Posted by David Kalat on February 9, 2013
While we’re on the topic of great animators, it’s well past time I got around to saying a few words about Winsor McCay.
He’s rightly hailed as one of the early pioneers of animated cartoons. You can’t call him the creator of cartoons–not only did others get there a little before he did, but really, every single movie ever made is animation. Real life proceeds seamlessly, continuously, while movies sample intermittent fragments. Live action takes samples at the same rate at which the resulting sequence of stills is going to replayed–the interstitial moments can be safely ignored. But anytime you extend that interstitial gap, and replay the footage at a different rate than that at which it was taken, you are invoking the principle of animation. This is the gimmick that underlies Melies’ trickery as much as it is the way that drawings can come to life.
But that didn’t stop McCay from staking out a claim for himself as the first cartoonist in his 1911 movie debut, Winsor McCay the Famous Cartoonist of the NY Herald and His Moving Comics.
When you watch this delightful short, though, there’s a strange balance being struck. On the face of it, this seems like a movie about how you make animated cartoons.
Just like Preston Blair sharing the keys to the kingdom by explaining how to make animated cartoons, here’s a man who, even if he isn’t the very first cartoon maker ever, is just about as close to first as you can get–and he starts the whole thing off by explaining how it’s done. It would be as if Robert-Houdin, father of stage magic, began the entire tradition of stage magic by coming on stage on his very first show and explaining how to saw a lady in half.
So we get McCay stockpiling reams of paper and barrels of ink. There he is drawing thousands of nearly identical pictures (the intertitles claim he drew 4,000). We can see the faint pencil lines he used as guides to line up the action, the numbers on each page to keep them in order. We see his flip-wheel he sets up to test the action. We see him line the images up in the wooden frame he uses to register each image for the camera…
But for all this, if you didn’t already know how that movies were a succession of still images that appear to move because of their rapid-fire proximity, and that therefore you can photograph a bunch of stills and produce the same illusion of movement with inanimate drawings, all the accoutrements and appurtenances he shows here are not enough to make that clear. In other words, as making-of’s go, this one presupposes you already know. The joy is in watching, not in learning.
Wait a minute!
The opening sequence shows McCay boasting to his buddies that he can make pictures move. His “buddies” for some reason include seminal slapstick comedian John Bunny, because if you’re gonna make a short film in 1911 you might as well have John Bunny in it. They dutifully laugh and scoff at him: “Pictures move! The very idea!” And then he trundles off to draw four thousand pictures. The last section of the movie, when he proves his boast and makes those pictures move (in color, no less), he does so by screening his efforts to those same nay-sayers.
It’s all staged, of course–did I mention his friends included a top movie star?–but the staging is centered around positing that people don’t understand how cartoons work. These onscreen skeptics, Bunny included, can’t make the intuitive leap that if a famous cartoonist simply drew a couple of thousand very similar pictures and then photographed them, he could do exactly what he said and make pictures move. Yet the movie itself presupposes that the audience does understand this well enough that certain details (like, y’know, the photographing of the pictures) can be safely elided.
The movie successfully has its cake and eats it too–and this is a key feature of McCay’s singular movie career.
My favorite of McCay’s metatextual contortions, though, is in his newspaper series Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend. Week after week, he drew outlandish, bizarre things, and then in the very last panel some poor sap would sit up in bed, dripping in sweat, and curse the rarebit they ate before bed.
(Rarebit is just melted cheese on toast. Supposedly if you eat a lot of rich food just before bed you get indigestion and troubled dreams. I’ve never had rarebit per se but I have gorged on fondue and raclette, and never given myself surreal nightmares)
Even if you didn’t suss out the premise from the title alone, it wouldn’t take you more than two or three entries of the exact same premise to realize that the point of this strip was to indulge in crazy surrealist imagery and then pull back to the “it was just a dream” finale.
By the time McCay got around to working with director Edwin S. Porter on making his 1906 film version of the popular strip, it had already run in papers for about 2 years–plenty of time for audiences to become accustomed to the concept. And although he only released one movie explicitly titled Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, there were plenty of others that used the same concept–Bug Vaudeville, for example.
Between his newspaper strips and movies, McCay saturated audiences with the idea that outlandish images equalled dreams. (“Oh, I shouldn’ta eaten all that cheese!”), there’s no sensible way to call this a twist ending. Heck, in some of these he starts with the person worrying about their impending cheese-induced nightmare!
Let’s make this clear: we’re talking about 1906, when movies that run longer than 10 minutes are considered “features.” Movies are black and white, and silent. We’re barely 20 years away from the very first ever movie ever shown, when just showing anything moving at all was considered thrilling. And already the “it was just a dream” ending is too familiar to function as a twist.
It is now time to point out that McCay’s strip also ran under the title Dream of a Lobster Fiend, and in these it was a filling meal of lobster that triggered the nightmares. And in 1912, an unauthorized film version called Dream of a Lobster Fiend poached the idea wholesale.
Where am I going with this? I’m headed here, to 1916, and Roscoe Arbuckle’s short comedy He Did and He Didn’t. This has been a notorious title among Arbuckle-maniacs, because of its outre subject matter. In it, he appears to murder his wife in a jealous rage, only to wake up in a sweat and blame his nightmare on the heavy lobster dinner the night before. For viewers conditioned to connect Arbuckle’s name to his scandal, to accusations of murdering young ladies, finding such dark material in his comedy is like finding fool’s gold–it attracts attention but isn’t as worthy as you think it is.
Audiences in 1916 who saw Arbuckle stuff his face with lobster and then go to bed, weren’t fooled for a second by any of the violent stuff that followed, any more than anyone reading McCay’s strips or watching his cartoons would have been surprised to reach that last moment, “I shouldn’ta eaten all that.”
Right from the very beginning, the “it was just a dream” ending was one of McCay’s metatextual gimmicks, where the audience was expected to be in on the joke from the outset.
Any subsequent attempt to implement the dream ending as a surprise twist had to chafe against this history.
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