Short Review: Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from YouTube.

Cast

Winsor McCay – himself

George McManus – himself

Roy L. McCardell – himself

Thomas A. “Tad” Dorgan – himself

Tom Powers – himself

Sources of Inspiration – various early animations, newspaper cartoon strips, and the 1905 American Museum of Natural History mount of a “Brontosaurus” skeleton

Release Dates

February 8th, 1914, at the Palace Theatre in Chicago {not the Cadillac} (as vaudeville act)

September 15th, 1914 (poster for film version copyrighted)

November/December, 1914 (original run of the film version)

Run-time – 12 minutes

Directors – Winsor McCay

Accolades – National Film Registry preservation board, 1991


1914 in History

First regularly scheduled commercial airline service, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, begins operating

Japan’s Sakurajima erupts; the most powerful eruption the country sees in the 20th century

Charlie Chaplin makes his film debut in Making a Living

Katherine Routledge and her husband begin the first true study of Easter Island

The U.S. and Mexico fall out over the Tampico Affair

The UK House of Commons passes the Irish Home Rule (but it is superceded by WWI)

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo

The Royal Naval Air Service is established in Britain, the forerunner of the Royal Air Force

Sir Ernest Shackleton sets sail on the Endurance for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

The Panama Canal is officially opened

The Passenger Pigeon goes extinct, when the last known invividual, Martha, dies in Cincinnati Zoo

WWI begins – First Battle of Ypres, Siege of Antwerp, Christmas Truce on the Western Front

Births of Alec Guinness, Thor Heyerdahl and Hedy Lamarr


 

This is probably the oldest piece of animation I’ll ever review on the site! At 103 years old, Gertie the Dinosaur is a real relic, yet it remains highly watchable and well-known to this day. You might think that a twelve minute, silent, black-and-white cartoon, featuring a dinosaur doing tricks for her master through instructions on intertitles, would be boring, but thanks to the magic of McCay’s character animation, Gertie has retained her reputation for over a century as a delightful and often comedic personality.

Gertie is sometimes erroneously claimed to be the “first” animated cartoon ever, which is far from true – it wasn’t even McCay’s first. It is predated by a number of other pieces, including Charles-Émile Reynaud’s Pauvre Pierrot (1892), James Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) and Émile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908), to name a few. However, none of these had the kind of sophistication of Gertie.

Winsor McCay began his career in 1903, producing comic strips for the Cincinnati Enquirer, and this background in newspaper cartoons (as well as in vaudeville theatre) would eventually lead McCay into animation. His first piece, Little Nemo from 1911 (nothing to do with the fish!) met with praise, as did his next, How a Mosquito Operates, in 1912. Gertie would be his masterpiece and is by far the best known of his films.

After making its initial debut early in 1914 as a vaudeville act, which incorporated Winsor McCay himself “interacting” with the animated scenes onstage (using tricks and illusions), complaints from his employer, William Randolph Hearst, about his failure to meet deadlines, led to McCay securing a distribution deal with James Stuart Blackton’s company, Vitagraph Studios (which was eventually absorbed into Warner Bros.). The film version of Gertie which we know today made its debut in the final months of 1914, and the rest is history. The film proved to be hugely influential to a whole new generation of animators, and its presence can be felt in films and shorts from decades afterwards. Let’s take a look at the old girl, and see what made her so important to animated history.

Intertitles for Gertie

Characters

As is typical of shorts, the cast is quite sparse. Aside from Gertie herself, the other characters in the animated portion of the film include Jumbo, a mammoth, an unnamed “sea-serpent” and a dragon which flies overhead at one point. The film is bookended by live-action segments featuring Winsor McCay himself, along with various associates. Naturally, this being the silent era, there is no voice acting – all of the dialogue is conducted through intertitles.

Gertie walks in
“Never mind that sea serpent!”

What’s really remarkable about the film is how much personality McCay is able to imbue Gertie with, all conveyed entirely through her body language. She is comedic, friendly and curious, but occasionally stubborn and recalcitrant. At first, she obeys McCay’s orders fairly quickly, but she is soon distracted by the other denizens of her world and then seems to grow bored with McCay; he is forced to bribe her with a hilariously tiny “pumpkin” to get her to continue the act. Gertie the Dinosaur might not have been the first animated short ever, but it’s widely considered to be the first instance of true character animation.

Gertie catchin a pumpkin

The choice of a dinosaur as his subject was inspired in part by the popularity of the “terrible lizards” at the time. The famous Bone Wars had occurred just a few decades prior in the American Midwest, and the fossil beds of the continent were beginning to churn out strange and fantastical skeletons, such as the 1905 mount of a “Brontosaurus” which was displayed at the American Museum of Natural History (though it has long since been rendered obsolete by new research). The choice of the name Gertie has an interesting story behind it – supposedly, McCay got it from overhearing a couple of “sweet boys” (gay men), one of whom was named Bertie, speaking to each other. He tweaked it to the feminine, and it went down in animated history. (I like it – that was my great-grandmother’s name!)

The other characters in the piece serve mainly as material to provoke further reactions from Gertie. Jumbo the mammoth is the only named one – he is just going about his business, when the frisky Gertie plucks him by the tail and tosses him into the sea! He gets his own back later, though, by spraying her in the face with his trunk. McCay and the other live-action “actors” occasionally get a laugh or two out of their scenes, but theirs are the most dated portions of the film.

Gertie sees a mammoth

 

Animation

It’s truly astonishing how well this century-old animation has held up. It has surprisingly good flow for its time and features great attention to detail – Gertie struggles slightly as she tries to get a grip on a rock with her mouth, and she uses the tip of her tail to scratch her nose. The amount of work involved in animation in these early days was mindboggling; every single frame had to be laboriously redrawn from scratch – backgrounds, characters and all – and the finished film required thousands of these drawings. Completing the film took several years, with McCay doing much of the work himself – he was helped by his assistant John A. Fitzsimmons, who painstakingly redrew the backgrounds for each frame. They worked on rice paper, ideal for animation as it did not absorb the ink and was translucent enough to make the tracing of backgrounds easier, which they then mounted on stiff cardboard for filming.

Gertie is animated in a very naturalistic style, never seen before at the time; her sides move in and out as she breathes (McCay used his own breathing to time this accurately), her abdominal muscles fluctuate as she drinks, and you can see the shifting of her weight as she moves from side to side. Apparently, another reason McCay chose a dinosaur for his star was because some critics had accused him of tracing his earlier works from photographs – what a clever way of proving the originality of his work! Critic Stephen Cavalier has said that McCay was “the first classical animator,” referring to McCay’s early form of what we now know as traditional animation, or cel animation. Decades before the likes of the Fleischers or Walt Disney, McCay was using a variety of new techniques for his work which would later become standards in the industry, such as keyframes, registration marks, tracing paper, animation loops and Mutoscope action viewers.

Gertie dances while Jumbo looks on

Gertie swallowing a tree

Cinematography

Perhaps the most aged aspect of the film from a modern standpoint is the silent live-action footage used to open and close it. The animation actually only takes up about half of the twelve minute run time, with a long introduction featuring McCay explaining (visually and through intertitles) how Gertie came about. A storyline is woven about it being the result of a bet – after McCay’s car breaks down outside a museum, he and his friends go inside and see the brontosaurus skeleton. Knowing of his drawing skills, his friends bet him that he can’t make a drawing of a dinosaur move, so of course he proves them wrong by creating the animated portion of the film. This segment does have a good gag or two in it, such as when the poor flunkey falls down the stairs, buried under Gertie drawings.

Gertie gag with paper
Guess what happens next…

Intertitles for Gertie 2

Once Gertie herself actually arrives, you can really see the vaudeville influences on McCay’s work – when asked to bow to the audience, she does it carefully three times, once to each respective chunk of the “audience.” When Winsor himself (in animated form this time) briefly joins her onscreen towards the end, he carries a bullwhip reminiscent of a circus ringmaster.

The cinematography is really quite nuanced for such an early film; the backgrounds are comparatively intricate (especially considering that they had to be redrawn thousands of times), and perspective is used to give the illusion of three-dimensional space, in moments where Gertie leans towards the screen or tosses Jumbo over her shoulder into the distant sea.

Although I haven’t been able to find out for certain, it’s reasonable to assume that Gertie was probably accompanied with live music in its original run, as was common with silent features – at one point, Gertie dances to some long-absent music, making for a strangely chilling and reflective moment for a modern viewer as we think about just how old this film is.

Winsor with Gertie

 

Final Verdict

In the immediate aftermath of the film’s release, a number of rip-offs appeared because McCay, like so many pioneers before him, underestimated the impact his work would have and didn’t deem it important enough to warrant patenting his techniques. He was sued by fellow animator John Randolph Bray, but thankfully the lawsuit fell through and Bray actually ended up paying McCay royalties for using his techniques.

The short film had a huge influence on the medium and on cinema as a whole, as it was the first time a dinosaur had been depicted on film. I’ve already discussed the influence that Fantasia’s dinosaur scenes had when they appeared several decades later, but they themselves were largely inspired by this short. Walt Disney himself felt he owed McCay for all his work, which had made his own possible – when McCay’s son Robert served as a consultant on an episode of Walt’s 1955 show Disneyland, Walt looked around at his studio and said “Bob, all this should be your father’s.” For any regular visitors of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, in Walt Disney World Resort, keep an eye out for a certain sauropod-shaped ice-cream parlour called Dinosaur Gertie’s Ice Cream of Extinction.

The film has been preserved for posterity in the National Film Registry, for which it was selected in 1991 – unfortunately, it never had the opportunity to win an Oscar, as it was released twenty-five years before the first ceremony! However, Gertie doesn’t need such accolades – its legacy speaks for itself. The film is in the public domain and can be viewed online, so please check it out; I’ve provided a link below.

 

References

I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:

The World History of Animation (2011) by Stephen Cavalier

Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (2005) by John Canemaker (I haven’t got this one myself, but having read some of Canemaker’s other work, I expect it’s very good)

By unknown (Box Office Attraction Co.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – credit for film poster (it’s in the public domain at this point though, so it’s alright to use it)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0004008/?ref_=ttmi_tt – IMDB Profile

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertie_the_Dinosaur – Wiki page

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGXC8gXOPoU&list=WL&index=5 – screencaps taken from Change Before Going Productions’ upload of the film – I recommend watching it!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s