Willis O’Brien

Birth of a Flivver (1916)

Notes: Willis O’Brien, former newspaper cartoonist, was a stop-motion animation pioneer at Conquest Pictures (the name used by Thomas A. Edison Studio for Obi’s releases) before creating the special effects for The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933), and other pictures. This short claymation film reportedly involves cavemen and a brontosaur.

Morpheus Mike (1917)

Summary: In this short Willis O’Brien claymation film, a woman hangslaundry out to dry, but a goat steals the clothes. Morpheus Mike,a hobo, rescues the laundry, returns it, and awaits some foodas his reward, which the goat secretly and this time successfullysteals. Mike smokes his pipe and has a dream of being in a restaurantduring prehistoric days. Choosing from a hieroglyphic menu, Mikeis served by a mastodon, not very successfully. His large ostrichegg hatches at the table, and his “trunk of soup” issquirted on him. He awakens during the soup deluge to find abucket of water being dumped on him from an overhead window.

The Dinosaur and theMissing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy (1917)

Summary: The clayey Miss Araminta Rockface inspires devotion from “theDuke” and Stonejaw Steve, who vie for her affections. TheophilusIvoryhead is our trickster antihero, and Wild Willie–the “missinglink”–is a local terror who appears first in a dead treelooking like a sociopathological and anorexic Kong. When he stealsfood from the gathering of humanoids, the three males must gohunt down more to salvage what will be an entirely carnivorousbanquet. One fellow shoots an arrow at a giant quail but hitsanother fellow in the butt. While Theophilus Ivoryhead fishes,Wild Willie decides to catch snakes for his dinner. He pullson the serpentine tail of a dinosaur who is drinking from thelake and in the ensuing fight is thrown and dies. Theophilushappens on the scene, pokes at the mssing link’s corpse, and feelssecure enough to pose nobly with his foot on the deceased’s chest(a pre-Kong glimmer from O’Brien). The others witness this tableauand Ivoryhead pontificates: “Yes yes–a mere trifle. Heirritated me and I was forced to kill him.” Kisses and praiseend the scene.

Note: Earlytest footage by Willis O’Brien was expanded into this short claymationfilm. The pose of Theophilus with his foot on Willie’s chestis called a “gesture of triumph that would become an O’Brientrademark.”

R.F.D. 10,000 B.C.: A Mannikin Comedy (1917/1918)

Summary: Clay beauty Winnie Warclub makes a pie. The mailman comes by(he appears to be Morpheus Mike but goes unnamed), his wagon pulledby a dinosaur, and is punched. Johnny Bearskin, Winnie’s suitor,carves her a valentine in stone: “I know you and you knowme / Howd you like my wife to be.” The mailman reads thisand exchanges it for a goofy caricature and the words “oldmaid.” When Bearskin comes calling, he gets conked. Themail wagon tips, Johnny B. catches up to Mike, and a fight breaksout. The top half of Mike’s body is punched off and flies throughthe air, landing in the branches of a tree. The bottom half wandersuntil reuniting with the torso. Johnny Bearskin wins Winnie and,with the wagon and dino, has a new job as mailman.

Note: O’Brien’sinstallation of air bladders made it appear as if the creatureswere breathing. But the humanoid characters are perhaps too realin ugly hairy ways, so that the severed body is more gruesomethan it is a hoot.

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1919)

Notes: In this 1-reeler released by World Film Corporation (a ten-minute film that took three months to shoot), Willis O’Brien himself, though he refused ever to confirm this, seems to be playing the main role in the story of a mountain climber, Uncle Jack, who tells his nephews that, in a forest cabin once, he discovered an odd optical device. The ghost of a hermit demonstrated to him the invention, a magical telescope, through which one can view Slumber Mountain as it appeared millions of years ago. We see a prehistoric landscape with several dinosaurs: first a brontosaur grazing, then a flightless bird devouring a snake, two triceratopses fighting, an impressive allosaur attacking. The ghost vanishes, and the allosaur attacks Jack. Jack fires at the dinosaur, but the creature chases him and is about to devour him when the flashback ends. The nephews realize he’s full of it and beat him.

The original $3000 investment yielded $100,000 in profits. This O’Brien film sparked the interest of Watterson R. Rothacker, Billboard’s West Coast manager and founder of the Industrial Motion Picture Company which developed special effects techniques. Rothacker and O’Brien joined forces to create the “monsters” for The Lost World after Rothacker obtained the rights.