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The Cartoons of Winsor McCay

The Cartoons of Winsor McCay(2014)


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teaser The Cartoons of Winsor McCay (2014)

It was a cold day in Chicago on February 2,1914 when a group of unassuming men and women gathered in a liminal space to experience the dawning of a new age. That ten-dollar word simply means "in-between," the neither-coming-nor-going space where one world leaves off and the next begins. Technically, this space was an ordinary vaudeville hall, The Palace Theater, and the people had merely come to be entertained. But on this day, that vaudeville stage would be the site of a key moment in film history.

The EmCee for this historic event was an in-betweener of the highest order--a man named Winsor McCay. He was at the time the nation's foremost newspaper cartoonist, a title he arguably still holds today a century later. From the whimsical fantasy of Little Nemo in Slumberland to the surrealist absurdity of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, McCay bequeathed so much life to his ink drawings, it was only natural he would seek a way to bring them more fully alive.

McCay made his first foray into vaudeville in 1906. At the time, a common sort of vaudeville routine was the "quick sketch act," in which an artist would draw a series of caricatures on a chalkboard or large notepad, creating something of a live-action cartoon by the rapid-fire updating and replacement of sketches. McCay proved to be a natural at this, and was quickly catapulted to vaudeville stardom for an act that included him swiftly drawing his famed Little Nemo characters.

In turn, this led to developing Little Nemo as a stage play. As the story goes, however, it was his son's collection of flip-books that provided the inspiration for how to truly enliven Little Nemo. A series of drawings, each largely similar yet crucially different, stacked in sequence on heavy card stock and bound on one end--flip the pages with your thumb and watch the pictures move. It was in pen-and-paper form the same illusion at the heart of motion pictures. Why not expand the number of drawings from dozens to thousands, and then photograph them individually on a reel of movie film?

So McCay spent the next four months painstakingly drawing 4,000 pictures, to bring his Little Nemo to the screen. Then, he meticulously hand-colored each frame of the 35mm film to complete the illusion. The effort involved was intense, but the plot of the film was modest: "Watch us move!"

McCay followed it with even more ambitious explorations: How a Mosquito Operates, based on an installment of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend took him year to complete, which was an astounding investment of time from a man whose day job consisted of weekly deadlines.

As the saying goes, the third time's the charm. And so it was with his third animated film that McCay broke through to mass cultural sensation. Gertie the Dinosaur would be widely, and wrongly, termed the first animated cartoon--when it wasn't even the first animated cartoon by McCay--but that hinted at its cultural significance. Gertie did indeed do some things no other film had done before: McCay's cartoons have a fluidity of motion, a sense of depth and perspective, a vibrancy of personality, and a precision of detail that would be unrivalled for years.

McCay's Gertie inspired so many copycats and imitators as to launch a new genre of animated cartoons unto itself.

Which brings us back to the Palace Theater on that cold February day. McCay is a here to perform a double act with a partner who does not exist. The crowd has come expecting a live show, but will be entertained with a movie. And, most importantly, for the next few minutes, McCay will breach the boundary between the real world and a fictional reality of his own handmade creation.

On the screen is Gertie, a cartoon brontosaurus with as much natural charisma as any human star. McCay introduces himself as her trainer, and proceeds to interact with her. He commands, she responds; he cracks a whip, she moves--but her reactions aren't just mechanical, she responds with a recognizable personality all her own. At the conclusion of the act, McCay appears to enter the screen itself and ride off on her back (in fact he ducked behind the screen as his pre-filmed self appeared in the projection). Buster Keaton was so taken with the violations of the boundaries between the real world and the projected film, he explored similar effects in his Sherlock Jr. ten years later.

Few audiences saw it in this elaborate form, however. To allow for the film to be distributed more widely than he was able to personally tour, McCay prepared an additional prologue in which he is shown accepting a wager from fellow newspaper cartoonist George McManus that he can make a dinosaur live again through the magic of animation. The film shows McCay working for six months on 10,000 hand-drawn images, and photographing them in sequence one by one.

The glimpse behind the scenes was an eye-opener for 1914 movie-goers. As McCay later explained, his earliest animated films had been popular but misunderstood by patrons who "suspected some big trick with wires. Not until I drew Gertie the Dinosaur did the audience understand that I was making the drawings move."

McCay was trekking into uncharted territory. The curse of the pioneer is the need to do everything without support. There was no industry practice to rely on, no fellow animators to turn to for advice. It would be the future animators, the ones who followed in his footsteps, who would benefit from that, not him.

And there were many who followed in his footsteps: Henry Mayer, Otto Messmer, Bert Green, George McManus, Milt Gross, Sidney Smith and Rube Goldberg all followed the trail from comics to cartoons, taking their cues from McCay's inspiration. The new guard would find new efficiencies of production to take the labor-intensive work pioneered by McCay and make it an industry. McCay resisted such approaches, and except for some crucial support from assistants like John Fitzsimmons, he worked alone, hand-drawing every frame of his films one by one.

As the decade drew to a close, McCay was feted as the guest of honor at a dinner thrown by the new generation of film animators. Max Fleischer, the animator responsible for Betty Boop and Popeye, introduced the grandfather of American animation. McCay took the mic, and surveyed the crowd--youngsters, mostly, getting fat on the land he had staked out and cultivated.

"Animation is an art. That is how I conceived it," McCay told the crowd, "But as I see, what you fellows have done with it, is making it into a trade. Not an art, but a trade. Bad Luck!"

The man can be forgiven a bit of bitterness. During work on Gertie, McCay had toured a writer named John Randolph Bray through his studio, showing off all of his inventions and techniques, believing himself to be helping a young journalist chronicling this new art. Bray turned around and wrote up his notes as a patent, and sued McCay for patent infringement. Bray was the principal proponent of the industrialization of cartoon animation, and came to be known as the "Henry Ford of Animation." McCay prevailed in the patent suit by demonstrating that his films had been distributed and exhibited years before Bray's patents, but the rivalry continued. Bray even released his own counterfeit Gertie cartoon.

In 1922, he had been forced out of the field by William Randolph Hearst, the publisher of his newspaper work.

Tensions had been building between McCay and Hearts ever since the artist made his first forays into motion pictures. From McCay's point of view, he was pursuing his art in a new medium. But for Hearst, it wasn't just a new medium, but a hated rival--movies were the enemy of old media like newsprint, and Hearst was not about to let one of his MVPs play for the opposing team. Things first boiled to a head when Hearst wanted to call McCay to complain about what he perceived as the declining quality of his comic strips, only to find himself unable to reach McCay because he was occupied with the vaudeville performances for the Gertie tour. Hearst was furious, and demanded that McCay focus more time on his "real" work and less on side-projects like vaudeville.

Hearst had a valid point. McCay's grueling work schedule was untenable. Ever since he started making movies, the quality of his newspaper strips had fallen into steady decline.

Hearst's objections only increased, and by 1921 he required McCay to give up movies altogether. The new guard, the Brays of the world, overtook his memory. He passed away in 1934, the same year that another young upstart, Walt Disney, prepared the world's first feature length animated motion picture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

What McCay set in motion did turn into a trade, but it also remained an art. A hundred years on from Gertie, McCay's legacy endures.

Little Nemo (1911)

Winsor McCay's first animated cartoon offered audiences a chance to watch their beloved characters from his popular newspaper strip of the same name move about, and in color--thanks to McCay's hand-coloring of the 35mm film frames.

How a Mosquito Operates (1912)

More ambitious than Little Nemo, Winsor McCay's second experiment with filmed animation was a take-off of an idea he'd previously published in the Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend comic strip, ruminating on the vampiric mosquito's bloodsucking lifestyle.

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)

Winsor McCay was appalled by the May 7, 1915 sinking of the passenger liner the Lusitania by a German submarine. Using his own money, and spending two years of his life working with fellow Hearst newspaper cartoonist Apthorp Adams (a descendant of President John Adams), McCay created a film that didn't explore a fantasy dreamscape, but depicted with realism an actual event that could not have been photographed. This was the first film McCay made using transparent cels for different layers of the image, rather than redrawing the entirety of the image for every frame.

Bug Vaudeville (1921)

McCay's last three released short films are set in the dreamscape of the Rarebit Fiend: characters eat too-rich food, and go to sleep to be haunted by bizarre dreams. In this film, critic Andrew Sarris' favorite of McCay's shorts, a tramp settles down by a riverbank to digest some cream cheese cakes, and finds himself transported to a theater where the vaudeville performers are bugs (you probably got that from the title).

The Pet (1921)

In this Rarebit Fiend-inspired short, McCay presents husband and wife with a peculiar problem. She's fond of bringing home stray animals, like this meowing puppy-like critter she names "Cutey." The more it eats, the more it grows, and the more it needs to eat. Before long, it's the size of an office building and roaming the streets as airplanes try to herd it into submission--more than ten years before King Kong [1933], and more than thirty years before Godzilla [1954].

The Flying House (1921)

The last complete film released by Winsor McCay, and officially attributed to his son Robert, this Rarebit Fiend-inspired short involves a man and wife who conspire to evade their creditors by outfitting their house with wings and flying to outer space. Turns out bankers have access to rockets to shoot them back down, though.

The Centaurs (1921)

The Centaurs is one of a handful of films that exist only as fragments. Film historians suspect these are the film equivalent of sketchbooks, where McCay experimented with ideas before fleshing out complete films around them. Reminiscent of imagery later developed by Walt Disney in Fantasia [1940], The Centaurs was apparently never finished and never released.

Gertie on Tour (1921)

For the original Gertie the Dinosaur, Winsor McCay meticulously hand-drew every frame individually on rice paper. In later years he adapted to the more cost-effective approach of painting the moving parts of a scene onto transparent cels and laying these atop a static background, allowing for more elaborately painted images with less effort. This unfinished sequel to Gertie finds the dinosaur playfully derailing a train car and grooming her tail.

Flip's Circus (1921)

The most substantial of McCay's unfinished sketches, Flip's Circus exists in complete enough form to suggest what the finished product was intended to be: Flip, one of the stars of Little Nemo, has a circus with a giant Gertie-like dinosaur he trains, effectively combining two of McCay's greatest hits into one package.

By David Kalat


John Canemaker, Winsor McCay: His Life and Art.

Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons.

Click Here to learn more about co-host John Canemaker.

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