Willis O’Brien Revisited

by Don Shay

In the firmament of visual effects superstars, few have burned brighter than Willis O’Brien, whose seminal work in stop-motion and other cinemagical techniques exponentially influenced and inspired generations of visual effects professionals. By extension, it also influenced and inspired the creation of Cinefex.

So begins my introduction to a mythbusting article in the upcoming issue of Cinefex. For more than 30 years, the life and work of Willis O’Brien have been defined by the full-issue biography I wrote on him for Cinefex 7, but my interest in his story began two decades earlier, when I first began my research after noting his obituary in the newspaper.

Willis O’Brien in his workshop at the Edison studios, circa 1917

Willis O’Brien in his workshop at the Edison studios, circa 1917.

I made contact with O’Brien’s widow, Darlyne, who generously shared a wealth of information about her late husband, and who put me in touch with many of the people who had worked with him through the years. It was a slow process on my part – anything but full-time – but over the years I pieced together the essence of a remarkable life. By the time my biography appeared in Cinefex, most of the people whose stories and memories it documented had passed away. For this reason, whenever I am asked, as a writer, what I consider my major contribution to the history of visual effects, I invariably cite that Willis O’Brien issue. Had I not interviewed those people when I did, his story, and theirs, would have died with them.

Little of any consequence has been added to the story of Willis O’Brien since my biography was published. Until now.

Poster for "The Ghost of Slumber Mountain" - 1918

Poster for “The Ghost of Slumber Mountain,” 1918.

Long before King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, O’Brien – who had done only a series of stop-motion ‘cartoons’ to date – joined with producer Herbert M. Dawley to create The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. The silent fantasy was a hit, but the relationship between the two men devolved into a bitter rivalry that nearly derailed production of The Lost World, O’Brien’s breakout feature.

Writer Stephen Czerkas has spent years researching the O’Brien/Dawley feud and has unearthed startling evidence that challenges the long-held view that Dawley was the villain and O’Brien the victim.

That story will appear in the next issue of Cinefex, available to preorder now.

Herbert M. Dawley with a duck-billed dinosaur he built for "Along the Moonbeam Trail," circa 1920

Herbert M. Dawley with a duck-billed dinosaur he built for “Along the Moonbeam Trail,” circa 1920.

From the niche perspective of visual effects history, this is bombshell material, especially for those of us whose reverence for O’Brien runs deep.

We decided to send advance copies of the article to a number of luminaries in the visual effects world – primarily those with a connection to classic stop-motion animation and a passion for its history. We wanted to know what they thought …

A shocking betrayal fit for Extra or TMZ finally gets told … in Cinefex. And it’s a doozie. – Dennis Muren

Willis O’Brien was an artistic diamond-in-the-rough. The towering ape in King Kong, O’Brien’s greatest claim to fame, may have been just a little rubber puppet, but it sprang to awesome, vicious, vibrant cinematic life in the grip of O’Brien’s enchanted hands. A versatile artist of demonstrable skill, O’Brien was equally adept at producing whimsical watercolors or bold charcoal sketches which threatened to leap from the page. His bona fides in the realm of movie special effects — particularly stop motion animation — were self-evident and unquestionable. In retrospect, when he’d alleged fifteen years earlier that he’d been cheated by an obscure, credit-grabbing producer named Herbert M. Dawley, who claimed O’Brien’s work in The Ghost of Slumber Mountain as his own, what serious film scholar could doubt him?

But now, nearly a century later, there are doubts, and cinema orthodoxy may be rewritten. Thanks to the detective work of sculptor animator paleontologist Stephan Czerkas, it now appears that Herbert Dawley may have deserved some of the credit he grabbed. And far from being a no-talent, front-office figurehead, it seems that Dawley had quite a bit of talent himself — particularly in the line of sculpting and animating dinosaurs. Were the acrimonious charges Dawley leveled at O’Brien as warranted as the ones O’Brien flung at him? Did O’Brien learn as much about his craft from Dawley as Dawley did from O’Brien? Czerkas has uncovered documents, diaries, and — best of all — film footage which shows that the savage legal battle these two waged against one another was not a matter of black-and-white. Thanks to Czerkas’ efforts, the career of Herbert M. Dawley may need to be re-assessed, and the accepted verdict in O’Brien vs Dawley thrown out. – Randall W. Cook

Stephen Czerkas has painstakingly unearthed facts, previously unknown to the general public, concerning the rivalry between animation pioneers Willis H. O’Brien and Herbert M. Dawley. The upcoming article in Cinefex and the subsequent publication of Stephen’s book are likely to spark controversy among historians of early animation history and fans of O’Brien. – Jim Danforth

For those of us that grew up with the O’Brien mythology, the sleuthing Steve has done clearly redefines that part of stop-motion history, and at the same time does nothing to diminish O’Brien’s accomplishments. It’s always been a rough racket. Some of us got lucky – the right place at the right time … when hasn’t it been competitive? – Phil Tippett

I’ve loved stop-motion animation ever since I was a child of about ten years old, and I continue to be fascinated by the history of the art form. Over the years vintage photos; original artwork and even the decaying remains of some of the puppets have turned up from time to time. However, documented facts concerning the production of these films have been most tantalizingly rare.

Presskit cover for "Along the Moonbeam Trail," 1920

Presskit cover for “Along the Moonbeam Trail,” 1920.

Now a mountain of hitherto unknown information from the early years of dinosaur puppet animation is at last coming to light. We’ve long known of the rivalry that existed between Willis O’Brien and Herbert M. Dawley but until now only a fraction of the fascinating story has been available to us. The detective work that Stephen Czerkas has accomplished in tracking down multiple new sources of information to cross reference the facts in his article is truly amazing.

It’s most interesting to read how a near perfect original print of the thought-to-be-lost film Along the Moonbeam Trail was discovered and can be studied. As far as is known this was the first film to combine realistic stop-motion dinosaurs and live-action actors in the same shot. We’re given exciting new perspectives on Herbert M. Dawley’s contributions during the earliest days of motion picture animation and visual effects. – Jim Aupperle

6 thoughts on “Willis O’Brien Revisited

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  1. The new article on O’Brien and Dawley is monumental. I have been a Cinefex devotee since the beginning and this article is among the crème of all articles. The tireless, obsessed devotion of Stephen Czerkas to bring to light more of the facts surrounding the early days of stop motion animation resonates. This brilliant piece of detective work should ring true with the many unheralded contributors to the film industry…those that inspired but did not receive the correct credit or attention or have been forgotten. Nothing is fair in life and even less fair in the entertainment business where the loudest promo types rein So many great artists and truly ground breaking people have been stepped on by those with less talent but with more “promo” that it is good to get some of the facts straight in one of these important examples.

  2. I’m a lifelong effects fan who was influenced by O’Brien’s work. While I was sorry to hear that Dawley was due more credit than he got, I still believe that, due to Obie’s talent and skill, his contributions to visual effects more than compensate for this injustice to Dawley.

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