Today, February 8th, is the 100th birthday of the world’s oldest living dinosaur. Gertie, a charming and playful brontosaurus, was created by pioneering American animator Winsor McCay back in 1914. She dances, she does tricks and she has an enormous appetite. And, given that she’s a cartoon, she’s got a much better chance of survival than the rest of her species, buried forever under Alberta or somewhere similar.
February 8th is actually the anniversary of the first time McCay and Gertie “performed” together. The original Gertie the Dinosaur cartoon was part of the animator and cartoonist’s vaudeville act. He would stand next to the screen and command Gertie to perform tricks for the audience, perfectly timed to his short film. Unsurprisingly, this was incredibly popular and McCay’s vaudeville performances began to occupy so much of his time that he began to slouch on his print work for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. When the tycoon cracked down on McCay’s distracted schedule, the animator decided to turn the original Gertie animations into a longer, theatrically released short. He stuck a live action framing device around Gertie’s tricks, in which he and some friends visit the Museum of Natural History in New York and he makes a bet that he can take the skeleton of a brontosaurus and bring it back to life.
For a long time, Gertie the Dinosaur was considered the very first animated film ever made, which isn’t technically true. That honor is now usually reserved for French animator Émile Cohl and his abstract fantasy, 1908’s Fantasmagorie. Still, Gertie gets to claim a number of smaller firsts, including its use of such techniques as keyframes, registration marks, tracing paper and animation loops. The two films taken together, moreover, make a pretty compelling case that very early films can be masterpieces in spite of their perhaps rudimentary character.
Fantasmagorie, which you can watch on YouTube, is a very different sort of cartoon. It’s very short and contains no plot whatsoever. Instead, it’s a surreal collection of images that twist and turn into one another. McCay, on the other hand, has one foot solidly in the realm of realistic animation, in spite of his entirely impossible star. The laws of physics at least leave some impression, though he doesn’t follow them exactly. Gertie dances about like a trained elephant or an enormous dog, and you can feel her heaviness. Yet at the same time, the way she drinks up an entire lake and eats a whole tree presents a bendable understanding of physical space, one that hints at abstraction even if it doesn’t quite go there.
This slight difference between McCay’s beast and, say, the later cartoons of Walt Disney is key. Disney also had entire casts of impossible animals, talking mice and ducks and the like. Gertie the Dinosaur also begins to construct a larger world of charismatic beats, with its sea monster and woolly mammoth cameos. Yet in Disney there’s a commitment to a lyrical but still very realistic beauty. McCay is more willfully strange strange, which led New York Times critic Richard Eder to equate his work with “necromancy” back in 1975. The proportions are a little bit off, and the final images of McCay himself jumping into the film to ride off on Gertie’s back hold an almost anarchic style that would be too rough for Disney.
McCay, like Cohl, was both one of the first and one of the best. Gertie the Dinosaur holds up really well, as do Fantasmagorie and the stop-motion insect movies of their contemporary Soviet animator Ladislaw Starewicz. Early 20th century cartoons are often wonderfully exciting, even after a hundred years of further innovation and crazy new techniques.
That said, McCay perhaps saw these new ideas and methods coming and embedded reminders of his own techniques into his films accordingly. The introduction to his theatrical version of Gertie the Dinosaur, embedded below, does its absolute best to drive home not just how magical animation is but how incredibly tedious it is to do. Before he finally shows the cartoon and wins this fictional bet, he makes a point to present the enormous stack of paper drawings that needed to be completed in the process. As they tumble all over the floor, one can’t help but think that McCay might be worrying about his reputation. Animation is one of the great crafts, but sometimes it seems that even today we don’t hold it in as high regard as we should. It’s impossible to watch a McCay film and make that mistake.