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Gertie the Dinosaur

1914. Vitagraph. Animated by and starring Winsor McCay

Animated films were self-referential from the get-go. They are obsessed with their own creation, eagerly showing off the clever tricks and prodigious labors that brought them into being. These early "trick films" provide vibrant examples of movies that may offer humor, anecdote and spectacle but are primarily about themselves.

Gertie the Dinosaur is actually entitled Winsor McCay/America's Greatest Cartoonist/and "Gertie." It sounds like a vaudeville act and originally it was. McCay, a famous Hearst editorial cartoonist, sometimes appeared on stage doing quick-draw "lightning sketches" where he would transform one image into another with a few strokes of the pencil. When he started experimenting with animated films, he incorporated the films into his act. He would begin the Gertie show with a lecture on how the film was created, draw Gertie on a large pad before the audience's eyes, and then segue into the projected film, which he would interact with. He would give Gertie orders as though she were a live trained elephant, throw a pumpkin toward the screen for Gertie to catch, and later seem to climb into the film and onto Gertie's back (the real McCay disappeared behind the screen and an animated on-screen "McCay" took his place).

In its current form, Gertie has to do without a live artist-impressario, but McCay is still very present. He is featured in a live-action introduction recounting the story of how Gertie came to be. Visiting the fossil room of a museum with some friends, McCay bets them that he can "make the dinosaurs live again." Next we see him drawing away at his studio. He shows a visitor the stacks and stacks of drawings he has completed, explaining "I made 10,000 cartoons, each one a little bit different from the preceeding one." At the payoff dinner, McCay draws Gertie for his friends and then brings her to life. "Gertie will do everything I tell her to do," he assures his friends, and--seemingly in response to McCay's commands, here delivered via intertitles--Gertie bows, raises her feet, and then gets distracted by a sea serpent and a passing mammoth and has to be reprimanded (she cries).

The Gertie cartoon is charming, and especially impressive compared to other animations made at that time. A commercial artist of the first rank, McCay manages to invest the dinosaur with a sense of weight and bulk, a rolling walk, a whiplash tail, and a belly that moves in and out as she breathes. He really does "make the dinosaurs live again," and it's worth remembering that in 1914 no one had imaginged how a dinosaur might have moved (we're now accustomed to animated, animatronic and computer-generated dinosaurs, but McCay's was the first). McCay gives Gertie a personality, and uses three-dimensional space brilliantly, as the dinosaur lumbers from background to foreground, hurls boulders into the distance, etc. But without the framing story, Gertie would be far less interesting than it is.

Gertie the Dinosaur exemplifies the dual fascination of most films of that era--they are both technological marvels and narrative entertainments. As much as we have been prepared to acknowledge Gertie as simply a collection of "10,000 drawings" created by McCay and photographed one at a time, there comes a moment when we find ourselves beginning to believe that a living creature cavorts before us. It's like the moment when an airplane first lifts off the ground--suddenly the mechanics disappear and we're airborne.

The very action of the Gertie sequence refers to this process. As in many early cartoon plots, the animator draws a character, the character starts to move on its own, and soon gets away from its creator--disobeying, sassing, playing tricks, generally taking on a life of his own. If we paused to think about it, of course, we'd realize that a drawn character can't really do anything on its own, any more than a ventriloquist's dummy can. Alternately remembering and forgeting that Gertie (and all cartoons, and all movies) is an artificial construction given the illusion of life by optical tricks and our own imagination, creates that wonderful tension that we call self-referentiality.

Many cartoons of the teens and 20s follow Gertie's strategy of playing with the relationship between creator and creation. We've seen the live-action Fleischer brothers and the animated Koko the Clown tormenting each other. I'll be writing soon about cartoons where animator Walter Lantz and his Pete the Pup go off on adventures together. And of course we all grew up watching Walt Disney chat with Mickey and Donald as though they were his employees. In the early, novelty days of the cinema, and in many cases into the present, filmmakers wanted to make sure that audiences never forgot the hard work and great skill behind the illusion. And audiences found the illusion more--not less--magical when reminded that someone had made it all happen.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein