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[Detail] Krazy Kat goes a-wooing. 1916.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Animating the Prehistoric

In 1858, the first nearly-complete dinosaur skeleton was excavated from a pit in Haddonfield, New Jersey. The project became the basis for the founding of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and sparked an interest in dinosaurs and fossil hunting. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution appeared a year later in his book, On the Origin of Species. The notion of "survival of the fittest" and a prehistoric populace including dinosaurs became familiar features of popular culture in subsequent decades.

One dinosaur surrounded by other dinosaurs.

Gertie dreams of dinosaurs in Gertie on Tour.

Winsor McCay introduced the first dinosaur to the vaudeville stage in 1914. Gertie, an animated dinosaur projected on a screen behind her creator, responded to McCay's whip cracks and commands and allowed him to climb her back for the finale. A print of the live-action and animated sequences circulated in vaudeville theaters and Gertie quickly became a national sensation. This collection contains an excerpt from McCay's 1921 animated sequel, Gertie on Tour, in which the playful dinosaur temporarily derails a train before dreaming "of other days when she was the life of the party" with her dinosaur friends.

Other animators kept their dinosaurs in a prehistoric age but that didn't stop them from commenting upon contemporary culture. Willis O'Brien's The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, A Prehistoric Tragedy (1917) presented a tale of three stone-age suitors competing for the affections of Miss Araminta Rockface. The stone-age story contains plenty of modern references such as a character bringing a bouquet of cactus and Ms. Rockface requesting, "Won't you come into the drawing room? I should offer you tea, but tea has unfortunately not yet been discovered."

Theophilus Ivoryhead ultimately wins out over his rivals after it appears that he killed Wild Willie, the Missing Link. An irate dinosaur, however, caused Willie's untimely extinction after the dim ape mistook the lizard's tail for an edible snake. The prehistoric humans fare slightly better with animals that outwit, but never really hurt them.

A performer balancing on a dinosaur's head and tail before an audience, stonehenge in the background.

A dinosaur performs near Stonehenge in The First Circus.

Tony Sarg offered a different take on the relationship between prehistoric man and their animal counterparts in The First Circus (1921). The film's intertitle announces, "In 1871 P.T. Barnum started his now world famous circus . . . . But he was small potatoes compared to Stonehenge Circus 30,009 years ago." An audience looks on as anachronistic acrobats wielding sticks use a dinosaur for a trampoline and a tightrope.

Four years after Sarg's films, the famous Scopes trial tested the theory of evolution in a Dayton, Tennessee courtroom. Biology teacher John Thomas Scopes was ultimately convicted of teaching the theory of evolution in a Tennessee high school and fined $100. Both evolutionists and fundamentalists claimed the case as a victory for their side.

  • Why do you think that Gertie's 1914 debut on the vaudeville stage was so popular?
  • Why do you think that animators were interested in depicting dinosaurs? What advantages did the medium offer?
  • What is the significance of Gertie's dreams of being around other dinosaurs in the sequel?
  • How do these different films depict the relationship between prehistoric humans and animals? Why do you think that this relationship might have been a resonant topic?
  • What is the significance of the fact that Wild Willie, the Missing Link, is killed in The Dinosaur and the Missing Link . . .?
  • Fifteen years after creating Wild Willie, O'Brien created one of the most famous early-movie monsters, King Kong. How does the great ape of the motion picture compare to the prior primate?
  • What is the purpose of combining elements of the prehistoric with elements of contemporary culture?