Prepare to be Terrified By… “Santa Claus’s Punch and Judy”

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Another in our series of Christmas themed posts…

This one came onto my radar about a week ago and it seemed truly fitting for this blog, not just because we like odd, psychotronic, low-budget films, but because I like to talk about traditional theatre arts and we haven’t yet talked about the odd phenomenon of the Punch and Judy Show.

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The roots of this formalized traditional puppet show go back to commedia dell’arte in the 16th century. Mr. Punch started out as the traditional commedia character Pulcinella (Punchinello). The shows were originally done with marionettes; towards the end of the 18th century glove puppets became the convention since they were cheaper and easier to operate and transport. Usually all the puppets are done by a single puppeteer, known as the Professor or Punchman.

The character of Punch is instantly recognizable with his commedia style outfit, hunchback and hooked nose and chin. And above all his voice which is high pitched and filtered through a mouth-device known as the swazzle or swatchel, which sounds just like a kazoo. It is a matter of debate whether any Punch show can be called genuine which doesn’t make use of the swazzle. I saw one when I was a kid that didn’t. The thing is, it’s tricky to use the swazzle, as none of the characters speak through it, so the puppeteer has to constantly be switching…and his hands are in the puppets.

At any rate, you know the plot: it’s the ULTIMATE slapstick universe, with Punch beating his Baby, his wife Judy, the Policeman, the Devil, a Crocodile and many other characters, and hopefully, all of them getting their licks in on HIM (otherwise it’s just unseemly). To me, a good latter day Punch show would have Judy beating the heck out of Punch too, otherwise it’s just a wife-beating show and that’s creepy. (As in the clip below).

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At any rate, Punch and Judy shows have long been a tradition in the UK. For the first couple of centuries they were adult entertainment. When it was its height in popularity in the early 18th century, Henry Fielding had a Punch and Judy theatre. By the time of the Victorian era it began to be formalized into an entertainment for children, and the Punch puppet theatre became a ubiquitous sight at fairs, carnivals, seaside resorts, birthday parties, and…Christmas entertainments. The tradition also took root to a lesser extent in the U.S.  I certainly HOPE you’ve seen a live one, but if you haven’t you can see a Punch and Judy show in any of half a dozen Terry Gilliam films, or in the Marx Brothers movie Monkey Business, or in the film Charade, or any one of a thousand other places.

This little movie was made by an outfit known as Castle Films in 1948 for the home market (films that were made for, and distributed to folks who had their own home movie projectors). The puppeteer was a gentleman named George Prentice. The film is odd….there is no preamble. We join Santa and a bunch of children in medias res. He briefly gives out some gifts, and then a child’s request for a Punch and Judy show lets him off the hook. He magically materializes the puppet theatre and steps back, letting the Punch show take over:

To find out more about traditional show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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