On Sunday 28 March, as the clocks sprung forward and the hangovers kicked in after a raucous night of plasticine revelry, some brave souls dragged themselves out of bed for Puppetoons: a celebration of Georges Pal’s puppet marvels from the 1930s and 40s. Pal’s charming stop-motion techniques were spotted by the electronics company Philips, who were looking for an offbeat way to promote their radio sets and decided to commission a series of commercials. The resulting films – imagine the woodentops sashaying to jazzy trumpets and Latin American rhythms – provided a lovely Sunday wake-up call. The programme also presented some of Pal’s work from the 1940s, which saw his retreat from war-torn Europe to the world of Paramount Pictures in America.
His best-known film, Tubby the Tuba (1947), which tells the tale of a ruddy-faced and ostracised tuba trying to find his way among a group of sneering, snooty orchestral instruments, screened alongside Pal’s most controversial character, the racially stereotypical Jasper. Following Jasper’s in a Jam (1946), which featured a smoldering Peggy Lee number, came John Henry and the Inky-Poo (1946) – Pal’s attempt to re-balance the racial stereotyping found in his Jasper series. Indeed, at the time, the African American magazine, Ebony, praised the latter as ‘that rarest of Hollywood products that has no Negro stereotypes, but rather treats the Negro with dignity, imagination, poetry, and love’. Personally, I did not find too many positives in a tale focusing on a worker’s struggle and death on the railroad (!) but the animation and beautiful soundtrack (this time supplied by the powerful Luvenia Nash Singers) once again supplied a visual treat. The final film in the programme was Tulips Shall Grow (1942) – a tale of a smitten and be-clogged Dutch couple and their windmill, which is suddenly besieged by The Screwballs, an army of malevolent nuts and bolts. An allegory for the Nazi invasion of Europe, the film was in some ways a sentimental fairy tale, but it was also incredibly touching as the couple were eventually re-united, their windmill came back to life and tulips grew back among the fields. Knowing that Pal himself fled Europe during World War II made the subject matter doubly affecting. Puppetoons provided a great and rare opportunity to see the work of an immensely talented animator and one who, for various reasons, provided a lot of political food for thought.