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NATIVES - GEORGE PAL WAS NEITHER
Suffering and travail are certainly not exclusive to America; the older cultures of Western and Eastern Europe have had more than their fair shares. And no doubt some number of their artists have crossed over and come here and shared the enlightenment that their particular suffering has brought forth, finding commonality in the American experience and imparting something special to our welcoming audiences.
But that is not always the case for foreign artists who immigrate to America. Some have stood out and apart for intractable and insurmountable reasons. Artists who may indeed have great and unique talent, as pointed out by so many loud and ardent supporters, but have, for one reason or other, lost credibility, been completely discredited, or even driven the viewer to absolute outrage or indignation, most often as a result of their foreign, non-native status, and to the point that their detractors cannot even get past the impediments to recognize their art as art. Roman Polanski was one such highly overrated, supposed "artist" who comes easily to mind.
I was haunted most of my life by the incomplete memories of two childhood cartoons. No one I ever asked, from my age group or beyond, could identify them. At different points in my life I made concerted efforts to locate them. But neither libraries nor the early Internet were very helpful. I even wondered at times if they were no more than childhood creations or some kind of hybrid composites of dream, fantasy, and scattered recollections.
One in particular left a hazy imprint on my young memory and often reappeared as brief flashes of images, sound, and most of all, feelings of silent terror to mock my otherwise excellent recall abilities: A group of Black characters, a family perhaps; an old man in a pendleton with a talking crow on his shoulder. Some kind of Gumby-like Claymation?
Then one day I wondered, if they indeed even existed at all, might they have been some kind of puppets rather than Claymation? I conducted extensive searches on multiple search engines for combinations of "old," "vintage," "early," "lost," "1950s," "Black," "family," "farmer," "crow," "shoulder," "crow on shoulder," "cartoon," "animation," "Claymation," "puppets." And that was it, puppets! I actually finally found it! It was puppets, not Claymation!
It was a series of about fifty episodes called Puppetoons from some foreigner named George Pal. And it was from the very early 1940s, not the late 1950s or early 1960s, as I had thought.
Twenty-five of them featured the innocent, trusting Black kid named Jasper. His sad adventures were starting to come back to me.
I sat back to watch the first of the episodes I had come across, like having recovered the lost secrets of the universe. It was called Jasper and the Haunted House. And there he was, that old Black man in the pendleton with that sarcastic talking crow on his shoulder!
He wasn't a farmer, after all, or the father of a family. He was a scarecrow on a stick! A scarecrow with a resident crow on his shoulder, an admittedly funny touch, in itself. But the scarecrow was Jasper's abusive adult nemesis who would always manage to accost him wherever he managed to encounter the unassuming child.
It all started coming back to me. And it was becoming clear: Not only was this George Pal not a native of our country, but he was quickly proving to be no pal of it either.
When the little kid, Jasper, walks onto the scene, the size of his lips greatly exaggerated, the scarecrow (Professor Scarecrow) addresses him as "boy:" 1940s Black on Black racially insensitive humor, I imagine, from the perspective of a White Eastern Block cartoonist. The crow's name was, appropriately, Blackbird, which even Jay-Z is quick to use as a metaphor for Black women in Run this Town.
Other episodes were named Jasper and the Watermelons and Shoe Shine Jasper, Jasper addresses his mother as "Mammy," and is delivering a gooseberry pie to Deacon Jones - Spook's Gooseberry Pie, no less. It was all pretty shocking and horrendous: The flaunting of all the worst and most disingenuous Black stereotypes: An audacious inundation of racist filth.
Here, from the early 1940s was such great stop-motion animation art being used for pure evil, vile, and mean-spirited intent. And Pal's offenses were hardly exclusive to Blacks.
As great as my memory has always been, this one kept eluding me as if some inner entity had tried to shield me from such childhood confusion and unpleasantness. No wonder I always remembered it with such unease. But it had to finally be exorcised.
Why was George Pal, who was born Julius Gyorgy Marczincsak in Hungary in 1908 and died in Los Angeles, California in 1980, so inclined and why did he work so diligently to depict the downtrodden, to express such extreme and unkind stereotypes, with such thoroughness and constancy, and in children's cartoons, no less; and barely two years after immigrating from Europe?
Why did he place it all in a Blue Velvet world of lurking adult evil to focus on the very worst of our American experience, and even to a haunting musical score of scary slave spiritual music?
The Hungarian-born George Pal, what the hell was he thinking? Did he mistake our worst nightmares for his American Dream? Was it that easy to misunderstand the soul of a nation? And even despite his supposedly vaunted position in the world of art? Or did he somehow think it was his ticket into some secret American men's club where they could all snicker together over their exploits and exploitations?
Even a less irreverent Hollywood of the 1940s scorned and condemned him then for the excessive stereotypes. Though shortly after, in 1944, others there proudly awarded him with an honorary Oscar for his technical development of the very same Puppetoons; much like Hollywood would later celebrate Roman Polanski in absentia.
A tarnished star sits on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1722 Vine Street, a favorite stop for dog walkers, and a deep aversion to and bias against his other works persists: War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and even "Speedy," the Alka Seltzer mascot.
Hitler too was once an "artist."
Adolph Hitler - Mary with the Holy Child Jesus Christ
But it is impossible to admire, or even acknowledge, his various Pietas, considering his greater preoccupation and claim to fame, its tainting of any possibile perception of his own humanity, and his thorough lack of any semblance of artistic sensibility or credibility.
I guess what I want to say is, where does a guy like that dare to come off, regardless of how much talent and creativity he supposedly brings, immigrating to our troubled country and taking the worst we have to offer, the biggest shame of our collective experience, repackaging it and proudly handing it back to us like a dog fetching the morning paper and dropping it at our feet in expectation of one or another of our many special American treats?
How does he just appear here in the middle of the Second World War, and from Hungary, the country that, with the accursed Romania, independently did more for the cause of deadly anti-Semitism than any other nation short of Germany itself? Or was his but an early-American black op, a sanctioned social project that no enlightened, homegrown, American artist could be compelled to undertake?
But whether he molests our minor children the old-fashioned way like Polish citizen and child rapist Roman Polanski, or he does it with a steady stream of ominous animations with words, voice, and scary music to brainwash and condition innocent American children by the millions, he is just a foreign piece of crap.
So, thanks for the memories, George Pal. As a five-year-old child at the end of the 1950s, I was a captive audience to those horrible and abusive images. As a fifty-five year old adult, now with total recall, I can see George Pal's Puppetoons for what they were: The worthless product, after a lifetime of dabbling in the arts, a severely tainted and mostly unremembered legacy of some Eastern Block foreigner with perhaps the hands for fashioning puppet prototypes, perhaps the eyes for envisioning evocative scenes, and perhaps the mind for presenting an entirely integrated vision, but without the soul, mind, and consciousness of an artist.
He could never have been any more than just the old version of the child who once ran through the streets of Budapest with dirty face and in torn rags, stealing bread from tourists and begging for coins.
In his American Dream, and at the height of his spirit and vitality, the best he could have ever really hoped for, the best he himself really even expected, was to stand beside an Ackroyd and a Martin as just another of those Eastern Block loser wild and crazy guys.
The other cartoon, by the way, turned out to be the silent Farmer AlFalfa Terrytoon series from the 1920s!
Created by Paul Terry for Paramount, they were apparently reintroduced for television in the 1950s and early 1960s, when I experienced them, and included new musical scores and the new name of Farmer Gray.
They featured the exploits of the cranky old farmer, a possible forerunner of Popeye's father, Pappy, and his relationship with all the errant animals on the farm, especially the cats, possible forerunners of Felix the Cat, and the mice.
Though they depicted their fair share of violence, there was a genuine equality of humans and animals. They abused each other equally. And helped each other as well.
But when left to their own devices, the animals were often depicted dancing, singing, and playing patty-cake. It was a veritable Peaceable Kingdom.
Even the view of authority was more irreverent and refreshing:
And every episode ended with either the farmer or the animals chasing away the other down the road and into the horizon.
They were true homegrown masterpieces of simplicity that depicted an innocent and positive fantasy world, not sadistic efforts to rub our faces in our failings or, more appropriately, for a George Pal to express his ignorance and betray his cruel lust for racism, some secret Eastern European resentment, some childhood sociopathology of an urchin, and twisted need to pander to some misunderstood American elite.
Maybe foreigners purporting to come to America as artists should be made to pass some kind of certification as with citizenship, itself. No, not really. The audience, or market, should take care of it by itself.
If this were Babylon, George Pal's Puppetoons would be required viewing; they would be anthemic.
But this is America. Despite how masterful the stop-motion genre was, the Puppetoon works were mean-spirited failures. While Heckle and Jeckle, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Mighty Mouse, and others will remain interwoven into the fabric of our culture, George Pal's vilely insensitive and evilly racist Puppetoons never saw the light of, or found a place in, the American future. Even today's depraved world of Hollywood has not yet dared to have anything more to do with them via reruns, remastering, or remakes.
From the fingertips of an American artist, or even a foreign artist of exceptional consciousness, sensitive to the expediencies of the future and the coming of the promised land, poor little Jasper, himself, now the approximate age of many of today's Black grandparents, might have had a better and a fairer life.
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