August 20, 1918 [The Sinking of the Lusitania]
I remember seeing animated drawings a number of years ago—simple chalkboard efforts with cutout figures and a human hand making and erasing*—but Winsor McCay seems the only American today interested in exploring this medium. Animations are particularly suited for the young; after all, the Zoetropes, Praxinoscopes, and flip books were primarily novelties, suitable for the children's corner. And McCay's comic-strip animations speak clearly to a child's love of both mechanical repetition and the bizarre.
However, after the amusements of Flip and Gertie, his re-enactment of the Lusitania offense turns pointedly away from the little ones, and assaults us with horror. It's been three years and more since over 1,100 died (more than 100 of them Americans), but the film strives to sustain the shock of it, while thousands more fall Over There, with "drums rum-tumming everywhere." In part it's an "instructional" film—careful to give us facts and explain procedures—the "crime that shocked humanity" detailed, down to famous last words: Charles Frohman, who had brought Barrie's Peter Pan to the stage, tells us not to fear death, as it is "the most beautiful adventure in life."
But this is more than a newspaper account—or strident melodrama. It's visually powerful in its intermingling of direct facts and outraged sentiment, as the smoke plumes and the lifeboats lower, the tiny human figures fall like rain, the mother and baby drown—but not before the babe cries, "Avenge." The tone is elegiac and heart-rending—or perhaps heartless. All those dead and injured, all that waste, reproduced by a comic strip artist who will, no doubt, return to Slumberland and the circus and the sundry dreams of over-indulgent rarebit fiends. I'm the last to complain that the cinema over-reaches; it needs to do so as often as it can. But there's something at once momentous and audacious when an animated cartoon asks me to weep and rage. A part of me suspects audiences will more appreciate the artistry of the film than its call to arms. But I've been wrong before about my fellow cinema-goers—I sometimes feel I'm the only one in the theater, no matter how crowded it may be—and so I won't presume. But it's safe to say that McCay has engendered yet another shift in the history of this flickering art form, and the animated cartoon, for better or worse, now has aspirations.
*The CV is referring to Humorous Phases of Funny Faces from 1906. His diary entry for this film has not been included on this site.—Ed.