Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Winsor McCay

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).

 

Charlie and the Indians (1915)

This animated cartoon was included in the same DVD collection that gave me “Charlie on the Windmill,” so the same caveats apply, except that in this case I’m not certain that the title wasn’t invented for the DVD release, which only makes it harder to research. We do get an almost-complete story this time, unfortunately with typically dehumanized cartoon Native Americans as the foes.

Charlie and the IndiansHere, the animated version of the “Little Tramp” rides into a Western town on the back of a horse. he stops in at the bar and orders a drink, but the liquid bounces from his glass into that of a grizzled fellow-patron. This fellow warns him that the locals don’t like strangers and points a gun at his feet. Charlie runs for it, leaping on his horse and riding from town. At the edge of town, he hears a mother weeping and stops to ask what is wrong. She tells him her beautiful daughter has been stolen by Indians, and Charlie offers to save her. He scouts the Indian village from a distance and loads his gun with some odd large substance. When he fires, a large square thing comes out and knocks three Indians over the cliff at once (no, I don’t get this either). Then, he is suddenly being pursued by a bear (this is where I think there’s missing footage) and climbs a tree to escape. The bear bites through the tree, felling it, but it lands bridge-like, spanning the chasm between two cliffs. Charlie faces the bear in the middle, using his cane and some fancy footwork to get to the other side. Now the bear chases him into a couple of tree trunks: the first is full of skunks, and the second turns into an unseen battle ground. The bear emerges, seemingly unhurt, but moves oddly, then takes off its head and reveals Charlie inside its skin. The Charlie-bear approaches a tree with a beehive and an Indian brave sees him and shoots the beehive, causing the bees to attack Charlie. Then he shoots an arrow into Charlie-bear’s butt. Charlie pulls it out and throws it back, hitting the Indian’s butt. Now another (female?) bear sees Charlie and pursues him. He hides in a cave and there is another unseen battle. Charlie runs out, back in his usual getup, and the bear looks out of the cave, holding the other bear’s boneless head like a mask. Charlie leaps on his horse and goes to the hills above the village, using his rope to lasso the bound and gagged woman in front of the fire. He then races back to the mother, who offers him his daughter’s hand in marriage. She removes the gag and reveals a silly-looking face, and Charlie spurs his horse and rides off into the distance.

Charlie and the Indians1With this much material to work from, it’s easy to see parallels, both with the later Felix the Cat cartoons that this team would create, and with the work of Winsor McCay, who influenced them both as well. The backgrounds tend to be undetailed, and white space fills much of the screen. I noticed less of Chaplin’s physical style in this than in “Windmill,” and a lot more of the imaginative whimsy of Felix cartoons. Although I didn’t understand how Charlie used his gun, it reminded me a lot of Felix’s magic bag. Inanimate objects will do impossible things, and animals seem to be at least as smart as the people. Unfortunate (but unsurprising) was the depiction of the Native American kidnappers. All of them seem to be identical mohawked warriors, and they show little personality (except for the mischievous one that aggravates the bees) or motivation.

Director: Otto Messmer, Pat Sullivan

Run Time: 10 Min

I have not found this available on the Internet for free. If you do, please comment below.

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.

How a Mosquito Operates (1912)

How_a_Mosquito_Operates

As a followup to “Little Nemo,” Winsor McCay produced this animated short for Vitagraph Studios. Although the version I’ve found lacks color, it still has a number of things the preceding movie lacked, notably a sense of story and character. Where the point of “Little Nemo” seems just to be demonstrating that drawings can move around on film, this movie demonstrates animation’s potential as entertainment. A giant mosquito follows a man into his room and then proceeds to drink while he attempts to sleep, each sting causing the beast’s abdomen to swell with blood. Finally, it is so engorged that it cannot fly or even stand up without losing its balance. Taking a final drink, it suddenly explodes at the end. It’s somewhat disturbing, certainly compared to the innocent subject matter of most live-action films of the time, but obviously whimsical and humorous, and sticks to McCay’s theme of dreams and sleep. The whole thing is based on a comic strip he had written previously, and it is all done in fairly simple line-drawings, but with considerable attention to movement and perspective. This was the one McCay film recommended in the BFI’s “100 Silent Films” book.

Also Known as: “The Story of a Mosquito”

Director: Winsor McCay

Run time: 6 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Little Nemo (1911)

Little_Nemo

So far, in my exploration of early movies, I haven’t talked at all about early experiments in animation. That ends today, with the addition of the first known film by Winsor McCay, who also wrote the comic strip that “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” was based on. This movie is based on his best-known and most beloved strip, “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” which was about a boy who dreamt wild and wonderful things each night, and awoke in the last panel of each episode. The movie, however, doesn’t really do much with that theme, and is more about the process of animation. Most of it is live-action sequences in which McCay bets his friends he can make drawing move, collects prodigious amounts of paper and ink, and then toils away at drawing each individual picture. Finally, at the end, we get a brief animated sequence (with some hand-colored sections, in the version I watched) in which characters from “Little Nemo” dance, fight, and interact with each other. A good deal of the screen time is taken up by watching McCay draw his famous characters – sometimes with his hand visible, in a slightly fast-motion live action, and sometimes through “animation” (no hand visible). It’s safe to say that this served mostly as a way for McCay to convince Vitagraph that the technology and interest existed to make this worth pursuing further.

AKA: Winsor McKay, the Famous Cartoonist of the New York Herald and his Moving Comics

Director: Winsor McCay

Camera: Walter Arthur

Starring: Winsor McKay, John Bunny, George McManus

Run Time: 11 Min, 33 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)

Dream of Rarebit Fiend

This movie is Edwin S. Porter‘s interpretation of a comic strip by Winsor McCay, the creator of the well-known and bizarre “Little Nemo” series. The premise is that a fellow, after eating Welsh rarebit, experiences a series of hallucinatory effects. One could argue that this makes it the first LSD film, although of course LSD would not be invented for another 32 years. I certainly think that the drug-reference is deliberate, although I’d guess that rarebit was substituted to avoid offending people or perhaps for fear of making narcotics seem appealing to children. Porter here uses the full range of camera effects pioneered by Georges Méliès, but to what seems to me a very original effect. First, the man experiences extreme vertigo, and the sense that a pole he is hanging on to is flying through a wind. Then, when he staggers into bed, he is briefly tormented by imps, pounding on his head with a variety of implements, then his bed starts leaping around the room and ultimately flies out the window and over the city, with him on board as a passenger. The story is told without intertitles or text of any kind. I think it may have been the best thing Porter ever did, although it was less innovative than “The Great Train Robbery.”

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Run time: 7 Min

You can watch it for free: here.