George Pal: Puppet Master

A few months ago, I was laid up with a bad back and you know how when you’re unwell and immobile you’ll watch anything, because well you HAVE to? So I found myself watching Atlantis: The Lost Continent (1961), a giddy-making concoction of stock footage and hallucinatory set pieces populated with a surreal bargain basement cast that included the Chief from Get Smart (Edward Platt), the Hekawi chief from F Troop (Frank De Kova), John Dall (the terrible actor from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope), Joyce Taylor, who played Rapaccini’s Daughter in Twice-Told Tales (1963) opposite Vincent Price, and the voices of Paul Frees, which I find jarring in any film, for I can’t hear him without being launched into a Rankin-Bass special. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this thing. I assumed for a minute that it was either a dubbed Cinecitta picture or something by AIP or Americus or something, but of course it was a late George Pal film for MGM.

And I kind of belatedly realized how important Pal (György Pál Marczincsak, 1908-1980) is to me. He was after all the producer behind two of my FAVORITE movies War of the Worlds (1953) and the 1954 Houdini bio-pic with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Among the other films he had directed as well as produced, I knew (and liked) The Time Machine (1960) best, but also certainly knew Tom Thumb (1958), The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), and of course the exceedingly strange 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964).

But these features are all from the period when Pal was at the top of his game in Hollywood. His earlier work is just as interesting, for he was one of the pioneers of modern animation by virtue of his “Pal Puppets” or “Puppetoons” shorts.

Pal was the son of two Hungarian stage performers. He himself was not attracted to the theatre however, and he ended up studying architecture at the Budapest Academy of Arts. But some things are in the blood and won’t be denied. Pal ended up gravitating toward the entertainment field as though unconsciously driven to it. Much like Alfred Hitchcock had, in the last days of silents Pal found work designing intertitle cards, as well as advertising posters. He also became interested in conventional (cartoon) animation, then still in its infancy. Throughout the 30’s he worked at studios in several European capitals, going where opportunity took him, and, as time went on, moving to avoid the encroachments of Hitlerisim. He started out at Hunnia in Budapest, then UFA in Berlin, then Prague, and also London, Paris, and the Netherlands. He developed a technique of animation that used a series of carved wooden puppets to simulate motion. It was different from stop-motion, which employed moveable puppets. He began producing and directing animated shorts in Europe in the early ’30s, some of them drawing from fairy tales like Aladdin and Sinbad, foreshadowing his later work.

In 1940, with war already happening in Europe, Pal came to work for Paramount, whose existing animation partner Fleischer Studio was nearing the end of its time. Pal created his Puppetoons shorts for the studio through 1947, employing Willis O’Brien (of King Kong fame), as well as a young Ray Harryhausen, et al, creating work that has to have inspired the later Rankin-Bass, Art Clokey, and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (Thunderbirds). Pal was pals with Walt Disney as well as Walter Lantz, whose Woody Woodpecker character he frequently inserted into his films in cameos. Unfortunately, his most prolific and popular series starred Jasper a “pickaninny” character in the stereotyped vein of Little Black Sambo and the minstrel show tradition, and so now would almost universally be interpreted as racist by modern standards. He was the opposite of unique in this weakness — it was the rule rather than the exception at the time, as anyone aware of Disney’s Song of the South, or many Fleischer films, already knows. Rex Ingram was the voice of Jasper; Victor Jory provided narration in many of these films. Pal was also responsible for some of the first screen adaptations of Dr. Seuss with The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1943) and To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1944).

Pal’s first feature as producer was The Great Rupert (1950) which teamed the eponymous animated squirrel with a live action cast of kooks that included Jimmy Durante, Frank Orth, Jimmy Conlin, Chick Chandler, Queenie Smith, Candy Candido, Frank Cady, and Irving Pichel. His next two pictures, Destination Moon (1950), and When Worlds Collide (1951), paved the way for War of the Worlds. The Naked Jungle (1954) pits Charlton Heston against thousands of army ants, paving the way for many a campy sci-fi horror film to follow over the decades.

The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao with Tony Randall was the only one of Pal’s pictures to lose money at the box office, and he seems to have stepped back and recalibrated at this stage. It was four years before the release of his next picture as producer, The Power (1968), with George Hamilton, Suzanne Pleshette (of The Birds), Michael Rennie (of The Day the Earth Stood Still), Arthur O’Connell, Yvonne de Carlo, Earl Holliman, Nehemiah Persoff, Richard Carlson, Gary Merrill, Aldo Ray, Barbara Nichols, and Ken Murray. In addition to the all-star cast, the fairly psychedelic plot concerns a government research program that uncovers the existence of individuals with superhuman powers of ESP and telekinesis. I caught it recently on TCM, and though it sounds promising, and there are ample occasions to showcase Pal’s (literally) patented skill set, the movie still comes across in that stodgy late MGM “Lion Power” vein. Though calculated to be a grown-up entertainment, it’s kind of square and artificial and retrograde — the sort of thing that got left in the dust by Kubrick’s 2001, which also came out that year. Pal’s last completed film as producer was Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1974) with Ron Ely of Tarzan fame playing the titular pulp hero. It was directed by the great Michael Anderson of Around the World in 80 Days. This film was, in a word, savaged by critics, but Pal, not yet 70, continued to develop projects. One of the last ones he was trying to get to the screen was a remake of or sequel to The Wizard of Oz — now who wouldn’t want to see George Pal’s version of THAT, good, bad, or otherwise?

In the mid ’80s, Arnold Leibovit made two films designed to communicate Pal’s legacy to younger audiences: The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal (1985) and The Puppetoon Movie (1987).

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