The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)
Probably McCay’s most passionate work, The Sinking of the Lusitania is a propaganda piece made for WWI. It is likely the first animated propaganda ever made, the first animated documentary ever made and (most importantly) the first true attempt at pulling off a dramatic animated film. The short is essentially plotless: all we see is the ship being hit and slowly sinking into the ocean. Once again there’s the illusion of depth and 3D space (watch the scene where the torpadoes are being fired) and the use of black and white is perfect, especially in its depiction of smoke: as much as McCay is praised for its use of rich colors, the black and white here (and all the shades of gray) is equally great; at times, it almost feels like real footage. But it isn’t real, and that’s its biggest strength: it feels much more dramatic and powerful than any real footage could have hoped to be – basically, the perfect propaganda. Of course the film isn’t without flaws: its title cards are often overly dramatic, even for the subject matter, and in general it’s hard to shake off the feeling that a tragedy has been instrumentalized to justify a war intervention. But we could say it comes with the territory. Overall, it remains my favorite McCay’s film.
Unfortunately, it’s also the last one we’ll talk about here. McCay made several other short films in the 1920s (including an adaptation of “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” and a sequel of Gertie, Gertie on Tour), but most of them are today entirely or partially lost. The state of his filmography ironically reflects the state of his career and legacy: despite the tremendous achievements, McCay’s talent was never fully recognized when he was alive and, after his death, his accomplishments have largely been overshadowed by bigger names and studios (Disney, Fleischer, Warner Bros.). Despite this, any serious artist (not just animator) working today recognizes and at least respects his work.
What is perhaps even sadder is that McCay didn’t stay alive long enough to see the evolution of animation as an art form. Famous is the speech he made to the other animators of the time during a dinner in his honor, in 1927: “Animation is an art. That is how I conceived it. But as I see, what you fellows have done with it, is making it into a trade. Not an art, but a trade. Bad Luck!”. And he was right: the quality of the works produced up until that moment, barring a few exceptions, was very poor, and certainly not comparable to what McCay was doing just a few years prior. In a way, its biggest legacy is this: he was animation’s first true auteur, someone who had almost total control over his production without interference from bigger studios and without having to worry too much about financial restraints. A luxury, compared to future animators.