years later the stereotype that feminists must be too ugly to attract a man, or else too mannish to have “normal” heterosexual relations remains with us. This is simply an undisguised early version of that. The one pretty girl apparently makes the point that some idle rich young women, with more interest in fashion than politics, also attach themselves to the movement. Women’s suffrage was at a peak of interest at the time – the long lag between the few Western states that permitted votes for women at the end of the nineteenth century and the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 saw increased activism and media coverage, as well as popular criticism like this. The uniforms and title may have been an attempt to predict a kind of feminist fascism before that term properly existed (Fascism in Italy was only coined at the end of the First World War). Even at my very liberal college in the 1990s, certain professors used the term “Femi-Nazi” to describe others, so this perception had considerable staying power as well.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Charlie on the Windmill (1915)

This early cartoon, apparently by the team that created Felix the Cat, shows Charlie Chaplin as the established international figure he is now known as. But is it really from 1915? The evidence is unclear.

Charlie on the WindmillThis is just a fragment of less than two minutes of film. What we see, mostly, is a very large windmill going around and around with a tiny figure clinging to one of the sails. When it stops, with him at the top, a fat man on the ground blows a big wind and makes it turn around a couple more times. Then it stops again, and we get a close enough shot to see the cartoon version of Charlie’s “Little Tramp.” He gives his signature shrug, and several other familiar body movements, while the fat man, now joined by a woman, throws bricks at him! All of them miss, but when the man throws a bicycle, it knocks Charlie off. That’s all we have. Read the rest of this entry »

The Dragonfly and the Ant (1913)

Dragonfly and the Ant

Alternate Titles: Strekoza i muravey, Стрекоза и муравей

Ladislaw Starevich is one of those figures in film history who is unknown by many, but loved by most who do know him. He more or less “invented” stop motion photography – that’s not to say he was necessarily the first to do it, but he figured it out without being taught by anyone. While working on a nature film on the battles performed by stag beetles, he discovered that they couldn’t survive under harsh movie lights, but that he could make animatable “puppets” from their corpses and shoot them one frame at a time, thus simulating the combat. He soon graduated from making faux-nature films to telling stories, using little dead insects as his performers. This story has been told many times since (usually in English as “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” but I’m sticking with the DVD edition’s title for now), and is a sort of morality fable in which the hard-working ant survives a cold winter because he’s prepared for it while a more fun-loving, lazy creature perishes for lack of foresight. Because it’s based on one of Aesop’s Fables, this more or less conforms with expectations that animation is a format for children’s movies, but this would not hold true for most of Starevich’s work. Even here, the cruelty of the ant in turning away his “relation” seems to militate against modern concerns about children’s sensitivities. It struck me that, since the dragonfly/grasshopper in this movie is a musician, there’s also something of a message regarding the STEM fields and the Humanities underlying this version – a society which doesn’t value its artists will see them all die off in the Winter! On the other hand, the grasshopper/dragonfly does seem to have a drinking problem, and maybe that’s part of the moral as Starevich saw it.

Director: Ladislaw Starevich

Camera: Ladislaw Starevich

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Best Visual Effects 1914

Almost as soon as motion picture cameras were being used, their operators discovered ways to use them to “trick the eye” into thinking it was seeing things otherwise impossible. Objects and people were made tiny or gigantic, or to appear and disappear by magic, or to float or fly. By 1914, the simple “trick films” of Georges Méliès would be old hat, yet filmmakers continued incorporating his techniques into their films and expanding on them, especially when the subject matter was given to fantasy, or included dream sequences.

The films nominated for Century Awards this year are, for the most part, examples of this subtle inclusion of special effects into a broader narrative. “Silent Witnesses” includes a novel use of the divided screen, to demonstrate two ends of a telephone conversation. “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” includes a number of magical sequences, including the original animation of the title character, people turned into statues, and a scene in which a table sets itself for the Magician. The movie “Cabiria” relies on mostly more prosaic storytelling, but does include scenes demonstrating the unearthly strength of Maciste, and the sacrifices to Mammon. The “Squaw Man” is an even more scrupulously realistic picture, but it does reproduce a fire at sea and the resulting sinking of a vessel. Finally, although the setup to “Gertie the Dinosaur” is shown in live-action, the rest of the film demonstrates Winsor McCay’s skill as an animator, the newest art of camera trickery, in which still drawings are given movement.

The nominees for best visual effects for 1914 are:

  1. Gertie the Dinosaur (Winsor McCay)
  2. Patchwork Girl of Oz (Will H. White)
  3. Cabiria (Eugenio Bava)
  4. The Squaw Man
  5. Silent Witnesses

And the winner is… “Gertie the Dinosaur!”

 Gertie

As opposed to the moving but unmotivated characters of 1912’s “Little Nemo” film, Gertie is imbued with both movement and personality, and unlike the simplistic drawings for “How a Mosquito Operates,” she is fully-fleshed and detailed. As a movie, the film only works when presented with McCay’s live narration, however the effect of the moving dinosaur is an undeniable advance in film technique. No doubt in future years animation will have its own category in the Century Awards, and this will be due largely to the pioneering work of Winsor McCay.

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

Gertie

After the sophistication of “How a Mosquito Operates,” I was a bit disappointed that Winsor McCay’s next animation film started off with another live-action wraparound story, which is essentially the same as that for “Little Nemo:” his friends bet him that he can’t animate a dinosaur. Apparently he chose a dinosaur as a subject because people had accused him of working from photographs to make the mosquito. But, once Gertie emerged from her cave, all was forgiven – she is the most lovable and fun of all the characters he created for these movies so far. The film was originally made to be shown without the wraparound; McCay showed it as part of live performances, and he would give Gertie the instructions that we read today on the intertitles, and Gertie would appear to respond to him. Gertie is a bit antiquated, being a Brontosaurus (a type of dinosaur we now know never existed), but that doesn’t really make a difference for cartoon purposes, and McCay gets around the scientific objection that their mouths were too small to feed their stomachs by having Gertie devour an entire tree in one gulp. Happily, she’s here to stay, the movie has been preserved by the National Film Registry.

Also known as: “Gertie,” “Gertie, the Trained Dinosaur,” “Gertie, a Dinosaur.”

Director: Winsor McCay

Starring: Winsor McCay, George McManus

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.