Meet Felix, Krazy Kat, Gertie the Dinosaur -- the real pioneers of animated film

Before Mickey, the Animated Film, 1898-1929, by Donald Crafton. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. 413 pp. $9.95. Who knows, maybe the animated film has at last found its Arnold Toynbee!

The subject has received little attention from the history buffs. But now, with ``Before Mickey,'' Donald Crafton has produced a volume filled with facts and figures for the film buff and interesting stories and information for the general reader.

The invention of the motion picture delighted the world and fascinated many artists.

Crafton goes back even farther to explain that the very first kinds of moving pictures had been ``flip books'' and optical gadgets. Before movies, vaudeville often featured ``lightning sketch artists,'' who would start with a simple drawing and develop it into different objects or animals by adding new lines.

It seemed magical to see things that can't move appear to do so, to watch people defy gravity, to observe mysterious transformations.

Filmmakers saw the possibilities in camera tricks. Many different experimenters in the United States and Europe worked on ways to make some of this magic with drawings, and a new field of visual arts was born.

Crafton gives a lot of attention to one of the most interesting of the early artists, Winsor McCay, whose fine comic pages highlighted the cartooning of that time (1905).

McCay became interested in animation. He loved to perform before audiences, and he developed the old vaudeville lightning sketch act into a movie routine. He stood before a screen delivering his ``lecture'' while a film of his drawing did things none of his predecessors, no matter how fast, could possibly have done.

McCay developed this act into the first animated cartoons as we know them. In 1911 his ``Gertie the Dinosaur'' was a big success. Audiences were fascinated, too, with the fact that in order to produce his one reel McCay had made 10,000 drawings.

Crafton's research is good, and he has a cartoonist's eye for some of the funny things that happened to the people trying to be funny with film.

Fly-by-night animators, often working alone, developed into highly organized studios -- ink and film versions of Henry Ford's mass production.

Early ``stars'' were the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, and Krazy Kat. Even superstar Charlie Chaplin was cartooned, which seems a bit like gilding the lily.

And Crafton is so enthusiastic about a big star of the 1920s, Felix the Cat, that I am eager to catch his act the next time an animated film festival hits town.

Apparently the design qualities and the use of black and white are surprising, the gags good, and Felix a real ``person.''

Mickey Mouse's brilliant performance as the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Disney's ``Fantasia'' years later could not have been possible without these the pioneers -- before Mickey.

Gene Langley, a free-lance artist and illustrator, was formerly on the Monitor's staff for many years.

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