Today, Thomas Edison’s fingerprints are everywhere. Yet his legacy’s loaded with asterisks. As many people know, the man’s business tactics were often despicably underhanded, leaving a trail of alienation and resentment in their wake. However, nobody can dispute the awesome impact this amazing tinkerer’s had upon modern life as we know it. Paleontology fans are particularly indebted to his storied career. Why? On top of his better-known accomplishments, Edison—it turns out—helped introduce dinosaurs to the silver screen.
Here’s a delightful short released by Edison’s film company that’s available freely online through the miracle of public domain. So heat up some microwave popcorn & enjoy 1915’s The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy:
Despite the title, this flick’s only dino gets little more than a brief cameo during its climax. Instead, most of its runtime is dedicated to a razor-thin love story which happens to get rudely interrupted by an obnoxious hominid and some no-nonsense sauropod.
Our tale begins on a quiet, prehistoric morning. Miss Araminta Rockface (an eligible bachelorette) suddenly finds herself surrounded by hopeful suitors. There’s a clumsy oaf simply called “The Duke”, his boorish rival Stonejaw Steve, and one Mr. Theophilus Ivoryhead, whom the film cites as its designated hero. At this point, I should note that the short’s sense of humor might fall flat with modern audiences. Consider, for example, this timeless thigh-slapper Araminta delivers at the 1:43-mark:
“Won’t you come into the drawing room? I should offer you tea, but tea has unfortunately not yet been discovered.”
Oh, my sides. Anyway, we’re then introduced to the “Missing Link” known as Wild Willie: a scrawny, bad-tempered ape-like beast who closely resembles another, far more famous simian. More on that later.
Willie busies himself by making off with Araminta’s hard-earned supper. She responds by informing her male guests that if they’d like any dinner, they’ll have to “go out and get it” themselves. Meanwhile, Willie’s appetite remains unquenched. Regrettably, while hunting near the local river, he winds up mistaking a distracted sauropod’s writing tail for a tasty snake. After bashing it with a rock, the enraged dinosaur attacks and—after a brief scuffle—kills poor Willie.
A few moments later, who should arrive upon Willie’s broken corpse but the dashing Theophilus? When everyone else shows up at the crime scene, our hero boasts “Yes, yes—a mere trifle. He irritated me and I was forced to kill him!” Apparently, Araminta finds this swoon-worthy, showering him with kisses as the screen fades. The end.
To be sure, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link is a silly piece of entertainment. And, though cinematic dinosaurs weren’t exactly common at the time, this certainly wasn’t the first short film that starred one. Vaudevillian Winsor McCay’s hand-drawn cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) had delighted audiences the previous year with its personable titular “Brontosaurus”.
But, having said all this, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link nicely foreshadowed the next twenty years’-worth of dinosaurian filmmaking. This is largely thanks to its innovative animator, Willis O’Brien (1886-1962).
Genius is rarely celebrated in its own time. Stop-motion animation had been in existence since the 1890s, long before O’Brien started tinkering with it. However, this talented California native can be credited with inventing the technique independently as a young man. O’Brien discovered, quite by accident, that by systematically projecting still images of stationary models in various positions, he could create the illusion of movement.
Naturally, O’Brien adored sculpting. A very different subject also enamored him, one which would—in almost equal measure—help guide his new career path: paleontology.
The Dinosaur and the Missing Link ranks among the first of several prehistory-themed projects O’Brien added to his resume. Completed in 1915, it greatly impressed Edison, who decided to redistribute it two years later and eventually collaborated with O’Brien on many subsequent short films, including 1917’s Prehistoric Poultry:
O’Brien quickly transitioned into feature-length movie-making and brought his love of dinosaurs along for the ride. Filmography highlights include The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918), The Lost World (1925), & The Giant Behemoth (1959), all of which pitted human characters against Mesozoic monsters.
And then there’s King Kong (1933). Notice that, decades before the eighth wonder of the world arrived, O’Brien was already experimenting with fights between dinos and scrappy simians. Furthermore, Willie’s on-screen death in The Dinosaur and the Missing Link indirectly sets the stage for Kong’s iconic demise.
All things considered, despite its campy dialogue, this short stands as an invaluable prelude for what was to come.