The Missing Link to King Kong
Note: This is the eighty-second in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second favorite 1915 film, THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY, directed by Willis H. O’Brien.
Stop-motion animation has always been a part of my appreciation for the art form of animation, and indeed film at large. The Aardman films, CHICKEN RUN (2000) in particular, were great favorites as a child, but the work of Ray Harryhausen occupied a weird, mythological (go figure) place in my mind through vague encounters with films like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) and CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) on TV. And of course, Harryhausen’s work is inextricably linked to Willis H. O’Brien, the father of stop-motion animation as we know it and King Kong himself. Harryhausen was a protege of O’Brien, an animator whose work stretched back as far as 1915 with the film I’m writing about today: THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY.
O’Brien was a renaissance man who had wandered and worked in many fields before he came to film, landing jobs as a draftsman, sports cartoonist, professional boxer, railroad surveyor, marble sculptor, and importantly, a guide for paleontologists. By 1915, he had made little models of prehistoric men and creatures, and animated some test footage with a local San Francisco newsreel cameraman. This work was displayed at the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair (O’Brien was the architect’s assistant), where exhibitor Herman Wobber commissioned O’Brien to make a full (short) film. This caught the attention of Thomas Edison, who ended up distributing THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK, and led to more work for O’Brien with the magnate. The recognition was well deserved, and the film ended up being a precursor, prehistoric in its own way, of the greatness to come from the pioneer.
THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK is kind of a misleading title, because the titular characters aren’t really in the 5 minute film very much, and even less so together. Instead, it mostly follows a group of humans, also rendered in stop motion; O’Brien would blend live action and animation in THE LOST WORLD (1925) precursor THE GHOST OF SLUMBER MOUNTAIN (1918). I’ll write about both in the near future. In the meantime, though, it’s worth noting that O’Brien’s clay humans aren’t without their primitive charms.
The world, which is well-scaled to make it look like the action is taking place in a real setting, is nevertheless clearly a well-crafted, miniature set that creates its own whimsical magic on its own. The rough human figures are striking in their movement. Part of the beauty of THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK is not that it’s realistic (as much of O’Brien’s work was touted at the time), but that it’s an art piece by an extremely talented craftsman.
The film follows a caveman going to bestow a gift of flowers to a cavegirl, but he faces some difficulty along the way. Despite the subtitle (A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY), THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK is a comic film. The intertitles have a considerable amount of snark and wit, and there’s some bumbling slapstick and funny business. While giving the flowers to the girl, the man and his would-be bride are being watched: by the Missing Link himself, Wild Willie. The Missing Link is essentially just an apeman, a funny design that does end up making me wish there were more creatures in the film. But it isn’t just humans, missing links, and dinosaurs. The girl’s father orders the “hero” and two rivals who had fought earlier to rustle up some grub since Wild Willie had eaten their food.
The hero comes across a hilarious looking bird, a scraggly ostrich-like creature that gives him some trouble and ends in the hero shooting an arrow into the butt of a rival. While this is all going on, Wild Willie has had a craving for snakes, and so stumbles upon the tail of a dinosaur drinking at a pond. Apparently missing links are devoid of peripheral vision, because Willie thinks the tail of the dinosaur (a small long-neck type lizard) is a snake and starts pulling and chasing it. The dinosaur doesn’t appreciate that very much, and the two fight, ending in Willie’s death, which is presumably the tragedy. But considering the comic tone of the whole short, the end of Willie is…kind of funny? In a morbid way? This stupid little apeman has been causing a ruckus and then he gets killed by a dinosaur. It’s a weird conclusion, but things are wrapped up nicely for the hero. You see, he comes across Willie’s body and when the other humans show up, they think he killed the Missing Link. And so, the girl is his.
The stop motion animation of THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK is fittingly primitive, but it’s still very competent. The movements are just janky enough to, again, denote an artistic representation of a past world, and the little models are cute and a little bizarre. The fight between Willie and the dinosaur is actually some well-executed, fast yet brief action, and again, the surrounding rocks, shrubs, and ponds throughout the film are awesome little miniature recreations. This film was crafted, quite literally, and the care is evident in every frame. O’Brien would of course refine this craft exponentially over the years, but THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY is a quaint and still entertaining echo of a bygone era.