Think Eadweard Muybridge pioneered the idea of cinema? Think again! It was going on back in caveman times, as this amusing silhouette cartoon shows.
Get his goat
While Lotte Reiniger is justly famous and acclaimed for her silhouette animation, she was not the only person using the medium. Tony Sarg may be a familiar name as the man who brought giant cartoon balloons to the Macy’s Parade but he was also a puppeteer and, briefly, an animator.
Tony Sarg’s Almanac (ye editor Herbert M. Dawley, yes, THAT Herbert M. Dawley) specialized in modern times through the lens of the old times. For example, Noah Put the Cat Out deals with the practical issues of sailing with a whole lot of animals. For The Original Movie, Sarg takes cinema back to the Stone Age.
A producer purchases a story from a Shakespeare-like author and quickly sets to work. Yes, yes, the story is good but it can be made even better with a few snips of the old shears! A glamorous leading lady, a strapping villain and a rather Tramp-like leading man are all cast and the group goes on location to film.
Ironically, the scenes of the actual movie are the least interesting, though I did enjoy using a brontosaurus for crane shots. Things pick right back up when the producer screens his picture for the censors—a dour, buzzard-like lot—and is obliged to cut the film further still. (The censors are revealed to be ridiculous by the fact that we in the audience have seen the uncut film and know that it contains no objectionable content. Cutters gotta cut.)
The author returns to see the adaptation of his work on the screen and is horrified to realize that the story he wrote is nowhere to be found. After soundly thrashing the producer, he rushes back to the production office and recovers the censored footage from the goat. That’s just the last straw and he faints dead away.
Sarg is witty and uses dinosaurs and animals, as well as bones and strings, to take the place of modern conveniences. The medium of animation gave him the freedom to incorporate honest to goodness dinosaurs and I actually would have liked to have seen more of them in the picture.
Nowadays, we associate this sort of modern-but-caveman humor with The Flintstones but it was actually a pretty common gag during the silent era. Charlie Chaplin himself went back to “prehistoric” times in 1914 and the 1917 Edison short Friends, Romans and Leo had its cast tossing around modern slang while fighting a lion in the arena. It’s fun and the gags practically write themselves. How would a producer get rid of unwanted footage? Why, feed the goat, of course!
For such a short, zany film, the satire is quite pointed. The cartoonish censors are certainly obnoxious in their priggishness but the first cuts were casually made by the producer in his office. Erich von Stroheim famously wanted to adapt McTeague line by line but most Hollywood adaptations were infamously loose, especially in the days before interminable epics were the order of the day. (I need to throw shade on modern films wherever I can and if they’re going to keep up cooped up in a theater for three hours, the least they could do is provide an intermission.)
As the movie itself points out:
Further, more blame is placed on the producer when the author recovers the cut footage from the goat’s belly. (Not a sentence I ever foresaw writing but there you have it.) This is the “original” original movie and it is even more upsetting to the author than the bowdlerized movie that was screened for him. Producers may be more charming than the censors but their goal is the same: prune a work to suit them.
I would like to point out here that I absolutely love what Sarg does with paper and celluloid, especially during the cutting scenes. He appears to use tissue paper to create semi-transparent strips of paper and film, which adds depth to what could otherwise be a rather flat animation style. I am curious to know if the original release was tinted and if it was, what colors were use. I find that color is so important in making silhouettes pop.
Obviously, comparisons to Reiniger are inevitable. While both used the same medium with great success, I feel that Reiniger’s strength lies in her ability to breathe life into her figures and endow them with personality. Sarg, on the other hand, displays quirkiness, imagination and humor, always finding new ways to charm his audience with a joke. These subtle differences are part of the great pleasure of comparing and contrasting two successful artists.
The Original Movie’s release just three months after Will Hays arrived in Hollywood as the new censorship czar meant that the gags about prudes with shears were particularly pertinent but it is worth remembering that censorship had been a hot topic since movies were movies. Even before the scandals that brought Hays to Hollywood, the specter of the censor loomed over filmmaking.
Individual censor boards could make cuts as they pleased and there was no telling what random item would offend them. Some were angered by sex, others didn’t like violence and were SHOCKED that a cowboy would carry a six-shooter, still others looked for political content to uproot.
The Original Movie suffers from a sluggish middle (but it’s only seven minutes long, so that is not much) but it is both imaginative and quirky. The pointed humor directed at the fledgling studio system lands just as surely today as it did in 1922. This is a little gem of a short and is well worth seeking out.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of the Treasures from American Film Archives box set, which is now out of print. The National Film Preservation Foundation has made the short available for free and legal viewing on their website.
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What a fun short!
It really is! 😀
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