Thursday, October 12, 2006

Countdown to Halloween: Balloon Land (1935)

Balloon Land (An Ub Iwerks ComiColor Cartoon, 1935)
Director: Ub Iwerks
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Cast: Billy Bletcher (The Pincushion Man)
Cel Bloc Rating: 8/9

It's strange how what frightens us as a child doesn't necessarily affect us as adults, or at least, doesn't affect us to the same degree as it once did. Monsters come and go, and we learn how to deal with them, and our nightmare villains slowly get displaced by scenarios laced with elements from our personal realities, wherein our subconscious attempts to allow us to deal with things that might be bothering us or bring us about to learning how to approach the problem when we awaken. The other night, I had a dream that may seem banal to most who would hear of it, but it felt very real to me. Enough so that I woke up shaking and filled with loathing for my own inability to handle the situation. What makes it so odd is that there was no one with a knife or monstrous fanged creature making me feel small and afraid. It was simply a wildly embellished variant on a problem I have at work in how I deal with certain situations. (I am unable to discuss the details, first because of non-disclosure agreements, and second because the details are actually unimportant to the nightmare.) Though I woke up sweating and upset, I did get a solid reminder from the nightmare to curb some of my personality tics when they spring up at inopportune moments in the business world. Personal growth through subconscious fear and intimidation, I guess...

Growing up though, far removed from business-related nightmare imagery, there was the Pincushion Man. Having seen Ub Iwerks' gorgeously designed Balloon Land cartoon a few times in my youth — released in 1935 to a world unprepared for its horrors, though far greater and more real horrors were already occurring — my concerns were not with what an exquisite piece of animation the film happened to be, but placed more with wrestling with my sleeping self as the Pincushion Man would spring to life every so often in my nightmares. While I have had many a restless night in my lifetime, as far as animated characters go, only four of them have ever led me to nightmares, and all of them when I was quite young:

1) The Big Bad Wolf, as Disney interpreted him in The Three Little Pigs and its followups, which I saw occasionally on The Wonderful World of Disney as a kid. Other animated wolves didn't bother me as much as he did, with that malicious glare set hard in his pig-craving eye, though my fear of him came as a direct result of my werewolf fetish, which in turn came from my living in wooded surroundings and from seeing far too many werewolf movies as a kid. (The same circumstances brought about my Bigfoot fascination. Well, that... and The Six Million Dollar Man.) The wolf never bothered me when I watched the cartoons, but leave me alone as I walked home through the woods on a dark winter's night? Forget it... Is it a surprise that the nightmares would follow?

2 & 3) Monstro the Whale and Stromboli the puppet master from Disney's Pinocchio. Monstro was certainly the progenitor of my water-fear, long before Jaws and the Land-Shark came along (I'll explain at a later date), and Stromboli formed much of the basis of my vision of humanity at its cruelest, and when he throws the axe into the remains of the burnt puppet in the fireplace, he opened up a lifetime of woes for my subconscious. I saw this movie way too young (it was one of my earliest films). For a relative comparison, I equate him along the lines of the Child-Snatcher from Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, also a touchstone of my youth (though it does not hold up like Pinocchio does, not by a long-shot...)

4) The Pincushion Man. It was years until I saw this stand-in figure for Death itself on a television screen again, and it was in The Pee-Wee Herman Show, not the Playhouse, but the original HBO version of Pee-Wee's wacky little world. The short itself was truncated, with no credits and only about half of the film shown, but I immediately recognized the fiend responsible for the mayhem in the short as the one and only Pincushion Man, who pulls pins from his puffy midsection and throws them through the bodies of the citizens of Balloon Land, all of them quite literally balloon people made out of rubber and filled up with air. He is the Bringer of Doom to their people, and all are warned of his ominous presence when they leave the seeming safety of their gated kingdom. He was also the Bringer of Nightmares to me, though I had no idea he would when I used to watch the cartoon once in a while as a young'un. But that's the way that nightmares work: you never seem to really know what is going to affect you as you sleep, and much of the time, you never really understand why you dreamed such a thing. With the Pincushion Man, there were no questions. My young mind immediately recognized him as a source of pure malignant evil.

In Balloon Land, which starts off on one of those idealized fairy-tale cloud-worlds with tens of balloons flying up into the air about a grand castle filled with rubbery balloon towers and buildings, this evil will find a way into even the most secure of strongholds, in the way that evil usually does: through backstabbing trickery and sneakiness. But first, we meet the happy citizens of Balloon Land, and it is a slight surprise that the earliest faces we meet are the celebrity faces of Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, all blown up and acting like their real-life counterparts. We next meet a Goof, whose head floats on a string above the rest of his body, and the establishment of his character at this early point proves important as he plays a huge role later in the film. For now, though, we have simply met a Goof. A man and his wife dance about with their baby balloon between them, and when he starts to float off, they each grab an arm to protect him. A bird, dog, duck and pig make their respective noises in time with the happy music.

But there is work to do in Balloon Land, as well. A rubber tree plant uses its limbs to squeeze its "head", and it squeezes out "sap" into buckets that are manned by various balloon people. Another man works a waffle iron set just below another tree from which some of the same substance drips. As each one drops onto the iron, they are turned into what I can only seem to think are whiffle-balls. When he opens the iron, each one bounces into a large bin. The buckets from the other tree are transported to a large machine, poured in, and then the machine converts the raw materials into new balloon people. An smiling attendant at the other end blows each person up with air, bringing them to life with solid statements of reason. As a balloon man is given life, the attendant sunnily warns, "Beware of pins!" A little boy is next off the line, followed by a little girl, and the attendant informs them at great length of the dangers of the world, and luckily for us, he does so in song:

"Now, beware! Have a care!
You're just filled with air!
A single pin would rip your skin!
And the Pincushion Man in the forest there,
Would pop you both if you don't take care!"

The little boy, puffed up with more prideful air than is probably good for him, isn't buying any of these scare tactics. His response is typically tough for a disbelieving youth:

"Oh, such trash! In a flash,
I would settle his hash!
I'll bust right in and twist his chin!
I'll get rough, I'll get tough, I'll just call his bluff!"

The little girl, however, is scared enough for the both of them, and she finishes the song with her cry of "Oh, no! Oh, no! Please, oh please, don't go!" But, like all kids, they forget the warnings and head off into danger. They bounce over the wall and peer into the forest, rethinking their agenda, but an owl-eyed balloon tree hoots behind their backs and pushes them forward. When another tough tree grimaces at her, the girl says "I'm scared," and the boy counters, "I'm not... much!" Then the tree waves his arms at them and they run off. There is a large rock balloon in the forest, but a skinny green hand reaches up over it bearing a long straight pin. It slams the pin down into the rock, and as the deflated remains fall to the ground, the Pincushion Man stands before us, all dangly limbs and pincushion pelvis, with a variety of pins set into it. He wears a thimble as a hat, and his body, most likely in an ironic statement, is that of a safety pin, though sometimes the pin part pulls away from his nose, and when it does he often grabs at his pointed appendage (which sticks upward on the front of his body, and there is definitely something lightly phallic about its protrusion). As he marches through the forest coldly popping various flowers and trees, he recites this poem:

"I'm the old Pincushion Man,
Terror of Balloony-Land!
Folks all hate me! How they hate me!
Tickles me the way they rate me!
Always have a pin at hand,
That's the reason I am panned!
How I stop 'em when I pop 'em!
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!"

The kids, though, have not met him yet, and as they sneak about the woods, the boy says "Aw, that Pincushion Man is a fake! I'm not afraid of his pins!" Unfortunately for him, the Pincushion Man has heard this, and sets up an ambush for the two. He leaps about from behind a tree and yells, "So, you're not afraid of pins?!" He stabs at them a number of times, and when the kids back up to a balloon cactus, he pops the flowers set all about their heads. They run away with the Pincushion Man hot on their heels. 

The kids are able to knock him back by pulling a small tree down and hitting him with it, and as he is somersaulted backwards, they run for the Balloon Land gates and bounce over the wall. He bangs on the door while yelling to be let inside, adding "I'll get mad in a minute!" for emphasis. It is here where we meet the Goof for the second time. He opens a small spy-door and as his head floats out above his body, he tells the Pincushion Man, "Hoo Hoo! I'd better not! The folks'll blow up if I let you in!" Seemingly, the Goof has some sense after all, but it is only the most fleeting sort, and the Pincushion Man is able to easily sweet-talk him in a soothing version of his usually gruff voice. "Nonsense!", he says with a light accent to his speech, "I'm your friend! I vant to geeve you something!" The Goof hardly hesitates as he opens the door, and the horrors begin...

The Pincushion Man leaps in and definitely gives the Goof something all right -- a popped body, and his speech is interrupted as his head floats off unharmed. The kids spy the villain and make their way to the alarm, which consists of balloon quadruplets sucking on bottles (I would imagine that you wouldn't have to get the air out of those bottles). The boy and girl pull the bottles from the babies' mouths, and they cry loudly, their heads moving toward the camera and filling up the screen, their uvulas waggling in toddler unison. (I hate crying babies, but it is one of my favorite moments in the film.) As the townsfolk head for shelter, the kids run for a house, but they can't quite fit in the door together. Rather than step back and let one go in first, they both decide to let some out of their valves, and dodge into the shelter. The Pincushion Man can't get to them, so he turns around and throws a pin expertly through the legs of a hapless man passing behind him. The victim shoots around through the air while the life is literally sucked out of him.

The villain starts to throw pin after pin in the chaos of balloon bodies trying to escape his rampage. A clown balloon laughs uproariously at the Pincushion Man's multiple failed attempts to stick him, but he laughs no more when he is left with only a pair of large feet. A caterpillar balloon continues to flee as a series of pins pop each section of its body; at last, only its head is left, but as it starts to cry for help, a final pin seals the caterpillar's popped fate. The kids make it to the guardhouse, and they alert the captain of the guards of the Pincushion Man's evil presence. After the captain's mustache twirls wildly in and out, he has another guard sound the alarm on his bugle. The guard exhausts himself of air, so hard does he blow out the call. Guards make other guards by blowing up new ones from boxes filled with balloons.

They march out onto the street, but the Pincushion Man is ready for them. He deftly pops one after the other as they charge towards him. Another rubber tree plant spits out more sap into buckets, and the guards use this substance in the attack. Some of the guards are armed with huge slingshots, and they fire the sticky stuff at the Pincushion Man, covering him in the sap. As the villain struggles with his newfound stickiness, with the stuff hanging from his nose and also tying his hands up momentarily, one of the guards is twisted over and over again with his arms outstretched. A bucket of whiffle-balls is poured out as they release him, and he spins and spins, knocking the balls at the villain like a rapid-fire weapon. The Pincushion Man catches a bunch of the balls on one of his pins and throws it down angrily. A catapult is loaded up with sap and fired at him, and his entire rear becomes covered in it. The attack methods are all repeated over and over, and soon enough, the Pincushion Man is nothing but a rolling ball of sap, whiffle-balls and wildly waving limbs. He rolls to the very edge of Balloonland, and after a couple of desperate grabs at the grass and flowers to save himself, he falls off into the clouds, never to be seen again. Back in the town, as balloons float and bounce about in victory over their vanquished foe, the boy balloon and the girl balloon kiss for the first time. They both are embarrassed by their action, and act shyly as they blush. Fade out.

It might seem silly now, but this cartoon really affected me as a kid. The Pincushion Man isn't just full of bluster and ego, merely threatening to kidnap, kill and/or devour in the fashion of most cartoon villains; he is the real deal. He threatens to pop the balloons, and he does. Given the people that inhabit this particular land, life and death to them means the difference between being full of air and being popped. The Pincushion Man is a bringer of death to them, and this is shown, no apologies asked. We think that it is all cute because it is an imaginary world, but when you really think about the subtext behind his actions, it is actually pretty horrible. The Pincushion Man kills.

Now, while I have been accused of being full of hot air, I am not a balloon. So, you would think that I would have nothing to fear from such a villain. But it isn't hard to imagine that getting stabbed, even in non-rubberized form, would be pretty painful and possibly deadly, just as with a knife or other sharp object. In my mind, the Pincushion Man became a very real villain, and I was chased about in a number of dreams in my youth. The strange part is, while the balloon world in the film is fully and deeply realized to glorious effect by the amazing Mr. Iwerks and Co., I didn't adopt any of the other characters into my dreams. Only the villain made the switch from public fantasy cartoon to private nightmare world.

After a few years, especially with not seeing the source again for so long, the Pincushion Man receded in my rogue's gallery, as did wolves of all sort, both lycanthropic and real. Whales became an interest, and sharks, an offshoot from my Monstro fear, became a passion. Only Stromboli remains, and while I have never quite worked out my fear of him (I figure that I see him as a sort of god-like figure due to the control that he has over his subjects, and the callousness with which he displaces them), he is the only one that still brings a chill to my spine whenever I watch him on the screen.

After all the horrid creatures, monsters and demons that plagued my dreams through my youth, they have all been vanquished by time and understanding, and now it is only the human figure that stands revealed as the true monster. The question is: what does the evil puppet master Stromboli represent in my head? What is is that I am afraid of, exactly? Is he my fear of humankind? Is he the reason that I have rejected all worship of gods? Or is he (for I have played the actual part of puppet master in my life) my own fear of myself?

Now, how the hell am I going to sleep tonight?

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 11/4/2015.]

1 comment:

Sabrina said...

Lol, great review! Although I thought this cartoon was the funniest thing in the world (still do) when I was a little girl! Also "Old Mother Hubbard," "Simple Simon," "Jack Frost," and "Mary's Little Lamb." I'm such a huge Fliescher and Ub Iwerk fan!!! Love the blog!