The Puppetoon Movie (1987)

The Puppetoon Movie (1987)

The Puppetoon Movie (1987). Frame sequence written, directed, and produced by Arnold Leibovit. Original cartoons created by George Pal.

The Puppetoon Movie, while released in 1987, is a compilation of George Pal’s cartoon shorts from the 1930s and 1940s. If you are both a fan of early animation and an adventurous type who seeks out animated art beyond the world of cel-based cartoons, you might already know of works like the elegant feature-length The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). If you are looking for the compact and strange, the Puppetoons might be more to your liking. The Puppetoon Movie includes the representative short features The Little Broadcast, Philips Broadcast of 1938, Hoola Boola, South Sea Sweethearts, The Sleeping Beauty, Tulips Shall Grow, Together in the Weather, John Henry and the Inky-Poo, Philips Cavalcade, Jasper in a Jam, and Tubby the Tuba.

In case you have never seen Puppetoons, I will describe their look and style. Puppetoons (as Pal’s cartoons eventually came to be known) are stop-motion animated shorts that use small wooden figures reminiscent of traditional central European wood art miniatures; creator George Pal was Hungarian and created the Puppetoons while still on the continent. Pal’s shorts used replacement animation technology, whereby replaceable parts are manufactured for each figure for each movement it makes. This could result in thousands of parts for each individual cartoon and hours and hours of painstaking labor by a team of animators. I cannot imagine it was entirely fun; Pal’s wife Zsoka in the BBC documentary Pal’s Puppets (1994) says that she tried it for a while and found it to be an exceedingly dull process. Yet Pal managed to create individual shorts from start to finish in approximately six weeks’ time at the height of his studio’s production. The Puppetoons grew out of Pal’s work in cel-art commercials; he determined that he could create more effective ads if he used the physical items he was advertising as props in the cartoons, and from that point on, stop-motion replacement animation became his signature technology.

I wish I could say that anything that took so much work to create has its own unique beauty. But the Puppetoons for the most part are not very beautiful. The Little Broadcast is a prime example. In it, a rotund, diminutive man with a comical mustache, accompanied by the music of Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody,” descends through a manhole cover and emerges in a theater, where he begins to conduct. He looks unattractive and unreal, like a caricature, possibly of an Eastern European. The musician and dancer figures in Philips Broadcast of 1938 are similarly exaggerated and look more like figurines from an old toy box than humans—which is to say that they, like almost all of the Puppetoons, look dated today.

The frequent ugliness of Pal’s Puppetoons culminates in the many racial clichés included in the featured shorts. The native characters in Hoola Boola and South Seas Sweethearts are either ultra sexy hula practitioners or violent tribal antagonists, hell-bent on capturing and sacrificing a screaming white Puppetoon in a racially unsubtle island scenario. The black figures that perform in Philips Cavalcade are all identical geometric shapes that barely seem human. They throw their hands up in emphatic hallelujahs and waver and quaver to an old spiritual. And Jasper and the Jam (like many of the Jasper cartoons created by Pal) plays on awful stereotypes. In this cartoon about a young black boy who is trapped in a pawn shop at night, we see that Pal embraces the idea that black people are easily terrified and also the notion that they are lazy, slow, and sleepy. That we are meant to find these stereotypes amusing makes the cartoon even more unpleasant.

John Henry and the Inky-Poo offers us a more humane minority figure as its protagonist. In this version of the American tall tale, John Henry is a superhuman steel driver who competes with a machine in a battle to prove that the labor of railroad workers cannot be supplanted by automation. Although he is a hyperbolic hero, Henry is decidedly sympathetic. He has a distinct and realistic (albeit highly exaggerated) male form, with an overly developed chest and muscular arms. Part of what makes him wonderful is that he looks so unique compared to both the other Puppetoon figures in this short, which look identical to each other, and in Pal’s oeuvre more generally. Moreover, he is a fleshed-out character who is generous and hard working, acts for the benefit of his community, and ultimately and tragically fails. The narrative, which fundamentally seeks to extol the virtues of human laborers over machines, is moving, even sad. I felt pity for Henry by the end of the short, which is really saying something considering that I did not have emotional reactions to many of the Puppetoon figures or scenarios.

One of the other sketches that works very well and that did move me also has a political bent—Tulips Shall Grow, a story about a romantic relationship in Holland that is nearly destroyed by invading Nazi forces known elliptically in the sketch as the Screwballs. This cartoon begins sweetly with fields of multicolored tulips and windmills, then quickly grows extremely dark when the Screwballs invade by land and air with totalizing brutality. Pal and his company moved frequently around Europe during the 1930s and 1940s to evade Nazi oppression, so the fear of being caught in militarily active territory was very real for the animators, as it was for so many other Europeans. In Tulips Shall Grow, Pal nicely demonstrates his ability to handle serious content and to merge it with material that simultaneously requires a light touch.

That both the very dark and charmingly romantic mingle successfully in this short is a testament to the maturity of Pal’s vision, which we see articulated in other shorts in this collection. John Henry has similarly morose elements. It not only ends with Henry’s solemn funeral but also implies (as does the original tall tale) that in spite of Henry’s superhuman efforts, even the most exceptional laborer will be done in by competition with machines. The frightening aspects of Tulips Shall Grow are shared by Jasper in a Jam, where the nighttime pawn shop that Jasper becomes trapped in features sinister totem poles and instruments coming to life after hours.

Yet another treat in The Puppetoon Movie is Pal’s use of period music to enhance the productions. The short The Sleeping Beauty, much like some of then-contemporary cel-art cartoons, takes a traditional fairy tale and seeks to delight us by introducing something modern to it—here, the jazz that the clever prince plays to awaken the titular character and her kinsmen from their endless, spellbound sleep. Pal understood that one way to make his art feel contemporary was to show it growing out of and responding to popular music.

The results are some unusual opportunities for the jazz lover to see the music of the 1930s and 1940s celebrated with a unique visual style. In Philips Broadcast of 1938, for example, we hear Ambrose and His Orchestra perform with Sam Browne, and in Philips Cavalcade we hear Jack Hylton’s band. Both shorts were originally designed as promotional films for Philips radios; Philips Cavalcade in particular shows us a variety of musical performances in different styles to mimic the many stations a listener might dial through on a Philips wireless set. The latter cartoon also contains perhaps my favorite sequence in any Puppetoon I have yet seen. It takes place in a club where people are dining and watching a show. On stage, jaunty men in plaid suits enter and perform a silly dance, then are succeeded by can-can dancers who kick and do the splits. The cartoon opens with a wide, traveling shot across the dining room floor, and we see many waiters catering to customers. When we stop to consider that every figure we see on this set was filmed simultaneously using stop-motion replacement animation, we can see how truly impressive Pal’s work could be.

Pal ceased to manufacture his short cartoons after the 1940s. His productions grew too expensive for their brief running times, and he turned to movies instead, directing live-action films such as Tom Thumb (1958) and The Time Machine (1960). If you have the opportunity to see The Puppetoon Movie, I recommend it as a weird collection of unusual shorts that are not widely available. The film will give you a good sense of what animated art was like during this period beyond the Disney and Warner Bros. context.