The Ghost of Slumber Mountain

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(6/8) This 1918 short by stop-motion wizard Willis O’Brien and Herbert M. Dawley is probably the first film to describe time travel, and is a showcase for their marvellous stop-motion dinosaurs. 

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Poster.

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. 1918, USA. Written & directed by Herbert M. Dawley & Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Starring Herbert M. Dawley and Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Stop-motion animation my Herbert M. Dawley & Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Produced by Herbert M. Dawley. IMDb score: 5.9

I usually don’t review short films when we start getting into the realm close to 1920, but I allow myself a few exceptions when pioneering concepts, themes or techniques are involved. Such a film is 1918/1919 short The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. It is considered by many to be the first film to deal with time travel, and one of the first where special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien (The Lost World, King Kong) combined live action with stop-motion photography. The first one was The Puzzling Billboard (1917), where a goat eats a billboard at the end of the film. The Ghost of Slumber Mountain is also arguably the first film to depict a time machine (although that is debatable). O’Brien wrote and directed the The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, along with Herbert M. Dawley, who also played the lead as Uncle Jack Holmes and produced. Willis O’Brien plays the ghost of Mad Dick.

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Dinosaur.

The plot goes like this: Uncle Jack decides to entertain his visiting nephews with a story of the time he and his buddy Joe went out hiking in the mountains, where he asked Joe to remove his clothes and pose as a faun, while they were looking for a mad dick. Uhum, no wait, is this the right movie? Yes it is. But unfortunately there will be no frisky outdoorsy male bonding like that, since Joe decides that the skeeters are too thick for playing fauns and faeries. Since I am not North American, I had to use Google to find out that the phrase ”skeeters are too thick” means that there are too many mosquitoes. Uncle Jack is also a painter, which might explain the odd request. They set off to visit a deserted cabin once inhabited by a hermit called Mad Dick. They find the old cabin all right, but it is locked and deserted, as could be expected. Before going to bed, Joe recalls how he once saw old Mad Dick standing on a hill, looking through a strange instrument ”like a telescope”, gazing towards Slumber Mountain.

In the middle of the night Jack is awakened by the call of the ghost of Mad Dick, who leads him to the cabin, where he finds the strange instrument. Mad Dick (or the translucent image that is left of him) leads Jack to a hill and has him gaze through the binoculars. To his amazement Jack gazes millions of years back in time and sees dinosaurs grazing, fighting and feeding. Suddenly he is transported into this ancient world, where he is just about to be eaten by a T-Rex – when he awakes outside his tent. It was all a dream …

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Herbert Dawley with a dinosaur.

The film is surrounded by a host of controversies and rumours. First of all, the original film was between 35 and 40 minutes long, but Dawley cut it down to a mere 11 minutes, which was how it was shown in cinemas. A few fragments of the original have been found, and edited into a 19 minute film, which is available online. It is also unclear whether it was released in 1918 or 1919, but since both Wikipedia and IMDb put it at 1918, I am prone to go with that.

Herbert M. Dawley and Willis O’Brien were both aspiring animators, but at this point Dawley hadn’t yet made a movie for release, whereas O’Brien had already directed and animated a handful of fairly impressive stop-motion films, and other odds and ends, such as commercials, at the Edison Company. However, in 1917 he was laid off from Edison because of cutbacks. Dawley, on the other hand, had a background as an engineer and amateur palaeontologist, and in 1918 had scraped together enough money to found his own film company, and hired O’Brien to help him make The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.

The “official” story has always been that Willis O’Brien directed the movie and created the dinosaur effects, perhaps with producer Dawley as his assistant, but that Dawley swindled O’Brien out of his money and credit by removing his name from the film. However, thanks to years of research by paleo-artist, animator and model maker Stephen Czerkas, we now have a broader picture of the feud. According to Dawley’s version, Dawley had hired O’Brien as as his assistant. It was Dawley who created the dinosaur puppets and acted as primary director, writer and animator, but at the opening night he discovered, to his astonishment, that O’Brien had made leaflets that removed all his credits, and presented O’Brien as the main artistic force behind the movie. This angered Dawley to the point that he then took revenge by removing O’Brien’s credits altogether.

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Willis O’Brien at Edison Studios in 1917.

The feud between Dawley and O’Brien continued. Both moved on as animators, with O’Brien eventually ending up doing the animation for the feature film The Lost World, with Marcel Delgado as partner: it was Delgado who created the puppets that O’Brien used. Dawley continued to make shorts for his own company, including the 1920 movie Along the Moonbeam Trail. The film has long been a matter of hot debate, as it was presumed lost for several decades, and film scholars assumed that the dinosaur sequences in it were actually outtakes of Willis O’Brien’s work for The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. However, upon screenings in later years, it has become clear that the scenes were all original, and animated by Herbert M. Dawley, which has also helped to somewhat clear his name of the reputation he gained over the years.

In 1922 when First National Pictures published the first promotional images for The Lost World, Dawley noticed a photo of Willis O’Brien playing with a dinosaur puppet that looked suspiciously much like it was made using the same technique that Dawley himself had recently patented, and that he had used when making The Ghost of Slumber Mountain with O’Brien. He threatened to sue, but the matter was eventually settled out of court. When the film was released in 1925, Dawley had already moved on  to the theatre business.

Anyway – the film The Ghost of Slumber Mountain itself is not much of a masterpiece, partly due to its episodic nature, but the stop-motion animation and the dinosaur puppets are masterfully made. O’Brien had had some practice with the technique by now, and you can see a very clear improvement from the very crude 1915 dinosaur film to this one, partly, one would imagine, thanks to the contribution of Dawley and his puppets. The motions are still a bit jerky, and not nearly as fluid and naturalistic as those O’Brien achieved with The Lost World and King Kong, but one still marvels at the way he controls the bodies of the dinosaurs, and gives them personality, rather than just making rigid monsters. Especially impressive is a close-up sequence of a Triceratops eating. The way the animal’s jaws move in a circular motion, the hint of a tongue, the movement of the legs and the body when it shifts its weight – it looks big and heavy, its skin wrinkles. Absolutely fabulous. And all just made on a tiny budget of 3 000 dollars (the whole film!). It grossed 100 000 dollars at the box office, most of which went to Dawley.

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Dinosaur.

The film is, if course, inspired by the literary depictions of lost worlds inhabited by pre-historic creatures, first introduced by French author Jules Verne in A Trip to the Center of the Earth (1864). In this book we only meet aquatic dinos, though, and the ultimate inspiration for dinosaur-filled lost worlds comes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (yes, the Sherlock Holmes dude) 1912 novel, appropriately named The Lost World. The genre was further popularised byEdgar Rice Burroughs’ (yes, the Tarzan dude) Pellucidar series, starting with At the Earth’s Core from 1914. The film is not an adaptation of either novel, though.

Janne Wass

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. 1918, USA. Written & directed by Herbert M. Dawley & Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Starring Herbert M. Dawley and Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Stop-motion animation my Herbert M. Dawley & Willis O’Brien (uncredited). Produced by Herbert M. Dawley. IMDb score: 5.9

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