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THE 1920s-1970s

Dinosaurs were popular subjects in film reels by Film Associates, Encyclopedia Britannica, AIMS, Coronet Films, McGraw Hill Book Company and a few others. Before this period, during the 1920’s a silent called Monsters of the Past: The Story of the Great Dinosaur by Carnegie Museum's Arthur Sterry Coggeshall would be used in countless documentaries. Stock footage from the O'Brien-animated silents such as The Lost World and The Ghost of Slumber Mountain wound up in educational reels such as Evolution (1923, Red Seal) and Universal's Mystery of Life  (1931). 

The lyrical, animated dinosaur sequence set to Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" in Walt Disney's 1940 Fantasia served almost as a short educational film reflecting the scientific theories of the time. The glaring inaccuracy is the anachronistic panoply of species (Dimetrodon, Pteranodon, Stegosaurus and others all exist at the same time in the same environment.) The Tyrannosaurus even has three fingers; Disney himself thought it looked "better" that way. It took years before it finally came to home video (1992). Historically the movie was theatrically re-released periodically over the years  Footage from the segment ended up in documentary films such as A World is Born where evolution is not uttered, and the dinosaurs are called Lords of Creation.

A theatrical film called The Animal World was Irwin Allen’s wildlife documentary that had a ten minute segment featuring stop-motion models by Willis O’Brien. These segments along with the real wildlife parts were deemed too gruesome and actually had to be edited down. Today you can see the entire movie on DVD, after over 50 years of settling for brief clips in various programs and television airings only in the 1950s and 1960s. Among the highlights: Brontosaurus eats a man, T rex and Triceratops battle only to be swept away by lavaflow (the first depiction of dinosaur extinction on the big screen since Fantasia). Before you turn off the disc there's a glimpse of some pterosaur stop-motion in the "birds" segment. Pleistocene life is illustrated only by a quick pan of Charles Knight's paintings and some dioramas. The biggest problem with The Animal World is an aversion to the word 'evolution'. Rather we get disturbing readings of Scripture serving as a poetic explanation of how the world was created. The schizoid commentary continues "unfortunately Man tries to prove his is a relative of the monkey and Nature proves he's right." At one point religion is equated with myth and fable.

Young fossil hunters Pat, Susan and Steve check out the finds in Mulholland Drive area in 1956’s Fossils Are Interesting. If you are looking for dinosaurs this 10 minute Film Associates of California reel will likely not interest you.

In Coronet Films’ 1957 Fossils: Clues to Prehistoric Times we first see the scale dino models from St. Paul Science Museum. The rest of the footage is from Chicago’s Field Museum, with techs working on Gorgosaurus skeleton and the highlight: Maidi Webe painting her Gorgosaurus model displayed at the Museum.

At the start of The Dinosaur Age  (13 minutes, Film Associates of California, 1958) paleontologists unearthing a paddle of a plesiosaur which we are told are “closely related to the dinosaur”. As dinosaurs are described we see models by Leonard Bessom of the L.A. Museum.  As you’d expect there’s outdated information aplenty (“Trachodon walked upright…living in swamps”). Photos of skeletal mounts at the AMNH close the program.

Dinosaurs (1962) was the ninth episode in the Life, Time and Change series from McGraw Hill Book Company (sponsored in part by Ford Motors).  It opens with a close-up of an Alva Studio Brontosaurus figure. Edwin Colbert from the American Museum of Natural History hosts, first showing viewers where dinosaurs were found on a globe, then their family tree (a chart of silhouetted dino shapes) and a geologic time scale. Expectedly Colbert spends a little time talking about a cast of Coelophysis’ skeleton, then moves onto its descendant Tyrannosaurus, the skeleton at the museum which he stands underneath. Charles Knight’s AMNH paintings are shown throughout including T. rex, Trachodon, Brontosaurus.  Zdenek Burian’s Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus from the Prehistoric Animals book plates are also shown. Colbert states he suspects to be “complex” - attributing “food supply change”, “climate change”, and “subtle factors we cannot know.”

After Dinosaur National Monument opened in 1958, the U.S. Dept. of the Interior created a promotional film that began with nearly ten minutes of aerial footage of the strata and only featured three minutes of three dinosaurs - Allosaurus, Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus represented by model and skeleton. The rest of the reel is flora and a ride through the Green and Yampa rivers. The film can be found through public domain film archivists and is entitled This Is Dinosaur, made in 1966 or thereafter, referring to the statutory Colorado town Dinosaur. To some these 26 minutes will be nostalgic, most will find this tour deadly dull. It is often sold as “Classic Dinosaur National Monument Vintage Film” or something rather by Quality Video Archivists. A year before, there was a similar 11 minute 16mm classroom reel titled Message From a Dinosaur, a part of the Stream of Life series. Visual highlights include The Field Museum Albertosaurus, Bill Berry’s rarely appreciated art and Ernest Untermann’s Jurassic fauna.  Far more entertaining than This is Dinosaur, the film ends with the questions "Why are young dinosaurs rarely been found? Why did they disappear? The answer may still be buried in the rocks..."

As a 10 year old kid in the 1950s, paleontologist Robert Bakker remembers writing television stations asking if they would please play some dinosaur programs. They would always write back that they didn’t have any. According to Gregory Paul, there were no dinosaur documentaries on American television in the 1960s either (not the case in England, where the BBC began producing series on evolution.) He does recall a National Geographic special that had some stop motion, and this feature was aired first on March 12, 1968. Called Reptiles and Amphibians, it had a very brief, slightly crude stop motion sequence about 7 minutes into the special, preceded by footage of field and lab fossil preparators.  About the only notable aspect of the stop motion Stegosaurus, Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus models were their Charles Knight Field Museum mural likenesses.  Dinosaurs are said to be “Nature’s noblest experiments”.  The “Reptiles” and “Amphibians” segments were also divided up into separate film strips for school use in 1972. The VHS and Laserdisc came out in 1989 and it currently is available on DVDR.

Don’t let Alpha Video’s misleading cover art of E+ stock images of modern dinosaur toys fool you - Dinosaurs and Early Man (2011) is a compilation of old educational film strips. The back claims it’s only black and white but only the last features are:  A Lost World (an Encyclopedia Britannica short cut of The Lost World) and Gertie the Dinosaur .  The rest of the features are sepia, and the only Early Man one is Prehistoric Man, a 1970 reel by the State Historical Society of Colorado, with live actor reenactments . If you are a fan of old film strips then the value is in the first three shorts from the Shell Oil Company:  1973’s This Land (not THE Land as the back sleeve reads) is a geological film just over 30 minutes with eerie warbling electronic music as we learn about fossil life forms like trilobites and armored fish, then skip ahead to amphibians, then to dinosaurs. Sorry, no Permian synapsids or therapsids here. The models are from the Vernal Utah collection; the mammal paintings are Jay Matternes’.  The Fossil Story – this is the 1960s version - is narrated by the great Peter Thomas;  this one’s got lots of rocks, dinosaur skeletons  and Ernest Untermann paintings. Story in the Rocks: An Introduction to Paleontology (1962) amply covers dinosaurs with shots of models and paintings just under 20 minutes.

By 1970, stop motion model maker/animator Wah Chang’s Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards, another 11 minute 16mm reel meant for classroom use, was released by AIMS Multimedia. By the 1980s it would be packaged onto VHS under different titles. Beast roll call: Coelophysis, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, Monoclonius, Trachodon, Pteranodon, Ankylosaurus, Deltatherium, Eohippus, Diatryma, Baluchitherium, Platybelodon, Glyptodon, Megatherium, Smilodon, Woolly Mammoth, Neanderthals. The latter credited to Doug Beswick and Jim Aupperle.

In the film strip Fossils: From Site To Museum (1971) the site is a coal bed around Illinois mainly invertebrates and fern trace and imprint fossils, and the museum is Chicago’s Field Museum, where we meet Eugene Richardson Jr.  The only dinosaur is of course, the old Gorgosaurus.


  A BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) science series called Horizon collaborated with primetime PBS series NOVA for “The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs“ (premiered Jan. 12, 1977), the title taken clearly from Adrian Desmond’s 1976 book. The author oddly doesn’t appear in the program, the first of a few Robin Bates-produced dino shows. Young Robert Bakker, still with his trademark long hair but no cowboy hat yet, sketches out a rearing brontosaur (called the largest dinosaur by the narrator). Bob illustrates the problems of the older restorations and later in the program, in the argument for endothermy, uses a Dimetrodon to exemplify predator/prey ratios. Stegosaurus plates are championed without debate as thermo-regulators - even by non-paleontologists. Dale Russell describes Albertosaurus' lifestyle with gruesome glee. Leeds University's McNeill Alexander's study of replica trackways lead him to conclude Brontosaurus would have broken its legs in a trot! John Ostrom displays the remains of Deinonychus and tells of Archaeopteryx. Despite a montage of Bakker's pioneering drawings of the dynamic new look, there are few illustrations and some very outdated animated dinosaurs. Narrator Paul Vaughan's last words before the silent end titles, "Today there are more questions than answers..." And so ends the first documentary of the Dinosaur Revolution era that was beginning.

Fossils: Exploring the Past (1978) is another Encyclopedia Brittanica production. There is brief coverage of the in situ fossils at Dinosaur National Monument initially. Paleontologist William Matthews in Texas examines marine invertebrate fossils then we spend some time with Dr. Richard Grant at the Smithsonian. Good information on the chemical solutions used in preparation,  as well as the more recent fossils of the La Brea tar pits, fossil fuels by coal and early hominids.

Two films were done for BFA in 1978. Dinosaurs: A First Film is an animated production by Michael Creedman. The animation itself was by Theresa Abramson. Halfway into the ten minute running time do we see dinosaurs.  Creedman credits LA Museum’s Everett Olson as adviser but he definitely did not consult anyone else. The other was Jorge Preloran’s 17 minute Dinosaurs: The Age of Reptiles which opens with shots of dino comic book covers demonstrating the cultural myth that man and dinosaur coexisted.  Artists may find this reel interesting since at least five minutes are dedicated to sculpting a lifesize Herrerasaurus model. One mistake is obvious when Burian’s Brachiosaurus painting is labeled “Hadrosaurs” (see picture). The paleontology adviser was Jose Bonaparte the Argentinian focus.  In both films volcanism and egg-eating mammals are blamed for the mystery extinction.

Ending the 1970s Sir David Attenborough’s Life On Earth featured static line drawing dinosaurs briefly in the ‘Victors of Dry Land’ episode, edited into a short film called Dinosaurs and Their Living Descendents.

 On to the 1980s