The Ghost of Slumber Mountain 1918

Director: Willis O'Brien
"His fevered breath was in my face! - - I could almost feel his fangs tearing my flesh!!"
A ghostly hermit's strange telescope opens a window into the prehistoric world in 'King Kong' animator Willis O'Brien's prototypical debut feature.

Uncle Jack tells his two nephews the story of his trip with his friend Joe into Dream Valley, where they made camp on Slumber Mountain. They come across the haunted cabin of a hermit, Mad Dick. Joe tells Jack how he once followed Dick to the top of the mountain to find him peering into the distance through an odd-looking telescope.

That night, as Jack falls asleep by the fire, he hears a voice calling to him from Dick's cabin. Inside, he finds old bones, books on dinosaurs, and a box containing the odd instrument that Joe spoke of. Mad Dick's ghost appears and leads Jack to the summit of the mountain. Jack is instructed to use the telescope, and through it sees all manner of prehistoric creatures; a brontosaurus lumbers through the undergrowth, a Diatryma hunts a snake, and a Triceratops battles to the death with a ferocious Tyrannosaurus...

Willis O'Brien broke into the movie business by bringing dinosaurs to life. Born in Oakland, California in 1886, he'd tried his luck in many jobs - boxer, bartender, brakeman, rancher, cartoonist for the San Francisco Daily News - but it was while working as a wilderness guide for the palaeontologists digging for fossils in Crater Lake that his fascination with dinosaurs was born. 

Later, while working as a stonecutter, he hit on the idea of making his sculptures move. Drawing on his developing interest in prehistory, he produced a minute-long animation using models of a dinosaur and a caveman. This led to local exhibitor Henry Wobber financing a comic short titled The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, which was picked up for distribution by Edison Studios early in 1917. They commissioned a series of similar subjects, released as 'Mannikin Films' under the Conquest Pictures banner. The titles that followed, Morpheus Mike, The Birth of a Flivver, RFD 10,000 B.C., Prehistoric Poultry, and so on, all featured Willis's tiny animated cavemen and a motley assortment of prehistoric animals.

Edison had dropped it's short subject program by the end of 1917, but by then producer Herbert M. Dawley had recruited O'Brien with another project, which for the first time presented the animator's creatures alongside real human beings. Or, if not 'alongside', then certainly 'in close proximity to'.Whether because of a lack of technical experience on O'Brien's part, or simply a lack of resources, the plot contrives to show us the dinosaurs from a distance. It's only in the final scene, where Uncle Jack is chased by an angry Tyrannosaurus, that there is any kind of interaction, and this is achieved by cross-cutting rather than showing dinosaur and human in the same shot. 

The dinosaur sequences for The Ghost of Slumber Mountain took three months to complete and the finished film, which was mostly live-action, came in at a relatively modest $3,000. It's original running time was said to be over half an hour, although Dawley inexplicably cut the film down to 11 minutes for a later release. The version that survives today runs to just short of 19 minutes at standard speed. Unused footage was given an airing in Dawley's fantasy Along the Moonbeam Trail in 1920.

Dawley, seen on the screen as kindly Uncle Jack, was less avuncular in real life, paying O'Brien only a modest flat fee for his work: we can assume Dawley benefited far more from the film's eventual profits of over $100,000. The relationship between the two men quickly soured, as Dawley, himself a model-maker, attempted to publicly take credit for the film's effects. He obtained patents for the armatures that O'Brien had created for Slumber Mountain and ultimately threatened a lawsuit when O'Brien began work on The Lost World in 1922.

Thankfully, both the courts and history were on O'Brien's side and it was proved that the innovations were his. Primitive though it is, Slumber Mountain represents a great leap forward in cinematic technique, only a couple of brontosaurus-sized strides away from the far more sophisticated Lost World, and its honorary successor King Kong, the undisputed high point of O'Brien's forty-five year career. 

End Credits:
Herbert Dawley (Uncle Jack Holmes), Willis O'Brien (Mad Dick).
Story and Visual Effects: Willis O'Brien, Technical Advisor: Barnum Brown, Producer: Herbert M. Dawley.
World Film Corporation, USA
Running time 19 mins

An 11-minute cut is available as an extra on Planet of The Dinosaurs (Retromedia), along with O'Brien's earlier short The Dinosaur and the Missing Link. The 19-minute version is widely available to view online.

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