When the two trailblazers of animated film finally met in 1941, the one named Walt Disney was quickly becoming a legend. The other, an Argentine named Quirino Cristiani, was on an equal but opposite trajectory toward obscurity.
Despite their different upbringings, the two men were attracted to film in similar ways. For each of them, a childhood passion for drawing evolved into experimentation with political cartooning as the Great War loomed over the world. Driven by a well-developed perfectionistic streak and a knack for innovative thinking, each of the animators experimented with animated cut-outs, then hand-drawn animation. Their accomplishments in pioneering feature-length animated motion pictures wowed their audiences and earned them praise and success.
Both were renowned in their day, but the American had become far better celebrated. Disney had persisted through major challenges and found unalloyed success; Cristiani had also overcome a number of steep obstacles, but found mostly bad luck. Although Cristiani earned fame for two milestone achievements—the first feature-length animated motion picture (1917) and the first one with a pre-recorded soundtrack (1931)—most of his films met with unfortunate ends. As a result, his story has slipped into undeserved obscurity.
Quirino Cristiani was born on 02 July 1896, in the town of Santa Giuletta, Italy, not far from Milan. He was the youngest of five children born to Luigi Cristiani (a civil servant) and Adele Martinotti (a seamstress). Luigi worked as the town secretary—a post prominent enough to merit the family an apartment inside the town hall. However, shortly after Quirino’s birth, Luigi ran into disagreements with the town council over local infrastructure, and in early 1900, they fired him.
Mindful of the number of mouths to feed, Luigi considered his options. He heard there was plenty of work to be done and money to be made in Argentina. Luigi travelled ahead, then arranged for the rest of the family to sail across the Atlantic in April 1900. Together, they became just seven of the approximately 5 million Italians who emigrated to Argentina in the last quarter of the 19th century.
In Buenos Aires, Luigi found work as an administrator at the local Italian hospital, and purchased a house nearby. He hoped that Quirino—the younger of his two sons by far—would go into medicine, or at least follow him into hospital management, but the boy’s obsession was drawing. Quirino covered scraps of paper, and even the occasional wall, with his sketches. Concerned about the boy’s ability to make a living, Luigi forced him to apprentice to a local shoemaker, then an insurance broker. But Quirino, completely undeterred, continued drawing. So his parents allowed the 16-year-old to enroll as a full-time student at a fine-arts academy. This endeavour was short-lived, as he found he disliked being in the classroom. After only a few months, he dropped out to pursue his interests on his own. He spent hours observing zoo animals and depicting them in cartoon form, entranced by the challenge of conveying a sense of organic motion in his drawings.
Fortunately, early 20th-century Argentina was not a bad place for a young artist with a keen interest in cartooning. As well as a burgeoning press, the country already had a well-developed tradition of lively, quirky, and cheerfully self-deprecating political humour. Comedic plays in this vein appeared in Argentina as early as 1879. Visual art—comic strips and caricatures—followed suit. Quirino was quickly attracted to the political cartooning scene, and his caricatures of political figures began appearing in local newspapers and magazines in 1912. He was still only 16, but the editors liked his spunk. Before long, Quirino Cristiani’s work caught the attention of a local businessman named Federico Valle.
Valle, a groundbreaking filmmaker and a fearless adventurer, was born in Italy in 1880. During his teenage years, he lived in Paris and worked in photography and film. In 1909, he became the first person to shoot film footage from an aircraft—early enough in aviation history that the pilot was none other than Wilbur Wright. In 1911 or 1912, Valle settled in Buenos Aires and opened a production company, Cinematografía Valle. He introduced newsreels to Argentina, but observed that they lacked a crucial local ingredient: political satire. He noticed Cristiani’s drawings in magazines and thought they would be a good fit, so he contacted Cristiani and offered him the job of supplying caricatures for the Valle newsreels.
Both men soon realised that it was incongruous to have stationary images—however amusing—paired with motion-picture footage. Surely there was an alternative. Various older mechanical devices such as the flip-book and the zoetrope (which used rotation to create the ancestor of the looped animated GIF) could already create the illusion of motion from a series of physical drawings. By Cristiani’s time there were multiple filmmakers in France, Russia, and the U.S. experimenting with the task of committing animation to film. Valle showed at least one short film by Émile Cohl to Cristiani to see what he thought. Cohl used a technique now known as stop-motion animation: he positioned objects, photographed them, moved them very slightly, photographed them again, and so on. When linked together in a reel, the photographed frames would pass through a hand-cranked projector at a rate of about 16 per second, fast enough for the human eyes and brain to interpret the incremental changes as continuous movement.
Cristiani was enthralled. After watching Cohl’s animation enough times to reverse-engineer what the Frenchman had done, Cristiani jumped headlong into the challenge of creating animation himself. Setting up a de facto workshop on the tiles of a very sunny outdoor patio, he cut out jointed paper shapes and began experimenting with photographing stop-motion animation and running it through a projector. This work would have been demanding under any circumstances, but Cristiani was essentially on his own when it came to figuring out techniques. Although Argentine cinema was better-developed than average for the time, this was probably the first time anyone in the country had attempted to commit animation to film.
Cristiani ultimately opted to draw his figures with white paint on black paper so that the negatives would show black on white, and he outfitted each figure with an impressive number of articulation points (sometimes down to individual fingers) to imitate human joints. As a result, his cardboard figures moved in a way that was fluid and organic rather than jerky. When a character needed to spin or turn to face a new direction, he used a pile of cutouts in sequence. Sixteen individual photos, each differing only slightly from the previous one, added up to a single second of footage. While this process was cumbersome, Cristiani became attached to it.
The effort paid off. At somewhere around 1,000 frames in length, Cristiani’s first short film made on the patio didn’t run for much longer than a minute, and was a segment of Valle’s newsreels rather than anything self-contained. But the newsreel-going public found it a wonder. Most notably, a local businessman named Guillermo Franchini—who, among other things, owned several movie theatres—offered funding to Valle and Cristiani if they would make an entire feature-length animated film about current Argentine politics.
Valle accepted Franchini’s offer, but he and Cristiani were well aware of the ambition of their new project. It would call for more than an hour of continuous stop-motion animation, rather than a mere minute or so. No one anywhere had created an animated film nearly this long. For support, Valle hired a separate screenwriter and several set designers to assist them in the creation of the full-length film. This time, Cristiani and company abandoned the patio in favour of filming indoors at the Valle studio, using electric lights. The filmmakers built an elaborate scale model of a harbourside street in Buenos Aires, comprising more than 15 blocks, including at least 80 individual model boats. Then they burned it down—deliberately—on film. Films did not yet have audio tracks, but the filmmakers could provide the sight of a massive inferno, albeit in black and white.
The resulting motion picture—El Apóstol (“The Apostle”)—required 60,000 frames and 1,700 metres of film, but was shot in a mere ten months in 1917, with Cristiani at the helm of the animation effort. He was only 21 years old, and the entire thing was a risky investment for Valle. Even apart from the medium, untested at such a length as an hour, there was the matter of the subject material.
A political topic meant pressure on the filmmakers to stay current and relevant, especially during an eventful time in Argentine history. After many years of plutocracy, with political power clenched in the fists of an old and insular aristocracy, the middle and working classes of Argentina had become increasingly unified in their support for Hipólito Yrigoyen’s political party, the Unión Cívica Radical. Yrigoyen, unpredictable but charismatic, had a devoted following. The aristocrats finally allowed a free vote for (adult, male) Argentine citizens in the 1916 elections, and news of Yrigoyen’s landslide victory prompted mass cheering in the streets.
Cristiani did not dislike Yrigoyen, and the two were never particularly opposed in their own views. But El Apóstol followed the Argentine predilection for semi-affectionately sending up political figures left and right (and centre). The spotlight was on President Yrigoyen, but the satire spared no one. And the object of parody was less Yrigoyen himself and more the role he had stepped into as saviour tasked with remaking the country from the top downwards.
El Apóstol opened 09 November 1917, at Guillermo Franchini’s upscale Cine Select-Suipacha theatre in Buenos Aires, with an estimated running time of 60 to 70 minutes. Tickets sold for 2 pesos each (the equivalent of $90 today). With animation still a novelty even in very small doses, the film made a huge splash. To start, the critics adored it; the extant reviews are all adulatory. The public was even more enthusiastic. To meet the high demand, the Cine Select-Suipacha theatre devoted its entire schedule to El Apóstol and showed it seven times a day—for more than six months in a row. Franchini the impresario was absolutely delighted. History does not record a reaction from the apóstol himself; if anything, President Yrigoyen seems to have been completely indifferent.
In spite of the film’s runaway success, Cristiani was not overjoyed with how Valle treated him over the course of working on El Apóstol. The producer hadn’t paid him particularly well, and also hadn’t displayed Cristiani’s name very prominently in the on-screen film credits. For these reasons, and because Cristiani far preferred working alone anyway, he and Valle soon parted ways. Still, 1917 was a good year for the young animator: El Apóstol was a success; and that same year, Cristiani married Celina Cordara, a friend he met at a festival several years earlier. They would soon go on to have two sons.
Meanwhile, politics continued to be eventful on both the domestic and the international scene. The Great War was well underway. While the Battle of the Falkland Islands had brought the conflict to Argentina’s doorstep in December 1914, the country remained neutral. This was less a consensus than a compromise: while the civilian population felt an affinity with the United Kingdom and France for reasons of culture and trade, the Argentine army admired the Germans and their discipline. Each side of the Great War hoped to win Argentina’s loyalty, but Yrigoyen had no interest in either choice. He was not only anti-war, but dismissive of anything involving the military in any way.
This was the impasse in the background when, off the coast of the U.K. on 4 April 1917, an unidentified attacker sunk the Argentine merchant ship Monte Protegido. The culprit seemed at first to be England or France, but turned out to be Germany. Making matters worse, a German diplomat was discovered to have been carrying on some suspiciously related activities in Buenos Aires. Germany quickly moved to distance themselves from the man in question, but it was too late. Just as the sinking of the Lusitania two years earlier had set off a wave of anti-German sentiment in the United States, now the people of Argentina took to the streets to express their anger. A huge rally in Buenos Aires drew prominent speakers; in several parts of the country, German-owned businesses were attacked. The public outcry ramped up the pressure on Yrigoyen to commit to joining the Allies in fighting against the Germans. Unmoved, Yrigoyen refused, and Argentina remained neutral.
In the U.S., indignant animation pioneer Winsor McCay was working on a silent short called The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). Cristiani felt similarly called to action over the sinking of the Monte Protegido. He wanted to make another feature-length political film—this one much less lighthearted than El Apóstol—and keep the political discussion going in the public consciousness. Having walked away from Valle, he was free to do what he wanted, but he did need a new source of financial backing. Sources differ on how he came to attract funding and who provided the capital, but they agree that one or more owners of a department store were the primary source.
Sin dejar rastro (“Without a Trace”) was a parody and a farce just as El Apóstol had been, but now the stakes were much higher. Rather than simply jabbing at every Argentine politician in sight, Sin dejar rastro tackled high-profile goings-on occurring as part of the Great War. This project waded into (literal) international waters. The film opened at the Select-Lavalle theatre on 15 August 1918. Like El Apóstol, it drew excellent reviews that predicted crowds would flock to the theatres. Unlike El Apóstol, it was out of theatres by the very next day. The municipal government of Buenos Aires, unamused at this attempt at fanning the flames of the fire over the Monte Protegido incident, confiscated all of the copies of Sin dejar rastro—and the negatives—and hid them. Municipal officials were eager to avoid the possibility of international outrage based on a provocative film. As far as they were concerned, the happenings involving the Germans needed to stay buried. Cristiani’s second film was now completely out of his reach—and remained that way.
Cristiani continued animating, but turned his attention to smaller projects through the 1920s. He drew illustrations for magazines and political cartoons for newspapers. He also made several short films in this period: two animated biopics about an Argentine boxer; a slightly fanciful take on a real-life romance between a crown prince of Italy and an ambassador’s daughter; a film commissioned by the Ministry of Public Works on the construction of the Buenos Aires harbour; and a 1924 documentary about Uruguayan soccer players (which, unsurprisingly, was popular in Uruguay). Cristiani even teamed up with a couple of leading surgeons to make two educational animated films about surgery (“’Gastrostomy” and “Rhinoplasty”), joking in the process that he would need a strong drink to get past his squeamishness. These films were used in several countries and lauded for being both detailed and accurate.
The animator also directed his mechanical ingenuity towards the task of reaching a greater range of the Argentine population. He invented what he called the “Publi-Cinema”: a mobile movie-theatre mounted inside a large van—screen and all—which would show animated films interspersed with advertising. Cristiani said later:
“I contacted the owner of a cloth factory who loved the cinema. The idea was to offer to show free films to the public on the street, with a ‘movie-truck’ that would show short films with animated advertising as interludes. He was to finance the project. We needed to buy an old truck that was still in good shape, and then fix it up nice and good.”
They found such a truck, and Cristiani installed a back-projector such that the screen would face outwards and not be obstructed. The combined machinery required only two people: one to crank the projector, and the other to drive the truck. The “Publi-Cinema” went into operation, showing short films both animated and otherwise. Although the public considered Cristiani’s invention very exciting, the City of Buenos Aires promptly deemed it irritating, and outlawed it for “disturbing public order and interfering with traffic.” To be fair, enthralled audiences of the Publi-Cinema did tend to stand together in the middle of the road and fail to yield to vehicles. Cristiani was stifled again.
Worse, 1917’s El Apóstol—which had featured the sight of Buenos Aires burning to the ground—was lost in its entirety when reality followed suit in 1926. Film of the era tended to be made of nitrate celluloid, known for being extremely flammable, and conditions were perfect for the Cinematografía Valle studio to catch fire. Also gone were a decade of Valle’s feature-length live-action films, animated films made with puppets, footage of remote villages of Argentina, animated scientific films, at least one biography of a sports figure, and a documentary about a group of Antarctic islands that had been finished only hours earlier. (Exasperated camera operator Juan Carlos Moneta said, “Bah! Another year on the South Orkney Islands!” Then he spent the next 12 months doing the entire thing over.)
But Cristiani was doing fairly well for himself. In 1927, he became the art director of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s advertising service in Argentina, making local posters for MGM films imported from the U.S.. He also talked at least one local theatre manager into showing animated ads between films:
“At that time, theatres would turn on the lights during intermission and they would lower a curtain in front of the screen with ugly advertisements stuck to it. I convinced the owner to change this practice and instead project animated advertisements in semi-darkness.”
While this practice would ultimately lose out to advertising filmed in live action, Cristiani managed to make a fair bit of money in the process. He even funnelled some of it into his interests outside the realm of cinema. Cristiani was something of a proto-hippie: as well as a perpetual nonconformist, he was a devout vegetarian well before it was common, and a keen proponent of naturism (i.e., nudism). He founded the first association of naturists in Argentina, and in the 1920s he purchased an island for the group’s use.
Cristiani finally opened his own permanent film studio (the Estudios Cristiani) in 1928. This coincided with some auspicious happenings on the political scene. Old favourite target Hipólito Yrigoyen was voted back in as president; as in 1916, the electorate overwhelmingly supported him. By this point, he was 76 years old and a veritable legend—but he had enemies from the past. In 1928 and 1929, both Yrigoyen and a visiting American politician by the name of Herbert Hoover narrowly avoided being assassinated. The American stock-market crash of 1929 caused chaos in Latin America, and poor communication ensured that Yrigoyen mismanaged the consequences. Cristiani—now armed with a studio and many more years of experience—decided that he would animate another film about the man, this time with sound.
Feature-length sound films (or “talkies”) had finally gotten off the ground with 1927’s The Jazz Singer from the U.S.. At least one Argentine filmmaker had made a live-action film or two with sound. But no one in the country had made an animated film with a built-in soundtrack, and the only example from anywhere else in the world was a short from the U.S. called Steamboat Willie (1928), featuring a certain anthropomorphic mouse. Cristiani was well aware of the unconquered challenge of feature-length animation with sound. Now, armed with his own studio, he was ready to address the gap head-on. The animator called his new project Peludópolis, i.e. “City of Peludo.” (“El Peludo” was a nickname for Yrigoyen. It has variously been translated as “the armadillo,” “the hairy one,” and “the fool”—and indeed may have conveyed a sense of two or more of these meanings at any given time.)
Peludópolis was essentially a solo project for Cristiani. It was intended to shine a light on Yrigoyen and his cabinet, both perceived as selfish and inept. But as usual, Cristiani happily mocked everyone while he was at it: the anti-Yrigoyenists, the radical pro-Yrigoyenists, the moderate pro-Yrigoyenists (such as Cristiani himself), and more. This time with sound. While it is not clear whether Peludópolis had any spoken dialogue, it did feature songs with lyrics written for the film.
Three-quarters of the way through the eight-month shooting period, there was a dramatic change in Argentine politics. On 05 September 1930, an unwell Yrigoyen took a leave of absence, leaving the country in the hands of his very eager vice president, Enrique Martínez. A military coup disrupted the regime the very next day: General José Félix Uriburu moved in, instituted martial law, and deposed both Yrigoyen and a very disappointed Martínez. Yrigoyen had been warned of the risk of a coup, but had characteristically thought too poorly of the military to believe in this possibility.
It soon became obvious that Uriburu was a garden-variety fascist with ties to the old aristocracy. Both Yrigoyen and Martínez were soon behind bars, and Uriburu—in the process of locking down the press, booting judges out of office, and terrorizing his enemies—cancelled a slew of Yrigoyen’s educational initiatives. (Producer Federico Valle had invested all of his money into one of these—the use of films in schools—and suddenly found himself bereft. With no other options, he sold his remaining materials to factories, then went to live as a hermit in the mountains.) Cristiani was now in a triple bind. He was out-of-date; he was portraying El Peludo in a friendly way that the new despot would frown upon; and he was poking fun at a figure he admired who was in prison. This time with sound!
Determined to salvage what he could of Peludópolis and redo the rest, Cristiani tossed out the film’s original conclusion and introduced General Provisional (i.e. General Uriburu, understood to be president on an interim basis). He also brought in a second new character as Provisional’s assistant: Juan Pueblo (i.e. “City John,” meant in the same sense as “average Joe”). The film’s new ending would feature Provisional and Pueblo joining forces to clean up after everyone else.
Peludópolis premièred in mid-September 1931 at the Cine Renacimiento in Buenos Aires. It was a glorious day for Cristiani. To start, General Provisional himself—President General Uriburu—attended the première and congratulated Cristiani directly on the “great work of satire and a noteworthy acclamation of the Argentine armed forces.” On top of that, Cristiani’s 70-year-old father Luigi was also at the event and proudly watched his youngest son receive the president’s compliments afterwards. Furthermore, most of the critics’ reviews of Peludópolis praised it as stellar. Several publications independently assessed the film with statements along the lines of “What more could we want?”
But Peludópolis made relatively little money—so little that in spite of the film’s warm critical reception, Cristiani’s studio lost an impressive 25,000 pesos (about $1.65 million in modern dollars). The disparity may well be attributable to how chaotic the political scene was in Argentina.
And the situation did not improve. The population soon grew sick of Uriburu and his authoritarian antics. Argentina held its next elections in 1931, and while these were not completely democratic (the fascists in power kept Yrigoyenists from participating), Uriburu was replaced with General Agustín P. Justo. To the political-satire crowd, this presented a strange problem: they found Justo dull and difficult to parody, an unnerving change from earlier presidents. Although Yrigoyen and most of his ministers were still in jail, the electorate felt a distinct sense of nostalgia for El Peludo. Moreover, during his imprisonment, protesters looted Yrigoyen’s house, and what they discovered there astonished the nation. Yrigoyen—an elderly statesman from a family of wealthy landowners, and known for being somewhat cryptic—had in fact lived very simply and frugally. His furniture was old and worn, his possessions nothing very extravagant. In other words, conditions were not good for a film, even a watered-down one, poking fun at Yrigoyen and his followers for supposedly being ruthless and greedy.
Early in 1933, General Justo allowed Yrigoyen to return to his home and live out his last days. El Peludo died on the third of July of that year at the age of 80, and Argentina was heartbroken; Cristiani was one of approximately 200,000 people who walked in the funeral procession. He soon found himself uneasy with having so recently poked fun at Yrigoyen, even amiably. For this reason, he opted to recall all of the copies of Peludópolis and put them in storage at his studio. Even decades later, he said only good things about Yrigoyen. On the global stage, the War to End All Wars would turn out to have a horrifying sequel; closer to home, it would be followed by Argentina’s long era of various Peróns and anti-Pérons rotating in and out of the Casa Rosada. But the animator had stepped away from political satire for good.
The one notable film that Cristiani made in the 1930s was atypical for him. It was an animated short called El mono relojero (“The Watchmaker Monkey”) (1938), a commissioned adaptation of a children’s story by writer and publisher Constancio C. Vigil. This film challenged Cristiani in several respects. He preferred stop-motion animation, but sensed that with the success of American animation (especially Disney shorts), the Argentine public wanted to see cel animation, which relied on layered sheets of transparent celluloid. Cristiani admired Disney and the work of his studio, and for the new project, he gave in. He rebuilt the animation tables at his studio to accommodate the use of cel animation for El mono relojero.
The clash of creative styles between Cristiani and the writer proved to be less surmountable. Vigil’s story was rather moralistic and punitive, often subjecting its titular character to humiliation in an attempt to teach the monkey (and thus young viewers) harsh lessons about life. It was not a good match for Cristiani’s default style of vivacious irreverence, and reminded him why he avoided collaboration.
In spite of it all, El mono relojero premiered 10 February 1938, and appears to have been well-received. The Municipality of Buenos Aires liked the film enough to give it an award for accomplishment in local cinema. Vigil paid Cristiani well and was happy to credit his work; the two men remained on friendly terms thereafter. That said, the pair’s original plans for an entire series of animated shorts based on Vigil’s children’s stories went no further—very possibly due to their philosophical differences.
Cristiani’s only subsequent films were spare-time projects, but these did allow him to do exactly what he wanted to do with animation. They included 1941’s Entre pitos y flautas (literally “between whistles and flutes,” but more idiomatically “for some reason or another”) and 1943’s Carbonada (“mixed salad”). Both were notable for lacking scripts entirely. To generate his ideas, Cristiani improvised comedic dialogues between characters, then animated the funniest ones as a chain of linked sketches, in a sort of proto-Monty-Python way.
In the meantime, the U.S. had finally caught up with him. In December 1937, twenty years after Cristiani’s first feature-length animation, Walt Disney Productions released their own feature-length, cel-animated film with a soundtrack: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film was an immediate success, and the U.S. government wanted to show off this celebrity and use Disney to generate political goodwill (not to mention business opportunities). This was the era of the “Good Neighbor” policy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, which sought to foster better ties between the U.S. and Latin America. With World War II tying up more and more of Europe (and its markets), Washington came up with a proposal to fly Disney, his wife Lillian, and 17 employees around South America for ten weeks in 1941 and generally impress the locals with American achievement and industriousness. Disney did not exactly love this idea, but Washington threw in some extra funding—and promised to encourage mediators to resolve a thorny strike at Disney’s studio that had upset him quite a bit. With these bonuses on offer, Disney relented and went on the trip.
Cristiani revered Disney and was delighted to have the chance to cross paths with him in Buenos Aires. A (non-animated) photo with the two men together in 1941 survives, proving that they met; however, how the meeting went and whether they discussed the possibility of collaboration is not certain. Both Cristiani (an impish subversive) and Disney (a crafty, shameless self-promoter) had penchants for telling tall tales about themselves, or at least embellishing the details. According to Cristiani’s account, Disney rather uncharacteristically gaped in shock at the quality of Peludópolis, which may have been stretching the truth. At any rate, Disney did walk away from Argentina having thrilled the Latin American crowd, pleased Washington, and been inspired. In 1942, his studio hired Argentine artist Florencio Molina Campos, who contributed to two animated, live-action films: the semi-travelogue Saludos Amigos (1942) and the more adventurous The Three Caballeros (1945). Later scholarly work questions Cristiani’s claim that he himself recommended Molina Campos to Disney. However, either way, Cristiani seems to have approved intensely of seeing Latin American themes making their way into Disney’s animation.
Even as Disney and company increasingly wowed the world, Cristiani began to slip into obscurity. El Apóstol was lost in the Valle studio fire of 1926. Sin dejar rastro simply never resurfaced after being seized; even if it had, the nitrate film that it was photographed on would have degraded readily over the decades. (As several sources point out, “Without a Trace” ended up being a painfully apt name for the film.) That left Peludópolis to represent Cristiani’s legacy. But not for long, as it turned out. Cristiani’s grandson Hector later recalled events from either 1957 or 1958:
“We lived right next door. It was a very hot day, a Saturday, at eight or nine in the evening. We heard some explosions and the fire started immediately, and then the fire brigade arrived. And unfortunately, we lost all the film material from Peludópolis. All the shorts, the negative, and the copies.”
A second, similar fire in 1961 forced Cristiani into retirement: he sold the studio and moved first into his seaside cottage, and then into the home of one of his sons. There was almost nothing for him to show from his decades-long career, and through the 1960s and 1970s, he attracted very little attention.
Towards the end of his life, there was at least a small burst of interest in Cristiani and his work. In 1977, the City of Buenos Aires held an 80th birthday party for Argentine cinema and remembered to honour their earliest animator in the process. In 1981, dictator-president Jorge Videla awarded Cristiani a generous pension; Cristiani was also included in at least one set of stamps with the theme of Argentine inventors. (Along with his technical innovations for the cinema—one patented as early as 1917—Cristiani had built a coffee-maker that kept coffee and milk warm in separate compartments, as well as a clever matchbox that kept its contents from spilling everywhere.) An Italian film scholar named Giannalberto Bendazzi, now generally credited with “rediscovering” Cristiani in the 1970s and 1980s, interviewed him extensively beginning in 1981, culminating in a 1983 scholarly book on Cristiani’s life and accomplishments. Bendazzi even arranged for a reception in Cristiani’s honour in his birthplace of Santa Giuletta. Cristiani had not been back to Italy since leaving as a child, and also had never been on an airplane.
Cristiani died 02 August 1984 in Buenos Aires at the age of 88. He had lived just long enough to see Argentina reclaim democracy—late in 1983—after decades of repressive military dictatorships. The shift reopened the floodgates to cultural activity and commentary in Argentina. Since then, Argentina has twice won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film: for La historia oficial (“The Official Story”) (1985), and El secreto de sus ojos (“The Secret in Their Eyes”) (2009).
Bendazzi and a group of other researchers continued to search for bits and pieces of Cristiani’s work, occasionally hitting pay dirt. A set of animated fragments turned up that had been created around 1915—a teenaged Cristiani’s experiment for Valle. A bit of sheet music from the soundtrack for Peludópolis resurfaced. The 1938 collaboration El mono relojero, strained though it was, re-emerged intact and complete with sound; writer Constancio C. Vigil had kept a copy in his archives. Best of all, historians uncovered a little “making-of” documentary (albeit without its soundtrack) about Peludópolis, as if Cristiani had anticipated the modern DVD with bonus features. This short appears to have been shown in theatres before the film itself, to introduce Peludópolis and the techniques that created it. Italian-British filmmaker Gabriele Zucchelli gathered the pieces together and directed a comprehensive 2007 documentary, Quirino Cristiani: The Mystery of the First Animated Movies, interviewing Bendazzi and several other scholars—as well as filmmakers, Cristiani family members, and more.
It goes without saying that the artistic and technical merits of Cristiani’s feature-length films cannot be properly evaluated or compared to what Disney and company were doing slightly later. Disney was a bit younger than Cristiani, adept at working in groups, and better-positioned culturally speaking by virtue of geography. However, the hindsight paradox and the modern ubiquity of the Disney brand have long since obscured the fact that Disney himself risked nearly everything he had on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Even the most cautious estimate of the film’s cost puts it at $1.49 million at the time (about $25 million in 2018)—which would have been six times as much as Disney’s original aims for the maximum budget. To help pay for the project, Disney mortgaged his house. And even apart from the gargantuan cost, critics and rival studios saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a thoroughly preposterous undertaking. They labelled the project “Disney’s Folly,” and asked each other why any person would ever be interested in watching a cartoon of such length.
Given the extent to which Disney and company were going out on a limb, Cristiani was the more financially cautious filmmaker by far. Cristiani found outside investors; Disney risked personal assets to fund his gambit. But, to put it mildly, Disney’s enormous gamble paid off. Upon its release, Snow White sent an immediate shockwave through the film world; even MGM’s brightly coloured live-action The Wizard of Oz (1939) was a leap of faith that Snow White inspired, and that was only the beginning.
Cristiani’s fate went the opposite way. However, while his animated feature films have been lost, they earned their place in animation history. In his introduction to Bendazzi’s 1983 book, Hungarian-British animator John Halas described Cristiani as “decades ahead of anyone [else]” in his technical prowess and “deserving a place among the other giants.” Bendazzi observed that Cristiani in his later years did not seem particularly distraught about the loss of virtually his entire output. Perhaps the animator was unconcerned with fame, or aware that the fires did not negate the early impact that his work had, or both. Decades earlier, he had repeatedly wowed his country and generated considerable enthusiasm for film as a new medium in Argentina. That may have been enough for him.
Only in recent years has Cristiani’s legacy been revisited for consideration. In the wake of Gabriele Zucchelli’s 2007 documentary, the Manchester Animation Festival marked the hundredth anniversary of El Apóstol in 2017 with a panel on Argentine animators. Argentine journalist Sabrina Hummel has suggested that in particular, Santiago Bou Grasso (1979–) is rediscovering Cristiani’s territory. Grasso’s films include the award-winning Padre (“Father”) (2013), a stop-motion work that depicts Argentina in late 1983 as the nation emerges from dictatorship. Grasso noted in an interview that most of the modern animation being made in present-day Argentina is very much in the Disney model. Padre is far more sombre and muted than Cristiani’s lively lampooning must have been. However, as Hummel points out, Grasso’s work also suggests that if Argentine animation would like to find its own niche, it could do far worse than look back to its first pioneer — Quirino Cristiani, “the man who anticipated Disney.”