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Directors: Herbert M. Dawley & Willis O’Brien
Release Date: November 17, 1918
Rating: ★★★

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain © Willis O'BrienThis film was produced, acted and animated by Herbert M. Dawley and Willis O’Brien.

Dawley plays ‘Uncle Jack Holmes’, who tells two boys a story about how he camped out on slumber mountain and meets the ghost of Mad Dick there (played by O’Brien). The ghost tells Holmes to watch through a magic instrument, and the uncle suddenly sees prehistoric animals in the distance.

At this point the film is nine minutes away, and by O’Brien’s skillful animation we watch a Brontosaurus wandering, a Diatryma (a giant flightless bird, now Gastornis) catching a snake, two Triceratopses fighting, and a Tyrannosaurus killing one of the Triceratopses.

Especially the animation on the first Triceratops is well done, O’Brien even shows the creature breathing. Another nice detail is that of the Tyrannosaurus licking its lips. Most importantly, O’Brien doesn’t show the prehistoric creatures not as monsters but as convincingly living creatures. No wonder this master animation was asked to do the dinosaur animation for ‘The Lost World’ (1925), and for all kinds of creatures in ‘King Kong‘ (1933).

It’s a pity the film is rather lackluster (in the end it all appears to be a dream, and even the boys don’t really buy that trite ending), for the animation is certainly worth watching once.

Watch ‘The Ghost of Slumber Mountain’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Ghost of Slumber Mountain’ is available on the Blu-Ray of ‘The Lost World’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: 1918
Rating: ★★★

Les adventures des Pieds-Nickelés © Éclair‘Les adventures des Pieds-Nickelés’ is a short series of animated cartoons that Émile Cohl made for Éclair.

The first episode hasn’t survived, and only parts of the fifth, but from the surviving episodes one can distill that this series is about three criminals: Ribouldingue, who has a beard, Croquignol, and Filochard, who wears an eyepatch. The three flee from an inspector and have all kinds of adventures in Paris.

Cohl’s sketchy drawing style looks like something of the 19th century, and his animation, mostly done in cut-out, is rather stiff and badly timed, with none of the movement being remotely natural. Yet, Cohl’s gags are impressive as they seem to be embryonic versions of common cartoon gags of the 1940s and 1950s. For example, in the second episode there’s a scene in which numerous policemen pop-up from everywhere.

The third episode is the most impressive in this respect: the short contains a scene in which the trio enters a subterranean and rather nightmarish chamber in which everything can happen, making this scene a direct forerunner of ‘Bimbo’s Initiation‘ from 1931. Later, when a part of a fence falls on the inspector, he breaks into several pieces, just like a Tex Avery character. The fourth episode features a policeman who, when hitting a wall, contracts into a flat disc, and later Filochard rolls up like a piece of paper.

The fifth episode is the most incomprehensible of the four surviving films, partly because of only parts of it have survived. The best gag of this episode is when Croquignol almost drowns, and when rescued spits out hundreds of liters of water, including some fishes, only to ask for a drink.

All these gags are way ahead of the humor of contemporary American cartoons, but combined with the archaic drawing style the end result is a strange mix, indeed.

Watch ‘Les adventures des Pieds-Nickelés’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Les exploits de Farfadet’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Earl Hurd
Release Date: November 20, 1918
Stars: Bobby Bumps
Rating: ★★★★

Before and After © Earl HurdIn ‘Before and After’ Bobby Bumps tricks his father into buying a hair restoring lotion, with the help of his pooch Fido and two other dogs.

Bobby spends his father’s dollar on ice cream, but gets spanked in the end by father’s scalp massage machine.

This is a charming short cartoon, full of elegant designs and fine animation, even if it remains as stiff and repetitive as that of contemporary cartoons. But at least the poses look lifelike.

‘Before and After’ is available on the DVD ‘Before Walt’

Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date: July 1918
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Still from 'The Sinking of the Lusitania' featuring people abandoning the capsizing steamerMcCay’s fourth venture into animation is even more curious than the preceding three (‘Little Nemo‘, ‘How A Mosquito Operates‘ and ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘). It’s an almost real time report of the sinking of the passenger steamer ‘The Lusitania’ by a German submarine in May 1915.

Like McCay’s earlier films, ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ starts with some live action footage of the artist at work, helped by one Mr. Beach who provides McCay with the details on the sinking. Yet, this live action introduction is brief, and soon we cut to the real event.

The action depicted is explained by the title cards, who tell us when and how the ship was hit by two torpedoes fired from a German U-boat. The film also tells us about the number of passengers who perished, and singles out four of them. The tone of the title cards is agitated, and angry, pointing to Germany as a cruel and merciless enemy, and ending ending with the bold sentence “And they tell us not to hate the Hun!“. This message no doubt was rather welcome in a time in which the United States joined the war effort.

McCay’s animation is of a startling realism: the rolling waves, the steamer and U-boat moving in perspective, the explosions and smoke are totally convincing, and at the same time retain their graphic quality. The impact of the images is greatly enhanced by the use of cels (‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania” is the first McCay film to do so), and lovely background art of ocean skies. Despite the fine animation, the action is on the slow side, with people sometimes falling in slow motion into the sea. Yet, the slowness adds to the terrifying experience of the cruelty depicted.

The staging is superb: McCay uses only a few ‘camera angles’, most of them possible in real life, enhancing the idea of an objective record of events. Only two shots escape the documentary style: one shot of two fish fleeing from an approaching torpedo, and a final shot of a mother with child sinking into the sea. Clearly, McCay wanted the viewer to have the feeling he was witnessing the event in real time, as if he was there. Of course, the documentary style only enhances the clear propagandistic message against Germany. The bold propaganda may not have aged very well, McCay’s images certainly have: such command of perspective, such elegance of drawing and such dramatic yet convincingly ‘realistic’ staging is still impressive, one hundred years later. ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ thus is a great example of how animation can be used in documentaries to show events that could not or have not been put on film. Strangely, this use of animation was not seen again, until the 21st century, when ‘Waltz with Bashir’ (2008) entered the cinemas.

In all, ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ is an astonishing film, which may be both the first animated propaganda film and the first animated documentary. It’s totally unique in its drama, and, despite the propaganda, an all time masterpiece of animation.

Watch ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Winsor McCay’s fourth film
To Winsor McCay’s third film: Gertie The Dinosaur
To Winsor McCay’s fifth, unfinished film: The Centaurs

‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ is available on the DVD ‘Winsor McCay the Master Edition’

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