George Pal = magic. A contemporary and in many ways equal of Walt Disney but minus Walt’s business acumen, producer-director George Pal is best remembered today for his pioneering efforts in the sci-fi/fantasy genre: Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), tom thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) among them. But before all that, Pal made his name with the Puppetoons, one-reel shorts mostly employing the rare form of three-dimensional replacement animation. Unlike stop-motion, in which a single model is articulated one frame at a time, Pal’s Puppetoons involved carving and painting dozens upon dozens of heads and legs for a single character, reportedly upwards of 9,000 separate carvings in all for a single short. Replacing various body parts for each frame of film, the result was uncannily smooth and expressive facial reactions and motion, something like “liquid wood.”
Pal was born in Hungary, and began making Puppetoons in Europe, but established his official Puppetoons series at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, where he made about three-dozen shorts between 1940 and 1947. (Paramount originally gave them the inapt title “Madcap Models,” a moniker nobody remembers today.) Some years ago I attended a nitrate film festival at UCLA where several of the Puppetoons were shown. Audiences were enchanted, to say nothing of being flabbergasted by the rich color of these three-strip Technicolor films.
Criminally, the Puppetoons haven’t been the constant presence in the same way Disney’s and Warner Bros.’s cartoons have. Partly this may be due to the fact that there weren’t enough shorts to establish a regular television children’s show (though they were distributed for a while by U.M. & M TV Corp., sometimes, appallingly, only in black-and-white), and partly because many of the shorts fell victim to misguided political-correctness.
Producer and archivist Arnold Leibovit sought to restore Pal’s faded reputation first with the marvelous documentary The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal (1985) and then with the equally essential The Puppetoon Movie (1987).
The new 2-disc Blu-ray of The Puppetoon Movie, released independently and limited to 3,000 copies (available at www.b2mp.net), is really two feature films and bonus shorts all in high-def, plus The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal presented in standard-definition, along with myriad extra features. In addition to The Puppetoon Movie, which featuring ten unabridged Puppetoons plus newer material, the set also includes the high-definition premiere of The Great Rupert (1950), Pal’s first live-action feature. Bonus Puppetoon shorts included on The Puppetoon Movie’s original DVD release are present, but the real treat are seven additional bonus shorts being released for the first time in any home video format, shorts in high-definition licensed from Paramount and restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
The Puppetoon Movie opens with a sweet and technically impressive prologue, done entirely in animation itself (supervised by Pete Kleinow). A fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex threatens a Bambi-like fawn, but the former turns out to be gentle Arnie the Dinosaur (voiced by Paul Frees, who died before the film’s release and to whom the film is dedicated), and advises the fawn to run away. A voice yells, “Cut!” as the entire scene is part of a movie being directed by Gumby (Dal McKennon) and assisted by his pal Pokey (Art Clokey). The not-so-terrible lizard explains he’s been a vegetarian ever since his days working for producer George Pal, where his inspiring, humanist Puppetoon shorts changed his ways. The foursome move into an editing room (decorated with one-sheet posters from Pal’s features) and look at some of Pal’s best shorts on a Moviola.
At this point the movie segues into what’s essentially a Puppetoon film festival featuring three pre-Hollywood shorts, Philips Cavalcade (1934), The Sleeping Beauty (1935), and Philips Broadcast of 1938 (1938) before moving on to seven Paramount Puppetoons, complete with their original main titles: Hoola Boola (1941), Tulips Shall Grow (1942), The Little Broadcast (1943), Jasper in a Jam, Together in the Weather, John Henry and the Inky-Poo (all 1946), and Tubby the Tuba (1947). The movie ends with a touching final tribute to the late producer (who died in 1980), with various stop-motion characters, including King Kong, The Pillsbury Dough Boy, and Alka-Seltzer’s Speedy making cameo appearances.
Though famed animators such as Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen worked on these shorts, Pal’s personal stamp and interests dominate. One of the best, Tulips Shall Grow, is a parable reflecting Nazi Germany’s invasion of Holland, where Pal worked prior to moving to London and then America. They reflect Pal’s love of classical and contemporary music; the Leopold Stokowski-like Mr. Strauss was a semi-regular in the shorts, and Tubby the Tuba, its title character bored with Oompah-Pah orchestrations and yearning to play a beautiful melody, is almost indescribably sweet.
The shorts vary widely among decidedly European-flavored takes on classic fairy tales like The Sky Princess and Jasper and the Beanstalk (included among the extra features, the latter featuring Peggy Lee’s singing voice), animated interpretations of modern jazz (Jasper in a Jam, Rhythm in the Ranks, and Date with Duke (the latter featuring Duke Ellington), there’s a particular interest in American folklore, and even early Dr. Seuss stories were adapted.
Pal was criticized then and long after the Puppetoons had ended for his occasional racial stereotypes. Jasper, the most popular among the Puppetoon characters, was a little black child Pal innocently saw as the “Huckleberry Finn of [African-] American Folklore,” but the character was attacked in publications like Ebony. While there’s no denying racial stereotypes reflective of the times are present, they are also resolutely without malice. Jasper, for his part, is really just an ordinary little boy who happens to be black. Indeed, in all-black shorts like John Henry and the Inky-Poo especially, Pal offered overwhelmingly positive portrayals of the blacks in all-black stories at a time when most of Hollywood relegated African-American characters to minor roles as maids, porters, and chauffeurs in stories completely dominated by whites.
The Puppetoon Movie’s 1.37:1 high-definition transfer sources a 35mm interpositive, with the original Puppetoons looking good-to-great and the prologue-epilogue especially fine. Surprisingly, this was originally mixed for 4-track stereo and has been remixed for DTS-MA 4.0 surround and 24-bit 48kHz stereo, all to good effect.
The additional high-definition shorts are Date with Duke (1940), Rhythm in the Ranks (1941), The Sky Princess (1942), The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1943), And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1944), Jasper and the Beanstalk (1945), and Rhapsody in Wood (1947). They look even better than the shorts in the main feature.
Twelve more shorts, originally included as an extra feature on the DVD of The Puppetoon Movie are here as well, albeit in standard-def: What Ho She Bumps, Mr. Strauss Takes a Walk, Olio for Jasper, Philips Calvacade, Jasper’s Derby, Hoola Boola, Ether Symphony, Aladdin and His Magic Lamp, The Magic Atlas, Jasper and the Haunted House, The Philips Broadcast of 1938, and The Ship of the Ether.
The Great Rupert (1950), also in high-definition, was Pal’s first feature film, originally released by Eagle-Lion. A fantasy-comedy about an amazingly talented performing squirrel and the two families whose lives he innocently if profoundly impacts is a modest success.
The picture starts out wonderfully well, with struggling Vaudevillian Joe Mahoney (Jimmy Conlin) rehearsing with the little squirrel, whom he’s taught to dance a Highland Fling while dressed in full Scottish regalia. But Mahoney’s agent isn’t interested. Joe and Rupert are evicted for non-payment of rent, and Vaudevillian colleagues – juggler Louie Amendola (Jimmy Durante), his wife (Queenie Smith), and daughter, Rosalinda (Terry Moore) – move in, unaware Rupert has secretly moved back into the nest above their flat in a corner of the ceiling. Meanwhile, skinflint landlord Frank Dingle (Frank Orth) has come into money, monthly payments of $1,500. Rather than spend the dough on his family, he stashes it away behind a wall, unaware that he’s deposited it directly into Rupert’s nest.
Hard-up for cash, Mrs. Amendola prays for a miracle (“Lord, it’s so difficult to find a job for a human pyramid!”) just as Rupert, annoyed with all the unwanted cash, casually tosses it out, and Mrs. Amendola misinterprets the bills fluttering down from yon high as an answered prayer.
More than Pal’s later features, the movie resembles the early comedies of Preston Sturges, particularly Christmas in July (1940), which has a similar plot. The presence of Jimmy Conlin, part of Sturges’s stock company of character plays, adds to this, as does much of the humor and the story’s happy resolution.
Rupert (playing himself, according to the credits) is performed by a real squirrel some of the time, but about 50% of his footage was managed through stop-motion, animation so good and expertly integrated with the live-action many assumed he was a supremely well-trained animal.
The movie loses its way a bit when Rupert is forgotten about for most of the film’s second-half, but it also unmistakably bears Pal’s personal stamp and desire to create a warm, magical family film.
Pal’s sweet nature is also reflected in The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, a more conventional but engaging documentary, with interview subjects like Alan Young, Russ Tamblyn, Ray Bradbury, Roy Disney and others attesting to both his incredible innovations as a filmmaker and great kindness as a human being. About 40 minutes worth of extended interviews are also included on the bonus disc.
Moreover, the Blu-rays also include an audio commentary on The Puppetoon with Leibovit and animation historian Jerry Beck, who also contribute insightful liner notes. There’s also footage of Pal at one of the Cinerama premieres for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and on the set of Destination Moon.
The Puppetoon Movie and The Great Rupert, and The Fantasy Worlds of George Pal, and all the bonus Puppetoons and supplementary material) all add up to one the year’s best Blu-ray releases.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Puppetoon Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
Arnold Leibovit Entertainment/B2MP
1987 / Color / 1:37:1 / 79 plus 88 min (feature films) / $49.98
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart’s Cine Blogarama here.