June 1, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Early Animation
Gertie the Dinosaur. 1914. USA. Directed by Winsor McCay. Preserved with funding from Celeste Bartos

Gertie the Dinosaur. 1914. USA. Directed by Winsor McCay. Preserved with funding from Celeste Bartos

These notes accompany the Early Animation program, June 2, 3, and 4 in Theater 2.

The art of film animation developed out of a long tradition of newspaper and magazine cartoonists both in Europe and the United States. The Frenchman, Emile Cohl (1857–1938), and the American, Winsor McCay (1871–1934), were politically tinged newspapermen who took advantage of the newly-invented concept of stop-motion photography, shooting a slightly varied drawing on each successive film frame. Although their work appears primitive beside Pixar technology, there must have been a sense of wonder and awe in early audiences who saw drawn figures come to a kind of life on the screen. In this sense, animation was an even purer art than either actualities or narrative films, both of which depended on photographed reality rather than images that sprang completely from an artist’s imagination. Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), for example, set a standard for myriad anthropomorphic movies to come, and McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) was incredibly complex and sophisticated for its time.

Comic strips like Mutt and Jeff and Felix the Cat provided a ready-made public for movie cartoonists like Richard Huemer (1898–1979), who would later join both the Fleischer brothers and Walt Disney, and Otto Messmer (1894–1971), who summed up the period nicely: “Nowadays, kids don’t dream about the moon—they know. Then, all was magic. All we had was a pencil and paper. We didn’t want to duplicate life; a photo would’ve done that. Felix was always a cat, but with a boy’s wonder about the world. That, and visual tricks, and we had it.”

Then there was Disney (1901–1966). Rising from his obscure Kansas City beginnings to become a colossus, “Uncle Walt” branded the American century more indelibly than any other artist in any other medium. Relying largely upon the work of Ub Iwerks (1901–1971) and a host of other resident geniuses, Disney parlayed Mickey Mouse, Silly Symphonies, and his early great features into an unrivalled empire. Disney’s role as dictatorial tycoon raises too many questions for us to settle his auteur status in a few sentences but, love him or hate him, he clearly dominated (and, in a sense, still dominates) the field of animation.

Lotte Reiniger (1899–1981), working in Germany and later in Britain, was a pioneer, both in developing silhouette animation and as a woman in a male-dominated field. Her Der Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (1926) is credited as being the first full-length animation feature. Ladislas Starevitch (1892–1965), working first in Russia and then in France, established the field of puppet animation, leading to the later work of Willis O’Brien, George Pal, and Ray Harryhausen and anticipating the contemporary craze for computer animation.

If Disney’s commercial supremacy was ever threatened, it was by Viennese-born Max Fleischer (1883–1972) and his brother, Dave (1894–1979). The Fleischers continued the McCay/Huemer/Messmer tradition of being based in New York (before a late move to Miami because of labor problems.) The Fleischer Studio was truly the Anti-Disney, creating subversive and often raunchy characters like Betty Boop and questioning most of the wholesome values espoused by Walt’s middle-American roots.

This program of early animation is rounded out by two excellent documentaries on McCay and Messmer by the distinguished scholar, teacher, and animator John Canemaker (b. 1943). This scratch at the surface gives only a hint of the marvel of creating a totally new medium, and of the rich achievements of so many artists—often laboring in obscurity—who deserve to be remembered.