Little NemoThis year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most influential films ever made. Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur was the first animated cartoon created by the self-described “originator and inventor of Animated Cartoons.” Not quite, and… not quite.

McCay certainly wasn’t the inventor of animated cartoons, but that didn’t stop him from billing himself that way in the opening credits of his 1918 film The Sinking of the Lusitania. And although many would identify Gertie as the first animated film, that, too, wasn’t the case. It wasn’t even McCay’s first, as it was proceeded by Little Nemo (1911) and How a Mosquito Operates (1912), both adapted from his incredibly popular newspaper strips Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, respectively.

What is true is that, along with French artist Émile Cohl, McCay was one of the first filmmakers to move animation beyond trick films and gimmickry and to introduce a more artistic impulse into the form. Also, Gertie inspired many early animators—including one Walt Disney—with perhaps the earliest example of a relatively well-developed animated character in a film.

McCay was born in either Michigan or Canada, likely in the late 1860s (a definitive birth record doesn’t exist). Early on, he displayed unusual talent and enjoyed a number of gigs as a commercial artist before creating his first newspaper strip, A Tale of the Jungle Imps, for the Cincinnati Enquirer, in 1903. He quickly moved on to New York where, after a number of other relatively short-lived strips, he began the long-running Dream of a Rarebit Fiend in 1904 for James Gordon Bennett’s Evening Telegram. The strip remains a landmark in cartoon art as a formal tour de force and McCay’s unparalleled abilities as a visual artist.

Gertie the Dinosaur

Original Gertie panel, courtesy of The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, The Ohio State University, Columbus

McCay created other strips, editorial cartoons, and illustrations for Bennett’s papers including the New York Herald. In 1905, the strip considered to be his masterpiece, Little Nemo in Slumberland, debuted in the Herald. Its popularity added to McCay’s fame as the strip was adapted into a stage play, and McCay received a lucrative contract to appear on the vaudeville circuit where his skill and ability to draw quickly were popular with audiences. Additionally, McCay explored new possibilities in cartoon art in Little Nemo by experimenting with panel size and the visual suggestion of movement that anticipated his animated films.

While one can detect a “cinematic” quality in many Little Nemo strips, McCay credited his son’s flip-books for inspiring him to experiment with film. Just as producers would mine superhero comics for content decades later, McCay adapted his popular strip into his first animated work. One can only imagine the thrill audiences experienced when they saw the instantly recognizable characters from McCay’s Little Nemo strip appear on the big screen, beginning with the cigar-chomping clown Flip exhorting them to “Watch me move.” McCay was able to re-create his visual style from the page onto film quite effectively. Although the backgrounds were sheer white, the characters were exact replicas of those in his strip and the hand-drawn animation is beautifully realized with elegant movements, characters squashing and stretching, and a still impressive use of perspective as a dragon disappears into expansive white background.

McCay’s next film, How a Mosquito Operates, was adapted from a single Dream of the Rarebit Fiend strip: a giant mosquito donning a top hat torments a man as he tries to sleep. The quality of the animation—the movement, the realization of the flying insect—is astonishing. There was nothing else like it upon its release.

Gertie the Dinosaur original

Original Gertie panel, courtesy of The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, The Ohio State University, Columbus

Likewise, audiences had seen nothing like Gertie the Dinosaur when it was released in 1914. Unlike other animated characters that had appeared on screen, Gertie had a personality. She was shy, she cried, she danced, and she was both playful and mischievous. And she vividly occupied space. It’s a testament to McCay’s genius that he was able to realize Gertie as a massive creature whose limbs bore weight. When she lies on her side and breathes, her chest rises and falls as we’d expect it.

His most influential work, Gertie the Dinosaur was, like his previous two films, first seen by the public as part of his vaudeville stage show. Later, he would add live-action sections to both Little Nemo and Gertie so that they could be released more widely in theaters, without him present. Before 2009, I, like most, had only seen Gertie in its theatrical version with the live-action footage showing McCay and cartoonist buddies including Bringing Up Father creator George McManus driving through Central Park and visiting the American Museum of Natural History, where McCay bets his friends he can create a film that will bring a dinosaur to life.

There had always been moments of this Gertie that seemed a little off to me in terms of pacing, but once I saw the great animator and animation historian John Canemaker* re-create McCay’s live presentation at the Wexner Center for the Arts in 2009, my minor reservations disappeared. The title cards that McCay inserted for theatrical play really don’t do justice to a McCay stand-in exhorting Gertie to emerge from the rocky background, or reprimanding her and eventually making her cry for the little nip she takes at her ringmaster. McCay made the film with this accompaniment in mind. At the climax, McCay would disappear behind the stage curtain and his animated avatar would magically appear on screen, at which point Gertie would take him upon her head and lumber off into the distance. Once you’ve seen the film with a live stand-in, it’s hard to be satisfied with the theatrical version.

McCay would go on to make eight more films, including The Sinking of the Lusitania, a still emotionally moving piece of World War I propaganda. Some exist today only in fragments, such as his Gertie sequel, Gertie on Tour. It’s Gertie the Dinosaur, however, that remains McCay’s cinematic masterpiece. Animated masterpiece, I should add, because McCay’s work for the page at essentially the same time was and remains unparalleled. That he was able to create work in two mediums that was unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries is nothing short of astonishing. He’s one of the great American artists of the 20th century, and it’s a shame his is not a household name.

* Canemaker’s book Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (revised in 2005) remains the definitive book on McCay and supplied biographical background for this article.

Gertie the Dinosaur Is 100 Years Young: John Canemaker Presents Animated Masterworks by Winsor McCay” will take place November 7 at the Museum of Modern Art as part of To Save and Project: The 12th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation.