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.



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):

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