This month marks the 100th anniversary of Winsor McCay’s short film “Little Nemo.” It was not the first drawn animated film — J. Stuart Blackton’s “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces” preceded it by five years — but it was the film that demonstrated the potential of animation as art form. “Little Nemo” is the seed from which the great Hollywood cartoons and today’s animated blockbusters grew.
An extraordinary draftsman, McCay was not only the greatest of the pioneer animators, but a master of the newspaper comic strip and an important editorial cartoonist. In a letter to cartoonist Clare Briggs, McCay declared: “The principal factor in my success has been an absolute desire to draw constantly. I never decided to be an artist. Simply, I could not stop myself from drawing. I drew for my own pleasure. I never wanted to know whether or not someone liked my drawings. I drew on walls, the school blackboard, old bits of paper, the walls of barns. Today I’m still as fond of drawing as when I was a kid — and that’s a long time ago…”
McCay held various jobs, including circus poster designer, before going to work as a reporter-illustrator for the Cincinnati Enquirer, where he drew his first comic strip in 1903. “Tales of the Jungle Imps by Felix Fiddle” ran for less than a year, but it caught the eye of James Gordon Bennett Jr., the flamboyant publisher of the New York Herald. Bennett brought McCay to New York to work as an illustrator, but the artist was soon doing comic strips for the Bennett papers.
McCay experimented with several strips, including the wonderfully surreal “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend” — a series of bizarre nightmares caused by eating Welsh rarebit before bedtime. In 1905, he began his masterpiece, “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” one of the most extraordinary illustrated narratives ever created. Each week, Nemo dreamed of visiting the sometimes beautiful, sometimes frightening wonders of Slumberland. He shared his adventures with the lovely Princess of Slumberland and her father, King Morpheus; Flip, the rambunctious nephew of the Guardian of the Dawn; Dr. Pill; and Impy, a mischievous young cannibal. In the final panel, Nemo awoke in his bed.
The opulent fantasies of “Little Nemo” combined the best elements of McCay’s previous work: exotic animals, costumed performers and anamorphic distortions from his circus posters, plus the bizarre absurdities of the “Rarebit” dreams, wrapped in extravagant vistas of Beaux-Arts architecture. Many comics experts rank “Little Nemo” second only to “Krazy Kat” in the annals of newspaper comics.
In the contemporary strip “Cul de Sac,” antisocial elementary school student Petey Von Otterloop reads “Little Neuro” comics, a wry tribute by cartoonist Richard Thompson. “I like the nightmarish side of ‘Little Nemo': those sudden plunges through vast spaces, the hurtling bed, the floating house,” Thompson said. “McCay’s animator’s sense of visual narrative makes it all so lovely and believable. I love how Slumberland is populated by this lost race of vaudevillians: clowns, marching bands and fabulous monsters. The whole thing is like the apotheosis of a circus poster.”
McCay was also a popular vaudeville performer, appearing on bills with W.C. Fields, Will Rogers and Harry Houdini. He screened “Little Nemo” with a live-action prologue that spoofed its creation in his vaudeville act at the Colonial Theatre in New York beginning on April 12, 1911.
McCay claimed that he got the idea for an animated film from flip books his son made. But his former assistant John Fitzsimmons told animation historian John Canemaker that McCay’s first film grew out of a saloon bet with George McManus, the creator of “Bringing Up Father“: “I think McManus kidded McCay because he was such a fast worker…. Jokingly, McManus suggested that McCay make several thousand drawings, photograph them onto film and show the results in theatres…. McCay claimed he would produce enough line drawings to sustain a four- or five-minute animated cartoon showing his ‘Little Nemo’ characters and would use the film as a special feature of his already popular vaudeville act.”
Even a cursory glance at McCay’s comic strips suggests he had been thinking of animation for years. Most cartoonists used successive panels to present isolated moments in a narrative. McCay often drew slight changes in an action or a metamorphosis: mushrooms rising to form a towering forest, Nemo’s bed growing legs and galloping, Nemo and his friends clambering over upside-down rooms.
McCay made about 4,000 drawings for “Little Nemo,” working in India ink on rice paper and timing the movements with a stopwatch. The film was completed in early January 1911, and he hired an artist to hand-tint each frame of film to match the colors of the comic strip. The film was released theatrically four days before McCay showed it in his vaudeville act.
“Little Nemo” is a plotless series of antics involving the characters from the strip. From the opening shot of Flip’s profile, when the words “Watch me move” appear, there is constant motion on the screen. Flip and Impy tumble like circus clowns. As there are no backgrounds, McCay suggests movement in depth by enlarging or shrinking his characters in perspective. Fragments of lines coalesce to form Nemo — an effect that anticipates the look of early computer graphics by almost 70 years. Impy, Flip and Nemo stretch and distort like reflections in a fun-house mirror. Nemo sketches the Princess of Slumberland, and she comes to life; a dragon, with a bench in his mouth, lumbers in and bears Nemo and the Princess away.
Canemaker, the author of “Winsor McCay: His Life and Art,” says, ” ‘Little Nemo’ is as awe-inspiring a masterpiece of animation today as when it was created by the genius McCay 100 years ago. Alternately magical and believable, its appealing design and sincere movements of the boy dreamer and his princess still enthrall, especially the amazing animation in perspective of the slinky dragon’s giant head and body as he exits.”
Audiences didn’t know what to make of “Little Nemo:” No one had ever seen anything like it. The films of Blackton and Emile Cohl showed simple line or stick figures performing elementary motions. McCay’s fully rendered characters moved smoothly and realistically. More than 20 years would elapse before Walt Disney’s artists began creating more believable animation. To McCay’s chagrin, viewers assumed he had made the film using some sort of trick photography of live actors. That skepticism may have led McCay to choose a character for his third film that couldn’t be faked: “Gertie the Dinosaur” in 1914.
McCay continued making animated films through 1921, including “Flip’s Circus,” a second film with a character from “Little Nemo.” No one knows why he stopped animating. By the time he reached his early 50s, he may have lost the energy that had enabled him to draw so many hours a day. When he moved to the Hearst papers in 1911, William Randolph Hearst insisted he concentrate on illustrating his newspapers’ right-wing editorials. McCay’s animated films were forgotten by the general public, supplanted by Felix the Cat, then Mickey Mouse.
McCay disliked the studio shorts of the silent era, which he correctly regarded as inferior to his own work. In 1927, the artists of the young animation industry gave a testimonial dinner in honor of McCay. He gave a short speech that concluded, “Animation should be an art, that is how I conceived it … but as I see what you fellows have done with it is making it into a trade … not an art, but a trade … bad luck,” and sat down.
After McCay’s death in 1934, his films survived only by accident. For more than a decade, the cans of perishable nitrate film rusted in a friend’s garage. They were rediscovered in 1947 and have been preserved by La Cinematheque Quebecoise and, later, by the Library of Congress.
McCay’s achievements continue to inspire animators, 77 years after his death. Commercial animator Bob Kurtz summarized their respect: “McCay produced the most extraordinary body of animation ever created by one person: There was no Winsor McCay Studio — although you might suspect he kept 20 duplicates of himself in the back room to do all that drawing. On the intimate level at which he worked, no one can even approach him.”
Although he proudly (if erroneously) bragged that he was the “originator” of the animated film, McCay might have felt some reservations about the industry that produced “Alpha and Omega” and “Mars Needs Moms.” But he was truly the father of American animation. Without Nemo, Flip and Impy, there would have been no Mickey Mouse, no Bugs Bunny, no Cruella De Vil, no Woody and Buzz, no Hiccup and Toothless. “Little Nemo” and McCay’s other films are available on disc, and they remain as astonishing today as they were 100 years ago.
— Charles Solomon
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