Quirino Cristiani, The Untold Story of Argentina's Pioneer Animator

In celebration of Quirino Cristiani's centennial, we are republishing Giannalberto's classic profile of the Italian immigrant who made the world's first two animated features.

The following article originally appeared in the June/July and September issues of the French magazine Banc-Titre/Animation Stand. The following English translation by Charles Solomon was done for the December 1984 issue of Graffiti, published by ASIFA-Hollywood. This publication, in honor of the centeniarry of Quirino Cristiani's birth, also includes a new introduction and an extra paragraph about Cristiani and Disney.--Editor

Cristiani in Santa Giuletta,on November 29, 1981, when he was being honored by the local government. Courtesy of Giannalberto Bendazzi.

It was 1980, and during a festival held in Turin, Italy, I happened to have breakfast with a man I had never met before, Simòn Feldman. He introduced himself as an Argentinean filmmaker (both animation and live action: a rarity); and hearing that I was an animation historian, he added, "I bet you ignore the [fact that the] first animated feature film was made in my country." I replied that I knew about it,- but my only source was a vague mention in a clipping given to me by my excellent colleague Bruno Edera.

When back home, Feldman (who I still thank for his collaboration) sent me some photocopied press clippings he had collected about the film and the people who worked on it.

It was the beginning of research that would lead me to track down the film's director, Quirino Cristiani, who was still alive and well in Bernal, Argentina; have him invited to his home village of Santa Giuletta, Italy; and eventually publish in 1983 a book on him and his work (Due volte l'oceano-- Vita di Quirino Cristiani, pioniere dell'animazione) that reached him in time to reward him against the oblivion he had experienced during the last 40 years of his life.

Now, being the centennial of his birth, I'm happy to celebrate the anniversary by republishing this article, originally written in 1982.

Since then, very little new has been discovered about the subject (probably some of the discs that accompanied his third feature, Peludòpolis, as an Argentinean animator told me at the last Annecy Festival). The text is then still correct--and a due homage to one of our least known pioneers.Our story begins on July 2, 1896, the day Quirino Cristiani was born in the little Italian village of Santa Guiletta, near Pavia; he was the son of Luigi Cristiani, a municipal secretary, and Adele Martinotti, a housewife. His father, unfortunately, lost his job and was unable to feed a family with five children. America, the Mecca of the poor, especially the Italian poor, beckoned; so Luigi Cristiani went off to Argentina, where he found work. The rest of the family followed. That was in 1900.

In Argentina, Quirino Cristiani did not find the Indians with feathers in their hair that he expected. Instead he found Buenos Aires, a large city that was expanding at a feverish pace. He also found friends and happiness. In his teens, the immigrant peasant discovered his love for drawing. He drew on the walls of houses; he sketched animals in the zoo; and very briefly, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts. At that time, newspapers were full of political cartoons and comic strips. Quirino began to hang around newspaper offices, where he found editors willing to publish his caricatures. So, without becoming famous, he became known.

Meanwhile, another Italian, Federico Valle (born in Asti in 1880) had come to Buenos Aires. Valle had worked for the Lumière Brothers and the Urban Trading Co. as a cameraman and documentary filmmaker. He was probably the first man to employ aerial cinematography (with Wilbur Wright, at Centocelle, near Rome, in 1909). In Argentina, he became a producer, but his first love was the newsreel. And given the Argentine love--and especially of the citizens of Buenos Aires--for political discussion and satire, what could be better than newsreels with political cartoons in them? And who better to draw them than this young man, already destined for a bright future, and ready and eager to sell his stuff at a reasonable price?

In 1916, in Buenos Aires, the newsreel "Actualidades Valle" had two-and-a-half minutes of animation entitled La intervención en la provincia de Buenos Aires. Its subject: the intervention by President Irigoyen against the governor of Buenos Aires, Marcelino Ugarte. Irigoyen charged him with dishonesty, and replaced him. Quirino Cristiani had drawn and animated the sequence using techniques he had learned from studying films by Émile Cohl that Valle had kept in his exchange. His studio could hardly be described as state-of-the-art, even then: he shot the film frame-by-frame on the terrace of a house in Buenos Aires, using the sun as his light source, with wind ready to ruin a shot at any moment. Starting with this first film, Cristiani used cardboard cutouts, a technique he later perfected and patented.

Cristiani was happy with the results, as was the audience. Valle was enthusiastic. He wasn't interested in politics, but he knew the Argentines were. So was the young animator. Valle then reached an agreement with a Mr. Franchini, who among other activities, owned several movie theaters. Together, they raised the money for the most ambitious project in the history of Latin America Cinema: a feature-length political satire on Hipólito Irigoyen, the country's new President. This was to be the first feature-length animated film ever made.

Drawing by Diógenes Taborda for El Apóstol Courtesy of Giannalberto Bendazzi.

El Apóstol

Hipólito Irigoyen, the charismatic leader of the Radical Party, won the 1916 presidential elections by a large majority, thus ending the long rule of the conservatives. The Radical Party was the party of the lower middle class and the "populist," activist segments of society. Irigoyen was an honest man, but somewhat absentminded; the victim, some said, of unscrupulous associates. Moreover, he and his fellow Radicals lacked the polished style of the conservatives: they tended to be long-winded, with a certain tendency toward demagoguery. All these factors made Irigoyen an ideal target for the young cartoonist, who was eager to make fun of everyone and everything.

The film, El Apóstol (The Apostle), showed Irigoyen wanting to bring morality to public life and eliminate corruption in Buenos Aires. To accomplish his lofty aims, he ascends to heaven where Jupiter lends the new president his thunderbolts. Irigoyen then hurled the redemptive fire at the city, which made for a most impressive blaze. The audience particularly enjoyed the final sequence, which combined models built by the French architect Andrés Ducaud and special effects.

El Apóstol had its premiere on November 9, 1917 at the Select Theater (which co-producer Franchini owned). "The film is magnificent," said the review in the newspaper Critica, "and demonstrates the wonderful progress our national cinema has made."La Razon agreed, saying it was, "A graphic work that reveals enormous labor, patience and even genius." A good many other papers praised Valle, the film, and the country. But hardly anyone noticed that Cristiani had the one true claim to authorship: He had conceived the film, made the drawings, and animated the characters. In those days, no one thought of filmmakers--films were spoken of something "produced" by someone.

Cristiani's life was complicated by the fact that Valle had hired Diógenes Taborda, known as "El Mono" ("The Monkey," as was apparently very ugly), to design characters for the film. El Mono was the most famous humorous cartoonist of the time; a veritable star, his vaguely art nouveau cartoons would sell any journal in which they appeared. But Taborda had no desire to devote his life to something he knew nothing about, and cared to know nothing about. He would make two or three drawings and then turn the rest over to Cristiani, who could do whatever he wanted ... as long as Taborda's name got the largest billing in the credits. Everyone was happy with this arrangement (especially Valle, who was only interested in buying El Mono's popularity), and so the deal had been struck. The friendship between the two artists was sealed when Taborda served as best man at Cristiani's wedding. (The press, who had not heard otherwise, printed the name of Taborda as the artist who made El Apóstol, forgetting the film's humble "animator.")

El Apóstol was an hour and ten minutes long and was said to be composed of 58,000 drawings, which means 58,000 frames, as the film was made utilizing cutouts. All known copies of the film were lost in a fire in Federico Valle's vaults in 1926.Without a Trace While El Apóstol was being made and shown, Europe, of course, was still in the midst of the Great War. The countries of South America decided to remain neutral, though some sparks managed to reach the Río de la Plata. Germany wanted Argentina to come into the war on their side at any price. The Argentine military loved German discipline, the German art of war, and the German army: they wanted to fight on the same side as these masters. But Irigoyen, like his party and the majority of the population, was both anti-military and anti-war. As he seemed immune to all diplomatic and public pressure, the Germans decided to try duplicity. Baron von Luxburg, the Second Reich's gray eminence in Argentina, ordered a German U-boat to torpedo an Argentine ship, making sure "to leave no trace" ("sin dejar rastros," in Spanish), so the deed could be blamed on the Anglo-French alliance, hoping popular indignation would then force Irigoyen to declare war. The plan failed: a boat was torpedoed and sunk, but the survivors testified that there was no signs of either British or French ships in Argentine waters at the time. Irigoyen was furious at Luxberg, but did not publicize the episode, although it became the subject of some of the best porteños jokes of the time--porteños ("people of the port") was the common name natives of Buenos Aires called themselves.

Cristiani couldn't wait to do a cartoon on the subject. He found new producers and in 1918 was able to offer the public the second animated feature ever made, Sin dejar rastros. This time around, however, there was no enthusiastic public reception, nor did the press print a single word about it. For "diplomatic reasons" (as the war was still going on), the film was seized by the police and disappeared into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Drawing by Diógenes Taborda for El Apóstol Courtesy of Giannalberto Bendazzi.

Here begins the most confused part of Cristiani's career. He could not earn a living as a filmmaker: the Argentine market was just too limited, and the public showed little interest in full-length animated films. He continued to submit cartoons and political caricatures to the papers. Irigoyen, the first president elected in a manner faithful to the rules and spirit of the constitution and popular democracy, manifested none of the intolerance so characteristic of Latin America leaders, and took no action to stop Cristiani, leaving the president's old satirist free to work for the mass media.

Cristiani now had two children, and the income from the sale of his cartoons was apparently not enough to support a family of four. He then started a sort of "gypsy" business whereby he rented a wagon and traveled to the poorer areas, where there were no movie theaters, and set up a folding screen and projector and showed films, especially Chaplin shorts mixed in with commercials that he made himself; the advertising side of the business was called Publi-Cinema. It was an enormous success: crowds would even gather in the middle of the streets. And because of that, the municipal authorities stopped it, charging him with "disturbing the peace and interrupting traffic."Cristiani never gave up on animation; on the contrary, he made a number of shorts as the chance arose. There were two surgical films: Rhinoplastia and Gastrotomia (both 1925), made in collaboration with professors José Arce and Ocsar Ivanisevitch. He made films about current events, including sports, notably the fights of boxer Luis Angel Firpo--Firpo-Brennan and Firpo-Dempsey (both 1923)--and Uruguayos forever (1924) on the victory of the Uruguay soccer team. Humberto de garufa (Little Umberto's Frolic) (1924), was inspired by the visit of Umberto of Savoy, the young and carefree crown prince of Italy. In 1927, he became head of publicity for MGM locally, although this did not prevent him from making animated commercials on the side. And he began to set up the Cristiani Studios at 2121 Calle Sarmiento.

Bendazzi4.gif Frame enlargement from Peludópolis showing Juan Pueblo confonting members of the junta. Courtesy of Giannalberto Bendazzi.

Peludópolis

It was in this studio, in 1929, that another act in the Italo-Argentine filmmaker's career began. Working from a script by Eduardo Gonzalez Lanuza, he began making Peludópolis, his third animated feature. Once again Hipólito Irigoyen and Irigoyenism was his target. (Irigoyen had been elected president a second time in 1928 by a two-to-one margin). Cristiani brought all his imagination and technical discoveries into play. As usual, he used articulated characters cut out from cardboard. He finished the film in 1931 and it had its premiere on September 16. Meanwhile, something had happened.

On September 6, 1930, a year before the film's premiere, Irigoyen had been overthrown by military coup d'état. The increasingly senile president had made one error after another, and his fellow party members had lost most of their prestige and credibility through their dishonesty and corruption. The coup pleased no one. but everyone agreed that, after all, it was a solution.

For Cristiani, it was a tragedy. His film satirized the corruption of the old president's associates, showing the difficulties of keeping the "Argentine ship of state" afloat in an ocean filled with voracious sharks. Now there were no longer a president, and the sharks of the Radical Party were hidden in their dens. What to do?

Cristiani chose to take a middle-of-the-road position. He showed the corruption of Irigoyen and his followers (these scenes had already been shot anyway ...), he showed the generals who had taken power, and, above all, he showed an average man of people (a character called Juan Pueblo) who asked for good government and respect for all rights. Further, he offered a little preamble is verse asserting that the film came of no sectarian spirit. Then on the fateful evening of September 16, 1931, he shook hands with the provisional president, José Felix Uriburu, who honored him with his presence, sat in his chair and crossed his fingers.

The film wasn't a hit. The audiences laughed at times, but generally thought the situation too serious to be laughed at. Also, a year-and-a-half after the film's premiere, Irigoyen died in his bed. The Argentine people, who had done nothing when he had been chased out of Casa Rosada, rushed into the street and squares, falling prey to an irresistible flood of emotion. On the one hand, Cristiani felt the same emotions, on the other, he understood that a film "against" the ghost of a friend of the people no longer had the slightest chance of success. He therefore withdrew it from circulation.

Peludópolis (i.e., "the city of the Peludo, or "Peludo City," also refers to Irigoyen's nickname, Peludo) was Cristiani's last major animated film. It was 80 minutes long with sound (on disc)--making it the first animated feature with sound. The newspaper critics received it rather favorably: "this work is undoubtedly one of the most important of our national cinema ... a tuneful, amusing and charming film." (La Razon) "There are many reasons to be amused--the caricatures themselves, the songs, the comic ideas, the details." (El Diario) "The images are too rigid, not smooth enough, but cartoonist Cristiani shows a singular talent for the difficult art of animation." (La Nacion)

Peludópolis' economic fiasco came as a severe blow to the 35-year-old filmmaker, who already had a long career behind him. Cristiani realized that he could never make it as a producer and creator of animated films in Argentina. Walt Disney had become a success: his films reached Argentina with the charm of their richness, their technical perfection, their economic power. The little artisan from Santa Giuletta simply could not challenge so powerful a studio. Moreover, he was never an "artist" or an inspired poet like Alexandre Alexeieff or Norman McLaren. He never had an artistic vision of the world to communicate, or the need to create a body of work. He was only a cartoonist with a taste for satire, an artisan with a flair for tinkering and little inventions

Bendazzi5.gif Frame enlargement from Peludópolis showing Juan Pueblo, the Argentine everyman. Courtesy of Giannalberto Bendazzi.

So, during the '30s, he stopped making films and cut back on his creative activities in favor of technical ones: he formed a company and the Studios Cristiani (which had moved to 460 Calle Jose Evaristo Uriburu) became one of the best movie labs in Argentina, specializing in the translation and subtitling of foreign films.

Fables

Animation, for him, was now a hobby. And towards the end of the 1930s, his animation career had a brief revival when Constancio Vigil contracted with Cristiani to produce a series of shorts based on fables he had written and published.

The first of these fables was El Mono relojero (The Monkey Watchmaker). It premiered in February 1938 and had a good run. The City of Buenos Aries even honored it with a special prize. But Constancio Vigil did not want to put up any more money and the series ended with its first installment. El Mono relojero is a film of middling quality--a good, professional production for the time. For the first time Cristiani abandoned cardboard cutouts in favor of "classic" North American cel animation. Many people wrote at the time that this black and white short was the first Argentine sound cartoon!Cristiani became increasingly absorbed with his subtitling work, but still found time to make Enter pitos y flautas (Between Whistles and Flutes) in 1941. It was about soccer, very short, and probably unsatisfying: Cristiani will not willingly talk about it. His last film was Carbonada (the name of an Argentine salad). It was made in 1943 and received the City Council Award.

Incidentally, Cristiani met Walt Disney, during Disney's trip to South America in 1941, and screened some of his films for him. He was a Disney fan, and, for a time, the two thought about collaborating on the Latin American project Disney was planning. No deal was made, but Cristiani suggested that Disney contact Molina Campos, who was not an animator, but a cartoonist who specialized in gaucho caricatures. Disney followed his advice.

Quirino's artistic career is virtually over. Two fires, one in 1957, the other in 1961, destroyed his entire oeuvre: negatives, prints, original drawings, and papers.

The aging pioneer still keeps documents from his career--photos inscribed by presidents, ministers, mayors; testimonials; honorary diplomas in English; etc.--but he no longer works. He lives quietly with his family near Buenos Aires, having sold his laboratory. A vegetarian and a nudist, this frugal man had never taken an airplane before his visit to Italy in November 1981, when he received an invitation from the provincial government of Pavia. He visited the little country village of his birth and was widely feted, especially by the humble film critic who signs this article and who traced him to the far side of the planet after a four year search ....

Giannalberto Bendazzi is a Milan-based film historian and critic whose book on Quirino Cristiani, Due voite l'oceana, was published in 1983. His history of animation, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, is published in the US by Indiana University Press and in the UK by John Libbey.

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