Winsor McCay

Newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay, who created the famous “Little Nemo in Slumberland” comic strip in the early 1900s, broke into animated films with his 1911 short Little Nemo and then went on to animate Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), a short film in which the brontosaurus Gertie frolics through a series of prehistoric adventures. The film’s novelty was so great that McCay often appeared in person with the film, seemingly instructing Gertie to perform various tricks or talking back to her when she misbehaved. Both films used literally thousands of drawings, each photographed one frame at a time, to create the illusion of movement.

In 1918 McCay created his most ambitious film, the realistic The Sinking of the Lusitania, which documented the famous naval disaster. By the early 1920s, however, he dropped out of the animated cartoon business and returned to his comic strips, leaving the field wide open for other animated cartoon pioneers, such as Walt Disney and Ub


A frame from Winsor McCay’s pioneering animation film Gertie the Dinosaur (1914).

At the same time that The Great Train Robbery was making its mark in cinema history, many other cineastes around the world were also advancing cinema both as a commercial medium and an art form. Cecil M. Hepworth, working in England, began his career as an actor in director James Williamson’s Fire (1903) before making his famous narrative film Rescued by Rover (1905), which Hepworth produced, wrote, directed, and starred in, along with his wife and child. Rescued by Rover is often cited as the first film that used paid actors, in the person of Hepworth’s immediate family; it is also the forerunner of the Rin Tin Tin and Lassie films, in that an omniscient dog, the Hepworths’ own Rover, is really the star of the film.

The plot of Rescued by Rover is simple and straightforward: a vengeful Gypsy who has been rebuffed while panhandling kidnaps the Hepworths’ infant child. The Gypsy absconds with the child to an attic garret, and then proceeds to drink herself into a blind stupor. When they

discover the abduction the Hepworths are at a loss, but Rover seizes the moment and is soon hot on the baby’s trail. Finding the infant in the Gypsy’s squalid lair, Rover returns to his master, convinces Hepworth to follow him, and together man and dog rescue the child.

The smooth cutting of the film’s chase sequences was unparalleled at the time, and the naturalism of the film (shot for the most part on location, with only a few sets) was a further revelation. In addition, the film ends with a freeze-frame of the happy family reunited, a device that has become a cliché but was then strikingly original.

In Germany, the producer, inventor, and impresario Oskar Messter supervised the creation of more than three hundred films from 1896 through 1924, becoming the father of the German film industry. In France, screen comedian Max Linder, for many observers the forerunner of Charles Chaplin, was already honing his comic craft in films like Albert Capellani and Lu-cien Nonguet’s La Vie de Polichinelle (The Legend of Polichinelle, 1907), an elaborately staged farce, while in Italy, Arturo Ambrosio and Luigi Maggi created the first of many versions of Gli Ultimi giorni di Pompeii (The Last Days of Pompeii, 1908), beginning a long tradition of Italian spectacle that was followed by such epics as Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? (1912) and numerous other “sword and sandal” films.

At the same time, the first legal battles over the use of the cinematographic apparatus were being fought, as Thomas Edison sought to suppress his rivals with a series of lawsuits. Edison had first begun asserting his position as the inventor of the motion picture projector and camera (which he was not) as early as 1897, in a suit against cameraman and inventor William K. L. Dickson and Edwin S. Porter, two of Edison’s most gifted film technicians, who had (briefly) dared to break away from their mentor. But other, more intense battles for supremacy in the new medium lay ahead, as Edison formed the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1908 and attempted to monopolize the cinema trade.

From a technical standpoint, even in the late 1890s and early 1900s, the cinema had already begun to experiment with synchronized sound (in the films of Alice Guy for Gaumont’s Chronophone, as well as other related processes, which date from the late 1890s) and the use of hand-tinted, or machine-applied, color. In Australia, the pioneering director Charles Tait brought to life the violent career of a legendary outlaw in The Story of the Kelly Gang (a k a Ned Kelly and His Gang, 1906), one of the first narrative films to run a respectable seventy minutes, or the standard feature length we have grown accustomed to today. “Newsreels” of sporting events, most notably the Jim Jeffries-Thomas Sharkey fight of 3 November 1899, photographed by Biograph using multiple cameras in its brutal entirety, became popular with audiences and led to early attempts at film censorship.

The infant medium was growing up rapidly, creating documentaries, exploitation films, brief narratives, and films of ever-increasing length and ambition. Impresarios around the world were copying, pirating, and importing motion picture cameras to create a bewildering series of actualities, staged dramas, comedies, and phantasmagorical spectacles, copying, for the most part, the leading pioneers. But as yet, film still had not acquired a detailed grammar of shots and editorial practices; while much had been accomplished, much remained to be done.

D. W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, Lois Weber, and other key filmmakers of the silent era would transform the innovations of the end of the nineteenth century into an international industry, starting with the use of the studio system, and with it, the foundations of genre filmmaking, the star system, and the industrialization of the cinema.

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Winsor McCay