Filmmakers and audiences have been captivated by the idea of dinosaurs since the primeval days of the cinema. Not until Jurassic Park four years ago, however, have the movies made truly convincing dinosaurs.
Which is not to say that film dinosaurs prior to Park and to its current sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, weren't often delightful--more delightful, in many cases, than those in Spielberg's thunder lizards of the box office. It's an aesthetic taste, like natural grass over Astroturf, or vinyl over CD. For some, pre-cyber special effects can have a funky low-tech charm that today's computer wizardry, flawless and impressive though it is, can't claim.
Before Park, several methods were available to filmmakers for presenting dinosaurs--cartoon animation; live animals doubling for dinos; mechanical, costume and puppetry effects; and stop-motion model animation. Many of the earliest and crudest efforts, most of which can be found on video with a little scrounging, are still entertaining. In the two-dimensional animation field, dinosaurs can claim a cinematic first: The hero, or rather the heroine, of the first American movie cartoon was a dinosaur.
Gertie the Dinosaur (1912)--The creation of Winsor McCay, the brilliant newspaper cartoonist behind Little Nemo in Slumberland, this short film depicts McCay himself, in live action, standing alongside the screen and interacting with his lively line-drawing of Gertie. A big, bovine brontosaurus with the sweet smile of a coquette, Gertie still retains her power to beguile; no cartoon dino, from the like-named pet of the Flintstones to the titans that cavorted to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in Fantasia to the hatchlings in The Land Before Time, has ever had a more vivid persona.
The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1915)--This Willis O'Brien short, about the broadly comic antics of the title characters, was an early experiment in the most elegant of dinosaur special effects: stop-motion animation. That involved shooting one frame of a three-dimensional model, moving the model ever so slightly, then shooting another frame, moving it again, creating the illusion of motion when the film was run at full speed.
Both a complete, unedited Gertie and a sampling of O'Brien's early shorts--the one above, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, RFD 10,000 B.C. and Prehistoric Poultry--are available on a cheap two-video set from Simitar Video called Dinosaurs! on the package and, more accurately, Dinosaur Movies in the credits. Written and hosted by dino enthusiast Donald F. Glut--who seems the sort of nice fellow one dreads being cornered by at a party, even if you share his enthusiasms--the video is truly exhaustive. Glut presents clips from some of the most obscure dinosaur appearances imaginable. We see them exquisitely animated in the 1927 German short Ein Ruckblic in die Urwelt, with cartoon luminaries from Felix the Cat to Porky Pig to Betty Boop. We see them stooging for Buster Keaton in The Three Ages, dressing up the cave-man sagas of D.W. Griffith, and astounding the young Robert Vaughn in Roger Corman's Teenage Caveman of 1958.
There's even some rare test footage from Creation, a 1931 project of O'Brien's, of a man being chased by an enraged mother triceratops, one of whose adorable babies he has just shot. It's a tantalizing snippet of a film which, like many of O'Brien's concepts, was never completed. Expensive, time-consuming, and thus comparatively rare, stop-motion animation frustrated its inventor, but not before he had managed to make a masterpiece:
King Kong (Turner Home Entertainment, 1933)--In 1925, the first, silent version of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World had an O'Brien brontosaur wreak havoc in the streets of London. Eight years later, a giant ape and a beautiful woman were placed in the same format, but in New York. King Kong, the glory of O'Brien's career, also features a series of guest behemoths--a stegosaurus, a pteranodon, a plesiosaurus and the best tyrannosaurus before Jurassic Park: He's so terrifying, he makes a giant gorilla seem like a pretty good date by comparison.
One Million B.C. (Hal Roach, 1940)--Much cheaper and faster than O'Brien's method was the one used in this saga, which starred Carole Landis and Victor Mature as an attractive cave couple. Director Hal Roach's dinosaurs were played by live animals, usually lizards and crocodiles dressed up in extra fins and horns. Roach shot them in slow motion to simulate ponderousness, and mixed them with the human cast by means of rear-projection. A heavily raided source of stock footage for later prehistoric B-movies, the film was made long before the days of humane supervision of animal action on movie sets; seeing these sad creatures prodded into pitched battles with each other disturbs modern sensibilities. The live-lizard method was never very effective anyway, since modern reptiles don't much resemble dinosaurs. But in 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth (CBS/Fox), monitor lizards are turned into pretty convincing sail-backed dimetrodons.
The Land Unknown (Universal, 1957)--Jock Mahoney and Henry Brandon star in this lost-world adventure which, like Japan's Godzilla films, employs the lamest method of faking dinosaurs: human actors waddling around in dinosaur suits. Humans are simply too big-butted to pull off the svelte look of bipedal dinosaurs, and too small overall to play the big herbivorous sauropods. The film is sort of a hoot, though.
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One Million Years B.C. (Fox Home Video, 1966) and Valley of Gwangi (Warner Home Video, 1969)--Willis O'Brien's protege, and his successor as the premier artist in the stop-motion field, was Ray Harryhausen, who received a lifetime-achievement Oscar in 1993. Harryhausen supplied superb dinosaurs to menace Raquel Welch, for whom this remake of Roach's One Million B.C. was a showcase. Raquel manages to make even cave-gal babble sound stilted, but she looks great. Gwangi is about a T. rex discovered and corraled by rodeo cowboys in the Mexican desert. Among the highlights: a surreal scene of the beasts running rampant in a Catholic cathedral.
Journey to the Beginning of Time (Goodtimes Family Video, 1967)--Four boys take a rowboat out in Central Park, pass through a tunnel, and find themselves traveling down a river that leads them backward through time. Along its banks, they see the spectacle of the prehistoric animal world, brought to life by the Czech animator Karel Zeman, who also made celebrated films based on the works of Jules Verne, and on the Baron Munchausen tales. Zeman's style is technically primitive, yet it has a delicate, mysterious poetry. This might be an especially good film for very young children--Zeman's dinosaurs aren't threatening, but they aren't wimpy, either. No Barneys here.
Caveman (UA Home Video, 1981)--This zany comedy vehicle for Ringo Starr--who manages to make even cave-dude babble sound Liverpudlian--cheerfully sends up the cave-man genre, and features guest appearances from several anachronistic yet personable dinosaurs, wonderfully animated by David Allen. The best is a tyrannosaur who gets wasted on berries. There's a rousing, Cro-Magnon score by Lalo Schifrin, too.
Carnosaur (New Horizons Video, 1993)--Producer Roger Corman released this down-and-dirty low-budgeter within a few months of Jurassic Park. Based on a novel by the hilariously lurid British pulp writer Harry Adam Knight, the film stars the cheekily cast mother of Jurassic Park star Laura Dern, Diane Ladd. She's an antimale scientist who, at war with the patriarchy, hatches an army of carnivorous dinos from virus-infected chicken eggs. The beasties are played by clunky robotic puppets, made to look big through cost-conscious effects like cheated perspective, but the film is still fun, in a nasty sort of way. It has hatched at least one sequel.