Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918)

The story of The Ghost of Slumber Mountain begins with Willis O'Brien, a man who would famously go on to create the special effects for films like The Lost World (1925) and the original King Kong (1933).  O'Brien was a Californian by birth, began working at the age of eleven.  He left home at this age and began several years trying his hand at numerous job opportunities.  His resume ended up including a vast range of jobs including farmhand, factory worker, fur trapper, cowboy, bartender, rodeo competitor, draftsman, sport's cartoonist, professional boxer, railroad worker, professional marble sculptor and more.  Among these jobs was one where worked as a guide to paleontologists in Crater Lake region, during which time he took up an immense fascination with dinosaurs.  Having an aptitude for artwork, O'Brien spent a lot of time sketching the ancient beasts and sculpting them as well, bringing the creatures which roamed in his imagination out of his head for the world to see.

In his late twenties, Willis had become assistant to the head architect of the 1913 San Francisco World's Fair, where some of his work was displayed. During this time he made models, including a dinosaur and a caveman, which he animated with the assistance of a local newsreel cameraman using stop motion animation. Stop motion is an animation technique in which a physically manipulated object appears to move on its own. The object is moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a continuous sequence.  Like a flip book made of real life photographs, the technique had been around since before the 1900's, though never really used to its fullest.  O'Brien reportedly made 90 seconds worth of footage with moving dinosaurs, which was seen by Herman Wobber, who commissioned O'Brien to make his first film, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy in 1915.

Fully animated through use of stop motion, The Dinosaur and Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy is the story of some cavemen.  In a fashion similar to The Flinstones, the cavemen seem like modern folks just living in a different time period.  The plot follows one of the cavemen as he tries to win over a cavewoman, similar to both of D.W. Griffith's past cavemen movies (can someone explain to me why this was such a popular plot point in caveman narratives?!).  And also similar to Griffith's Brute Force, this short film features a "missing link" or an ape man.  He is, clearly, a monster and spends his time terrorizing the countryside.  When he lopes down from his perch in the trees in search of food, the Missing Link encounters a sauropod dinosaur at a watering hole.  While the dinosaur is drinking, the Missing Link nibbles on its tail and the two engage in a fight.

Is this the earliest monster battle on film?  It might be.  I'm not sure, but either way it appears as a very striking foreshadow to Willis O'Brien's later work in King Kong, with a gorilla-creature duking it out with a dinosaur. The fight is short lived, however, and the dinosaur leaves the Missing Link thrashing on the ground until he dies.  After his death, the caveman protagonist comes upon the body and misleads the cavewoman into thinking he had killed the Missing Link himself.  She is wildly impressed and the two presumably end up together.  A morally ambiguous premise but nonetheless an entertaining one which was picked up and distributed by Thomas Edison and his film company.  Willis was contracted to produce a whole slew of animated prehistoric features after this, including but not limited to, RFD 10000 BC and Prehistoric Poultry.

These films all take on what I would call a decidedly Flinstone-esque sort of tone.  This is especially the case with RFD 10000 BC in which a domestic dispute between a "modern stone age" couple goes amiss.  The male lead is a mailman who uses a mail cart pulled by a dinosaur, and it legitimately looks lifted right out of The Flinstones (though, I assure you, this feature came first).  It's relatively light on plot, but at one point the man is ripped in half by his dinosaur who tosses half of his body through the air which is fun (it is done in a "cartoon" fashion, and the man is able to pull himself back together and walk away).  
Prehistoric Poultry tells of some cavemen dealing with a giant prehistoric bird who eludes them and causes shenanigans.  They're all relatively simple and fun little experiments in stop motion, but they the paved the way for Willis to eventually make his first "serious" dinosaur film in 1918.

The 1918 film was called The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, and its history is a drawn out and unhappy one. Producer Herbert M. Dawley was impressed with what Willis had been doing and commissioned him to write, direct, co-star and do the effects for his film, which would be the first to incorporate stop motion monsters with live action human characters.  With Dawley in the lead role, the collaboration has gone down in history as a bit of an infamous mess. For many years, it was reported that the end result was reportedly a 45 minute film, but that Dawley ended up cutting the film down to a mere 11 minutes.  What's more, he supposedly claimed the credit for O'Brien's pioneering effects work himself. However, this has come into dispute in recent years, with recent claims being that Dawley was ordered to cut down the film against his will by a theater manager named Walter Hayes.  What's more, signifigant evidence has come to light that Dawley did indeed help with, or create entirely, certain effects shots - particularly those used in Along the Moonbeam Trail, which will be discussed later on in the article.  At any rate, what is known for certain is that there was a fair amount of heavy editing, making it not entirely certain what the full plot of the film really was, even with restored cuts of the film circulating today that give a fuller account.

The film opens with some boys playing under the care of their uncle, Holmes (played by Dawley himself) who is a writer/artist type.  Bored with playing in the yard, the boys embark to ask their uncle to tell them "a true story about wild animals."  It's an oddly specific and strange request, but Holmes acquiesces.  He pulls out a diary and tells them about an adventure he had in the woodlands around Slumber Mountain, near the Valley of Dreams. The rest of the film is shown in flashback, recreating his story.  Holmes, and who I assume is his guide and his dog, canoe down The River of Peace to an area which had been previously inhabited by a crazy hermit named "Mad Dick."  After some weirdness in which Holmes tries to coerce his friend - who refuses - into posing nude as a faun (a half human half goat character from mythology) in a nearby field, they go to bed. During the night, Holmes is awoken by a voice that leads him to the supposedly haunted cabin of the late hermit, Mad Dick.

Holmes investigates the cabin and finds it full of papers and bones, along with little sculpts of dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters.  He also finds a mysterious telescope-type instrument which, according to local legend, the ghost of Mad Dick uses to gaze out of. Upon picking up the item, the voice calls him again, up near the peak of Slumber Mountain.  When he gets to the top, the Ghost of Mad Dick (played by O'Brien) is waiting, and orders him to look down into the woods through the scope. When he does, he looks back into the past, and sees a whole host of prehistoric creatures.  The toll of the missing footage really shows here, as we're never made entirely sure whether he is seeing living prehistoric monsters or just gazing through time.  We are lead to believe the latter, but it doesn't remain consistent with the ending.  It's also vague as to whether or not this story is a dream.  The strange location names all imply that this is a dream that he wrote down in his diary, but if so, that all feels rather inconsistent with he and his guide's early travels to their initial campsite.  It's possible that he was dreaming about the guide too - explaining the request that they pose as fauns as some sort of subconscious desire - but again, nothing is clear.

After seeing a sauropod lumber around, and a giant bird eat some snakes, and so he watches a triceratops going about his business.  Suddenly, a Tyrannosaurus bursts into the clearing and fights the triceratops in a scene which was directly inspired by the works of Charles R. Knight. The Tyrannosaurus bites into the Triceratops numerous times, and eventually knocks him over and starts tearing into his innards.  While the Missing Link and Dinosaur fight was a faint shadow of the monkey/dino action that would show up later in King Kong, this fight sequence seems to be the groundwork for essentially every giant monster rumble that would appear on screen since then.  It's an extremely famous sequence, and I wouldn't be surprised if you've ran across this fight sequence on its own and not known what it was from (I know I had.  It was featured on multiple educational dinosaur videotapes and cd roms from my childhood).  It's a great fight, with a particularly gruesome ending as the Tyrannosaurus begins eating out the Triceratops' innards while it's still alive and flailing.

After licking his lips, the Tyrannosaur approaches Holmes and snarls.  Holmes shoots it in the face, and it bleeds and gnashes its teeth in anger and begins chasing after him.  It's a pretty cool scene, and as I said before, we are led to believe he is not on the same plane of existence as the dinosaurs until that moment. It's rather surprising, and a bit intense as the monster snarls and blood bursts out of its gunshot wounds. As the dinosaur grabs him and begins tearing his flesh apart, he awakes and claims the whole thing was a dream. Again, how much of the story was dream is unclear, because the beginning felt very subdued, but still took place on the River of Peacein the Valley of Dreams by Slumber Mountain. His nephews are bitterly disappointed with the falsified story, and it ends.

The film grossed over $100,000 and Dawley used the cut effects footage in a sequel titled Along the Moonbeam Trail two years later - at least, that's what many have been led to believe.  Again, recent assertions point to the animation in Along the Moonbeam Trail being Dawley's entirely, and perhaps even having been created prior to The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.  At any rate, O'Brien is largely given credit for The Ghost of Slumber Mountain these days, and it subsequently secured his position in doing the groundbreaking effect work on 1925's The Lost World.

All in all, O'Brien is a pioneer of the genre and without his imagination, we would likely never had seen the likes of any of the giant monster or kaiju genre.  The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, no matter how butchered, served an important role in helping secure O'Brien's role in movies to come, and serves on its own as an extremely interesting and entertaining piece of monster/dinosaur cinema from an era before sound or even color.

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