Culture Magazine

Winsor McCay: The Pet

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
This post from 2012 is about one of the creepiest films I've ever seen and a classic of early animation.
Winsor McCay was a cartoonist and a pioneering animator who did most of his work in the second decade or so of the 20th Century. He was a skilled and fluent draftsman and, as far as I can tell, had relatively little stylistic influence on subsequent animators, possibly because his style would have been impossible in the commercial animation world as it emerged.
This post consists mostly of notes I made on his next to the last film, The Pet, which is also one of the creepiest films I’ve EVER seen. EVER. This little gem is not kid stuff.

Point of reference: The Pet was made in 1921 while King Kong was made in 1933.
Running Time: c. 10 min 30 sec
Now, let's take a closer look at one of McCay's 1921 films, "The Pet." This is one of those dream films. In this case the dream is the husband's dream and it is about a stray animal that his wife takes in as a pet.
There are two defining characteristics of this creature:
1.) It just grows and grows and eats and eats and grows and grows. 2.) In both its being and its actions it violates boundary after boundary.
These are both obvious enough, but the first could be pointed out by a six-year old while the latter requires some considerable sophistication to formulate explicitly. The six-year old can easily tell you that it both is and is not a cat – and be puzzled by this, that it eats things it shouldn’t – like a coffee pot and a pile of coal; a twenty-six year old could tell you these things as well. But summing it all up as a succession of boundary violations, that would require an article-length piece of academic analysis.
The eating and eating and growing and growing are perfectly visible, concrete events. Each and every one of the boundary violations is also concrete and visible; but the characterization of all those events as “boundary violation” is abstract. One easily notices all those violations, they seem odd, strange, unsettling, and so forth. So, what’s the relationship between that abstract pattern and the “primary process” thinking of the Freudian unconscious?
Description and Plot Summary
1. As the movie opens he and she are lying in bed and he (Col. B.) remarks that he had a delicious Welsh Rarebit for dinner (at his club?) that evening. She remarks that Welsh Rarebit generally gives him bad dreams. They go to sleep.
Thus we know the “cause” of the weird events to follow. Also, it becomes quickly apparent that this is a comfortable middle-class household. Hubby is, after all, a (presumably retired) colonel.
2. As the dream opens we see this little animal walking through the front yard of the house toward the front door. It looks like a floppy-eared mongrel dog. It opens its mouth to make a sound and we see "MEOW" written on the image near the dog's head. That, of course, is the conventional rendering of a cat's cry, not a dog's bark. So, it looks like a dog but makes a cat's noise.
3. As the creature moves into the open doorway Mrs. B. spots it and picks it up. She (standing in profile) makes a big fuss over it, holding it, hugging it, kissing it on the snout (twice) and lifting it in the air – the sort of thing one might do with an infant.
4. She then gives it a bath, which takes some seconds. It swims around in the tub a bit.
5. She puts a bow around its neck, names it “Cutey” (after her husband) and places it in the yard where it prances around in a way most strange. It bounces up and down keeping all four legs straight – and “bounce” is the word, a straight-legged bounce. Dogs don’t move like that, nor do cats, nor does any animal – unless it has extraordinary strength in its toes; perhaps a kangaroo hops something like this on its hind legs. The pet meets the Colonel (presumably) on return from work.
The creature’s eyes have no pupils. It’s not clear to me just when, in the course of my viewing, that become apparent.
6. He and she have a conversation (sitting face to face on a pair of chairs) about the Pet and he goes off to bed.
7. Then she feeds it a saucer of milk -- appropriate for a kitten, but not a puppy. As it drinks the milk, it grows visibly larger in proportion as the milk recedes in the saucer. When done the pet tips the saucer on to its back and walks off the screen to the right.
By now it’s clear that we're stuck with a very strange creature. On the evidence presented to us on the screen, it is both dog and cat, or neither. Without being particularly weird or grotesque at this point, this is nonetheless a strange creature, a sport, a monster, an impossibility. As the creature gets larger its back seems to become a bit humped.
8. Now Mrs. B. puts the pet to bed, tucking it into an empty baby crib. Nowhere in the film is there any evidence that the couple has or has had children – on the face of it, he appears old enough to have grand children.
9. Once she leaves the pet tosses and turns a bit and then kicks off its covers and proceeds to perform acrobatic stunts on the crib railings. It then leaves its bedroom – by now its larger than it was when it first appeared – and walks into the bedroom of Col. and Mrs. B.
10. In that bedroom it bounces on the covers and crawls under them between the Col. and his wife.
11. The Col. leaves the bed and goes to sleep on the living-room couch. The pet then follows him and awakens him while growing larger before our eyes.
12. Now we’re in the kitchen. Mrs. B, is setting the table for breakfast. Cat in lower left. Pet enters from right, goes under table (which is covered with a cloth) and then comes out and harasses the cat. The cat is much smaller than the pet, which MEOWs at it. And then eats it in a single bit. The Mrs. doesn’t see this.
Cut to next scene.
13. Now we see the table fully set, with the Col. to the right, Mrs. B. to the left. The pet enters from the left, behind the table, and climbs into a chair in the middle. The pet then eats everything on the table. The Col. leaves (in disgust). At last it gets to the coffee pot, at which point the wife leaves as well. Once it’s consumed the pot itself it continues chewing on the chord, which goes down through the middle of the table. It finally pulls the chord out, and tips over backward.
Cut to next scene.
14. The Col. enters the pharmacy and asks how he can “murder” (the word used on the title slide) his wife’s latest pet, which has gotten out of control. He’s told to order “Rough on Rats.” So he places an order for it to be delivered. He explicitly tells the Doc he’ll phone him when he wants the poison to be delivered.
15. Back at home, the pet walks down the cellar stairs to the basement and into the coal bin, where it proceeds to devour the entire pile – not exactly standard issue puppy chow. It grows some more.
16. It returns to the parlor – now appearing to be man-high at the shoulder – eats a lamp, a bust of a pedestal, a clock of the mantel, and the family bird (along with its perch). Note that it has now eaten another living creature.
17. It goes outside and comes along side the house beneath a window. There’s a garden hose coiled on the ground and attached to a spigot which is obviously open as water is coming out of the hose, which is moving about in the air. The pet sticks its head into the water flow and moves his muzzle around in the water, as though washing. He then bites the nozzle and proceeds to ingest the hose while ballooning up with water. The Col. and the Mrs. appear together in the window, looking out at the pet, which then squirts water at the from its mouth and deflates accordingly. They move away from the window.
18. The pet lies down. And then it gets up when a barrel labeled “Rough on Rats” is delivered from the left on a hand-cart. We don’t see more than the hands and forearms of the man pushing the cart.
[roughly three-quarters of the way through]
19. The pet consumes everything in the barrel. Then it stiffens and begins to shake and quiver. The pet then stands still as boils begin to break out on its skin and they become more and more plentiful and larger and larger until it is entirely covered in them. At the maximum we see drops of pus coming from the pet. (I didn’t consciously see them until the 5th or 6th viewing.)
During this scene Mrs. B appears at the window and then walks away in obvious hand-waving distress.
This is as creepy and disgusting an image as I've seen in any film. Just when you think you can't stand it anymore...
20. The boils recede, the creature's skin clears up entirely, and it just keeps growing and growing.
[It takes roughly 13 seconds for the boils to proliferate and then finally recede.]
The poison was ineffectual. The Colonel’s drastic attempt to bring his wife's pet under control by killing it has failed utterly.
21. As the boils recede, the pet shakes and quivers a bit more, just like it had done upon finishing the poison. It stands up on its hind legs and walks off to the left (the direction from which the poison was delivered).
22. Now on all fours, it walks to the edge of the yard, takes a bite out of the stone fence, and the walks out of the yard.
23. The Col. reports the all-but rampaging pet to the police. “Don’t capture, kill.”
24. Still in a residential neighborhood, the creature, now as high as a house, eats a tree and then a parked car, revealing a man underneath who’d obviously been working on it.
25. Walks into the center of the city. It’s now of a size comparable to the large buildings in the city. It reaches down with its head and devours a trolley car, then some buildings, a large storage tank.
26. It’s now large enough to dominate the skyline. We see it moving through the city. Planes come in view, a dirigible, and then another. It snatches planes out of the air with its mouth, consumes a dirigible.
27. We see bombs falling all over the place. The pet explodes, Blam!!
28. Massive destruction. Debris rains from the sky for some seconds and we see the remains of buildings. The pet is nowhere to be seen, but much of the city has been destroyed.
29. The couple wakes up, glance at one another. End of film.
Notes and Questions
First, why frame this story as a dream? The question arises simply because the dream-frame is no more than that, a frame. This is not a dream that arises in the context of a larger story. This dream is the story.
One thing the frame does is establish that this is not real. But that’s not a sufficient reason. That could be done by telling the story straight and calling it a fantasy in the title. Even without that, the unreality would become obvious enough. It could be the unreality of a different world somewhere on a different planet.
But by calling it a dream the story is projected into the purely mental realm and set over against mundane reality. “This is something that happened in the mind of folks just like you and me.” That’s one thing the dream frame does.
But there are various ways of presenting a dream. You could, for example, present it through a conversation between one person and another. But that’s not how this is presented. The dream is presented directly to us, as though we are privy to it as it happens. Perhaps it is our dream.
Not quite. Rather, it’s presented to us as the dream of a person we see on the screen. It’s the dream of a married man, whom we see going to bed with his wife. The dream is about his wife, the woman sleeping next to him as the dream transpires.
That would seem to make the dream into a manifestation of the relationship between a man and his wife. Could it be something as simple as male anxiety about children? There are obvious cues in that direction, but I’m not sure what those cues get us.
It seems to me that what’s central to this film is that interactions with this creature result in an out of control process (cf. Akira or even the Metropolis anime). The wife invites it in, and the husband initially tries to “bracket” it. It would seem he orders up the poison on his own. But, by the time the creature has consumed the cat, the coal, and the bird, the wife is with her husband on this matter – as we see when both are in the window. By the time the creature has become covered with boils she’s horrified and he, presumably, has gone to alert the authorities. At this point whatever the dynamic is, it has grown beyond the two of them and is rampaging through society at large.

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