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THE UNSUNG GRANDFATHER OF ‘KING KONG’

Willis O’Brien’s place in movie history is secure. He is the genius who engineered the stop-motion animation that made King Kong come to life in 1933. He made a series of caveman shorts for Thomas Edison in the teens and worked on the prototype for Kong, The Lost World (1925). We’ve always read that he was swindled by Herbert M. Dawley, his partner on an ambitious and widely-seen short called The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918). There was even a battle over patents on the armatures that made its prehistoric monsters so realistic. Dawley has consistently been portrayed as the bad guy. Now, thanks to the untiring efforts of the late Stephen A. Czerkas, it is time to rewrite history.

A talented artist and sculptor in his own right who created life-sized dinosaur skeletons for natural history museums (as well as movies), Czerkas founded the non-profit Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah. He died in 2015 but his wife Sylvia has completed an elaborate book, Major Herbert M. Dawley: An Artist’s Life, and an accompanying DVD, Silent Roar: The Dinosaur Films of Herbert M. Dawley. They are nothing short of a revelation.

Dawley, it turns out, was a man of many talents: an actor, showman, artist, historian, and more. He was the chief designer for Pierce-Arrow, the classiest car on the road in the 1920s. He also helped to establish the Chatham Community Players in New Jersey, and it was in the attic of this institution that a partial 35mm print of his long-lost film Along the Moonbeam Trail (1921) was discovered. Footage from another local source, plus the British Film Institute, enabled Czerkas to cobble together a nearly-complete version of this tantalizing short, which is highlighted by impressive dinosaur action.

The DVD also features other Dawleyana, including a speech he delivered late in life to the Pierce-Arrow Society and twelve silent shorts he made in collaboration with the well-known artist and puppeteer Tony Sarg. Some of these silhouette cartoons have been seen before, but they gain new meaning in the context of Dawley’s career…and at least one, Thumbelina, is a recent find. Like Along the Moonbeam Trail, they benefit from newly-composed scores by Terry Huud.

The handsome hardcover book, designed by Ernest Farino (whose work you may know from his multi-volume series on Ray Harryhausen) is packed with information and illustrations chronicling Dawley’s colorful life and career. It has taken a long time to set the record straight about this much-maligned figure, but Stephen and Sylvia Czerkas deserve our thanks for doing just that.

To learn more click HERE.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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