Essential: GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988)

TB: When Jlewis and I talked about this month’s theme on foreign animation, we were just going to do four Saturdays and take the fifth week off. But then I thought, why not do another one. Especially if there’s another great film we can bring to everyone’s attention. A day or so later Jlewis suggested GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES. I was glad because I thought it would be good to do a more recent example of something in this genre. At the time I didn’t know much about this particular title. But as I’ve since discovered, it’s a truly phenomenal accomplishment. I’m very pleased Jlewis selected it as an essential.

One thing I’d like to point out– in his review Jlewis talks about whether the story needed to be done in animation. He cites the fact there are no cuddly animals, which is kind of interesting. I think it was done as animation instead of live action entertainment, because the topic is somewhat solemn. Presenting it in animation gives it a much more childlike and possibly innocent quality. I think this decision by the filmmakers helps ensure it’s more palatable for the audience, without sugar-coating or simplifying things too much.

I would also like to state that while it’s a Japanese motion picture specific to Japanese culture, it has relevance for American audiences for obvious reasons.

***

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 2.58.16 PM

JL: GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (火垂るの墓 / HOTARU NO HAKA), directed and scripted by Isao Takahata and adapted from Akiyuki Nosaka semi-autobiographical short story of 1967, pretty much spoils the outcome for viewers even before the opening credits roll on screen. A teenage boy named Seita tells us in voice-over: “September 21, 1945…that was the night I died.”

We see him dressed in uniform, but in spirit form, looking over a famished homeless soul in a Kobe train station, taking his final breath. Others comment “these bums are a disgrace” and the janitors come by to collect his corpse as “another one”…to remove.

His belongings, limited that they are, are rummaged through and one particular item, a candy tin, is tossed outside. A bit of anime magic happens as Seita’s spirit is reunited with another, a little girl, amid a group of fireflies.

This is the story of a person who was more than just “another one.”

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 2.58.44 PM

We backtrack many months to when he and four year old sister Setsuko witness their home getting bombed by American planes. Their mother is rushed to the hospital despite taking a shelter and her situation is grim. An aunt aids them to some degree, eventually accepting them into her home. However her maternal instinct for them does not last long and she tells Seita that he is a burden to her, especially since he no longer attends school (that being burned down as well). Selling off their mother’s kimonos helps with some food costs, but the teenager soon realizes he must move out.

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 2.57.51 PM

This is not an entirely grim story. We see the children have fun at the beach. They make a home for themselves in an abandoned farm hut and capture fireflies, many of which die and Setsuko buries them in child like fashion.

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 2.58.33 PM

At one point, a rotting corpse is fleetingly seen by the little girl, it being buried under a beach blanket. Her very protective brother tells her to not look at it. Death is something he avoids discussing with her, delaying the news of their mother’s death (which she finds out from her aunt separately anyway) and he never tells her that their father, a soldier, is missing in action in a fleet that sank. This is a very emotional film with characters full of depth that are easy to relate to. Sadly, little by little, the world around them starts to fall apart. Yet the brother does everything possible to make the sibling he cares so much about happy despite it all.

I won’t spoil the story any further but, yes, this is a great film to watch if you are not fond of traditional happy ever after endings in many animated cartoon features.

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 3.38.17 PM

I should point out that the Japanese have a more favorable view of death and life after it, in whatever form accepted, than most Americans. In a curious way, I do find the ending happy to some degree, at least in a spiritual way.

Many western critics, including the late Roger Ebert who adored this movie, consider this a great anti-war film showing how children often become the neglected casualties that never get reported. Yet the war itself, dramatic in bombing scenes here and there, is nothing more than a temporary backdrop. Much of the film involves no mention of any wars but focuses on two children trying to make a life for themselves when everybody, including one surviving relative, tend to act cool and distant with them.

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 2.59.30 PM

Adults in power, doctor included, give little guidance. A poor farmer is kind to them in a few small ways but he is no help overall. I find it more of an anti-adult film more than an anti-war film since war is just another aspect of adulthood that causes havoc on children’s lives.

Perhaps because this wasn’t a “fun” film, Studio Ghibli released it on April 16, 1988 as part of a double-bill with another of their recently completed features simultaneously. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO was a much more feel-good, kid friendly fantasy. It also had the advantage of a merchandising character that helped bring in revenue not always accumulated at the box-office.

Unfortunately both films suffered some competition with Katsuhiro Otomo’s enormous blockbuster AKIRA, which opened three months later and pretty much dominated the international market. While it made U.S. screens and VHS within a year (and I saw AKIRA on video around 1990 although I wasn’t very fond of it with its complicated futuristic crime story), GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES only got limited attention in the American market and belatedly made the video cut in 1993.

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 2.59.02 PM

Nonetheless Studio Ghibli of Koganei, Tokyo was and still is a company that has gained plenty of prestige over the years. It had only been founded in 1985 and enjoyed a big hit with its first feature, Hayao Miyazaki’s CASTLE IN THE SKY released the following year. So successful was Studio Ghibli’s product internationally that even Disney got nervous, snapping up the distribution rights to much of its product in the U.S. and elsewhere by 1995.

Their reputation this side of the Pacific Ocean grew with the Oscar winning SPIRITED AWAY. Unfortunately, the Academy members then got neurotic about “foreign” animated features invading their turf and only the British WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT nabbed the coveted statue in all of the years since. However four more Studio Ghibli productions have received nominations for Best Animated Feature.

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 3.38.38 PM

What many of the prestigious Japanese anime features share in common is their extreme attention to detail that is mind boggling to the Americans viewing them. Nothing is overlooked here. The fireflies are photographic realistic despite all being drawn, painted and set-up cel-wise and otherwise mostly by hand. Although computers were starting to aid the animation process by the eighties, many aspects of this feature were still done the traditional way of decades previous and the results are absolutely breath-taking.

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 3.00.26 PM

The humans don’t look rotoscoped, but are very lifelike in expressions. There are many little things that impress: the careful details of the rice and other food items on display, the vintage newspapers that Setsuko doodles and cut from are a close match to those of wartime Japan, the countryside settings that resemble England as much as Japan in its impressionistic way. One major influence on the overall look of the film was Michiyo Yasuda, whose design ideas went against what was considered the norm in Japanese anime of the period by favoring brown over black ink lines around the characters, softening it more like the Disney films of the past. Particularly impressive is all of the airbrushed background work.

I guess one criticism that could be made is this: why bother making a cartoon of a story that can easily be shot as live-action?  After all, there are no make believe characters or funny animals involved. Sure enough, there was a live-action version of this made for Japanese TV in 2005. The original author Akiyuki Nosaka saw the storyboards in preparation for this film and was impressed enough (per Wikipedia’s article on the topic) to state that animation was the only method of storytelling that could adequately depict the environment he wrote about effectively.

The IMDb lists 132 names in the animation department alone. While only few of these names may be familiar to even the most passionate of anime enthusiasts, this was clearly a major team effort and a labor of love. You sense that everybody working on this considered this a special film with a special message that would last as entertainment for quite some time in the future.

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 2.57.38 PM

Essential: THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926)

TB: For the month of August I asked Jlewis to select a theme and choose five films. He chose foreign animation. I am going to be reading these reviews along with the rest of you…then adding a few comments afterward. Since this is an area of film I know little about, my comments will be more opinion-based, with me stating what moved me or what I felt was effective.

As Jlewis discusses below, the first title he chose, PRINCE ACHMED, is a bit difficult to find online. There are some clips on YouTube, along with a documentary about the filmmaker, Lottie Reiniger. A complete version of PRINCE ACHMED is on the Internet Archive, with the original German titles and Spanish subtitles. That is the version I watched. Anyway, let’s turn things over to Jlewis…

Screen Shot 2020-07-29 at 4.19.33 PM.jpeg

JL: DIE GESCHICHTE DES PRINZEN ACHMED a.k.a. THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926) is a very unique, one of a kind motion picture that is unlike anything else you would see, except maybe Michel Ocelot’s French efforts made eight decades later… also generally unseen by most reading these posts. It is a 65 minute fantasy made primarily by one woman, Lotte Reiniger, with just a few fellow artists of Berlin’s bohemian pre-Hitler scene assisting mostly with the background art and technical needs, among them the legendary Walter Ruttmann, Berthold Bartosch, Alexander Kardan, Walter Türk and Carl Koch, the last being her husband and key camera operator.

It is pretty much an “indy” film by a female director long before such things became fashionable, a special project that consumed her for three years straight in its making. The third feature length animated production ever made, at a time when animated cartoons rarely lasted more than 20 minutes and probably three quarters of them were under 6 at most, it is also the oldest over-an-hour cartoon still in existence today. Argentina’s Quirino Christiani’s previous efforts of 1917-18 are still considered lost and one supposedly destroyed by the authorities in power for political reasons.

screen-shot-2020-07-29-at-5.40.40-pm

The primary technique employed is silhouette cut-out animation, using flat cardboard and paper cut-outs painted jet-black with limbs and other body parts attached intricately to make them movable, then animated frame by frame for the camera. The overall visual effect is inspired by the stick and hand manipulated puppets of European and Chinese shadow plays.

screen-shot-2020-07-29-at-5.39.52-pm.jpeg

Among the earliest examples of this technique still surviving is the British short THE CLOWN AND THE DONKEY (1910), made by Charles Armstrong for Charles Urban’s company… and it is not even his first since he made an even earlier SPORTING MICE that is now believed to be lost. Lotte Reiniger did her first short silhouette animation in December 1919, making six shorts total before starting this ambitious feature in 1923.

It isn’t employed throughout the entire film. Other interesting effects include paint-on glass for the genie coming out of the lamp and other dissolve-like visuals, this being an animation style that Caroline Leaf later popularized in the seventies with her National Film Board of Canada work. Also there appears to be some pioneering optical effects involving photographed fire in one key scene.

Despite being made 11 years before Walt Disney’s first feature, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, it is not “primitive” in any way and remains a fresh and dazzling spectacle to view even today. Speaking of Disney, he was well aware of its existence at the time he was making that feature, one that the Hollywood press would dub the first of its kind when it actually wasn’t, and studied her early use of a multi-plane system involving glass sheets with scenery painted and figures moving on them, each carefully placed a distance apart to create added depth. In PRINCE ACHMED, the effects are particularly good in the shot of our hero flying a mechanical horse over a vast city-scape.

screen-shot-2020-07-29-at-5.36.18-pm

The story utilizes the same original sources as THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, ALADDIN (and his lamp) and 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS, all fodder for many live-action and animated features throughout the century; the animated kind also include the popular 1992 Disney feature and a 1959 UPA-Columbia production featuring Mr. Magoo. What all of these films have in common is that they have virtually nothing in common, involving characters sporting the same names but doing totally different activities on screen.

For example, in both the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks and 1940 Alexander Korda Technicolor versions of THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, Achmed or Achmad is a lover of the Princess but Reiniger has him as the royally privileged brother of Princess, given the very specific name of Disnarde here. Instead, he falls in love with Pari Banu, the princess/queen of Wak Wak, and saves Aladdin so he can become Achmed’s brother-in-law.

Screen Shot 2020-07-29 at 5.53.03 PM.jpeg

There is a villain in all of these film adaptations who challenges our heroes. In the other films, he is often labeled Jaffar; here, he is merely an “African sorcerer” who creates a flying horse that purposely sends Achmed away so he can take over his father’s kingdom. Despite temporarily being imprisoned by Achmed and Disnarde’s caliph father, he manages to escape and later abducts Pari Banu to sell off as a future bride for a Chinese emperor (cue some mild but notable ethnic “oriental” stereotyping here) whom Achmed, again, must save her from. Meanwhile, his sister’s love interest… Aladdin himself… has adventures of his own, battling a bizarre tree monster whom Achmed rescues him from.

Despite its episodic nature, the story is not terribly challenging to follow, although I was watching an online copy lacking English subtitles. However the action does happen a bit too fast at times. For example, Achmed battles a couple of beasties as well as the sorcerer in very rapid succession, including a multi-headed hydra that grows more heads as each one is hacked off by his sword.

SCREEN

In later stop-motion spectacles, Ray Harryhausen took his time with his similar battle scenes. At times, Reiniger’s battles feel like some drug-induced acid trip with Achmed succeeding even faster than Mighty Mouse. Perhaps she could have spent more time building these up better even if it extended the running time from 65 to, say, 75 minutes.

There is a witch who helps Achmed and she is rather interesting herself. She is a thrumpy, ugly looking dame with curious plants growing from her clothing. Yet she is quite the heroine and I wonder if Reiniger saw a little of herself in this creation as she assists Achmed in defeating the hydra so she can have Aladdin’s lamp…and she wants it for positive reasons rather than evil ones like the villain sorcerer. Regarding him, there is a climatic battle of wits between the two that Walt Disney’s crew obviously analyzed when they worked on a similar scene in SWORD IN THE STONE between Mad Madam Mim and Merlin: each transforms into different animals (scorpion, giant rooster, etc.) to conquer the other.

Screen Shot 2020-07-29 at 5.55.37 PM

Unfortunately this labored production was not a huge success when it opened in Berlin in May 1926, failing to recoup its costs initially. According to a great documentary on her life, some of her aging friends interviewed in the 1980s after her passing felt that the overall look of this film, so different than the live action features general audiences were used to, may have rendered it too unorthodox for their tastes. She would later attempt a second feature, but DR. DOOLITTLE wound up as a “featurette” instead. Many other short films were made in Germany, France (after she left as Hitler came to power) and finally England where she settled in her later years. Both her and her husband also worked with the great Jean Renoir in several live-action projects of great interest.

Initially this was shown with color tints, but the master nitrate print was lost over time and all copies that were made existed in black and white. Thanks to enough notes taken, the tinting effects could be digitally added a second time around for its 1998-99 restoration for the DVD market.

This documentary excerpt (the full film is a great one to watch but hard to find online) covers the making of this special film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTOe5hCmwB4

***

Screen Shot 2020-07-29 at 6.23.24 PM.png

TB: Thanks Jlewis. When I watched the film, it seemed quite lovely. But I also found it somewhat primitive. As you stated, Lottie had been making short animated films for several years before she attempted this longer project; and this film took her three years to make.

The one thing that kept pulling me out of the story is that after she does movement with some of the characters– whether it’s a flying scene, or a battle scene– the characters suddenly stop. There are pauses each time after the characters move. I feel the film is not edited well; where she should have gone in and snipped out those extra frames where the characters are still for a second or two between actions. It would have felt that the motion was more continuous if she had.

Screen Shot 2020-07-29 at 6.27.31 PM

Perhaps the reason she has these pauses in between actions is that it is meant to evoke the use of puppets, where the puppeteer does a motion with the character on a stick, then stops for the audience to respond, even applaud. But it sort of defeats the purpose of an animated feature, which in terms of action is supposed to resemble live performance. Actors on a stage, or actors in a scene from a movie, do not keep pausing.

Another thing that gets a thumbs down from me is the fact that all the silhouettes are in black. I think she could have been more creative and had some figures in gray or dark green. Or even reversed the effect, and for some sequences, had the background in black, with the figures in white. It got too predictable that the characters were always in black. Also, because they were in black, we couldn’t see any specific facial expressions or distinguishing marks to convince us they were real and not cardboard cutouts.

Screen Shot 2020-07-29 at 6.04.04 PM.jpeg

Now she does present the genie in light blue. He is the only character whose facial expressions we get to see clearly. It would have been nice if other characters had such detailed facial features.

Maybe during the fire sequence, some of the characters could have turned red as if they were becoming part of the fire. Yet, she keeps them in black silhouette. It just seemed too easy, not differentiating the characters’ color schemes.

Screen Shot 2020-07-29 at 6.09.10 PM.jpeg

You already mentioned how some of the action scenes feel rushed. I feel she’s jamming too much story into 65 minutes. It’s easy to see why the 1992 Disney animated feature limits Achmed and focuses on Aladdin. You cannot really have two main protagonists, and two love stories of equal importance, since it sort of pulls the audience away from one story when the focus suddenly switches to the other story, then back again. A clearer narrative is needed, with one main hero and heroine.

Now if this film was built around the villain, and it was about evil schemes against these different heroes and heroines, then maybe that would have worked better.

Screen Shot 2020-07-29 at 6.13.29 PM

The payoff would have been greater when it came time for the sorcerer to do battle with the witch. In some ways, it would have been like Oberon and Titania’s story from A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, which might have better unified all the separate story strands.

I don’t dislike the film. It’s charming and quite visually impressive. But I am reluctant to throw the word pioneer around since I feel that’s an overused term and sometimes gives early filmmakers a “free pass” as to why they may not have been more effective. Personally, I think she probably should have spent more than three years on it; and as you say, she could have expanded on some of it, to create stronger pacing and cohesion. It’s a valiant effort but ultimately for me, not as satisfying overall as I expected it would be.

Essential: MAUGLI (1973)

TB: I am going to let Jlewis take the spotlight here, since he has a lot of interesting information about this film. I do like the fact that he selected something that is basically a compilation piece, where previously produced segments of Soviet animation are put together to make a coherent feature involving most of the same characters. So it feels a bit serialized but yet epic.

I found it interesting when he talked about the socialist aspects of how men and women (co)operate in the Soviet culture; and how that affects the way female characters are depicted on screen in Soviet animation. That gives us a lot to consider, historically, especially compared to how the more traditional roles of men and women in western culture typically play out.

Anyway, I think you will enjoy reading what follows. And if you haven’t seen MAUGLI, you can find it on YouTube.

***

JL: TALE OF THE FOX and THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED were essentially independent animated features involving one primary artist working with only the most limited number of assistants. Ladislas Starevich operated on the former with just his wife creating puppet costumes and daughter co-directing, making it a family affair. THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE was a little more involved but head director Jiri Trnka still only had five stop-motion animators working under him at the Bratri v Triku studio while he supervised a.k.a. Orson Welles style.

MAUGLI (MOWGLI), a series of five 20 minute short films later stitched into a feature, differs from that trio in that it was the creation of a big animation factory roughly the same size as, if not bigger than, the contemporary Disney or Hanna-Barbera in the United States with no fewer than 16 key people working on the animation alone, even though they did not all work on the same individual films-within-a-film.

It is more challenging to single out one specific “artist in charge” here, but Roman Davydov is credited as director, Leonid Belokurov with script adaptation, Pyotr Repkin and Aleksandr Vinokurov as primary art directors involved with its unique post-UPA style and Sofia Gubaidulina providing the haunting musical score. A few of the animators later had successful careers as director-supervisors themselves, among them Aleksandr Davydov, Vyacheslav Kotyonochkin, Lyudmila Kasatkina and Nikolay Fyodorov.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.50.48 AM

The film was made by Soyuzmultfilm, a company that still exists today. According to Wikipedia, it has 300 employees and has made 1500 or so individual films and TV shows to date. It was, in fact, launched with Josef Stalin’s approval as the Soviet Union counterpart to Walt Disney way back on June 10, 1936. It differed from Disney somewhat during the first eight years or so in that its product was exclusively in black and white since only a small handful of Soviet cartoons were in color during the decade of 1934-44, but these did include some fascinating Alexander Ptushko stop-motion shorts made at Mosfilm.

After the Russians took charge of the German film studios and all of that wonderful “UFA color” stock during the final year of the war, the great Disneyfication of Soviet animation was complete with a succession of all-color shorts, 20 minute featurettes and major epics running over an hour, beginning with THE LOST LETTER (ПРОПАВШАЯ ГРАМОТА / PROPAVSHAYA GRAMOTA) in 1945. These were now more-often-than-not fairy tales populated with fluidly animated furry stars and often rotoscoped humans, some multi-plane camera work and always highly detailed background paintings.

If there was any criticism of the unique “Soviet style” it was that it was a bit dry and serious in tone during the later ’40s and ’50s period with only limited “gags” involved (hardly any Looney Tunes humor) and much of the overall look was way too consistent at times, making it hard to “date” individual titles (even if the Soviet system slapped the years of completion on the opening title cards). It wasn’t until the early 1960s when, after several years of the nation loosening up some of its artistic creativity under Nikita Khrushchev, the studio animation displayed more variety of graphics akin to the National Film Board of Canada and the Zagreb school elsewhere.

logo

Many of the truly great cartoons of Soyuzmultfilm that we cartoon buffs love so much tend to be products of the mid-sixties through early eighties period rather than earlier. Despite a cold war raging between two nations, a surprising number of Soyuzmultfilms made United States theatrical screens and smaller TV screens during and before the Sputnik era. A few anti-American films never made it over for obvious reasons, but the vast majority was focused on inoffensive juvenile entertainment with little or no “commie” subliminal messaging involved. The studio’s adaptation of THE SNOW QUEEN was its biggest  international hit.

Charlton Heston narrated the American television debut of MAUGLI in 1996 (on PBS). Personally I favor the subtitled Russian original that I have on DVD, put out some years later. Both are available online currently for those who want to view both. Unfortunately too many changes were made to the U.S. version, including the loss of that wonderful Sofia Gubaidulina music and some sappy kid-oriented songs added.

61sMOKmV0lL

MAUGLI may seem a bit too dry for some tastes, but it is still entertaining and artful in its own right. The first installment of these Jungle Boy stories, titled RAKSHI, appeared in Russian theaters in December 1967, just two months after Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK opened thousands of miles away, but took on a different route of staying fairly close to the original Kipling.

It was given four follow-ups released annually before becoming a compilation feature in July 1973.

  • After establishing Mowgli’s adoption by the wolf pack in the first film, we see him grow up and deal with a mob of monkeys in POKHISHCHENIE (THE KIDNAPPING, 1968).
  • He then aids the dying wolf leader and frightens Shere Khan the tiger with his “red flower” (fire stick) and “iron tooth” that Kaa the python helps him obtain in POSLEDNYAYA OKHOTA AKELY (AKELA’S LAST HUNT, 1969).
  • A battle with a pack of dholes (smaller but ferocious red wolves) highlights BITVA (THE FIGHT, 1970).
  • After finally settling a to-the-death score with Shere Khan after he breaks a jungle law during drought time, Mowgli realizes with great emotion and tears, that he has grown into an adult and must now leave the jungle for an ominous return to human civilization in VOZVRASHCHENIE K LYUDYAM (RETURN TO MANKIND, 1971).

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.59.49 AM

One common theme in children’s books is growing up and leaving the world you are most comfortable with behind to face the unknown. Sometimes this theme is rather subtle, as with Wendy leaving the nursery setting in the Peter Pan story and Christopher Robin going to school in Winnie-the-Pooh. Both this film and Chuck Jones’ MOWGLI’S BROTHERS do a fine job in the final moments when Mowgli goes through great emotional anguish deciding what to do and Kaa observing that “it is hard to shed one’s skin until one is truly ready” (a reptilian reference in the English dubs).

The Disney version lacks a bit of depth here by comparison, since we have Sebastian Cabot’s Bagheera making a full commitment to “taking the man-cub back to the village where he belongs” rather than having Mowgli decide for himself as most kids favor. Likewise, the Disney version of Mowgli is quite obstinate up until the very end when he falls all a gaga over a water collecting maiden (a.k.a. Baloo quipping to Mowgli’s first sight of her: “Forget about those, they ain’t nothin’ but trouble”).

The Soviet adaptation, but not the Chuck Jones’ version, has him glimpse multiple women from a distance, then he catches the eye of one by herself later and she flees him in great fright while he stares at her with intensive awe, an interesting alternative to the usual teenage sexual awakenings we are accustomed to in mass entertainment.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 11.25.07 AM

Among the few major liberties taken with Kipling is the change in gender for Bagheera the black panther, now a female with cubs briefly shown in one episode, This I find a novel idea since the original book is too bro-buddy oriented and needs a strong female character for female readers and viewers to identify with besides Mommy Wolf. Although rather sexy in voice (popular Soviet actress Lyudmila Kasatkina does great here, resembling Eartha Kitt as Catwoman), the way she is animated with great stealth and athletic ability makes her one tough force.

This is the key trademark of many Soviet films of that period, both live action and animated. Not that American screens didn’t have their own female super heroes, but the whole socialist set-up in that Enemy Country had both genders working a lot together in major industrial projects and occasionally during wartime conflict as well. Girls simply had more opportunity to be just like the boys over-there than in the United States and this was reflected in the screen entertainment.

I absolutely love the visual style that remained very consistent during a five year production-and-release period, enough for the shorter films to be seamlessly compiled together as if they were made all at once like the Disney version. Although the animators changed over the course of the five individual films, there was a strict adherence to model sheets to prevent the characters from changing.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.58.05 AM

The designs are rather angular, a bit like UPA and Japanese anime of the sixties, with very bright colors and especially thick ink outlines bordering the animal bodies. Bagheera often resembles some peculiar vase when she is sitting upright and, when leaping from a tree with Mowgli on her back, she literally becomes Plastic Man of DC Comics.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 11.03.00 AM

Both she and Baloo, a fellow black character, feature a mix of white and gray ink outlines in the night scenes and when walking together briefly, creating a shimmering effect. The backgrounds employ a great deal more watercolor in their creation that was typical during that period in world animation, although I am reminded of Ryan Larkin’s contemporary work in spots.

It looks like some attempt was made to do actual zoological research into India’s wildlife. (Likewise, their version of RIKKI TIKKI TAVY features a native India family instead of a British colonial one like the book and Chuck Jones’ adaptation.) There is no orangutan like the Disney version since they are not found in India outside of a zoo.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.59.38 AM

However, we get the usual wolf pack, elephants, tiger, black leopard, an Asiatic black bear (although a sloth bear may be more suitable since it is the more common species south of the Himalaya), dholes, golden jackal (but with an odd mask, making him resemble the Russian raccoon-dog a bit), an India python much bigger in size than he should be (but that is due to Kipling making him too big to begin with), gaur (Rama the bull), eagles, peacocks and other local fauna (cranes, storks, water buffalo and sambar deer included, as well as an India lion and lioness cameo), plus a huge “herd” of langur monkeys that required a lot of animated en-masse motion and intricate cel painting frame-by-frame.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 11.00.31 AM

Personally I consider Mowgli as the least inspired design. His toddler appearance with big oval eyes is absolutely adorable. But his later teenage version is too muscular like a comic book (and later Saturday morning TV Filmation) version of Tarzan, a problem I also have with the male human lead in THE CAT WHO WALKED BY HIMSELF (or herself). In this regard, I favor the look of Disney’s Mowgli better since he fits a small boy growing up in a jungle better.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.54.29 AM

The stories are a lot of fun, even if they may lack the high comedy with Phil Harris’ talents and use established Russian actors (with comic star Sergei Martinson featured in all but one installment as Tabaqui the jackal, in addition to sultry Kasatkina and Lev Shabarin doing the older Mowgli) taking it all so seriously. Although a large portion of the audience may have been juvenile, this production is made for all age groups and can be quite dark and violent at times, the dhole pack scenes in THE FIGHT being the most graphic.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.59.02 AM

By comparison to that action packed episode, the finale’s death of Shere Khan is presented rather too quickly with mere flashes of bright red dominating the screen, followed by his stripped skin draping the rocks. One short part in AKELA’S LAST HUNT, involving Mowgli’s search for the “iron tooth” gets a bit psychedelic in its visuals and it is possible that the Russian artists were observing the whole counter culture scene out west with considerable curiosity; likewise, the peacock spreads that open and close the episodes can invite referencing to the whole “peacock” fashion scene of Swinging London.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.59.20 AM

One minor weakness in regards to the animation is that there are too many animals in this jungle at times. The overall effect is particularly odd in THE FIGHT when the dholes appear to swarm like hungry ants, when the real canine pack would have less than fifty individuals instead of what appears to be thousands. Some of the same issues apply to the hoard of monkeys in the second film, THE KIDNAPPING.

I do consider the ending a little too compact and slightly disappointing. Our hero is merely bidding farewell to the jungle he was raised in with just a simple waving goodbye as the final credits end it rather abruptly. Emotional depth is not as strong here as it may be in other Russian entertainment. Nonetheless I adore the music score and atmospheric settings here, the former getting lost in the nineties upgrade for U.S. TV audiences.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 11.15.17 AM

Essential: THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE (1949)

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 2.01.25 PM

TB: I have to admit that I enjoyed this film a bit more than the previous ones. And I suspect it’s because the filmmaker is borrowing from a story by Hans Christian Anderson which is vividly defined with memorable characters. So even an amateur wouldn’t be able to mess this one up too much!

It also benefits from a smart framing sequence, though I wouldn’t have minded if the framing sequence became a subplot and we had occasionally cut back to the boy taking little breaks or pauses from the main story, so we could learn more about his life. I know he’s supposed to be dreaming much of this, but instead of having him asleep, he could be daydreaming it.

Anyway, it could have been expanded. I agree with Jlewis’ comments below that the scenes unfold a bit slowly but I like more leisurely paced films and this aspect didn’t trouble me like it did some reviewers on the IMDb. Jlewis also comments about the stereotypes, and you really cannot deny the film is loaded with Asian stereotypes. One has to wonder why eastern Europeans would be interested in an Asian-themed story and not a story about their own specific culture.

Meanwhile there is a voice-over narration by Boris Karloff which to be honest, I disliked. Around the 12-minute mark, I muted the sound and watched the rest of it in silence. The visuals do not need Karloff’s highly intrusive narration, spelling out the action for us. Narrating should have been kept to a minimum. Let the story speak for itself.

screen-shot-2020-08-14-at-2.03.05-pm

My favorite sequence is the one where the emperor marches along a wall that is decorated like a huge lace doily, with holes forming windows through which the emperor’s courtiers watch. It’s an inspired visual and felt like something that could be replicated on stage if this were turned into a stage production. I also liked the amusing scene with chopsticks, which Jlewis details below.

In some ways, the story is about stepping outside your comfort zone and seeing what the rest of the world has to offer. It contains a simple magnificent message.

***

JL: CÍSARUV SLAVÍK a.k.a. THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE may not “wow” first time viewers in quite the same way as LE ROMAN DE RENARD a.k.a. TALE OF A FOX since the puppets animated here don’t display a lot of facial expressions and there is no talk. The story also moves at a much slower pace and is much more basic with hardly any drama and cut-throat action. It is just a simple adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s popular fairy tale (1843 publication), done in animation before numerous times, that adds the additional side-story about a lonely little Czech boy (played in live-action sequences by Jaromir Sobotoa, with Helena Patockova as his girl interest) who sees himself as no different than an ancient Chinese emperor.

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 1.58.55 PM

Both are restricted to a confined life full of rules and rituals and needing an outlet. In the emperor’s case, relief comes in the form of a singing nightingale who livens up his humdrum existence. That is, until he is distracted by a robotic mechanical bird that is given to him as a gift: its theme within a theme relates well to our modern society that is constantly distracted by new technical “toys” and often overuse them until they wear out.

If you are a Baby Boomer or Generation X-er who remembers entertainment before home video, you may remember seeing this particular title in school during the sixties or seventies on a 16mm motion picture projector, often in rotation with other popular films like Albert Lamorisse’s THE RED BALLOON, Robert Enrico’s AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE and the Disney cartoon educational DONALD IN MATHMAGICLAND.

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 2.48.12 PM

At the time, there was still some novelty in seeing a stop-motion puppets move about because the classic George Pal’s Puppetoons were largely inaccessible (due to the Jasper controversy) and primarily the Rankin-Bass holiday specials on TV were the major alternative at the time, along with the occasional Ray Harryhausen effects enhanced live-action fantasy that would appear in theaters. Today, you can see all the old-time pre-CGI stop-motion you want on YouTube.

The decades between the 1940s and ’80s were, in fact, a golden age for stop-motion puppet films despite limited viewing availability in the U.S. Quite a large number were made by Prague’s great Bratri v Triku (“The Brothers of Tricks”) studio which produced this title, followed in the fifties by East Germany’s DEFA and the mighty Soyuzmultfilm of Moscow, adding to its already prolific schedule of cel-animated Disney knock-offs. Japan also had quite a few to contribute (i.e. the Rankin-Bass U.S. co-productions were mostly produced there), since its culture was equally puppet-oriented (unlike the United States). Despite the popularity on Soviet TV of puppet star Cheburashka, a Cold War was still in effect and he did not make inroads into American TV like Japan’s Astro-Boy.

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 2.48.44 PM

THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE was among the selected, popular cross-over hits. It was mostly completed in 1948 and released in Czechoslovakia in April 1949, then successfully distributed to U.S. theaters in May 1951 by Rembrandt Films. It received particular praise in the New York Times and other vintage periodicals for Boris Karloff’s delightful narration that was added for the English soundtrack. Although a major screen star, Karloff was equally praised for his excellent work in radio dramas of the era, perfect training for cartoon narration. It was the success of this feature that made him much sought after by cartoon producers like Terrytoons (i.e. THE JUGGLER OF OUR LADY) and Chuck Jones (responsible for the most popular adaptation of Dr. Seuss, HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS).

Jiří Trnka, the director and primary animator (but with a small team of assistants, Jiří Brdečka and Vítězslav Nezval collaborating on the screenplay and Miloš Makovec getting co-director credit for the live-action scenes), grew up with puppets and made the easy transition to stop-motion after starting out with some cel-animated cartoons initially in 1945, beginning with ZASADIL DĚDEK ŘEPU (GRANDFATHER PLANTED A BEET). ŠPALÍČEK (THE CZECH YEAR, 1947) was both his first puppet film and, at 75 minutes in length, his first feature that directly preceded this one.

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 2.51.05 PM

He went on to make numerous shorter films in addition to the features, several of which were included in the VHS and DVDs put out by Rembrandt with this film. Most notable was his last major effort, RUKA (THE HAND, 1965), with its pessimistic anti-conformity message that caused quite a bit of censorship trouble with the authorities in power back in its day; a concept not unlike THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE with its lead character almost dying of suffocation within the confines of his structured existence. Trnka probably felt trapped and confined psychologically during much of his life, both due to poor health (like the little boy in our movie feature here) in addition to the socialist environment he worked in; he was forced to retire earlier than he wanted to and died at the end of 1969 an unhappy man.

Nonetheless, he was widely praised internationally as the “Walt Disney of Eastern Europe” and earned numerous prizes… even an official Hans Christian Andersen medal for illustration a year before his death (since, after all, this movie was his biggest hit). The Bratri v Triku studio he worked at was later renamed after him in his honor.

There are murky copies of this film online, but it is best to find the DVD of the gorgeous Agfacolor print in order to fully appreciate it. Unlike TALE OF A FOX with Władysław Starewicz/Ladislas Starevich, which features very expressive Disney-esque facial movements and dialogue, the characters do not have moving mouths but express emotion from very specific staging for the camera and special lights using different color filters. The puppet used for the emperor is a gray-ish white that reflects warm golden and red hues when he is enthusiastic, blue cast when moody and is presented in stark shadows when sick during the major near-death climax.

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 2.59.20 PM

Some viewers may object to the slightly “oriental” appearance of the emperor and his royal court (with slanted eyes and pale complexions), but I sense that Trnka and his key animators (Zdnek Hrabé, Jan Karpas, Stanislav Látal, Bretislav Pojar and Bohuslav Srámek) saw little or no distinction between races in different countries other than the cultural ones.

I also sense that the overall designs were intended to emulate the 19th century porcelain figurines in the live-action boy’s bedroom, rather than intentionally try to typecast Chinese in general. Curiously the chamber maid of the royal court, who leads the prime minister to the all important bird in the bamboo forest, is not designed “oriental” but resembles the live-action girl (the one who leads our little boy counterpart to the emperor outside his enclosed mansion) with a freckled face and auburn hair. The European sailor, a clever spoof on Scandinavian explorers, sports a tight mustache and oval face; humor is provided in his struggle to use chopsticks.

One interesting minor character who is (unfortunately) not developed further is the astronomer/scientist whom the royal court questions initially about the nightingale. He is a grizzled all-white figure, a bit too simian-like for modern eyes perhaps, but probably no different than zany eccentric characters featured in other cartoons and kids pictures. He is busy counting all of the stars with his telescope and recording them merely with a star-stamp and ink. No writing! After setting off fireworks for the emperor, he loses his book in a fire accident.

images

One scene that often makes kids laugh, including myself as a tyke, involves a goofy frog holding a Chinese fan. Why the prime minister would be more curious about him than the bird that the chamber maid is helping him seek is not officially explained, but he reminds me a little of the frog featured in TUBBY THE TUBA, made a year earlier in stop-motion by George Pal in Hollywood. As is sometimes the case, certain characters in these films seem a bit out of place in their story set-ups. Also out of place are the curious cactus shown in one scene, foliage recycled a year later in a western spoof of Trnka’s, ARIE PRAIRIE (SONG OF THE PRAIRIE).

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 2.49.03 PM

This feature may not be Trnk’a best work but it was his most successful financially and internationally, a good introduction to his twenty year career in animation as one of its great masters. It is also the most kid-friendly. Some like OLD CZECH LEGENDS (STARÉ POVESTI CESKÉ, 1953) are more adult-oriented with a bit more violence and a darker edge to the proceedings. Then again, viewers who think this one is too juvenile for their personal tastes may get a kick out of that one and others. Or not? Hard to tell with many modern viewers accustomed to channel surfing and online surfing. Trnka is more methodical in his story telling and may test a few viewers’ patience, much like the mechanical bird toy playing the same tune over and over for the emperor.

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 2.47.52 PM

TB: Thanks Jlewis. THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: THE TALE OF THE FOX (1937)

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 9.19.07 PM

Jlewis wrote:

LE ROMAN DE RENARD a.k.a. TALE OF THE FOX has an interesting history. Now…you will have to forgive me here, but I will be dropping some other title references here and there, as well as some video links… which we generally do NOT do with these essential reviews. It is important that everybody here investigate the animation techniques involved and the creativity involved. What makes this film a particularly exciting essential to study is just how it expands the medium of not just animation, but cinema itself, into unexplored territories not conquered previously.

I will begin with a brief career summary of Władysław Starewicz, who was responsible for some of the earliest animated shorts made in Russia (and practically anywhere in the world since there were only a few experiments before then that you can count on one hand) involving the stop-motion process of moving an inanimate figure frame by frame to create the illusion of motion. His earliest effort in 1910 was LUCANUS CERVUS involving actual stag beetles that were deceased and “reanimated” this way.

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 9.00.03 PM

Later on, he created more insect puppets, some involving actual insect bodies and others being puppets created from other materials to look like insects and slightly larger in scale. His most popular early effort, shown in theaters all around the world in 1912, was THE CAMERAMAN’S REVENGE (initially titled MEST’ KINEMATOGRAFICHESKOGO OPERATORA).

After doing ten or so of these little films featuring insects and other animal and human puppets, he then moved successfully into directing live-action features as one of the major players in the early booming Russian film industry. His career was cut short in 1918 when many involved in that industry suddenly discovered that they were on the losing side of the Revolution. Eventually he settled in post-war France, changing his name to the easier to pronounced “Ladislas Starevich” and setting up a new studio of his own, dedicated exclusively to puppet films. Initially he operated in Joinville-le-pont, then moved by 1924 to Fontenay-sous-Bois.

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 9.12.59 PM.jpeg

With his wife Anna and daughters Irina a.k.a. Irène and Jeane assisting, he had no big team of a hundred employees like Walt Disney in his heyday. The Stareviches were pain staking in their patience and hard work, crafting mini-masterpieces that are still enjoyable today, not to mention quite Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli-like in their attention to detail.

With his early Russian experiments, he was several years ahead of American stop-motion pioneers of the U.S., namely Willis O’Brien and Howard S. Moss, and his French films predate the more famous works of George Pal and Ray Harryhausen by a decade or two as well. These newer films focused more on cute dogs, birds, frogs and humans rather than insects and arachnids, although the first of the post-war bunch was IN THE CLAWS OF THE SPIDER a.k.a. DANS LES GRIFFES DE L’ARAIGNÉE, 1920.

After completing LA PETITE PARADE, which I think it was his 13th film in France but can be corrected here, he then passionately devoted two full years to an all-feature length “talkie” adaptation of the popular French and German fables of Reynard the Fox, who outwits other animals in a medieval animal infested “town” and all sporting human clothes. These classic mini-stories go back pretty far in European literature, appearing in pre-Gutenberg paint-and-ink manuscripts dating to the late 1200s. They were popularized by noted writers over the centuries like Willem die Madoc maecte and Goethe.

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 9.14.35 PM

LE ROMAN DE RENARD was far more complicated than all of his earlier projects due to characters having to express actual dialogue for a soundtrack with mouths in motion to match, not to mention very expansive sets created with puppets to match. As a result, the bulk of production consumed all of his time and energy between the autumn of 1928 through early 1931 with additional tinkering during the next six years as it sat in a sort of limbo. Various technical issues plagued its completion, most notably producer Louis Naplas’ still primitive sound by disc format being utilized at first.

The Stareviches kept busy…and generating a much needed income…with further shorter films involving much simpler soundtrack recordings and mostly pantomime action. These included a series featuring a cute puppy named Fétiche. Two of these made United States screens with limited fanfare, courtesy of Warner Brothers (re-titling 1933’s FÉTICHE MASCOTTE as a “Vitaphone Variety” STUFFY’S ERRAND OF MERCY) and Paramount (1935’s FÉTICHE SE MARIE becoming LULU IN LOVE). Then final financing and technical expertise to complete LE ROMAN DE RENARD came from an unexpected source…

…and a source that Starevich would have to downplay later in his life. UFA, the big German power-house now backed by Nazi money, was interested in making an adaptation of the popular fox fables for German screens and was much impressed by his film. They helped him finish it with a newly recorded German soundtrack. LE ROMAN DE RENARD officially premiered in Berlin on April 1, 1937 as REINECKE FUCHS. This was eight months before Walt Disney’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, making it one of five animated features predating Disney.

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 8.56.22 PM.png

There is some debate as to when the new and improved French soundtrack, featuring a few familiar French actors (Claude Dauphin, Romain Bouquet, Laine, Sylvain Itkine and Léon Larive), was added with producer Roger Richebé involved. Some reference sources claim it was completed before the war started in 1939, but it was not officially released in Paris until April 1941, while the nation was being supervised by the Vichy government and Germany occupying. No doubt much of the confusion was deliberate as so many like Starevich were re-writing their own “histories” after the war, trying to disconnect any possible connections with Germany before or during the war.

Before getting into more history and influence, let me pause to get into the basic plot and cinematic elements of this production…

The storyline is quite episodic, being a collection of mini-stories that finally unify as a cohesive whole by the grand finale.

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 9.25.05 PM.jpeg

Among the various episodes: Reynard outwits a crow in the opening scenes (in a nod to Aesop’s earlier Greek tale); he then fools a wolf in some winter fishing (resulting in hunters fighting the wolf and he losing his tail in the process); outwits rabbits in a church setting (?!); during an official “vegetarian only” week, he tricks a bear into getting stuck in a well by pretending he is in “heaven” with the King Lion frequently getting his ambassador, a badger, to unsuccessfully negotiate with Reynard. Comedy is provided with musical interludes…and the queen Lioness is wooed by a Tom Cat (Jaime Plana providing the songs) behind her royal husband’s back, fitting in well with so many other French “cheating” stories for the cinema.

Eventually war breaks out between the Lion’s kingdom and Reynard, resulting in the fox almost getting hung for execution. The defense of the fox fortress involves plenty of juvenile antics by Reynard “Junior”, a pint size version of his daddy, getting the best of a battling rooster. Ultimately, there is a happy ending when our wily villain-hero is congratulated for his high intelligence and he gets promoted as royal minister!

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 9.28.12 PM

With its close ups of very intricate puppets full of facial expression, along with larger mass scenes involving smaller figurines in action against painted backdrops, I guess some modern day viewers will see some resemblances between this and KING KONG, another famous stop-motion masterpiece of the same time period (if also including actual humans and not just puppets and, therefore, not often considered an “animated feature” by most film historians).

Both films make use of multi-glass and partially painted-on forest settings and feature furry characters in rather ape-like poses. We do have a monkey included here, but he serves mostly as narrator rather than a major participant in the action; his voice being provided by veteran actor Claude Dauphin…and his online filmographies inaccurately list this among his earliest works due to the questionable dating of 1930, a key year of animation production but not the year Dauphin contributed his voice since the soundtrack was completed for the French version sometime between 1939 and 1941.

Although this is the most famous adaptation of the medieval Reynard stories, it is certainly not the only one and…yeah…I must do some additional title dropping, starting with one of the most interesting of the bunch: Sarra Mokil and Alexander Ptushko’s LISA I VOLK (THE FOX AND THE WOLF) which adapts just the fox and wolf fishing sequence of the feature. Although shorter in length, it was also done in stop-motion animation and benefits greatly with the added novelty of full color, using a system Pavel Mershin developed that was much like Hollywood’s Technicolor. Even more intriguing is the fact that it was distributed by Mosfilm to Soviet theaters in April 1937, the very same month the feature debuted in Berlin! (You can watch an incomplete version of LISA I VOLK here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_fChjc5GQ0 )

Just as there had been both German and French versions of Starevich’s film, so too were later cel-animated TV adaptations made for French and German viewers, both taking many liberties from the original source and going off in different directions story-wise: MOI RENART (1985) and INSEGRIM IND REINEKE (1989), the latter a co-production with the great Shanghai studios in China. There was also a 2005 Luxembourg version done in CGI and an equally fascinating made-for-online viewing 2014 film featuring clever cut-out paper animation (which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWlur0jdyT4 ).

screen.jpeg

Apparently Walt Disney was also interested in the Reynard tales with preliminary work done around the time that 101 DALMATIANS was still in production. Ultimately Walt favored doing another medieval tale, THE SWORD IN THE STONE, over these instead. However, many story ideas were later incorporated into one of the post-Disney features, ROBIN HOOD (1973), which had its own “Reynard Hood” as the lead character outwitting Prince John, another lion, much like the Starevich feature.

Getting back briefly to Ladislav Starevich’s career. Either due to the stress of getting this feature completed or just needing the rest after so many years of hard work, he would take a break from animation for several years, leaving the last of his puppy shorts, FÉTICHE PÈRE DE FAMILLE, unfinished in 1938. After the 1944 liberation, he briefly attempted a stab at Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, which later got made as a puppet stop-motion feature by the Czech master Jiri Trnka (whom we will cover shortly), and then completed his next project, ZANZABELLE A PARIS, in 1947. Six more puppet shorts were worked on before his death in 1965.

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 8.58.53 PM 2.jpeg

LE ROMAN DE RENARD remains today as one of those great curiosity pieces provoking quite a few unanswered questions. Why was it not officially distributed in the United States? Was this due to it possibly “tainted” with German money back in 1937 and U.S. distributors being leery of it when it became more accessible after the war? Or was the fact that it was made in black and white a bigger problem? After all, most cartoon subjects made in America by the 1940s were in color, including all of the stop-motion George Pal Puppetoons resembling it. Perhaps there were problems recording an English soundtrack, but I kinda doubt it.

Then again, it is rather macabre entertainment for most Americans. For example, many cartoons of the era depicted foxes seducing barnyard fowl to their doom but not in quite so much gruesome detail. A rooster brings the actual skeleton of his wife as “evidence” of the fox’s crime and cute chicks call out “mommy!”

In any case, most American animators and art fanatics had to seek it out in either 16mm form or bootleg video since only Europeans had access to it even as late as the 1990s. Among these was a much impressed Wes Anderson whose FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009), based on a Roald Dahl book from 1970 instead of the medieval fables, paid homage to it with his own stop-motion and plenty of advanced-with-the-times cgi effects work. Too bad Criterion didn’t handle this one on DVD like they did the Anderson film.

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 9.05.00 PM

Despite its age, it holds up surprisingly well and continues to fascinate with repeated viewings. Like the Jiri Trnka films we will cover next, it opens the door to the expansive imagination and creativity of cinematic story telling. I am sure the story tellers of Reynard over the centuries would have loved a Starevich visualization, presented in such a unique way.

Essential: LOVER COME BACK (1961)

Screen Shot 2020-07-18 at 5.53.02 AM.jpeg

TB: We thought it might be fun to look at a couple of Doris Day films. Namely, ones where she is playing a career woman and finding her place in the business world. In our first selection, Doris is a single character who finds conflict and love with a rival played by Rock Hudson. It was the second of three pairings for the duo at Universal, and arguably the funniest. Next week we will look at how the formula was revised a bit when she costars opposite James Garner, that time as a wife and mother who begins a new career outside the home.

One thing I enjoy about LOVER COME BACK, as opposed to PILLOW TALK or SEND ME NO FLOWERS, is how much energy Doris’ character has. In quite a few respects, she is someone we want to succeed. Especially when Hudson’s character tries to outmaneuver her; typically he doesn’t play fair. Of course, much enjoyment comes in watching how flustered Doris gets and her resolve to try harder to beat Hudson at his own game.

The film also has some good supporting players. Notably, it features Jack Oakie in what would be his last motion picture (though he would do some television after this). Also, we have other character actors like Jack Kruschen, Joe Flynn and Jack Albertson. Plus Tony Randall is again along for the ride, like he is in the other two Day-Hudson rom-coms.

JL: We are quickly motivated by the proceedings with some clever animation over the opening credits by Pacific Titles: cute female bird thwarts the advances of frisky male bird in a sequence also showing bees and flowers, the birds-and-the-bees emphasizing that this is a “sex comedy.”

Screen Shot 2020-07-18 at 5.50.08 AM

Madison Avenue is presented with buildings resembling honeycombs as our narrator introduces Doris Day’s Carol Templeton as a “worker bee” competing with her company against that of Rock Hudson’s Jerry Webster, a “drone” who arrives to work with a hangover and some passionate kissing with one of multiple ladies seen with him early on.

TB: Of course we know right away that Hudson and Day will soon clash, and given the conventions of the genre, their clash will lead to romance/love.

JL: Carol resembles Elizabeth Moss’ famous character Peggy Olson in that she wants to prove to the world that she is as efficient as any man in the advertising business without having to resort to the sex angle, while Jerry steals an account both are competing for by swaying Jack Oakie’s J. Paxton Miller his way with Southern style liquor and showgirls, a method totally foreign to Carol.

Screen Shot 2020-07-18 at 5.38.02 AM.png

She, in turn, tries to get even: first by reporting his unethical behavior to the Ad Council, then she learns from one of Jerry’s girlfriends, Rebel Davis (Edie Adams), of a new mystery product “VIP” involving a noted Greenwich Village chemist, Dr. Linus Taylor (Jack Kruschen) in its creation…so she tries to investigate him in order to steal that account from Jerry.

TB: One thing I didn’t care for about this part of the movie is that Carol is a bit too righteous and blowing the whistle on Jerry is not going to get her anywhere. Particularly because it is still a man’s world and if she screamed bloody murder, would anyone believe her side of things? To some extent her righteous attitude is carried over from the previous film these two stars made together.

JL: Yes. If you have seen PILLOW TALK already, you may sense some déjà vu since this is recycling some plot details. Doris’ character is locked in battle with Rock’s but doesn’t know him on a face to face level at first and he takes advantage of her once he identifies her: as the annoying swinging bachelor aggravating her due to a shared telephone line, he woos her in the earlier 1959 film as an effeminate Texas businessman and, in the ’61 film, he fools her into thinking he is Dr. Taylor himself…and is as equally “innocent” of women and dating.

All of this draws out Doris’ maternal side. Once she discovers she has been fooled, Hell hath no fury like a woman and she revenges, in the former film, by doing the most outlandish interior design job possible on his bachelor pad and, in this one, woos him to the beach for a midnight swim, only to abandon him in “seaweed shorts” to hitchhike back into the city in a ladies’ fur coat truck.

Screen Shot 2020-07-18 at 5.51.04 AM.jpeg

TB: You have to wonder if things cut from the rough draft of the first film were copied and pasted into the script for this film. In some ways it is a creative “rewrite.” They’ve even repeated the use of the split screens. Also giving LOVER COME BACK that sense of deju vu is the casting of Tony Randall.

JL: Tony Randall pretty much plays the same role in all three Day-Hudson comedies, being single (and super rich in two titles) and sometimes questionable in his, um, orientation. He woos Doris in the first one but she is not interested in him due to a certain lack of sincerity on his part, even though he claims he was married three times before.

In the third film of the Hudson-Day trio, SEND ME NO FLOWERS, he is actually married but we never see his wife and child on screen (?!) and, if that one was remade today, he would more likely have a boyfriend. As Pete Ramsey in LOVER COME BAC, he is the spoiled boss’ son who has no interest in girls at all, a bit like the many characters played by Edward Everett Horton. Pete: “Girls again! What’s the obsession with girls?” Jerry: “I was a poor kid, remember? I didn’t have toys to play with.”

Screen Shot 2020-07-18 at 5.49.23 AM.jpeg

TB: Good point. And Randall doesn’t seem to have a problem, or much aversion, to portraying his characters in the Edward Everett Horton vein.

JL: Providing the “Greek Chorus,” observing some of the goings on, are Jack Albertson and Charles Watt as middle-aged shriner club men, who are impressed each time they see Jerry wooing a different woman. “Let’s face it, Charlie. Either you’ve got it or you haven’t. He’s got it.”Later, they react in shock to his hotel arrival in a ladies’ fur coat with the line “That’s the last guy I would have figured” (a.k.a. it was assumed in 1961 that all cross-dressers were gay).

TB: Yeah, definitely some stereotypes used for laughs.

JL: Meanwhile, when the real Dr. Taylor, a professed “woman hater” whom Carol would not have succeeded with as she does Hudson as his impostor, finally unveils “VIP”, it is revealed as colorful candy that intoxicates like 100% proof brandy.

Screen Shot 2020-07-18 at 5.47.58 AM

When everybody gets drunk, including Carol, we are instantly reminded that this is a Doris Day comedy, so there is this complex situation made in order for Hudson’s Jerry to “wed” Carol before he can “bed” her. I am always tickled by such plots (and AUNTIE MAME is another famous example from a few years earlier) because it is highly unlikely a full marriage license and justice-of-the-peace ceremony can be accomplished successfully under the influence and the characters still not remembering anything. Yet there were obvious “rules” that Hollywood still had to follow to avoid the wrath of the Catholic Legion of Decency.

Screen Shot 2020-07-18 at 5.30.14 AM.png

TB: I agree. It’s the most far-fetched element of the whole movie. By the way, the VIP plot device reminds me of the Vitameatavegamin routine in I Love Lucy. I also thought the plot of this movie would have worked as a vehicle for Lucille Ball and Bob Hope.

Care to discuss the director a bit?

JL: Director Delbert Mann previously worked on MARTY and SEPARATE TABLES as one of the most successful TV directors (with over a hundred live dramas between 1949 and 1955 under his belt) making the transition to the big screen; not surprisingly TV becomes an additional “character” quite often in his films and the domination Madison Avenue has over the electronic tube is made quite obvious in the commercial making scenes. The screenplay by Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning has plenty to say about how advertisers sell you any product regardless if it useful to your life or not. In this case, we see VIP getting commercial treatment before Jerry, Pete and Rebel Davis the VIP Girl even know what it is.

TB: We should mention that Paul Henning would go on to create enormously successful sitcoms on television after this film. The Beverly HillbilliesPetticoat Junction and Green Acres were all just around the corner. Shows that featured backwards characters.

JL: LOVER COME BACK is both ahead of its time…and a bit backwards…in regards to gender relations.

Screen Shot 2020-07-18 at 5.44.08 AM

The wild party of J. Paxton Miller may have been considered a riot at the time, but modern viewers may squirm at the sight of so many ladies willingly becoming men’s playthings. On the other hand, Doris Day is again playing a woman fully committed to her career and her secretary Millie (Ann B. Davis, “Alice” of The Brady Bunch) was obviously hired for her work efficiency rather than her looks, unlike Jerry and Pete’s (even though sexy Karen Norris and Donna Douglas do make the most of their limited roles).

When Carol and Jerry fuss about “my baby,” they do agree in the end as equal partners in a way not often covered in romantic comedies. When the liquor council board-members talk Jerry into buying off the account and halting the production of VIP due to potential damage to liquor sales, Jerry insists that Carol gets 25% of the profit even though she was currently trying to seek an annulment from him. My guess is that, after she finally agrees to have the child and stay married, they both work together with their own created agency. Certainly she can take some time off for child rearing but not give up her work entirely…and I suspect, despite all of his earlier partying and womanizing, Jerry is broad minded enough to allow her to do what she wants.

TB: Given the narrow-minded notions of the era, about women knowing and keeping to their place inside the home, I don’t think Carol would have had an agency with Jerry. Jerry would have become the sole breadwinner. Maybe using business ideas that Carol provided for him, but allowing him to claim the credit. She would likely have been pregnant again, with a second and a third child.

Anything else you want to add?

Screen Shot 2020-07-18 at 5.47.01 AM.jpeg

JL: This is the one Rock Hudson movie I’ve seen where his shirt is off roughly ¼ of his screen-time. Hey…you might as well flaunt it if you got it. He is well tanned from the California sun and clearly had some training in the gym. Too bad they did not include a scene of him hitchhiking in his “seaweed shorts.”

TB: Funny. Thanks Jlewis. Like always, I’ve enjoyed discussing an essential with you!

Screen Shot 2020-07-18 at 5.52.08 AM

Essential: THE THRILL OF IT ALL (1963)

screen-shot-2020-07-25-at-9.03.56-am

“I’m not an actress. I’m a housewife.”

JL: Doris Day as Beverly Boyer, wife of Dr. Gerald (James Garner), says this initially to aging advertising tycoon Tom Fraleigh (Reginald Owen, whom we’ve seen in quite a few essentials discussed). They had been watching a TV commercial for Happy Soap featuring a blonde Jayne Mansfield imitation (Pamela Currin as Spot Checker, the “Happy Girl”) undressing in a bubble bath. She croons “There are so many things a girl must learn before she can become a glamorous movie star.” Previously Beverly was struggling with her own nudie cutie in a bubble bath, the pint-sized Maggie (Kym Karath, a year and a half before being cast as the youngest Von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC).

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 9.59.45 AM.jpeg

Mr. Fraleig’s son Gardiner (Edward Andrews) and his wife (Arlene Francis) are both expecting a baby despite advancing middle age. I have to make note of Arlene’s wonderful comic timing over the opening credits, expressing how happy (as soap) she is discovering that she is pregnant and taking an elevator full of curious men. (Interesting fashion statement: by late 1962, when this was filmed, most American men had pretty much stopped wearing hats in public due to President Kennedy seldom wearing them. Yet she is wearing one, perhaps suggesting that women were not changing their lives and fashions quite as fast as the men were.)

TB: Or that maybe they were now wearing a hat (as in having a career) outside the home, the way men had done before?

screen-shot-2020-07-25-at-9.50.12-am.jpeg

JL: Overjoyed by Dr. Boyer’s aid as the obstetrician in relaxing them (suggesting a romantic cruise and so forth) so that she can officially get “on the nest”, they invite the Boyers to dinner at the big mansion, where Daddy is much impressed by Mrs. Boyer. Of course, her first time for the cameras is a disaster…hard to believe, considering this is Doris Day.

TB: Yeah, talk about miscast! I’m kidding, but maybe Doris could have played it with a bit more awkwardness and less “natural” confidence. She hardly seems the type to not be herself and make a bunch of mistakes on camera.

But of course, we are supposed to understand that the character is venturing into foreign territory outside the home. Particularly how it affects her as well as her husband and children. Especially the husband whose male vanity will be threatened if she becomes a bigger success than him.

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 9.50.04 AM

JL: Yes. Being a doctor’s wife is “career enough” for opinionated Gerald, who objects to all of this interfering with his life. In hindsight, this could be seen as ahead of the curve as feminist social commentary. Not that I myself consider her new career as a TV spokeswoman for hausfrau essentials (and I didn’t quite understand all of the German jokes here a.k.a. Nazi story in a Playhouse TV show, a German housekeeper who replaces Olivia, etc.) much of a deal for that time, compared with, say, being a female obstetrician (more on that below) or the interior decoration and advertising jobs that she was quite accomplished with in the earlier PILLOW TALK and LOVER COME BACK.

TB: I agree. Selling soap is certainly not going to be seen as contributing to society in the same way a more educated and professional career woman would be contributing. Plus we know that her selling detergent is probably going to be short-term.

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 9.57.36 AM.jpeg

She won’t be saving the world and can quit at anytime. She can return to being a “normal” housewife again who watches TV when the kids are playing/napping, then goes to the store to buy soap so she can come back and wash her husband’s clothes.

JL:As much as I enjoy these Doris Day comedies, they were essentially Disney comedies made for the over thirty crowd and did not intend to rock the boat any more than SON OF FLUBBER.

In fact, I feel that this film took a few steps backward in comparison to her earlier films going back to CALAMITY JANE and including the Rock Hudson co-star hits. It all ends with the man in charge and she is all too happy to return to him as “a doctor’s wife.”

TB: Exactly. While this is an exercise in comedy, it is also an exercise in the futility of a woman venturing out of her traditional, conservative sphere. The writers are deliberately creating a premise where the woman is only going to be validated by returning to the status quo. Their idea of the status quo. She cannot succeed outside the home, otherwise she won’t be regarded as the sort of woman society adores and admires. The sort of woman that gives up her dreams and surrenders to the drudgery of domestic chores.

JL: This is despite all of the interesting talk about “our” money versus “your” money, he being called Mister Beverly by accident after her new-found fame and, most dramatically, she alone delivering the Fraleigh baby in a Rolls Royce. Why not allow her to work alongside him after some additional medical school training? Personally, if I was a little Maggie Boyer watching this, I would be getting mixed messages as to what this movie is telling me what my future holds.

TB: Think of all the little Maggies watching, then and now. Of course, we see it as a counter-productive time capsule. But people today still buy into these notions. Viewings of the film may uphold that mentality.

screen-shot-2020-07-25-at-9.59.01-am

JL: Leading to all this is the usual slapstick involving a battle of the spouses. In a fit of anger, Gerald kicks Happy Soap into their built-all-of-the-sudden backyard pool (where he drove the car into previously) and, as a result, we get one of the show pieces spectacle-wise involving soap suds galore. (“It’s beautiful… like heaven.” In a film full of references to female anatomy, one sud is commented by the all-male construction crew as resembling a naked lady.)

TB: This segment of the film felt like something out of a Lucille Ball sitcom. And in fact, Lucy did have a similar comedic sequence on her last series Life with Lucy in the 1980s. Proving that feature films in the 1960s were resembling television more and more, Doris’ own career increasingly heads in this direction since her last feature, WITH SIX YOU GET EGGROLL, is indeed a glorified sitcom. Which was soon followed by a weekly sitcom called The Doris Day Show. You can see the trajectory and how she was being transitioned into lighter television fare.

screen-shot-2020-07-25-at-10.00.36-am.jpeg

JL: There’s a subtle nod to Jerry Lewis, whose comedies resemble this in some ways with the slapstick: a movie shown playing at the marquee is “The Respectful Professor” since Universal-International did not have the rights to showcase the Nutty kind (and intriguingly filmed during the same time as this one but I am sure the studios were well aware of what their rivals were doing).

Gerald must also stoke her jealousy and get her to stay home more by pretending to be “unfaithful.”

TB: I found that to be the most objectionable part of the film. It seemed like something Rock Hudson’s characters would have done in the previous movies. To manipulate the Doris character and get her back in line.

JL: Although some of the gags here are intentionally far-fetched (a.k.a. he plants a candid of him with some unknown woman at a restaurant and applies lipstick to his clothes), only in a comedy like this would you get a surreal line like “I’m surprised at you letting me go into the shower without my underwear.” Oh…they do sleep in twin beds since two kids are enough for now. This may have been among the last major screen features showing this since the times were a-changing.

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 10.02.19 AM

Yet it all works out in the end since Gerald is not all that Victorian of a husband as he states and at least understands her career needs. Would he have survived the seventies revolution? I think so. Gerald appears to be pretty good at adapting to what he isn’t used to at first, including a working woman getting more pay than he does.

TB: I would say most of that is down to James Garner’s interpretation of the material. In many ways I think he is Day’s best costar in these kinds of vehicles. He comes across as realistic, even if the scenarios are entirely preposterous.

Care to discuss some of the supporting players?

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 9.01.40 AM.png

JL: Quite a few other familiar faces in the supporting cast worth mentioning. Carl Reiner, co-writer of this box office hit, gets into the act with some hilarious on-TV cameos and as the cop arresting Gerald for stopping suddenly on a highway. ZaSu Pitts from the earlier Hal Roach comedies and countless other classics plays housekeeper Olivia; sadly she would pass away during the production of IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, which succeeded this. Alice Pearce (another veteran from classics like ON THE TOWN and Bewitched) also appears briefly. Curiously Brian Nash as the other Boyer child only enjoyed limited success as a child actor, not getting blessed performing with Julie Andrews on something seen by the multitudes like his on-screen sister.

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 9.39.41 AM.png

TB: Good points. We should also mention the director.

JL: Despite the fact that Norman Jewison directed this and he would make some interesting forward-advancing features as the sixties progressed (including a most famous Best Picture winner covering race relations), I was a trifle disappointed with this movie much like you were with MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON playing it safe with Frank Capra’s all-male U.S. Senate. There were, in my personal opinion, some lost opportunities here that could have been developed much further.

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 9.47.42 AM

Then again, as I stated above, this film was made merely to please the masses without making them too uncomfortable. It is a sixties film still somewhat stuck in the fifties…and that is what audiences did want at the time, making it an 11 million dollar hit at the box office.

TB: Thanks Jlewis. THE THRILL OF IT ALL is available on home video and it airs occasionally on TCM.

screen-shot-2020-07-25-at-9.54.18-am.jpeg