Winsor McCay: The Master Edition (2004)

The Centaurs (1921)

Winsor McCay: The Master Edition (2004). 105 minutes. Featuring cartoons written, directed, and animated by Winsor McCay: Little Nemo (1911), How a Mosquito Operates (1912), Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), Bug Vaudeville (1921), The Pet (1921), The Flying House (1921), The Centaurs (fragment, 1921), Gertie on Tour (fragment, 1921), and Flip’s Circus (fragment, 1921).

Winsor McCay: The Master Edition is a complete collection of the animated shorts of Winsor McCay, whose groundbreaking work influenced Walt Disney and other early pioneers of the medium. McCay’s output was small compared to Disney’s, in part because McCay animated in an earlier period with more cumbersome technology, continued to work as a full-time newspaper cartoonist while he labored on his animated shorts, and mostly worked alone without a studio system. Although McCay’s films are adventurous, some of them, such as Little Nemo (1911) and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), will look crude to a modern-day audience with their simple lines, repetitive action, and lack of narrative. But much of what McCay did remains fairly magical, as evinced by the mysterious Centaurs (1921), the emotionally involving Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), and the bittersweet Flying House (1921).

Winsor McCay’s earliest animated film, Little Nemo (1911), mixes live action (in scenes where McCay is shown wagering that he can draw an animated short film, as well as scenes of McCay at work in his office) with animation that uses high-contrast, black-and-white images and clean lines, sometimes drawn and shaded by McCay as we watch. Little Nemo, which uses characters from McCay’s newspaper comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, is basically an opportunity to demonstrate animated movement on screen. Figures expand and shrink, move closer and further away, and metamorphose into other forms, but there is no character development and no story. For readers of the comic strip in 1911, seeing its characters come to life, even sans narrative, must have been intriguing, and even today some of the film’s enthusiasm for playing with images is still palpable. But for a modern-day audience, Little Nemo, while playful and exploratory, is perhaps more notable as a historical relic that synthesizes other important animated works: its bending and stretching shapes are indebted to French animator Emile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908), and the motif of the live animator’s hand sketching on camera draws from James Stuart Blackton’s “lightning sketch” films, where Blackton would film himself sketching at a rapid pace. (Helpful information regarding both influences and other background on Winsor McCay can be found in Donald Crafton’s Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928 [1993]).

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), perhaps McCay’s most iconic film, builds on the foundation of Little Nemo but is a stronger example of how McCay’s animation positioned itself as a unique form of entertainment. The cartoon focuses on a dinosaur who interacts with her off-screen human wrangler (represented in the silent film by dialogue on title cards) and who performs tricks at his request. The ground sags under Gertie’s weight as she moves, and her stomach undulates as she drinks from a lake. These details combine with her discernable personality—one that is at times spunky and obstinate—to create a more memorable sequence of images than we see in Little Nemo. We watch Gertie shifting her weight back and forth when she decides whether or not to comply with a command, Gertie becoming distracted in her performance when she turns to watch a woolly mammoth and a flying dinosaur, and Gertie taking a break to munch on a tree and swallow some stones. All of these moments show off McCay’s animation skills, but they also develop Gertie as a character.

McCay used this cartoon in his ongoing vaudeville act as a “trick film,” in which the title cards were removed from the film and he as a live human participant interacted with the animation projected on a screen behind him. I saw Gertie the Dinosaur initially at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in the early 2000s, where someone recreated McCay’s original vaudeville act using the film. While the film was projected on the screen, a man in place of McCay stood to one end of the stage with a whip and commanded Gertie, reciting the lines of dialogue that were featured on title cards for the release outside of vaudeville. Gertie’s interlocutor, dressed in a suit and top hat, thus appeared to coax her out of a cave and command her to move; pretended to throw her a piece of fruit at one point, which the man pocketed as it manifested itself on screen; and in the end, disappeared into the wings of the theater and “transformed” into a cartoon man in the same suit and top hat on screen, riding on Gertie’s back.

If you are not able to see the film in this way, it will lack some of the interest that McCay concocted when he transformed his animated work into a multi-dimensional presentation. The live performance encourages us to think that the animation is somehow spontaneous and actually responds to the person on stage, making the experience curious and, given the presence of the man’s whip, a little kinky. Without the live dimension, the voice of Gertie’s master expressed in the title cards is still there to interact with her, but the excitement of the live performance is gone. Gertie’s side-to-side movement can seem repetitive, her hesitations like little mistakes. To today’s audience, Gertie’s indecisive swaying might seem more reminiscent of the way video game characters move when a game is paused. As is the case with the earliest of McCay’s creations, some context is necessary if the original excitement of these films is to be grasped in the twenty-first century.

Although, as Donald Crafton argues in Before Mickey, Winsor McCay’s first cartoons bear the mark of technical exploration perhaps more significantly than the later works, I maintain that McCay’s animation grew more visually beautiful as time went on, and the unfinished Centaurs (1921) is a good example of the kind of enigmatic loveliness McCay was capable of creating. The film opens with a shot of an art nouveau beauty emerging from a cluster of trees. More of her body is revealed, including her nude chest, until we perceive that she is not merely a woman but a female centaur with legs like a horse. McCay’s centaurs are elegant and slow-moving (with the exception of the rambunctious centaur child at the fragment’s end), and were surely an influence on the “Pastoral Symphony” segment in Disney’s Fantasia (1940). But whereas Disney’s brightly colored pin-up centaur girls and buff centaur bros feel like they have stepped out of a loud 1940s comic strip, McCay’s centaurs are strange and mysterious. This is in part because his film is unfinished, and we cannot know with certainty where the centaurs are (e.g., in what place, in what age) or even the outcomes of the relationships we see. For example, an older centaur couple appears and adds a dimension of encroaching mortality that lingers without more definite resolution; their time-bound reality stands in contrast with the mythological boundlessness of the Disney cartoon and its untouchable eternity. But McCay’s centaurs are also strange because of the nature of what we actually do see. The young centaur couple, for example, moves gracefully but somehow incomprehensibly among the trees—visions from another world beyond our grasp.

McCay’s engagement with serious subject matter is most evident in The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), his only film based on historical events. The Sinking of the Lusitania demonstrates that animation, especially in this period, could be used to make an earnest case about world events. Its war-baiting title cards do their best to encourage an angry martial dimension to the emotional content. For most of the film, the images are of the great ship itself, pushing through waves or responding to torpedoes with explosions and flames. I was reminded of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which stages a scene at sea in its final act that focuses completely on shots of ships at battle, creating emotional tension from images of inanimate vessels. That both Battleship Potemkin and The Sinking of the Lusitania manage to make us care about people through images of ships is a testament to how gripping those images are. This is not to downplay the human element in The Sinking of the Lusitania—for example, passengers being lowered into the water in lifeboats, or jumping or even being thrown off of the ship. At one point we see a shot of a mother with a baby slowly falling below the waterline, consumed by the depths. There is even an eerie close-up of marine life swimming by, interrupted by the appearance of the launched torpedo that makes its way to the ship. It is an unsettling image, one that leaves us with the feeling that the ocean is no longer governed by nature but by human diabolism, a perspective that strengthened as the world moved past the Titanic catastrophe towards an era in which humans must have increasingly felt as if they were their own worst enemy.

Who knows what McCay’s animation would have been like if he had made more films like The Sinking of the Lusitania. But while The Sinking of the Lusitania, fueled by an exceptional display of mourners’ rage, emphasizes death and human tragedy, McCay’s other works focus on dreams and our life while we sleep, probing the fundamentals of what makes us human and alive. This is especially the case in The Flying House (1921), based on one of McCay’s Dream of a Rarebit Fiend episodes (he drew this series for the newspapers and included other films under its header). The Flying House demonstrates McCay’s ability to explore dreamlike fantasies with sensitivity, humor, and a sense of humanity, much as some of his other dream works reveal a deep awareness of the fabric of our nightmares.

In The Flying House, we see a couple in bed and watch as the wife dreams that the bank has served them an eviction notice. In order to save their house, the husband converts the attic into an engine. The two propel the house into the air as a means of escaping their fate, flying through a city, into a building that looks like the Kew Gardens botanical greenhouse, and then off into space, hurtling towards the planets. Pausing on the moon, they encounter a giant god-like person with a mallet who attempts to obliterate them. The moon episode feels like a page torn from the Baron Munchausen stories, and the film has the atmosphere of a playful fantasy: the couple has no trouble breathing in space and no issue with the flight mechanism until they begin to run out of gas.

As the house crash lands on the moon, I thought of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the way it uses magical house transportation to alleviate suffering. The Flying House is similarly bittersweet, with a desperate couple facing down financial ruin and opting to flee from their troubles and towards potentially even greater catastrophe in an effort to preserve their way of life. Yet the danger and the dire nature of their situation do not prevent the wife from complaining to the husband (she does not want to stay on the moon) or criticizing his decisions (he lands the house on a smokestack at one point, although she objects). In spite of the authentic nature of their relationship, the fantasy and escapist element is strong. McCay rescues characters from frenetic dreams constantly in his Rarebit Fiend comic strip and in Little Nemo in Slumberland, and he seems to enjoy telling us that our greatest adventures are in our dreams, in the unreal worlds of our somnolent minds.

There is a great deal of the dream-like and the unreal in Winsor McCay’s work.  Some of it is mildly horrifying and the stuff of nightmares. The nightmarish shorts almost always involve animals, such as The Pet (1921), in which an animal that eats everything will not stop growing until it must be taken down, King-Kong style, as it tramples through the city; or a similarly expanding mosquito that engorges itself on the blood of a sleeping man in How a Mosquito Operates (1912). The creepy Bug Vaudeville (1921) combines both the unsettling aspects of a circus with the unpleasant protuberant legs and swollen abdomens of insects, including cockroaches and also a spider who ends up lifting the orchestra conductor of the vaudeville theater up and away as a presumed meal. McCay appears to have been fascinated with animals, as so many animators are, but the animals he selects have a disturbing tendency to inflate cartoonishly and prey on people and everyday things in personal spaces and ordinary venues, making their presence inescapable and unsettling.

The content of Winsor McCay’s films is fascinating stuff, but he did not merely contribute intriguing subject matter to the history of animation: he also pioneered many animation techniques such as inbetweening, a technique where characters’ most important poses were drawn first and in-between states were created second. This cut down on tedium for the animators, but it had to have been a slow-going process nonetheless. (The documentary Remembering Winsor McCay [1976] features John Fitzsimmons, an animator who collaborated with McCay and remembered the drawing process as being fairly boring.) McCay eventually worked to alleviate the repetitive nature of early animation through the adoption of cel animation techniques, where images were sketched over a stationary cel of background art. But McCay was not an active patent claimer and saw many of his techniques appropriated by his fellow animators. Fitzsimmons, as well as others who knew McCay, maintained that McCay considered his films art, preferred to work alone, and did not demonstrate an interest in transforming the burgeoning animation industry into a studio-based production model. McCay’s methods for making animated films perhaps endowed him with less of a bankable medium, but in his short career and limited body of work, he nevertheless influenced what came later. Winsor McCay was active at a time when the film world was full of possibilities, and his work speaks to the creativity that flourished in animation’s early age.