Judge Mike Pinsky personally hand-drew his review of this documentary of the cartoon pioneer.
"The greatest contributing factor to my success was an absolute craving to draw pictures all the time."—Winsor McCay, 1926 letter to Claire Briggs
Over at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida, a lonely snack bar shaped like a dinosaur sits alone by the edge of a pond. The sign above it says "Dinosaur Gertie's Ice Cream of Extinction." Most people never ask why it is there; fewer read the informational plaque. They probably just assume it is some forgotten Walt Disney character, or just some arbitrary piece of faux-LA kitsch architecture. It is the sole acknowledgment anywhere on Disney property that when it comes to the history of animation, Uncle Walt did not always come first.
In a 1927 essay on how to become a successful animator, comics pioneer Winsor McCay recommends that you practice drawing constantly, study current design, learn perspective and draftsmanship, and avoid rich, greasy food. Born in 1869 (or 1871, or 1867, depending on whom you ask), McCay was a self-taught artist, working on billboards and other commercial art until he transitioned to comic strips. The comic strip was still in its infancy, and McCay tried out several simple concepts, like "Little Sammy Sneeze," in which a kid with nasty allergies created havoc. But a grasp of coherent narrative always eluded McCay, who was much better at strange and often arbitrary imagery. Dream sequences were his forte, from "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend" to his long-running masterpiece "Little Nemo in Slumberland." Creatures and inanimate objects bend and twist, grow and shrink, and metamorphose into—well, anything you can imagine might take shape in a dream.
A restless workaholic, McCay was intrigued by the possibilities of cinema and the early experiments in animation. Legend has it that a bet in 1909 spurred the artist to draw 4,000 images of characters from his "Little Nemo" strip in a matter of months. You can see McCay and a bunch of actors from the Vitagraph Studio recreate that bet in a 1911 short that opens Winsor McCay: The Master Collection. Watch McCay's curious ability to zip through delicately detailed artwork, forming the lead characters (Nemo, Flip, the Imp) of his most famous comic strip. Then they come to life in their hand-colored glory, tumbling forward and back in three dimensions. Immediately, we understand that McCay instinctively understands how to manipulate space in film.
Milestone's DVD release of McCay's surviving animated work is a revelation for those who might have only seen clips of the master's work, if any at all. While some of the prints are still a bit scratched, they look far better than I have ever seen before.
Of course, the centerpiece of the collection is the 1914 short Gertie the Dinosaur. Yes, the inspiration for that ice cream stand I mentioned above. This was McCay's most popular work, usually presented in a vaudeville show during which McCay would perform live shtick with an animated dinosaur on a movie screen. And what a dinosaur Gertie was! She may have been the first animated character with genuine personality, with a playful sense of humor and an eagerness to entertain. McCay spent years touring with Gertie, although the film included here incorporates the vaudeville material into another story in which McCay makes a bet to animate a "dinosaurus." What is the deal with McCay's compulsive gambling in these shorts?
Winsor McCay: The Master Edition presents ten short films, some of which only exist in unfinished form. Three late Rarebit Fiend cartoons from about 1921 show off McCay's penchant for dream imagery (Edwin S. Porter had directed a live-action Rarebit Fiend short in 1906). There are a pair of incomplete experiments ("The Centaurs" and "Flip's Circus"), an early try at storytelling ("How a Mosquito Operates"), and a fragment of a Gertie sequel, in which our favorite dinosaur plays with a train. All of these highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of McCay's work. On the plus side, his draftsmanship is always impeccable, and he has a fine sense of perspective.
In this sense, his real masterpiece is his 1918 short, The Sinking of the Lusitania, an unabashed propaganda film so meticulous in its detail (McCay made over 25,000 drawings) that you might mistake parts of it for live-action footage. However, apart from its righteous indignation (the attack was "a dastardly deed done in a dastardly way"), the film is much like watching archival footage, without a human face to attach to the terrible carnage. Apart from Gertie, McCay was not particularly good at creating memorable characters in animation. Perhaps this connects to his vaudeville routine: he feared getting upstaged by his own creations. Or perhaps he was just better at visual details and less apt at narrative.
Animation scholar John Canemaker (subject of his own fine collection from Milestone) fills in some of the history behind these shorts on an informative commentary track. Sometimes he gets a little puzzled on the later shorts, when the historical record is lacking. For the most part though, he tells great stories and helps us understand McCay's importance to the history of animation. His 1976 documentary, Remembering Winsor McCay, consists of an interview with one of McCay's surviving assistants. You can see how extensive Milestone's restoration is by comparing the featured shorts to the poor quality clips Canemaker was obligated to use in 1976.
Toward the end of his brief dalliance with animation, McCay started billing himself as the "inventor of animated drawing." Indeed, he likely quit animation because he felt he was not getting the credit he thought he was due. But this was hubris: McCay was a pioneer, but not the inventor. As Canemaker notes, McCay's work fell out of favor as American tastes changed. By the mid-1920s, animation was ready to move past what McCay had accomplished. Winsor McCay advanced the medium but hit a dead end at storytelling. Even in his comics, he never quite mastered either narrative structure or dialogue. Of course, for animation to move forward, other artists would have to create indelible characters and more ambitious stories.
But like Gertie the Dinosaur, Winsor McCay was there first, leaving an enormous footprint on animation for others to fill.
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