On February 8, 1914, famed cartoonist Winsor McCay demonstrated before a live audience his considerable talents “controlling” Gertie, the “only dinosaur in captivity.” A painstaking blend of onstage performance and hand drawn animation, McCay made his creation dance, scolded her, fed her and then got carried away by her. He wasn’t the only one. The audience in Chicago’s Palace Theatre loved it. A theatrical release followed, with new scenes filmed to replace McCay’s live interactions. It is the best known film of a pioneering artist and illustrator—but he made others.
McCay’s Sunday strip featuring the dream-addled boy, Nemo, was his longest-running continuous work and the only strip to move with McCay to William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire. The intricate detail and hand painted panels provided McCay a large field to play with perspective and experiment with just how fine a line he could draw.
All of the film’s characters and design elements, including the cartoon plasticity, come from the strip, though it has little of the strip’s intricate nature. Four thousand rice paper drawings provided all the action, done by McCay himself in about a month. Much of the film is just McCay drawing and getting laughed at by his friends. Featured is a handy crank device for quickly flipping finished pages to check their continuity. For the animated portion, Nemo mostly bends his friends Flip and (the now deeply offensive) Impie out of shape. The character is the artist’s revenge.
McCay’s other popular dreamscape strip, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, traded on the belief cheese on toast gives you nightmares.
The Pet takes off an actual Rarebit strip where a couple’s puppy grows to monstrous size, including the attempts to kill it. McCay’s penchant for large mouthed animals eating everything is again on display, as is his love for flying machines.
"The Flying House" was drawn by McCay’s son Robert under dad’s supervision; word balloons replaced standard dialogue frames. McCay makes special mention that the flyover of the Earth and Moon is astronomically correct—until the Moon giant shows up with a fly swatter. Well, it was a good dream.
McCay’s first Rarebit short was based on an actual strip from 1907. The artist really liked giant mosquitos, putting them into several Rarebit strips, as well as his editorial work and Little Nemo in Slumberland.
McCay completed this film, his most ambitious, on his own time. A prolific and sought-after editorial cartoonist, McCay had been prevented by Hearst from honoring the 1915 U-boat attack on the passenger liner Lusitania.
Twenty-five thousand drawings done by a team of artists create a poetic depiction of a tragedy. The waves reach for the liner’s deck while it steams powerfully along. A theatrical curtain pulls across the ship after we are told all aboard ignore warnings for their safety. In a technical detail, the film states the first work was capturing “the moving sea.” Even there, the U-boat is hunting, seen only briefly by its periscope.
Probably McCay’s best recurring character from the Nemo strip, Flip gets top billing failing to do what McCay had done—tame the cartoon beast. Unreleased in McCay’s lifetime, Flip’s Circus gives a glimpse of his film process. Chalk slates stand in for interstitial cards and serve as editing notes, reminders of where to cut down to the individual drawing. Pause at the 1:00 mark for a grand McCay animal menagerie.
In the clip above, Flip’s Circus is followed by a third Rarebit Fiend, Bug Vaudeville. It has technical prowess but it’s a little boring. The potato bug boxing is fun though, and it all comes together in the end.
McCay imbues his centaurs with their expected grace, poise, and ability to kill a bird with a stone for no reason. Poor storage damaged much of this film, so only this fragment survives. The line quality of its main characters and watercolor nuance of its scenery show a masterful touch years before Disney’s Bambi or Snow White. That said, as inventive as McCay was, he also went too easily for caricature. Grandma Centaur’s spectacles and Victorian bob take us right out of the picture.
McCay took several months in 1913 completing 10,000 drawings for Gertie, again on rice paper. About the only person who didn’t like Gertie was McCay’s boss, Hearst. McCay was allowed to continue the Nemo strip on occasion, but taking time off to animate a dinosaur went a stretch too far, and Hearst curtailed him. The movie house version, above, was produced to dodge Hearst and keep McCay’s name in lights. Gertie’s 1921 sequel, Gertie on Tour, remained unreleased.
One of the 20th century’s most prolific illustrators, McCay thought his animation was his greatest work, but he produced no more films for the last 13 years of his life. His animation technique, however, pioneered the modern industry. Walt Disney knew that. In the 1950s, in regards to the mammoth Disney animation studio, Disney said privately to McCay’s son Robert, “Bob, all this should be your father’s.”