Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
Directed by Winsor McCay
Release dates February 8, 1914
Running time 12 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent film, English intertitles
Gertie the Dinosaur is a 1914 animated short film by American cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay. It is the earliest animated film to feature a dinosaur. McCay first used the film before live audiences as an interactive part of his vaudeville act; the frisky, childlike Gertie did tricks at the command of her master. McCay's employer William Randolph Hearst later curtailed McCay's vaudeville activities, so McCay added a live-action introductory sequence to the film for its theatrical release. McCay abandoned a sequel, Gertie on Tour (c. 1921), after producing about a minute of footage.
Although Gertie is popularly thought to be the earliest animated film, McCay had earlier made Little Nemo (1911) and How a Mosquito Operates (1912). The American J. Stuart Blackton and the French Émile Cohl had experimented with animation even earlier; Gertie being a character with an appealing personality distinguished McCay's film from these earlier "trick films". Gertie was the first film to use animation techniques such as keyframes, registration marks, tracing paper, the Mutoscope action viewer, and animation loops. It influenced the next generation of animators such as the Fleischer brothers, Otto Messmer, Paul Terry, and Walt Disney. John Randolph Bray unsuccessfully tried to patent many of McCay's animation techniques and is said to have been behind a plagiarized version of Gertie that appeared a year or two after the original. Gertie is the best preserved of McCay's films—some of which have been lost or survive only in fragments—and has been preserved in the US National Film Registry.
Gertie the Dinosaur is the earliest animated film to feature a dinosaur. Its star Gertie does tricks much like a trained elephant. She is animated in a naturalistic style unprecedented for the time; she breathes rhythmically, she shifts her weight as she moves, and her abdominal muscles undulate as she draws water. McCay imbued her with a personality—while friendly, she could be capricious, ignoring or rebelling against her master's commands.
When her master McCay calls her, the frisky, childlike Gertie appears from a cave. Her whip-wielding master has her do tricks such as raising her foot or bowing on command. When she feels she has been pushed too far, she nips back at her master. She cries when he scolds her, and he placates her with a pumpkin. Throughout the act, prehistoric denizens such as a flying lizard continually distract Gertie. She tosses a mammoth in the lake; when it teases her by spraying her with water, she hurls a boulder at it as it swims away. After she quenches her thirst by draining the lake, McCay has her carry him offstage while he bows to the audience.
In some ways, Gertie the Dinosaur can be seen as little more than a remake of Winsor McCay’s 1911 short Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N. Y. Herald and His Moving Comics. Instead of dining with friends when he accepts a bet that he can’t make his characters come to life, he’s visiting the Natural History Museum when he wagers that he can bring a dinosaur to life. We even see the same mishap of a large stack of McCay’s drawings spilling onto the floor at the hands of a hapless assistant in the same way as they did in the earlier movie.
Although there’s no getting away from the sheer scale of the painstaking, hand-cramping work involved in creating some 10,000 individual sketches, it also has to be said that Gertie doesn’t really get up to much once we finally get to meet her. After chowing down on a tree and a rock, she lifts first one leg and then the other at the behest of the title cards. She eats a pumpkin which appears to be the size of a peanut when in her mouth, and then gives a cartoon version of McCay a ride. She’s certainly a cute dinosaur, though, with a playful character and a fondness for scratching herself with her tail, and McCay’s animation is seamless and smooth, which is something of a wonder when one considers that he drew each of those 10,000 sketches individually.
After the sophistication of “How a Mosquito Operates,” I was a bit disappointed that Winsor McCay’s next animation film started off with another live-action wraparound story, which is essentially the same as that for “Little Nemo:” his friends bet him that he can’t animate a dinosaur. Apparently he chose a dinosaur as a subject because people had accused him of working from photographs to make the mosquito. But, once Gertie emerged from her cave, all was forgiven – she is the most lovable and fun of all the characters he created for these movies so far. The film was originally made to be shown without the wraparound; McCay showed it as part of live performances, and he would give Gertie the instructions that we read today on the intertitles, and Gertie would appear to respond to him. Gertie is a bit antiquated, being a Brontosaurus (a type of dinosaur we now know never existed), but that doesn’t really make a difference for cartoon purposes, and McCay gets around the scientific objection that their mouths were too small to feed their stomachs by having Gertie devour an entire tree in one gulp. Happily, she’s here to stay, the movie has been preserved by the National Film Registry.
Newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay (1867-1934) elevated the comics to an art form with his 1905 "Little Nemo in Slumberland." He certainly believed in his own legend, bringing it to the films and bragging during the title credits: "America's greatest cartoonist" and "the first artist to attempt drawing pictures that will move." He also opens both Nemo and Gertie with a bet. His friends must buy him a fancy dinner if he can make his drawings move. These live action sequences are followed by scenes of McCay at "work," drawing endless stacks of cartoons, surrounded by crates of drawing paper and barrels of ink. Finally he unleashes his finished project, and we're as blown away as his colleagues must have been. The beautiful, hand-colored Little Nemo already shows an astonishing understanding of three-dimensional space and character resiliency, as well as dream images. It has no plot, but its very movement is captivating. Gertie the Dinosaur goes one further. It brings McCay into the action. He narrates the cartoon, coaxing Gertie out of a cave and trying to get her to do tricks, even though she has a mind of her own. At one point, McCay enters the picture and rides on Gertie's back. Again, the cartoon has a wonderful sense of space and size, as Gertie picks up a Wooly Mammoth and throws him backwards to the horizon, and as McCay tosses a pumpkin for Gertie to eat. Gertie moves in and readies herself for a large pumpkin, but it appears in the frame the size of a grape.
Winsor McCay did a great many things of which he could be justifiably proud, but I think Gertie the Dinosaur ranks at the top of that lengthy list of accomplishments and I suspect McCay may have felt the same way, for it is still remarkable all these years later. Gertie is more life-like than some people I know! Funny, believable, touching and fascinating, sometimes all at once. This is one of the cornerstones of modern animation and also succeeds on its own terms and merits as both art and entertainment. Winsor McCay grew unhappy and somewhat disgruntled and disillusioned as animation became, in his eyes, more commercial and less artistically inclined. I've often wondered what McCay would have made of the independents, such as Will Vinton and Bill Plympton, among others, and the different forms, like Claymation and the stop-motion work of George Pal and others. I hope he would be pleased with at least some of the work done in the last 90 or so years. An absolute gem. If you haven't seen Gertie, I envy you for the treat you have in store. She's a delight. Well worth getting. Most highly recommended.
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