WORLD OF KNIGHT
June 28, 2021 posted by Milton Knight

Victor Bergdahl, Kapten Grogg and Other Strange Creatures

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.

Victor Bergdahl

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.

Gergdahl demonstrates how Grogg is created in “Captain Grodd Has His Portrait Painted” (1917)

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.

TROLLDRYCKEN (1915)

Bergdahl’s first.


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.


More From Milton Knight

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5 Comments

  • Incredible! Thank you for introducing me to Bergdahl’s work. I love cartoons from the early days of film, when animators were exploring the possibilities of the medium instead of finding ways to cut corners.

    I know one thing about Tiedemann’s Tobacco: they manufactured a brand of cigarette called Teddy, with a picture of Theodore Roosevelt on the package. (I have a friend who collects Roosevelt memorabilia.) The irony is that Roosevelt hated smoking because he had asthma, and he hated being called “Teddy”.

    Sooner or later Finnbeck’s going to figure out that tobacco pouches are portable….

  • Wonderful! The first one reminds me (in reverse!) the first shorts of Bill Plympton.

  • Why didn’t I have the imagination to nickname myself Captain Grog when I was in the Navy?

    Thanks Milton! This is a super eye-opener article.

    In closing, all I have to say is:

    SLUT

  • A few things about the “Bringing Up Father” animated advert (which you embedded from my YouTube upload):

    — While the ad was very likely animated by Victor Bergdahl (it’s not 100% confirmed), it was actually commissioned by the Norwegian tobacco company Tiedemann, whose tobacco it promotes. We also know that Norwegian film pioneer Ottar Gladtvet produced the ad for Tiedemann. Thus, while it may well have been made by Bergdahl in Sweden, it’s officially considered to be a Norwegian animated film… which is why it’s included on the Blu-ray compilation “Norwegian Animation Collection (1913 – 2013)”: https://www.amazon.com/Norwegian-Animation-Collection-1913-Reg/dp/B00KMIRMKG
    — Regarding this, it’s of course interesting to mention that the “Bringing Up Father” comic strip was (and to some extent is) hugely popular in Norway. That’s obviously why Tiedemann wanted the characters of Jiggs and Maggie (aka “Fiinbeck og Fia”) to promote their product. Back in the 20s (and for decades onward), it was a well-known strip in all of Scandinavia, with regular appearances in a weekly family magazine coming out under different names in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. A Scandinavian Christmas annual was also launched in 1931, and while it hasn’t been published in Sweden or Denmark since the 70s, it’s still one of the classic bestsellers every year here in Norway.
    — The film’s correct Norwegian title is “Fiinbeck er rømt”, with an ø (one of the three Norwegian letters that don’t exist in the English alphabet).
    — The correct spelling of Jiggs’ name in Norwegian is “Fiinbeck”, not “Finnbeck”.
    — To the extent it has one, I’m pretty sure that the most “official” English title for the film is “Jiggs Has Run Away”, which is used in a number of film databases as well as on the back cover of the Blu-ray compilation I mentioned above. I have also seen “Jiggs Has Escaped” in some articles. “Fiinbeck Has Escaped” is used in the film’s English subtitles on the Blu-ray edition, but those subtitles are in all honesty pretty bad, apparently written by someone with a dodgy understanding of English. (I did new subtitles for the YouTube upload.) I would not put much weight on them.

    • Thanks, Mesterius. As the Fiinbeck film represents several technical steps backward from his Grogg films, I’d find it a relief for it not to be Bergdahl’s work.

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