(This post was originally published on the sadly now-defunct site The Cinementals.)
After the phenomenal success of Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), cartoonist Winsor McCay realized that he had found his passion in animation, and he was eager to create even more films. But his animated output was limited at the demand of his employer, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. A man known more for his love of the all-American dollar more so than any real respect for artistry, Hearst felt that McCay’s “childish” animated work detracted from the more important business of crafting political cartoons for his newspaper, the New York American.
For McCay, his dealings with the boss left a bitter taste. McCay had left his previous paper, the New York Herald, in a bid for more creative and personal freedom, and instead had become subject to the even stronger iron fist of Hearst Publishing. He reluctantly turned his focus back to drawing editorial cartoons, but his heart was not in the work. And just to twist the knife a bit further, Hearst exerted his influence to try to prevent theater owners from booking McCay’s showings of his animated films like Gertie and How a Mosquito Operates (1912) in order to keep his prized artist focused on producing print cartoons.
It took a tragedy to bring McCay’s two creative worlds together once again. On May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank into the waters off the southern coast of Ireland. The ship went down quickly–within eighteen minutes–and 1,198 people were killed. The event set off a firestorm of rage around the world and prompted immediate condemnation from the British and from Americans (128 of the dead passengers were US citizens). The British assumed that the sinking would incite the United States to declare war on Germany and enter the fray (World War I itself had been going on for nine months by this point); public opinion in America, however, did not immediately support the idea of joining the conflict.
In the aftermath of the sinking, the Lusitania became a symbol of the war effort–a polarizing rallying cry along the lines of “Remember the Maine!” It was an example of the horrors Germany had inflicted and could still cast upon the world, and Lusitania-related propaganda abounded on both sides, painting the sinking as either a triumph or a travestry. And McCay put in his two cents in 1916, when he began work on another animated film–his first since the release of Gertie.
The Sinking of the Lusitania recreates the final voyage of the doomed vessel in a revolutionary hybrid form of animation and documentary, and as one might imagine, it was a painstaking process. McCay hired an assistant, an artist named John Fitzsimmons, to help him with the daunting task of producing 25,000 drawings for the film. It was McCay’s first experience using “cel” animation, a method that had only been patented the year before. It involved sketching movement on transparent sheets of celluloid (which was highly flammable), which were then laid on top of immovable background scenes, making the process easier–if no less time-consuming.
The film opens with live-action scenes detailing the making of the film, which highlight the research that McCay undertook to recreate the ship’s destruction as faithfully as possible (though in recent years, the claim that a second torpedo struck the boat has been called into debate). This quickly segues into the animated sequence of events, interspersed with title cards explaining the action onscreen. The cards use deliberately inflammatory language, calling the actions of the German U-boat “cowardly.” Photographs of some of the more notable victims of the sinking such as philosopher Elbert Hubbard, playwright Charles Klein, and millionaire Alfred G. Vanderbilt are inserted in between shots of the damaged ship, billowing smoke and sinking slowly into the water. As the ship slides backward into the ocean, people are showing jumping from the decks, tumbling into the water below.
The final moments–in which the ship disappears from view, leaving dozens of people helplessly bobbing up and down in the water–effectively demonstrate the terror of the sinking. Its concluding scene, a brief shot of a young mother and her baby sinking helplessly beneath the waves, is a particularly haunting image with which to leave the audience. It is an emotional moment, and combined with the accompanying title card spewing outrage at the “Hun” for causing the disaster, it underscores the heartrending horrors of war. It’s remarkable that, in just the final twenty seconds of this film, McCay can elicit such feelings of righteous fury in the viewer. Ultimately, while The Sinking of the Lusitania may be merely an exercise in using propaganda to manipulate and enhance anti-war sentiment, it is a damn successful one. Even now, almost one hundred years later, watching this film brings a chill and an edge of anger at the indefensible actions of wartime Germany.
The short was finally completed and released in 1918–more than a year after the United States entered the war. But its impact was not lessened by its late arrival in theaters; in fact, it helped keep anti-German sentiment strong on the home front as the war entered its final months. Interestingly enough, McCay’s cinematic vilifying of the ship’s sinking and his virtual call to arms against Germany were in almost direct opposition to the anti-war (and sometimes pro-German) viewpoints of his boss; at one point in 1915, Hearst even signed his name to an editorial that essentially stated that Germany was well within its rights to engage in submarine warfare and claimed that the sinking of the Lusitania was thereby justified.
In 1924, McCay declined renewing his contract with Hearst and returned to the Herald, where he restarted his weekly Little Nemo comic, but the new incarnation of the strip only lasted for a couple of years. He also continued to dabble in producing short animated films, but the results never truly matched the joyful beauty and power of his earlier work. Though he was revered by a new generation of animators who were inspired by his work, McCay became embittered by the growing commercialization of animated cartoons, feeling as though the art form he had long championed was quickly becoming just another way to make money. Still, though there is certainly some element of truth to McCay’s fears about the evils of commercialization, modern animation studios like Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, and Studio Ghibli, among others, show that it is possible to produce lyrical, moving, and beautiful animated art, thus keeping the spirit of McCay’s hopes for the medium alive and thriving. His name may not be well-remembered today, but his legacy is undeniable. McCay’s work showed the world that animation could be a viable form of entertainment–that not only could it make us smile and laugh, but it could also make us think, and even inspire us to action. He remains, in the truest sense, the very definition of a pioneer.