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.
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