Thursday, March 8, 2012

Early Cinematic Dinosaurs and Dragons

Kong-blogging, essay 7 of 15 blog entries on
Skull Island in King Kong (1933)

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), a film by Winsor McCay.

Theoretically, it would seem like dinosaurs and dragons were tailor-made for the movies.  But as filmmakers quickly learned, believable giant monsters—with the stress on “believable”—turned out to be difficult to capture on film. Therefore, most early films went the easy route and excluded giant scaly beasts from their casts.  Mary Pickford became a star; T. Rex had to wait.

Fortunately, there were some uncompromising early visionaries who insisted their art demanded the presence of a dinosaur or dragon.

McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur
dances for the camera.
First visionary: Winsor McCay was an artist of dizzying talent, nationally famous for his extraordinary “Little Nemo” and “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” comic strips.  With his vaudeville background, McCay became an early movie enthusiast and began considering the possibilities for animating his drawings.  His first major film success was a dinosaur cartoon: Gertie the Dinosaur.

Created in 1914, Gertie the Dinosaur is a remarkably sophisticated hand-drawn cartoon.  The first version was five minutes in length and was designed to work in tandem with McCay’s rapid-fire cartoon-drawing vaudeville act.  While the film was projected, McCay interacted with the brontosaurus on the screen.  But the real magic wasn’t in the mixed-media performance but rather the charming puppy-like personality that McCay gave to Gertie, the first saurian star of the screen.

McCay later revived her for a sequel, Gertie on Tour (1921), where Gertie left her original prehistoric setting and toured contemporary America.  While only a short fragment of the sequel has survived, McCay left tantalizing drawings of Gertie using the Brooklyn Bridge as a trampoline—four years before another brontosaurus took a plunge off London Bridge in The Lost World (1925).

An animated Buster Keaton
perched atop an
animated brontosaurus in
The Three Ages (1923).
Second visionary:  Buster Keaton’s acrobatic comedy and movie-making prowess resulted in a string of brilliant shorts and features in the 1920s.  For his first self-directed feature, The Three Ages in 1923, Keaton realized he needed a dinosaur.  He envisioned a gag entrance for himself, riding on the back of a brontosaurus and then scrambling to the top of the dinosaur’s head to scan the horizon in a typical Keaton pose.  As comfortable with special effects as he was with slapstick, Keaton employed early stop-motion claymation to bring his dinosaur to life.

Closeup of the dragon
in Siegfried (1924).
Third visionary:  Over in Germany, up-and-coming film director Fritz Lang corralled the mammoth resources available at UFA Studios to film a two-part Die Nibelungen, based on the legendary Norse stories of Siegfried, Brunhild, and Kriemhild.  The first of the two films, Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924), begins the hero’s journey with the slaying of a dragon.  Sparing no expense, Lang had the studio technicians construct a massive 60-foot long puppet dragon, operated by a full crew sweating inside the beast.  The dragon appears to be based on the model of the recently discovered Komodo dragons, dressed up with some dinosaurian spikes down its spine.

Fairbanks slays the dragon in
The Thief of Bagdad (1924).
Fourth visionary:  American film star Douglas Fairbanks saw the Siegfried dragon and instantly knew he needed a dragon, too.  An often-underestimated pioneer of commercial Hollywood, the very athletic Fairbanks virtually invented the Hollywood swashbuckler with The Mark of Zorro (1920), added grandeur to the formula with the massive set designs for his Robin Hood (1922), and was on the lookout for an even bigger project…  He settled on an Arabian Nights pastiche, The Thief of Bagdad, with a plot that would easily incorporate a Siegfried-style confrontation between hero and dragon.  Working with production design genius William Cameron Menzies, Fairbanks and his chosen director Raoul Walsh were able to fashion a fire-breathing dragon that nearly lived up to its German predecessor.

Not counting the Willis O’Brien work that we’ll get to soon (and maybe a half-dozen minor shorts by others), that’s just about it for dinosaurs and dragons in the years preceding King Kong (1933).  It took considerable effort to make a believable dinosaur or dragon in those days, and only a few film visionaries—those mentioned above—were prepared to invest the time or money.

Surprisingly, the tremendous success of King Kong didn’t change things, with 1930s and 1940s Hollywood cinema remaining largely dino-free.  Perhaps Kong set the bar too high.

Reference Sources
The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner
Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper by Mark Cotta Vaz
Willis O'Brien: Special Effects Genius by Steve Archer
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 1, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 2, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time by Richard Milner
All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins by Valerie Bramwell and Robert M. Peck
Special features on the two-disc special edition, King Kong (1933) by Warner Home Video Inc.
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch King Kong...
Purchase a King Kong DVD or Blu-Ray set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent King Kong at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2012 Lee Price

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