Thursday, June 16, 2016

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

Winsor McCay was one of the very earliest animators in the industry, and he pulled off his craft extremely well.  In 1911 he had produced a cartoon called Little Nemo, which was based on his own fantastic comic strip of the same name, featuring all sorts of fantastical elements, including an enormous dragon!  However, in February of 1914 McCay presented his vision of the primeval world, announcing it as "a presentation showing the great monsters that used to inhabit the earth!" The end result was an animated short called Gertie.  Aside from likely being the first appearance of a dinosaur on film, Gertie was the first film to use animation techniques such as keyframes, registration marks, tracing paper, and animation loops.  It masterfully inserted footage of McCay himself in the animated prehistoric world he had created, serving as a sort of hybrid between animation and live action, placing mankind and prehistoric beasts in the same world on film for the very first time.  The influence of this film cannot be understated, as it went on to inspire and guide the next generation of animators such as the Fleischer brothers, Otto Messmer, Paul Terry, and Walt Disney.  And, it was extremely successful.

The silent film involved McCay calling commands out to his "captive and trained" sauropod, Gertie.  She is shy, curious, and even mischievous. Her master has her do tricks such as raising her foot or bowing on command, but she often disobeys.  She in repeatedly distracted by things such as trees or rocks, and when she feels she has been pushed too far, she nips back at her master. She cries when he scolds her, and he calms her down by throwing her a pumpkin to eat.  This incredible characterization brought Gertie to life in ways that go beyond the simple task of animating her, but makes her a believable being with a fully fleshed out personality.  But Gertie is not the only prehistoric beast in the film. Early on she is distracted by a wild looking sea serpent which peaks out of the nearby lake at her.  At another point, a four-winged lizard flies by overhead.  And perhaps most prominently, at one point a mammoth lumbers mindlessly close to her and scares her a bit.  As her master tells her to calm down and leave it alone, she more or less freaks out and ends up tossing it into the lake.  It sprays her in retaliation, to which she responds by launching a boulder at him.  In the end she carries her master away.

The film was originally part of a Vaudeville show, but was eventually optioned for distribution in theaters, at which point an extended prologue sequence was produced in order to frame the story.  The extra footage is all live action, and features McCay with several of his real life friends.  As they are on a drive, they suffer a flat tire in front of the American Museum of Natural History. They enter the museum, and while viewing a Brontosaurus skeleton, McCay wagers a dinner that he can bring a dinosaur to life.  It's an unnecessary addition, but one that still proves fun enough, as I enjoy seeing old footage of museums and zoos and yesteryear.  

Gertie was a very successful little film, and still holds up as extremely well paced and entertaining.  Though she is large, destructive, and unruly, we feel sympathy and even empathy for her.  We like her, even though she might be a little scary.  There is something extremely charming about her, and we can't help but feel a little excited as she thoughtlessly flings the mammoth into the lake and then attempts to finish it off by hitting it with a boulder.  We like when she snaps back at her master. Intuitively and inherently, we like her.  Even today, having watched it more times than I care to recount, I still find myself often enjoying Gertie whenever I've ventured to watch it.  And there's just something special about seeing the very first dinosaur film ever produced.  Interestingly, that same year, in 1914, the world of live action film would also offer up its first live action dinosaur movie in D. W. Griffith's follow up to Man's Genesis, titled Brute Force.

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