Book Review Combo: Winsor McCay, Twice the First and Lotte Reiniger

Hello again everyone! This month, I wanted to do something a little different with the book review format, so rather than focusing on an art book, we will instead be delving into a trio of biographies devoted to some of the earliest and most significant pioneers of animation. In the shadows of the likes of Disney and the Fleischer Brothers, these three figures are too rarely discussed in mainstream circles, so I wanted to focus some much-deserved attention on them and their achievements. Without them, the world of modern animation we have today would look very different – if it existed at all.

Bendazzi, Canemaker, Grace #1

Winsor McCay: His Life and Art

Author: John Canemaker

Publication Date: 2018 (revised and expanded edition; first edition 1987)

Publisher: CRC Press

Pages: 284 pages

Bendazzi, Canemaker, Grace #2

Our first volume is on the celebrated comic artist, vaudevillian and animator, Winsor McCay, penned by prolific historian of the medium, John Canemaker. I’ve only just finished reading this huge, glossy book for the first time, and it’s bursting with high-quality reproductions of some of McCay’s greatest comic strips that you can easily spend hours perusing, supported by Canemaker’s detailed and engrossing tale of McCay’s life and work.

The book opens with a foreword by Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), explaining what McCay’s work meant to him and celebrating the brilliance of McCay’s popular Little Nemo strip. After the preface, acknowledgements and a short bio of the author, Canemaker himself then opens with his introduction to McCay, focusing on the 1914 debut of his best-known animated work, Gertie the Dinosaur.

Canemaker divides the bulk of the book into three sections. “Phase One: 1867 to 1903” explores McCay’s early life and career across three chapters, following him from his mysterious birth (the exact year is still disputed) through his early artistic education and endeavours in Michigan, Chicago and Cincinnati. In “Phase Two: 1903 to 1911”, McCay settles in New York City and begins to establish a reputation for himself, with the four chapters in this section mostly focusing on the huge popularity of Little Nemo. Then, in “Phase Three: 1911 to 1934”, the final three chapters cover McCay’s golden years as an animation pioneer, his career under newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and his final years and legacy (including the rediscovery and preservation of his films). The book closes with notes, a summarised timeline of McCay’s life, a bibliography and an index.

Over the course of this work, Canemaker paints an intricate picture of a “paradoxical” man, a loving father and ingenious creator whose incredible energy knew no bounds. Star of the comics, the vaudeville stage and eventually animation, there was seemingly no limit to McCay’s artistic talents, even if his dealings with various newspapers of the day often frustrated him with their prohibitive contracts and limitations.

For anyone interested in learning more about one of the founding fathers of animation, this book is an essential. Aside from a few typos here and there (one of McCay’s peers is mistakenly listed as being twenty years younger than he really was), I really can’t fault it. Canemaker’s passion for McCay’s art is evident on every page, and we owe him a great debt for helping to preserve the man’s legacy. If you’d like to delve further into the birth of animation, there are also biographies available of other pioneers like James Stuart Blackton and Émile Cohl (Émile Reynaud’s is only available in French), but I haven’t read those myself.

I definitely recommend this one; it’s easily the most readable of the three books in this review and will make an attractive addition to any animation library.

Twice the First: Quirino Cristiani and the Animated Feature Film

Author: Giannalberto Bendazzi

Publication Date: 2018 (first edition 1983)

Publisher: CRC Press

Pages: 171 pages

Bendazzi, Canemaker, Grace #4

Next up, we have a smaller, more scholarly work on an often-overlooked pillar of animation history by another prominent historian. Though briefer and far less colourful than the last book, it still does its job well, introducing the reader to Italian-born Argentinian director Quirino Cristiani and the story of his ground-breaking animated works, most of which are now tragically lost to time. Interestingly, much of the material in it was derived first-hand from Cristiani himself, whom the author interviewed personally in 1981, just a few years before the artist’s death.

Once again, we open with a foreword, this time from the great British animator John Halas (Animal Farm), who emphasises Cristiani’s importance to the history of the medium. Then, after a brief bio of Bendazzi, we get into the book itself.

Across 19 chapters, Bendazzi takes us through Cristiani’s birth in Italy, his family’s immigration to Argentina and the gradual blossoming of his career as an animator. He explores Cristiani’s first meeting with Federico Valle, a cameraman who had worked with both the Lùmiere Brothers and later the Wright Brothers, and his introduction to animated caricatures. Naturally, several chapters are devoted to one of Cristiani’s greatest achievements, the creation of the world’s first feature-length animated film, El Apóstol, in 1917. We also learn about his second film, Sin dejar rastros, released the following year but quickly confiscated by political officials, and his other major claim to fame, Peludópolis, a 1931 release which was the first animated film with a soundtrack (courtesy of Vitaphone). Towards the end of the book, there are also a few chapters on El Mono relojero, a 1938 short work which, while not considered one of the best examples of Cristiani’s work, is the only one of his films still in existence (like so many other lost treasures of the time, the bulk of his work was consumed in a series of fires, never to be seen again).

I especially enjoy the short chapter about Cristiani’s meeting with Walt Disney in 1941, during the latter’s South American tour – it’s satisfying as an animation lover to know that these two great pioneers were aware of each other’s works, and Disney even invited Cristiani to come and work for him. Cristiani, though grateful, politely declined, preferring to remain in his beloved Argentina. (Disney would later also meet Winsor McCay’s son, Robert, as a consultant for his Disneyland show in 1955, where he acknowledged his debt to Robert’s father for everything he’d done for the medium.)

The book closes with a final chapter on Cristiani’s legacy, followed by four appendices and an index. Once again, for serious animation enthusiasts, I would recommend adding this to your library, although I must emphasise that this isn’t a typical “art of” book and is aimed at a more academic audience. While it is wordy, Bendazzi’s work is tight, thorough and well-organised, so despite the lack of colour imagery to support it, Cristiani’s story is just as engagingly told as McCay’s. Too many still believe Disney to be the originator of such triumphs as the first animated feature or the first with sound, but we must not forget the humble Argentinian who got there first.

Lotte Reiniger: Pioneer of Film Animation

Author: Whitney Grace

Publication Date: 2017

Publisher: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Pages: 274 pages

Bendazzi, Canemaker, Grace #3

For our final book, we have a dense but well-researched account of the great German animator, Lotte Reiniger, one of the earliest female directors in the business.  Like Bendazzi’s book, it features only sparse, black-and-white imagery and is extremely text-heavy, so be prepared to put in some hours with this one.

This time, our preface comes courtesy of acclaimed French director Jean Renoir (La Grande Illusion, The Rules of the Game), retrieved with permission from the archives of journalist Paul Gelder. Although not an animator himself, Renoir was lucky enough to meet Reiniger and her husband, Carl Koch, one evening in 1926, and he maintained a lifelong friendship with the pair from then on.

After the acknowledgements and introduction, Grace gets into the 11 chapters that make up the bulk of her work. She focuses on Reiniger’s childhood love of shadow puppetry and fairy tales (an origin shared with some of the other pioneers of animation) and works to clear up some misconceptions about early animation records (she dutifully gives credit to Cristiani as the true originator of the animated feature, acknowledging that perhaps as many as six films predated Disney’s Snow White).

Of course, a good deal of time is spent on the production and release of Reiniger’s magnum opus, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), but Grace also delves into her many other works, discussing Reiniger’s appreciation of the fine arts, the “fine line” between animation and puppetry, and hers and Koch’s struggles to make their films during the rise of the Nazis (ironically, Hitler was apparently a big fan of her work, although the Nazis were very particular about what could and couldn’t be screened under the German Reich).

Towards the end of the book, Grace discusses the resurgence in Reiniger’s popularity near the end of her life in the 1970s, and the influence she had on future generations of female animators as one of the first in a male-dominated field. She also muses on what a meeting between Reiniger and Walt Disney might have been like (Reiniger apparently visited the studio on an American tour in 1974, but by that time Walt had, sadly, passed away). We then have her afterword, summing up her goal of discovering who Reiniger was through this project, along with two appendices covering Reiniger’s filmography and written works. The book closes with chapter notes, a bibliography and an index.

This is, undoubtedly, an important work. Like Cristiani and McCay, Reiniger is too often overlooked by modern animation fans, but her best-known work – Achmed – still survives and is as enjoyable today as it was almost a century ago. That said, Grace’s prose can be a challenge at times: it is wordy and rambling, packed with quotes and references, and much like Bendazzi’s book this is clearly intended for academics, so if your interest in Reiniger is more casual, you might be better off doing a little research of your own online instead. However, if you have the patience to persevere with it, this is well worth the effort; you’ll be rewarded with a rich insight into who Lotte Reiniger was, what motivated and inspired her, and what made her works so enduringly popular over the decades, written with passion by an author determined to keep her legacy alive.

Thank you so much for reading, and I do hope you’ll consider checking some of these out if you can find them. McCay, Cristiani and Reiniger all contributed enormously to the art of animation over the course of their respective careers, but their work has gradually become obscure or, in some cases, totally lost to the mists of time, so it’s more vital than ever to discuss their works and prevent their achievements from being forgotten.

I have many more books on my pile to be worked through, but as ever, I’m hoping I’ll be able to find time to return to the film reviews somewhere in the next few months. We’ll have to see what July brings, but until next time, take care and staaay animated!

Buy them on Amazon:

Winsor McCay – UK – UK

Quirino Cristiani – UK – UK

Lotte Reiniger – UK – UK

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