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'Gertie the Dinosaur,' animation watershed, deserved a bigger 100th birthday party




A cel from Winsor McCay's groundbreaking 1914 work,
A cel from Winsor McCay's groundbreaking 1914 work, "Gertie the Dinosaur," a masterpiece of character animation.
Winsor McCay

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On September 14, 1914, a man named Winsor McCay stepped onto the stage of the Palace Theater in Chicago and changed the history of animation and popular culture forever.

McCay was a cartoonist, a pioneer animator and a vaudeville star. That night at the Palace, he introduced his latest film, "Gertie the Dinosaur."

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It was only 12 minutes long, but no one had seen anything like it. Because there hadn’t been anything like it.

Three years earlier, McCay had made Little Nemo, using characters from his magnificent comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland.”

Earlier animated films by other artists had shown simple line figures performing elementary motions, but McCay's characters moved so smoothly and realistically in three-dimensional space, audiences assumed he had made Nemo with live actors and trick photography.

WATCH: Winsor McCay's groundbreaking "Little Nemo" (1911)

For his third film McCay chose a subject that couldn't be faked.

"Gertie the Dinosaur" was arguably his greatest achievement — and a watershed in the history of animation. On stage, McCay would give a command and the projected Gertie would respond. When McCay coaxed, she shyly emerged from her cave to bow to the audience.

WATCH: The even more groundbreaking "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914)

In "Gertie the Dinosaur," McCay laid the foundations of character animation, which is the art of delineating a character's personality through an individual style of movement.

Viewers understood Gertie’s endearing, somewhat childish personality from the angle at which she cocked her head while listening to a command — and the impudence with which she flicked her tail while disobeying it.

Audiences finally realized they were seeing something new: a film comprised of drawings. Nearly 20 years would pass before anyone did more polished animation.

For a character who represents both the prehistory of life and the prehistory of animation, Gertie wears her years very lightly: the audience acted with surprise and delight when historian and animator John Canemaker recreated McCay’s vaudeville routine in a lecture at LACMA.

Sadly, beyond the Motion Picture Academy’s presentation of Canemaker’s talk, no one did much to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this landmark film that blazed the trail for Walt Disney, Chuck Jones, John Lasseter and countless other animators.

There’s no Gertie commemorative stamp. President Obama is awarding Jeffrey Katzenberg the Presidential Medal for the Arts, but the President has never spoken McCay’s name in public. In Paris, the rue Méliès honors that French pioneer of animation, but there’s no Winsor McCay Boulevard in Los Angeles or New York.

WATCH: The trippy "A Trip to the Moon" from the Méliès brothers

It’s another example how shabbily America treats the films that influence the art of animation and pop culture around the world. Despite that neglect, "Gertie the Dinosaur" continues to entertain and inspire audiences — and will for another 100 years.

Charles Solomon latest books are "The Art of the Disney Golden Books" and "Once Upon a Dream: From Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty to Maleficent."