The earliest depictions of prehistoric life on film, such as Lewin Fitzhamon’s “Prehistoric Peeps” (1905), which was based on the popular comic strip of the same name and featured actors in pantomime costumes as the first screen slurpasaurs, have now sadly been lost to us, but what survives gives a fascinating insight into the dawn of cinema’s view of the dawn of creation.
One of the earliest surviving dinosaurs on film is the stiff mechanical model in D.W. Griffith’s “Brute Force” (1914), which is an extended version of his own earlier, but dinosaur free, “Man’s Genesis” (1912), the latter film also features its young cave-couple leads being harassed by a large snake and an unfortunate alligator in a rather bad costume as cinema’s first true slurpasaurs. Parodying “Man’s Genesis” that same year was Charlie Chaplin’s “His Prehistoric Past” (1914) which saw the brown derby and bearskin clad tramp head back to a dinosaur-free stone-age Soloman Islands, courtesy of a blow to the head, in his last outing for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios.
A slightly more animated dinosaur also debuted that same year in celebrated cartoonist Winsor McCay’s charming “Gertie the Dinosaur” (1914). This cartoon brontosaur had long been part of McCay’s vaudeville act and was at last brought to cinema going audiences courtesy of a long framing sequence featuring the bumbling cartoonist examining a genuine specimen at a natural history museum. Gertie was not only one of the first dinosaurs on film she was also one of the first animated characters and such was her popularity that she would feature in a series of spin off comic strips and then return to the screen in Gertie on Tour (1917/1921) which only survives in fragments showing her struggling to deal with the modern world.
Stop-motion monsters lumbered onto the screen in Willis O’ Brien’s “The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy” (1915) winning the young animator a comission from Thomas A. Edison for a series on mannikin comedies including “Prehistoric Poultry” and “R.F.D. 10,000 B.C.” (both 1916) as well as animation and directorial work on Herbert M. Dawley’s “The Ghost of Slumber Mountain” (1918). Dawley had a falling out with Willis and went on to recruit young shadow puppet animator Tony Sarg, who had debuted with “Adam Raises Cain” (1919), to work with him on “The First Circus” (1921) featuring an animated performing brontosaur in the mold of Gertie.
Such was the popularity of the theme at this time that Pathé Exchange released Pathé Review: Monsters of the Past (1923), a special documentary on Virginia May, featuring stop-motion footage of the sculptor at work and a animated battle between two of her claymation creations. All this however was just a hint of the greater thing which lay just around the next clay boulder.