Winsor McCay

Image Entertainment and Milestone Films recently released the complete extant works of Winsor McCay on DVD, Winsor McCay: The Master Edition, totaling ten short films from 1911-1922. It’s a direct transfer of the region 2 DVD, so some PAL-to-NTSC ghosting occurs, but should only upset the purists. McCay, who was a respected New York Herald cartoonist, is considered to have been the first real master of animation, creating extended motion films with great detail and a surprisingly offbeat sense of humor. From large animals who devour everything in sight (a dragon, Gertie the dinosaur, a growing monster) to a huge mosquito and a flying house, McCay’s animation is both charmingly whimsical and slightly subversive.

Watching the DVD, it shouldn’t have surprised me that 1914’s Gertie the Dinosaur, McCay’s most popular and enduring creation, was probably the most mundane film of the lot. Its popularity resided in its function in a vaudeville act McCay would perform by talking to his projected film and asking Gertie to do a number of tricks, to which the animated dinosaur would appear to enthusiastically respond. Thus, the film largely consists of a smiling dinosaur raising its left leg or its right leg or bowing to the audience. Not that the film isn’t without its historical importance or creative skill, especially when one notices the shimmering background has been painstakingly redrawn in each frame–at this point in time, McCay used rice paper, not layers of celluloid, and personally inked thousands of individual sketches.

Another interesting aspect of McCay’s animation is its incorporation of live-action framing stories that emphasize the novelty of the animated medium. For his first film, 1911’s Little Nemo, based on his popular comic strip, he begins with a placard that somewhat exaggeratedly reads, “The first artist to attempt drawing pictures that will move,” and follows it with another card that announces “How the proposition was received by his artist friends.” Live-action footage then reveals McCay playing a game of poker with several men, who burst out in guffaws when McCay speaks. They incredulously motion others to join them. No, no, McCay insists, and he proceeds to rapidly sketch his creations. This is followed by his promise to make 4,000 more drawings in a month’s time, which is followed by more footage of assistants comically wheeling in barrels of ink and large slabs of stacked paper to his office, a source of later slapstick when the piles of drawings fall over and become disordered. Eventually, the animated film is shown, but McCay clearly enjoyed foregrounding the process as much as the product and would use this device of a live-action “bet” or a “challenge” repeatedly.

Aesthetically speaking, the piece that impressed me the most was The Sinking of the ‘Lusitania’ (1918), which was unfortunately a propaganda film used to incite American war fever against the Germans for their famed U-boat attack. (“The man who fired the shot was decorated for it by the Kaiser!” the end title card reads. “AND YET THEY TELL US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”) But aside from this inflammatory statement, the twelve-minute piece is a profoundly moving meditation on violent tragedy, drawn with astonishing realism by McCay based on a model of the ocean liner that was provided to him. The explosions are vibrant and shocking and the liner gradually descends into the depths with aching slowness as life boats are lowered and hundreds of “dots” fall from its deck. McCay works wonders with the steam billowing from the boat’s smokestacks, undulating like snakes in the throes of death.

The Sinking of the ‘Lusitania’ is by far the most sober film in McCay’s oeuvre, which includes such gems as the macabre How a Mosquito Operates (1912). The film details the actions of a mosquito the size of a man’s head as it inserts its syringe-like beak deep into various portions of the man’s face as he attempts to sleep, a film that is as unnerving to watch as it sounds and yet manages to play as a comedy, largely due to its timing. The disc ends with The Flying House (c. 1921), an exhilarating short film involving a couple’s dream of flying their propellered house away from the earth and into space in order to escape from their creditors. The flying sequences and aerial views could easily stand alongside Miyazaki’s work 65 years later in their grace and detail.

The disc contains a sensitive piano score by Gabriel Thibaudeau and a supremely informative commentary by animator and scholar, John Canemaker. Despite its moments of great popular acceptance, McCay never made a significant living off of his animation, and his employer, William Randolf Hearst, insisted he focus on making newspaper comic strips–and increasingly editorial cartoons–so McCay eventually stopped making films altogether, leaving the genre for other pioneers. Luckily for us, his work can still be seen.

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