Synopsis by Hal Erickson
First off, let us establish what Gertie the Dinosaur was not. It was not the first animated cartoon ever made. It was not the first cinematic effort of comic-strip artist Winsor McKay, who'd previously produced Little Nemo and The Story of the Mosquito, and it was not made in 1909, though even by the standards of 1914, its actual release date, it was quite an astounding achievement. What Gertie the Dinosaur was the first universally popular cartoon release, and also the first to exploit the possibilities of "personality" animation, rather than merely offering a series of moving images (this emphasis on personality would, of course, later become the cornerstone of Walt Disney's success). Originally, Gertie was produced as a tie-in to an elaborate vaudeville act in which a live performer (usually McKay himself) would give the animated Gertie instructions, which she would follow to the letter (when she didn't mischievously misbehave, that is). The live interlocutor would also interact with Gertie; at one point, for example, he would throw a red ball at the screen, which would reappear in animation form as a red-tinted blob, to be snatched up by the obliging dinosaur. Inasmuch as Gertie's actions were entirely dependent upon the orders issued by the live performer, many surviving prints of Gertie the Dinosaur can be confusing to the uninitiated. Much easier to follow was the general-release version of Gertie prepared for regular movie houses, which opened with a prologue wherein McKay accepts a bet from his fellow cartoonists to create a "living" dinosaur. In this version, an animated McKay appears on-camera with Gertie, guiding the old girl through her repertoire of tricks in the manner of a trained-dog act. The fact that Gertie has a genuinely appealing personality (she even stars crying when "scolded" by the ersatz McKay) is not nearly as remarkable as the knowledge that Winsor McKay drew the entire cartoon all by himself -- and that he was obliged to redraw the backgrounds as well as the action for each individual frame (the concept of transparent animation cels had not yet been developed). So successful was Gertie the Dinosaur that it encouraged other comic-strip purveyors to enter the realm of motion pictures, thereby firmly establishing the still-thriving animated cartoon industry. As noted by cartoon historian Leonard Maltin, "For years Gertie had been named in histories as the first animated cartoon. With all its impact, it might as well have been."
High Artistic Quality, High Historical Importance