Winsor McCay’s animated film of Little Nemo, released in 1911, was seen internationally and caused a shock wave of inspiration among print cartoonists. In Sweden, Gustave Victor (also spelled Viktor) Bergdahl was one bitten by the animation bug.Born in 1878, Bergdahl had left school in Stockholm, Sweden to join the military as a sailor. An accident changed his life; he was disabled, and had to limit his endeavors to ones that could be performed seated. He honed his drawing skills, making his living as an illustrator and magazine cartoonist.
Fired by seeing the early animated efforts imported from America, Bergdahl taught himself, and drew his own short film, Trolldrycken (The Magic Brew), in 1912. It was in 1915 that he was able to convince a distributor to take it on.
The subject of Trolldrycken was a favorite among early film makers: alcoholic hallucinations, a springboard for effects and metamorphoses. Bergdahl was himself fond of the bottle, and it could be said that he was drawing from life experience. His first large impact on the scene was Kapten Grogg, the first character series made by a European studio, running at intervals from 1916 to 1922, distributed by the company AB Svenska Biografteatern (Svenska Bio).The character gained popularity throughout Europe, the Soviet, and Latin speaking countries.Kapten Grogg (Captain Grogg) was an aging sailor, as Bergdahl was. He liked to drink, as Bergdahl did. Grogg was spry and athletic, which may have had significant meaning to the disabled artist. Grogg’s voyages took him to foreign lands and he encountered kindly Africans (presented in the usual ‘blackface’ styling), mermaids and exotic animals. Vivid effects ran throughout the series; varied perspectives; the waves and spray of the sea; naturalistic movements of animals and humans, effectively researched, probably from the photographic studies of Edward Muybridge. Bergdahl’s style was a caricatured realism, anatomically correct and short on physical exaggeration. He was one of the only animators to follow McCay’s lead so directly. Bergdahl’s attention to detail and overall film making techniques look striking and advanced for their time.
Bergdahl worked in solitude with an array of techniques (the cel method did not become widespread outside America until the 1930s). Bergdahl used cutouts; drew his characters on paper, avoiding contact with the horizon line above and adding depth with overlays of foreground elements. One cartoon indicates that the film was double exposed, one pass being for the background elements, another for the characters. His effects were economical, but judicious and adding scope.
By 1922, the US cartoons were capturing more public attention, and home grown studios concentrated on the boom of advertising films for theatres. This was the case with Bergdahl, and he continued until his death in Stockholm in 1939.
Here are a few of the best entries in the Grogg series, along with two unrelated shorts, to serve as an introduction to Bergdahl’s work.
NAR KAPTEN GROGG SKULLE PORTRATTERAS (Has His Portrait Painted) (1917)
A turn on the OUT OF THE INKWELL motif. The animator gets into a brawl with his star & wins. These transfers are from a presentation of the full GROGG series on Swedish TV, with ideal soundtracks. The rest are available on YouTube.
KAPTEN GROGG BADAR (GOES SWIMMING) (1919)
Bergdahl gets a lot of mileage from a picturesque tree on a cut out overlay, while the animation drawings are on paper.
KAPTEN GROGG OCH ANDRA KONSTIGA KROPPAR (Among Strange Creatures) (1920)
Remarkable, demonstrating a facility for realistic motion. Nothing quite like the distressed centaurette in animation before or after.
KAPTEN GROGG SKA FISKA (Goes Fishing) (1921)
Atmospheric undersea romance. Effects possibly inspired by McCay’s THE SINKING OF THE LUSITANIA (1918). By now, aware of his character’s international status, Bergdahl takes care to dress his temptresses more decorously.
FIINBECK ER ROMT (Finnbeck Has Escaped) (1927)
Geo. McManus’ comic strip, BRINGING UP FATHER continues to be popular in Sweden, with Maggie & Jiggs under different names. Post-GROGG, here’s a short ad by Bergdahl using the cutout method.