Thursday, October 9, 2014

Dreaming with Winsor McCay

I just found a veritable treasure on OnDemand: "The Cartoons of Winsor McCay" for Turner Classic Movies.

Winsor McCay was a prolific creator, producing significant works on paper and on screen. In the TCM film, his friends would challenge him to do the impossible and he would always deliver!

Other works included How the Mosquito Operates (1912), The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918 - his cartoon is the only recording of one of the worst disasters in recent memory -- after the Titanic) Bug Vaudeville (1921) Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1921) and more. 

More famously known for Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and Little Nemo In Slumberland (1911 - he penned both comic strip & cartoon), McCay's works were so innovative and revolutionary that his contemporaries, other animators of the day, could not replicate what he did.

While working on a project, McCay would experiment and invent techniques to maximize the beauty of his drawings and enhance the storytelling. He literally was 'making it up as he went along'! 

Unlike the animation of the early 1900s, 1910s, and the 1920s, McCay's cartoons were naturalistic and his ink work smooth. 

I thought Disney's "Fantasia", which helped to cement my love of centaurs, was a pioneering piece, and it was. But among completed works and fragments, McCay had made a 'centaur story' BEFORE Disney, called, what else? Centaurs!

Upon viewing the films, Winsor McCay's stories are whimsical and dreamlike, while being rooted in the modern world. 

In the Rarebit Fiend, while both in bed, a husband is admonished by his wife for eating the cooked rabbit meal so close to bedtime. The wife tells him, 'you get such queer [strange] dreams!' To which he replies, 'But I can't help myself! I just love rarebit when it's cooked so well!'

The story that follows 'Rarebit Fiend' shows the wife's dreams this time. The husband has made their house flying-ready, with the help of an engine in its attic, wings on both sides, and a propeller through the front door. The house then flies about the city, causing mischief, even dumping the local water tower's water on a temperance meeting [please look that up]. 

In Bug Vaudeville, after receiving a hand-out from someone in the neighborhood, a hobo [homeless man] decides to take a nap under a tree that's beside a lake, and starts dreaming about dancing insects.

In The Pet, a stray puppy is taken in, until it starts to grow so fast, that it devours furniture, the family parrot, and even outgrows the neighborhood once ingesting rat poison bought by the husband from the local druggist [that's pharmacy to us].

Dreams and dream haze play prominent in McCay's storytelling, but he doesn't sacrifice concrete details for the sake of whimsy.

In How the Mosquito Operates, a mosquito --incorrectly made male by its Stetson hat, jacket and briefcase --goes to 'work' on a hapless sleeping man. McCay shows the man to have wrinkles, sagging jowls and fat rolls at his head and neck, such attention to reality in such an absurd story! 

Winsor McCay-biographer, John Canemaker, is an authority on animation and films as well as a lecturer at New York University. He is also a watercolor artist.

During the airing of "The Cartoons of Winsor McCay" he co-host the feature with Robert Osborne, host of the TCM channel.

McCay would continue to push the envelope in animation and be its pioneer. That is, until a certain young man known as Walt Disney came along...

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