Winsor McCay’s Gertie, the wonderfully trained dinosaurus!

Posted: February 8, 2014 by Paul D Brinkman in History of Science, Research Blog
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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Pioneer cartoonist Winsor McCay was Gertie’s creator.

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Gertie debuted at Chicago’s Palace Theater on February 8, 1914.

Gertie, the world’s first animated dinosaur, made her screen debut at Chicago’s Palace Theater on 8 February 1914, one hundred years ago today. Pioneer cartoonist Winsor McCay created the animated dinosaur as part of his vaudeville act. At the beginning of the show, a tuxedoed McCay would stand on stage with a whip and other props and lecture his audience about the making of animated films. Standing to the side of the film screen, he would then introduce Gertie, “the only dinosaur in captivity.” Once the animated film was playing, McCay would interact with Gertie, calling her out, giving her commands, even throwing her an apple. Near the end of the act, he would disappear backstage and then seem to reappear in the film. Gertie would then pick her animated master up, put him on her back, and walk away while McCay bowed to the audience.

Reviews were positive and the show was a popular success. Soon, McCay moved his act to New York City. Unfortunately, McCay’s regular employer, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, was unhappy about the time he was spending on stage. Under pressure to curtail the act, McCay agreed to extend the film with a lengthy, live-action prologue, part of which was filmed at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. He also added title cards – a silent film staple – to replace his stage act. The longer film then toured the country’s motion picture theaters as Gertie the Dinosaur.

She was a scream!

The longer version of the film is the best-preserved of McCay’s animated work. It is now listed on the US National Film Registry. Click here to see the entire film.

A cell from Gertie the Dinosaur. Click here to see the entire film.

A cell from Gertie the Dinosaur.

A single panel from McCay's comic strip Little Nemo (1913).

A single panel from McCay’s comic strip Little Nemo (1913).

 

A political cartoon from 1922 on the obsolescence of war.

A political cartoon from 1922 on the obsolescence of war.

 

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Comments
  1. Eric Knisley says:

    McCay was one of a kind, and arguably the most important cartoonist/animator of the first half of the 20th century. His astonishing newspaper comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland” combines bizarre, dreamlike storylines with virtuoso artwork in a way that’s never been matched. The Gertie animation shows the same qualities!

    • Paul D Brinkman says:

      Dear Eric:

      I added two new McCay comics, one that pre-dates and one that post-dates Gertie. Notice how similar the dinosaur is in all three works.

  2. Paul D Brinkman says:

    Agreed, Eric, McCay was one of a kind. Thanks for your comment. I’ll dig through my folders and see if I can find one of his dinosaur comic strips. I’ll post it here if/when I do.

  3. CD says:

    What a sweet look Gertie has on her face! I think I like the poster better than the animation even though her personality really comes through in her movie. Were all of the animations simple line drawings or were any colored like the poster?

    • Paul D Brinkman says:

      I’m afraid the animations were all in black and white, CD. McCay did do some colored comic strips of dinosaurs, however. One of them has recently been posted to the blog. Thanks for your comment/question.

  4. LB says:

    He was way ahead of his time. Had he done this when the world had caught up with him, we might have had a McCayland in Anaheim and a McCay World in Orlando.

    • Paul D Brinkman says:

      I read somewhere that Walt Disney himself made a similar suggestion to McCay’s son. You’ll be pleased to know that there’s a Gertie ice cream parlor at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (at Walt Disney World) in tribute to McCay’s pioneering work.

  5. iljajj says:

    Despite what you might think of him / it, we have a lot to thank Hearst and the yellow press of the early 1900s for: not only was McCay paid by Hearst, Andrew Carnegie’s interest in (and financial commitment in) paleontology was provoked by a Hearst newspaper page.

    • Paul D Brinkman says:

      Agreed. Hearst and other newspaper publishers at the turn of the twentieth century played a major role in creating modern dinomania!

  6. Roy Campbell says:

    It’s tempting to consider who might have left the greater cultural impression on us about dinosaurs, Windsor McCay or Charles Knight. Knight masterfully turned bone into flesh and constructed a complete world that fired the public imagination. But the enduring popularity of dinosaurs in our culture isn’t only defined by terrifying predators, impenetrable swamps, smoldering volcanoes and pending doom. Instead we have friendly giants and a world that somehow refuses to die in both head and heart.

    • iljajj says:

      I would say that McCay’s influence was more immediate, and Knight’s (far) more long-lasting – mainly because of the media they used.

  7. Paul D Brinkman says:

    That’s an excellent question, Roy. My knee-jerk answer would be Knight, since the image of dinosaurs as terrifying predators is so pervasive. But you’re absolutely right that the image of dinosaurs as friendly giants is also still with us – like it or not – in Barney, Dinosaur Train, etc. Gertie was definitely the first of the friendly giants. Just look at that sweet face!

  8. Dan Ksepka says:

    I saw this movie (not live obviously) and Gertie is the greatest! Very clever stuff.

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