Friday, January 29, 2016

The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation (1965)

The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation (Mirisch/DePatie-Freleng, 1965)
Dir.: Friz Freleng & Gerry Chiniquy
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9


Pat Harrington, Jr. died a couple of weeks ago, and with him went another little piece of my childhood. When it was announced that the Emmy-winning actor had departed the realm of the living on January 6, every obituary that I read concentrated on what most seem to have agreed was of primary significance in his long career in show business: his role as Dwayne F. Schneider on the 1970s sitcom staple, One Day at a Time

I, too, watched that show in my youth and was quite fond of his character of the building superintendent who befriended and watched over the divorced mom and her two constantly squabbling teenage daughters. Schneider was a brash, outspoken, and quite funny character, and could easily be described as "The Fonzie" of the show. Harrington was indeed the main reason to tune in to One Day at a Time from week to week, though I will readily admit that after the first couple of years, I was really watching the show for Valerie Bertinelli, who was adorable and in my age bracket (and is four years older than me, so knock it off, ya pervs...)

Harrington started in television in the late '40s, but became famous a decade later when he starred as one of The Steve Allen Show's "Man in the Street" regulars, playing Italian golfer Guido Panzini, which he did in rotation with other popular characters portrayed by the likes of Louis Nye, Don Knotts, and Tom Poston. I didn't see any episodes of that show until I was much older when the Comedy Channel would play them in their early years (before they went "Central"), so they had no effect on me as a kid. Over the years, Harrington guest-starred on dozens of popular primetime shows and game shows (such as my beloved Match Game), and I remember seeing him from time to time on many of them. He was most memorable to me on an episode of the silly favorite F Troop, where he parodied Don Adams' Maxwell Smart character -- his character's name was B. Wise (instead of Get Smart; get it?) -- as a spy in the Old West.

But since I was a kid, I also knew Harrington as a voice actor; in fact, at some point during the run of One Day at a Time, I saw Harrington in an interview where he broke into the voice of one of my favorite cartoon characters in those Saturday morning cartoon-watching days: The Inspector. (It may have been on The Tonight Show, but I cannot remember fully, just that I saw him do it.) But I had already made the connection, because I was (out of many things that I was and am) an early reader of movie and cartoon credits. To this day, I sit through the entire credit roll of any film that I see in theatres -- even on a second or third viewing -- and very rarely skip out on this tradition. (It has to be a real emergency, like sudden illness, the building collapsing around us, or impending bladder eruption.) I love opening credits sequences, or even closing ones where obvious thought and care have gone into their making. One thing is clear: whether the credits are simple or intricate, I don't just want the present; I want everything that it is wrapped in as well.

And so I was an early adopter of the need to read through the credits of everything. It was also more necessary in those days, because you just couldn't hop on to the internet or your phone to find out immediately who someone was in whatever you were watching. If you were obsessed with cinema or animation, you had to make careful note of what you were watching, and if the credits were incomplete (as they often were), you were screwed until you could find a published source.

Lucky for me, even after their theatrical runs, the Pink Panther and Inspector cartoons that were being played on TV in the 1970s often (but not always) had their opening titles intact. It was there that I learned that Pat Harrington, Jr. did voices in the Inspector series (along with other well-known actors like Larry Storch and Paul Frees). And in listening to any of the Inspector's lines in these films, it is easy to make out Harrington's voice. What I did not know in those days, and did not find out until much, much later, was that there was another character in the series that Mr. Harrington handled as well. The other main character in the series, in fact: the Inspector's much put upon toady, Sergeant Deux-Deux. (I know... it blows the mind...)

In the very first Pink Panther theatrical feature film in 1964, the name "Pink Panther" actually refer to a famous jewel involved in the film's central mystery, though the even more famous cartoon character with that same name is also introduced in the credits sequence. The film and one of its main characters, the bumbling French detective, Inspector Clouseau -- portrayed by the nearly always brilliant Peter Sellers in what is actually a supporting role -- were massive hits in the pop culture of the day.

While The Pink Panther was cleaning up in theatres, Sellers and Edwards were filming an even better sequel, A Shot in the Dark, though it was an accident of circumstance that we have the film at all. Sellers was filming an unrelated adaption of a stage play, and it was not going well. To appease the notoriously egotistical actor, the producers hired Edwards, with whom Sellers had just made The Pink Panther, to take over the reins of the film. Edwards and William Peter Blatty (later of The Exorcist fame) rewrote the screenplay with Sellers' Clouseau character inserted and given the main role. As a result, The Pink Panther suddenly had a sequel that followed its U.S. premiere release by only a scant three months.

By the end of 1964, the first Pink Panther cartoon, The Pink Phink, would be released, win huge acclaim, win an Oscar as well, and give a jumpstart to a long-running series of theatrical cartoons that would see 124 shorts produced through 1978. And with the popularity of the pink jungle cat onscreen would come other series of cartoons produced by David H. DePatie and animation legend Friz Freleng, the first of which revolved around a reimagining of the Inspector Clouseau character, known in the cartoons only as "The Inspector".

The animated version of Inspector Clouseau was first introduced in the opening credits sequence of A Shot in the Dark. He was a fairly raggedly drawn character, in keeping with the tone of the other characters in the sequence, and he did look somewhat like Sellers' character. The sequence is about three minutes long, and largely involves the Inspector looking through keyholes or listening into telephones and getting shot in the face over and over again, and having all manner of terrible accidents befall him due to his ineptness. The sequence was directed by George Dunning, who would go on to direct the Beatles' Yellow Submarine by the end of the decade. [I love this bit of film -- it is one of my very favorite credits sequences, and if you want to read more about it and see images from it, visit the article I wrote about it here.]

When it came time to put The Inspector in his own series, DePatie-Freleng redesigned the character to make him a little more distinctive and smooth out his rougher edges. The flat hat from his original appearance was rounded so that it became more closely akin to the stalker-style fedora that Sellers wears in the film series, though in color, it matches exactly his trenchcoat in the cartoon. The trenchcoat itself has been given a very high collar that runs about two-thirds of the way to his hat. The Inspector has also been given, when his hat is on, a bald look, though in some shots in the first film, such as when he gets blown up by the bomb in the street, there are numerous hairs to be seen sticking out from his charred head. The end result, though, is a character that is capable of a broader range of emotion and reaction than the sketchier version of the Inspector in A Shot in the Dark.

The first film of the series, The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation (released to American theatres in December of 1965), not only has a terrible (read: wonderful) pun within its title, but also follows through on the double promise of that title. There is indeed a De Gaulle Stone in the film, and there will be a De Gaulle Stone Operation by the end of it. In Paris, at the Sûreté, the police headquarters, the Commissioner (who looks and sounds a good deal different than the one played by Herbert Lom in the movies) gives the Inspector the job of guarding the "family jewel" of the French president, thereby making it the "De Gaulle Stone". 

The Inspector, naturally, inspects the stone, thinking that he is looking at it through a jeweler's loupe (an eyepiece used for magnification). "Well, it's obviously a cheap grade of glass," he says. The Commissioner points out that maybe he should look through the loupe instead of the diamond, and sure enough, the Inspector has the oversized jewel lodged in his eye socket. He is told that the diamond is worth exactly 10 billion francs, and that in his responsibility of guarding the jewel for 24 hours while the De Gaulle residence annual spring cleaning is taking place, if he loses the De Gaulle Stone, he will end up paying for it.

"Well, in that case," says the Inspector, "I simply shall double the standard security measures." The Inspector calls for his assistant, Sergeant Deux-Deux. A black-gloved hand appears around the door frame and opens its palm upwards. The Inspector places the De Gaulle Stone in the palm of the hand and instructs Deux-Deux to have the diamond processed for fingerprints. The hand disappears with the diamond... and then Sergeant Deux-Deux walks into the room, asking, "You called me, Inspector?" 

Deux-Deux's accent is decidedly more Spanish than French. The Inspector tells him yes, and then turns directly to the camera, throwing out this aside: "I could never understand how he got into the French police force." The Inspector asks Deux-Deux to hand him the jewel, but the Sergeant denies having it in his possession. "The one that I placed in your black-gloved hand a moment ago," stresses the Inspector. "But, señor, I am wearing the white gloves," pleads the Sergeant. The eyes of the Inspector bulge out as he realizes that he has handed the diamond to parties unknown, and he turns towards the Commissioner in fear. His boss is already clenching his enormous fists and seething, his teeth gritted around his cigar, which is destroyed by a chain of small explosions. "In the name of Josephine," yells the Commissioner, "get that stone back here!" The Inspector and his toady are followed out the door of the Commissioner's office by assorted flung books and flowerpots.

The scene switches abruptly to a city sidewalk, where we see an odd three-headed figure with a single pair of arms and single pair of legs striding along. The figure is completely black in clothing -- consisting of a trenchcoat and a trio of tall hats --and its hands and faces are black as well. Two of the faces, which each have completely yellow eyes, have a constant scowl embedded on them and have straight teeth in their mouths, while the expression of the third is very different. His eyes are slanted inward and has a pair of very bucked teeth protruding over his lip. It is instantly clear that we are likely in for some Asian stereotyping. This is fully identified when the three heads of the figure speak... "I'm Weft!" says the first head, and the second one follows with "I'm Wight!" The third, the one with the slanted eyes and buckteeth finishes the introductions with "I'm Wong!"

This exceedingly strange figure is known as the Brothers Matzoriley (the spelling is according to Jerry Beck in his guide to the Pink Panther universe), who first appeared in the opening credits of A Shot in the Dark along with the Inspector. In that piece, they begin the animated segment by opening their trenchcoat to reveal the first of the credits. Then they get blown up by a bomb underneath one of their hats, and other characters take over the credit sequence. But here in the very first Inspector cartoon, they are pretty much placed center stage.


Weft and Wight start to argue about how their caper was pulled off, and Wong interjects with a saying that he says is from Confucius, but whom Wong names as "Confusion": "Three head not always better than one." The other two heads tell him to shut up, and shove Wong down into the coat. Wong opens up the jacket with a second pair of hands (perhaps revealing that they are actually three people walking around on one pair of legs for some reason and not just some form of mutation) to appear inside and tells the audience, "Truth will always out! Cannot cover up!" Weft and Wong start pummeling Wong with their fists inside the jacket.

The fighting draws the attention of the Inspector, who starts blowing his police whistle. Wight says, "Quick! Get in the Matzo-Mobile!" and then we see a long black car with a bubble top, outrageous batwings thrusting upward from the back of the vehicle, and a front-mounted cannon. It looks like not just a parody of the vastly more famous Batmobile, but also like it could almost be the progenitor of nearly every vehicle that appeared in shows like the Wacky Races, including Dick Dastardly's Mean Machine, and others throughout the late '60s and '70s. Of course, this time period was also flush with hot rod mania -- embodied by "Big Daddy" Roth's Ratfink character -- and so crazy cars were kind of the rage, their designs only limited by the imaginations of their creators. (Keep in mind that I said that "it could almost be the progenitor"; I never said that it actually was.)


As the Matzo-Mobile takes off, it runs the Inspector right over, leaving him flat on the street. He pops right up and whistles for Deux-Deux, who arrives in a tiny police car. The Inspector instructs Deux-Deux to "Quick! Follow that Matzo-Mobile!" "Sí!" replies Deux-Deux, and then he thrusts the car forward, running right over the Inspector again in the process. "Come back, imbecile!" yells the Inspector, and Deux-Deux complies, putting it in reverse and stopping right on top of his superior. We are then treated to this classic bit that will be repeated in slight variations in many of the Inspector cartoons to come...

The Inspector: "You may turn in your police card!"
Deux-Deux: "Sí!"
The Inspector: "And don't say "Sí," say "Oui.""
Deux-Deux: "Sí! I mean, oui! I don't know what I mean. I wanna go home."

The Inspector takes control of the police car on his own, and the bell clangs on its roof as he rolls down the road at a reasonable rate of speed. The bell alerts the Brothers Matzoriley, who "let him have it" by using rear-mounted guns to shoot at the policeman. The bullets totally eradicate the Inspector's car, each one knocking away a portion of the vehicle until the Inspector is left running down the street on his own feet, still holding the steering wheel and with his other hand still ringing the bell, which hangs mysteriously in the air of its own accord. Another barrage of bullets from the Matzorileys removes the Inspector's trenchcoat, shirt, and then pants, leaving him to continue running along clad only in pink-spotted underwear.


Frustrated that they are still being followed, the Brothers Matzoriley push a button on the dashboard that shoots the body high up in the air on stilts that protrude from the wheels. They open a pair of bomb bay doors underneath the vehicle, and drop a single bomb, black and round with a lit fuse in the traditional cartoon style, but with the added accessory of a large black arrow that anchors it into the surface of the street. Naturally, the Inspector screeches to a halt on his bare feet right as he meets the bomb and... BOOM! There is a cloud of smoke, and then the Inspector is seen, charred and not amused at all by his predicament. The Matzo-Mobile has been converted into a flying machine by this point, sprouting a pair of wings and a propellor, and with its chassis greatly truncated from the way it appeared earlier. The villains laugh as they fly off with their loot.

A short while later, as the Brothers Matzoriley happily fly along, the Inspector reappears in a tiny police plane. He pulls a gun on the villains, saying "Grab a cloud, you sneaks, you!" From the front of their prop, the Matzorileys produce a large flyswatter, which proceeds to smack the Inspector silly. He plummets unseen, and he hear a large crash. We next see the roof of the Sûreté, bearing a hole in the shape of the police plane. The hole is connected to the Commissioner's office, and the plane is seen to be launched prop-first inside the Commissioner's desk. The chief of police opens a desk drawer and up pops the Inspector. The Commissioner curses at him in mock French, and tells his charge that the damage brings the total the Inspector owes to "55 billion francs! Plus one antique desk!"

In their lair, the Matzorileys feel safe. Wight (I should point out that he is voiced by the instantly recognizable Paul Frees) demands that Wong show them the diamond, and we are treated to the first moment where the "fractured English" card is really played full tilt. "Don't lush me!" screeches Wong, and then he says "Uh oh!" as he realizes the diamond is missing. "I just make discov-ely! We have hole in our pocket!" 

Back at the Sûreté, the De Gaulle Stone sits on a pillow on the Commissioner's desk, the jewel having been retrieved by parties unknown. As these things go, the Commissioner doesn't hesitate to put the diamond back in the hands of the Inspector, who is expected to do his job in guarding it safely. We know it won't go that way, but if it did, there would be no purpose for the cartoon.


Outside the Sûreté, the Brothers Matzoriley fly upward so that they are level with the floor where the diamond is. The Inspector goes to lock the diamond in a safe, which he does, and then he walks away without a second thought. But the safe is actually the Matzorileys in disguise, and the safe transforms before our eyes into the three-headed figure once more. They sneak away to get back in their car, but make enough noise with their talking to draw the attention of the Inspector. "Halt, halt, you insidious blackguard, you!" he shouts, as they make preparations to fly away. He runs at them out the window, but as he says "Halt in the name of the ---," they fly off, leaving him to fall to the ground below, his final word of "Lawwwwwwww!!" stretching out behind him (but not literally). We are then shown the Inspector lodged upside down in the roof of the Commissioner's car.

The Inspector narrates his next move. "I trailed my quarry to a disreputable hotel on the Left Bank." The hotel is the Hotel Fontainebleau, and after the Inspector and Deux-Deux enter the lobby, the Inspector walks into a nearby elevator and leaves his junior partner to guard the stairs. Before the doors to the elevator can close, the Inspector is squashed savagely by an elevator car containing the Brothers Matzoriley. The Inspector comes hopping on his tiny black legs out of the elevator, flattened so completely that we can only see his hat atop his legs as he stumbles about the lobby.


Next, the Inspector tries to peek through the keyhole of the hotel room in which the Matzorileys are hiding. For his efforts, he is shot in the face (though there is little in the way of damage done). The Inspector slides the doorknob a few feet away from the door along the wall and peeks through it again. Once more, he is shot in the face. He plucks the doorknob from the wall and calls Deux-Deux over. He asks the Sergeant, "What do you see when you look through the keyhole?" The squinty-eyed policemen concentrates with one eye on the keyhole, and then grabs the doorknob, jumping up and down in great joy. "Ole! Magnifique! Arriba! Carumba!" he yells in quick succession, his legs flailing in the air while a huge smile is planted on his face. The Inspector snatches the doorknob back from him, and sends him away. As Deux-Deux departs, he mutters excitedly, "Holy... look at that, I never seen it like that something..." This piques the Inspector's interest, but when he holds the doorknob once again up to his eye, he is shot in the face a third time.


Angrily, the Inspector flings the doorknob away and pulls his handgun out. He warns the villains that he will shoot by the count of three, but as he gives partway through counting, "One!" the door crushes him flat as the Matzo-Mobile comes crashing through as the robbers make their getaway. Flat under the door, the Inspector continues to count as if he hasn't noticed anything. "Two! Three!" he shouts, and then fires his gun. The bullet spits through the wood ineffectively and bounces down onto the top of the door.

The narration continues... "At last I closed in on the Matzoriley's hideout and surrounded it," reads the Inspector, and in the middle of the moonlit night, a half-dozen patrol cars screech to a halt in front of a house featuring three high spires (one for each brother?). The Eiffel Tower and Paris skyline can be seen far off in the background, implying the villains are hidden far from the city. "The Cossacks!" cries Wight. "Let's beat it!" Wong trades on another of his "Confusion" sayings, telling his brothers, "Place for hot ice is in glass of cool water." The Matzorileys place the De Gaulle Stone in a nearby glass of water, and Wong says, "Observe! Diamond enjoy welcome incognito!" Not sure how this is supposed to work in the real world, but in this cartoon, the De Gaulle Stone seems to disappear inside the water just before the Inspector and his squad of policemen burst through the door.


"Alright, men!" says the Inspector, "Spread out and search the premises. And also the grounds." The Inspector, holding up his ever-present magnifying glass, stumbles upon the glass of "ice" water on the table. "Well," he says, "I hereby confiscate this ice water in the name of thirst!" He chugs the glass of water containing the De Gaulle Stone down, and immediately begins to feel that something is very wrong. In a wonderful comic switch, the scene cuts very abruptly, as the next shot we see is of a French ambulance with the words "Merci-Wagon" emblazoned on the side, its siren wailing on the way to the Paris Infirmary. (While this short is not directed by Blake Edwards, it is nice to see that DePatie-Freleng continued to rely on the same style of gags that Edwards employed in the Pink Panther film series, this being that type of gag.)


At the infirmary, the surgeon holds the De Gaulle Stone up in the air during the surgery. "A very expensive looking gallstone," he says, and then hands the diamond off to the nurse to have it taken for a biopsy. However, the "nurse" turns out to be, once again, the Brothers Matzoriley in disguise. They sneak off, clad in a nurse's uniform (apparently built for three) with the diamond on a tray. In the end, they still win the prize.

The Inspector closes his narration off-camera as we see him resting in his hospital bed. "So, you see, whenever I think of the De Gaulle case, it brings back tender memories for me." The Inspector, still wearing his hat, sits up and lifts his t-shirt, revealing a large bandage in the shape of an X on his stomach. He pulls at the bandage and it makes him wince, causing him to lay back in bed. A final red card that reads "finis" is shown to close the cartoon, where a pair of eyes, possibly the Inspector's, appear in place of the letter I in the word. They blink and the short is done.

It's not great -- certainly not as quick off the blocks as the first Pink Panther cartoon -- but it does still hold up rather well. Yes, the more slapstick-styled jokes are pretty obvious, but the cartoon coasts by on the rather easy charm of the Inspector character, who may be quite obtuse but is always somehow loveable. The narration style wherein the Inspector is relating his cases to the audience, even if everything within them goes quite wrong for him, is told with a wink throughout to the audience and never becomes tiring. And the best part is always in how the Inspector reacts to situations, along with the asides characters such as Deux-Deux throw in as well. Deux-Deux himself is even more loveable, and as he will display throughout the series, he often has things more under control than the Inspector, and only fails because of the Inspector's misguided confidence in his own abilities. One other plus in the film are the rather impressionistic backgrounds of the buildings and settings of Paris and the French countryside. 

What brings the film down, ultimately, is the Brothers Matzoriley. They are an odd creation, and their appearance here brings a touch of weirdness to a scenario that doesn't really need it in its first episode. What is pretty evident is that they are an attempt to include another element from the credit sequence of A Shot in the Dark, and I guess it was decided they were one of the more memorable parts (they do get to deliver the first gag in the animation), and were thus upgraded for The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation. My inner five-year-old enjoys the look of the Matzorileys and especially the design of the Matzo-Mobile, but neither one is really necessary to the plot of the cartoon. In fact, they act more as distractions where perhaps a little more could have been brought to the gags themselves. 

And the worst aspect of the Brothers Matzoriley is the over-reliance on Asian stereotypes, both in design and language. Somewhere in their transition from the feature film to the cartoon short, where the Matzorileys are all completely the same in design, one of the characters was given slanted eyes and buckteeth. Were I to guess, and I am now, I would think the idea for the racial switching of the character sprang out of a conversation built around naming the characters (they are completely silent and have no names in A Shot in the Dark). Probably some riffing on the words "right," "left," and "wrong," where it was decided to have all of the names start with "W". At some point, the idea that "wrong" could be "Wong" must have triggered someone saying, "We could make him Chinese!" (or a far less kind description widely used at the time such as "Chinaman" or "Oriental"). I have no proof of this; I am merely spitballing here, trying to figure out how they got from Point A to B with this character that really didn't need to change at all, except that somebody at the studio wanted to go for some easy racial jokes.

Despite this, I think The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation is still a good, if slightly underwhelming, start to the Inspector series, which would continue for several years, with a total of 34 episodes released in the series. I, of course, devoured every one of these cartoons throughout my childhood, and the Inspector was definitely my favorite part of any of the various incarnations of the Pink Panther TV show. (The Tijuana Toads being my least favorite, as I recall it.) My favorite short of the series, Sicque! Sicque! Sicque! (1966), in which Deux-Deux torments the Inspector by going through Jekyll and Hyde transformations, also has a special place in my heart as it was shown the first time that I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show live in a cinema.

Best of all, this first Inspector cartoon shows Pat Harrington, Jr. in fine form as the lead character, and also as Deux-Deux and as Wight, the second of the Matzorileys. Its the sort of multi-character turn that the original Inspector, Peter Sellers, did throughout his career, even if Harrington was doing this as voice work only. Still, there is considerable variety in his chain of voices in the short, and shows how important he was to the success of the series. He convinced me as a kid, and its still working on me today, a couple of weeks after his death. If that is not fitting tribute to a major part of my childhood, I don't know what is.

RTJ


*****

Friday, January 22, 2016

The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1943)

The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (A George Pal Puppetoon, 1943)
Dir.: George Pal
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9


It is rather annoying that there is not easier access for most people to the animated films of George Pal today. In fact, except for the hardcore animation, science fiction, or old movie fan (or any combination of the three), I would doubt few people on the street would even know who he is in 2015.

Once upon a time, however, he was extremely well-known. He was justly famous in the '50s and '60s for producing and sometimes directing a series of big screen sci-fi and fantasy adventures, many of them featuring often innovative special effects (which included some animation), films such as Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), tom thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960), The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), and The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964). Several of these films are quite correctly recognized to this day as classics of their genre, and I, like many of a similar vintage, grew up discovering and loving each and every film on television throughout the '70s, being a little bit too young to have caught them in a movie theatre on their first go-around.

And, oh yeah... if you love The Rocky Horror Picture Show, then you have probably sung the lyrics "But when worlds collide, said George Pal to his bride" more times than you can even remember. (And you've probably sung it in public too...)

But George Pal was already famous when he started this run of productions. Throughout the 1940s, the Hungarian-born director and producer made his name -- initially in Europe working in Holland before moving production to the United States -- with a series of stop-motion animated shorts that were not only quite popular in movie houses across America and the world, but also garnered Pal seven Academy Award nominations. To top it all off, Pal was given an Honorary Oscar at the 1944 ceremony for the groundbreaking stop-motion animation techniques introduced in his Puppetoon series.

Some of the short films in the Puppetoon series -- also known in some of the title cards as George Pal's Madcap Models -- were based on original characters (such as several shorts featuring a stereotyped black boy named Jasper that don't play so comfortably in this modern age), but there were also stories based on popular children's stories, both old (such as Sleeping Beauty) and modern at the time. And of the modern tales, Pal created a pair of films based on the works of Dr. Seuss.



The first of the two Seuss adaptations was The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins in 1943, based on what was then the good Doctor's (not a real doctor) first children's book written in prose. "Children's book" is a stretch, for at the time, the intent of Theodore Seuss Geisel (his real name) was to reach as broad an audience as possible with his wildly imaginative stories and artwork. The goal was to sell books and make a living, and his open style was appealing to adults and children alike. His first book, 1937's And To To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (also turned into a Puppetoon by Pal in 1944), along with this story, were published by Vanguard Press, and while the sales were no great shakes, it was enough to build his reputation and he would soon leap over to a big time publisher called Random House, where his works remain to this day, even the ones published posthumously.

I will not go into my usual painstaking play-by-play detail of the entire cartoon, since I would rather you just go out and seek out a copy of the actual book (if you don't own it already, which you should). Why should I tell the full story here when there is a book written by a master entertainer that tells the tale?

The George Pal version also follows the general plot of the slim book, but does omit scenes involving several characters featured in the book, namely a trio of ever older wisemen (all the father of the previous one) and a cabal of warlocks (and their cats) who try to employ black magic to get Bartholomew Cubbins to remove his hat. But, oh yes... the hat removing. That is rather important. Perhaps we should at least recount the general plotline, if only to show the full set of differences between the versions.

In the film version, we are told of (and shown) the Kingdom of Didd, and introduced to King Derwin, who likes to look out of his castle window at his beloved kingdom. The castle is built atop a tall, spiraling mountain, which looms over the surrounding village below. We then meet a small boy who lives on the outskirts of Didd, who looks at the kingdom in the same manner as the king, only he does it, as both Seuss and the narrator of the Pal film mention, backwards. The boy is Bartholomew Cubbins and he wears a small, unobtrusive hat with a feather upon his head. (In the book, the hat is quite understated but has an enormous feather of which Bartholomew is justly proud; in the movie, Bart is entirely humble, but his initial hat is exceedingly pointy in both brim and peak, and he still has a rather large feather in it.)

Later, King Derwin is out on parade through his kingdom in his coach, and the citizens respond to his passing by doffing their various hats and caps in deep respect to their monarch. And also because it is the Law. Young Cubbins has come to town to go to market, but when he crosses paths with the king, he too takes off his hat, but captures the ire of His Majesty when he is surprisingly ordered to remove his hat. "But, sire! My hat is off!" he pleads, but then realizes there is a small Tyrolean-style hat mounted on his head where his larger hat once sat. 

He takes that hat off only to find it replaced immediately with another, and then another, and then another, each one in a completely different style from the previous ones. In this way, there is a great variance from the original book, where each of the first 450 hats is exactly the same -- a regular cap with a large feather sticking out of it -- but then with the 451st, they begin to change, sometimes with jewels or more feathers, and then they begin to get more and more elaborate until they reach the 500th hat mentioned in the title. In the George Pal version, in an equally valid twist on the gag, Pal basically takes the movie audience on a tour of great hats through the ages, having headgear from nearly every corner of the world and a wide variety of occupations show up on Bartholomew Cubbins' humble little head.



As Bartholomew pulls scores of hats off his head and they pile up at this feet, the townspeople note what is wrong. "His hat! He can't take off his hat!" one man cries, and Cubbins is arrested and dragged all the way up the spiraling mountain to the castle, leaving a trail of even more hats behind him as they fall off his head. By the time the scene switches, we have heard the narrator count to 247 hats, and once we see Bartholomew awaiting his fate before the king and the Chief Justice of the kingdom, he has passed 400 hats. As he bows to the king, five or six more hats drop onto the ground. Will it ever stop?

It is determined that Bartholomew has indeed broken the law, but His Majesty is rather torn as to what to do. He decides to have the Yeoman of the Bowmen (who is a character from the book) shoot the hat off of Bartholomew's head with his mighty bow. Here too, we have a change from the book. In the original story, we first meet the Grand Duke Wilfred, a small boy about Bartholomew's age who is also the nephew of the king. He is pretty much the true villain of the story, as he grows obsessed with doing away with Bartholomew, which he first does by shooting at him with his much smaller bow before the king calls in the Yeoman of the Bowmen. In the film, the Yeomen fires and the smaller hat on young Cubbins' head is replaced with a comically huge (as they tend to be) sombrero.



With the archer failing in his duties, Bartholomew seems to have sealed his own fate. The boy is ordered to go to the executioner at once to have his head chopped off as an ultimate form of punishment. We then meet the executioner, a large, goony fellow of a generally happy nature, with skulls and crossbones on the arms of his leather costume, who just happens to love his work. (He is pretty close to the character in the book, only there, the fellow is quite sincerely polite to Bartholomew and shows great regret at what he has been ordered to do.) Another change from the book is the use of a guillotine in the film instead of a large axe. It does add great dramatic tension to the execution scene, however, as the blade is slowly cranked into place by the executioner, and we see the still smiling face of Bartholomew and the astonished faces of the villagers as the blade rises and rises. Bart's neck is set into place for chopping (he is wearing a sailor's cap by this point), and the blade starts to fall. A lady screams on the soundtrack. As the blade comes to within a couple inches of his neck, a cry of "Stop!" from the Chief Justice saves Bartholomew's life.

The Chief Justice has found in his Law book that not only must one doff his hat to the king at peril of his own life, but that no one can be executed if he is still wearing his hat. Since Bartholomew seems to never be able to take off his hat, he gets off on a technicality. When Cubbins is brought before the king, the monarch is exhausted from his efforts to solve this riddle, and finally asks Bartholomew if he can buy the sailor's cap from him. Cubbins bows his head and the cap falls off, revealing a very grand, elaborately adorned hat, with jewels and a massive plume. In other words, a hat fit for a king. 

His Majesty is extremely pleased at this development, and he offers Bartholomew 500 guilders (the coin of the realm) and his own crown in place of the beautiful hat. King Derwin sits once again in the castle window, staring out at his kingdom, and the narrator challenges him by describing the king as "proudly wearing the new hat, which he never wanted to take off... or never dared to?" The king turns to the camera and growls at the narrator's words. Bartholomew goes back to his parents' home a rich boy, and stares back at the castle while he wears the crown on his head, never feeling small again. The End.

For the most part, aside from the missing characters that added richly to the plot within the story and the switching of the artistic approach to the 500 hats, this is the story of the Seuss book. Where Pal's The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins varies greatly from the book is in the design of the characters, which are really worlds apart from the familiar Dr. Seuss style. Pal's characters continue his use of simple wooden-looking figures (though he used far more elaborate models in other films, especially the later ones), such as one would think of toy soldiers in a box, and then employ the replacement animation, where a different head or body part is switched between frames to simulate motion, for which Pal was so widely known. (A modern example would be Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas.)

The fact that the characters do not look like the Seuss characters is a bit of a letdown for me. Part of the fun of Bob Clampett's spirited, hand-drawn version of Horton Hatches the Egg, released a year earlier by Warner Bros. in 1942, is that his team captured the general ambience of the original book and lead character, though Clampett did play around, incorporated his own style, and made some elements a bit more adult. But I should recognize that it is important that Pal's 500 Hats keeps wholly consistent with the overall aesthetic of the Puppetoon series, and does manage to capture completely the spirit of the original story. I cannot fault the film for something which plays off my deeply personal feeling for the work of Dr. Seuss.

The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins was nominated for an Oscar, as was Pal's version of Mulberry Street the next year, but that was the last of his Seuss adaptations. It's sad, because I still would like to see someone do an animated version of Bartholomew and the Oobleck, the even more wonderful follow-up to this story. I have always been rather struck by the thought that of all the Seuss books adapted either to the small or big screen over the years, either in animation or live-action, that Oobleck has never quite made it, even if it has enormous visual and comical possibilities. Perhaps a feature film called The Fantastical Adventures of Bartholomew Cubbins is in order, and they could combine both stories. Or perhaps, given the rate of return on these things in the modern age, that it best be left alone.

Going back to my original notion in this article, I suggested how hard it is for the common person who might be interested in seeing The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, or any of the Puppetoons, to actually view them in 2015. I have a fairly recent Blu-ray of The Puppetoon Movie, a 1977 release built out of numerous Pal shorts, and which comes with about 20 extra shorts, including seven never before released on home video. Two of those shorts are The 500 Hats and Mulberry Street. Some, but not all, of these shorts have been remastered and released in HD, and I believe that it is simply marvelous that someone put out this collection. The downside, as I mentioned earlier, is that many of these brilliantly animated short films feature characters comprised of quite blatant racial stereotyping, so they really aren't for all audiences anymore.

But they are necessary if you are a student of film or animation history. They are quite important for any cinema fan. Pal's work needs to be preserved, so that it can be studies and enjoyed for future generations. And it should be noted that one of Pal's animators on some of these shorts was a young stop-motion wizard named Ray Harryhausen, thus probably being of great interest to his ongoing legion of dedicated fans. Oh, yeah... and some guy named Willis O'Brien. Perhaps you have heard of King Kong?

Sadly, though probably recognizing correctly that the actual market for such a Blu-ray collection is fairly thin these days, B2MP, the releasing company, have only pressed 3,000 copies. They also have not put it out in larger number on DVD (or at all), so this may be it. You can still buy an older DVD version of The Puppetoon Movie, but it doesn't come with many of the bells and whistles that the Blu-ray has, including the Seuss adaptations. So you may want to look quickly if you are of the desired audience for this set (which, admittedly, is a bit pricey).

Or you could wait. Who knows? In a few short years, you may need to have an incredibly elaborate 500th hat just to pay for one.

RTJ


*****

And in case you haven't seen it (and I suggest seeking out the Blu-ray while you can, where it looks much better than this rather degraded NTA print):