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Most everyone who met George Pal was impressed by the very sweetness of the man. When one talked to him, it was if he wanted to give his very best attention. My generation learned to love Pal through his colorful space movies that started the '50s Sci-Fi boom and contributed several of its biggest hits. But older fans were first charmed by his Puppetoon creations, elaborate 'trick film' extravaganzas that in 1930s Europe rivaled Walt Disney for popularity. Although he used other effects as well, Pal's films were noted for their refinement of replacement animation techniques. Instead of malleable rubber puppets, Pal's animators used beautifully carved and lacquered puppets with interchangeable wooden parts. By swapping out sets of arms and legs, his characters could perform complete walk cycles, and shift to a variety of facial expressions.
Hungarian György Pál Marczincsak went right from college into film work. By age 25, Pal had his own 'trick film' animation company and had made pictures in several European capitols. Always a step ahead of the Germans, Pal spent two successful years in London before coming to the United States in 1940 to work for Paramount Pictures. Pal was befriended by all in the often-contentious Hollywood animation community, even the competitive Walt Disney. Working for Pal as young animators were later greats Bob Baker, Wah Ming Chang, Ray Harryhausen, Phil Kellison, Pete Kleinow, and Gene Warren. In just a couple of years his Technicolor Paramount Puppetoons (sometimes known as Madcap Models) were an established hit; a highlight was his series of wildly imaginative, popular Jasper Puppetoons, about a happy little black kid repeatedly tempted by a miscreant scarecrow. The Jasper shorts played regularly on television until the middle 1970s, unfortunately for us, usually in B&W. Although I don't remember any particular public denunciation of the Jasper series as racially insensitive, it's likely that those shorts were quietly retired along with shows that featured racial stereotypes.
In the middle '70s Pal was honored with a special FILMEX presentation of some of his Puppetoons. He attended the special Century City function and was visibly moved by the appreciation of the enthusiastic crowd.
Arnold Leibovit's The Puppetoon Movie (1987) is essentially a string of original Pal Puppetoons in excellent condition, bookended by a new animated prologue and epilogue. Animated by Peter Kleinow, the bookends show the familiar Art Clokey characters Gumby and Pokey the Horse filming a movie; an animated Tyrannosaurus Rex is too meek to threaten a little fawn. To show the dinosaur that it's all make-believe, Gumby takes him to an editing room (with an incredibly well-made miniature Moviola) and screens the Pal short subjects. Paul Frees is one of the voice talents heard on the soundtrack.
The selection of 'toons covers a nice range of material, featuring Pal's work from Europe and Hollywood, filmed in different styles. Tulips Shall Grow is the famous anti-Nazi picture showing the (wished-for) defeat of the "screwball" army -- soldiers that are literal balls with bolts for heads. Some of the Puppetoons are visually elegant and others look like the contents of an antique toy box come to life. The stories aren't complex, but tend to be different than those found in flat-animated cartoons -- part of the thrill is seeing everything happen in such smooth stop-motion animation. With Paramount's blessing, popular songs and performers appear; like many Europeans, Pal was enamored of the music of black jazz performers.
The earliest picture here appears to be South Seas Sweethearts, made in England in 1938. We're told that John Henry and the Inky-Poo was filmed in response to charges of racial stereotyping. John Henry is a massive muscular railroad worker who defeats a mechanical track-laying machine in a spike-driving contest. The mindless black workman now seems just as much a stereotype, even when lauded in heroic terms. We're told that the last official Paramount Puppetoon was Tubby the Tuba, which become one of the more popular short subjects screened in primary schools.
Besides animator Peter Kleinow, the new bookends for the show employ many stop-motion and effects notables from the pre-digital years: Charles and Stephen Chiodo, Ernest D. Farino, Michael Minor, Harry Walton, Gene Warren Jr.
The show has been given a commentary track by filmmaker Leibovit and animation authority Jerry Beck, who give plenty of anecdotal information and historical context. We're told that The Puppetoon Movie was extended for home video, yet the running times clash with listings (possibly incorrect) for the original show. It doesn't really matter, as the extras for this 2-Disc Blu-ray presentation are so extensive.
To start with, there's a full HD B&W encoding of George Pal's first feature film, The Great Rupert with Terry Moore and Jimmy Durante. It's an amusing show that I reviewed ten years ago when it was colorized and re-titled "A Christmas Wish." Then we get (in Standard Def) the entire The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, a career bio made by Arnold Leibovit a couple of years before The Puppetoon Movie. It's a good introduction to the endearing Pal, with interviews with everyone from Ray Bradbury to Joe Dante.
More interview footage appears with Pal's contemporaries and those who worked with him, like Gene Roddenberry, Roy Disney, Wah Chang, Russ Tamblyn, etc.
But the real draw on the list of extras is the generous assortment of complete original Puppetoons. Seven appear in full restored HD, and twelve more in good to very good SD quality. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street are both Dr. Seuss adaptations. Date with Duke features music and an appearance by Duke Ellington, while Rhapsody in Wood tells a tall tale of how musician Woody Herman got his 'magic' clarinet. The best Jasper cartoon is Jasper and the Beanstalk. The kid with the magic beans liberates the Giant's golden harp. The caged harp is sculpted in the form of a shapely black singer -- who sings with the voice of Peggy Lee.
The SD offerings include three more Jasper Puppetoons, as well as the earlier European shorts Aladdin and his Magic Lamp and Ether Symphony (1936, Netherlands).
As if that weren't enough, another gallery presents a few odds and ends, such as a kinescope of Pal taking a bow before the 1963 premiere of his The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm). Much older is a kinescope in good condition of the entire 1950 KTLA visit to the General Services Studio set for George Pal's Destination Moon. The actors John Archer, Tom Powers and Dick Wesson aren't even introduced on camera, and stand around in their space suits smiling and drinking Coca-Cola. The KTLA co-hosts do interview Chesley Bonestell and George Pal, while director Irving Pichel tries to be a good guest for the early TV reporting experiment.
B2MP's 2-disc Blu-ray Blu-ray of The Puppetoon Movie looks very good in HD, with the non-HD material mostly looking very good as well. Some of the Puppetoons are excellent restorations done by the UCLA Film Archive. Mr. Leibovit's film was produced in 35mm; it only suffered when projected in theaters unable to screen old-format 1:37 pictures.
The Puppetoon Movie on Blu-ray is really a compendium. Much of the contents of this release have been previously marketed as individual tapes and discs. It's an exclusive, at the moment limited to 3,000 copies and only available at the B2MP page.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Puppetoon Movie Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.