Thursday, May 30, 2013

Short Film: Jasper and the Haunted House (USA, 1942)

Perhaps some of you noticed that the great Ray Harryhausen, born 29 June 1920, died this month just short of his 93rd birthday on 7 May 2013. Currently we here at A Wasted Life are working on a career review of his films, and while researching his works we couldn't help but also end up looking at some of the great projects of George Pal, née György Pál Marczincsak, (1 February 1908 - 2 May 1980). Aside from producing such legendary feature-length film productions like, among others, Destination Moon (1950 / trailer) or War of the Worlds (1953 / trailer) or When Worlds Collide (1951 / trailer) or The Time Machine (1960 / trailer), George Pal was a prolific short film maker — in fact, he was once nominated seven consecutive years (1942-48) for an Oscar for short films. But during those years, the only Oscar he got was an honorary one in 1943 for "the development of novel methods and techniques in the production of short subjects known as Puppetoons."* 
George Pal first began his Puppetoons in Europe in the 1930s, initially as commercials, a good and visually amazing example of which is 1938's La Grande Revue Philips ("The Great Philips Review"), watch it here, which he made in Holland. Wikipedia offers a succinct description of how Puppetoons worked: "A series of different hand-carved wooden puppets (or puppet heads or limbs) [were made] for each frame in which the puppet moves or changes expression, rather than moving a single puppet, as is the case with most stop motion puppet animation. [...] A typical Puppetoon required 9,000 individually carved and machined wooden figures or parts." (They fail to mention, however, whether that would be for a short film or long film, but we suspect the former.)
It is due to the Puppetoons that our research on Ray Harryhausen led us to our "Short Film of the Month for May 2013", George Pal's Jasper and the Haunted House (1942) — perhaps luckily for the Academy, not the short for which he was nominated in 1942 (that would be Rhythm in the Ranks).** You see, before Ray Harryhausen became the Ray Harryhausen, he was just another working stiff who happened to have a penchant for stop motion animation. And among his early employers was George Pal, for whom he worked on the Puppetoon shorts. And while perusing the Puppetoons and Harryhausen trailers available over at that fabulous on-line repository of cinematic trash and treasures, the Internet Archives, we stumbled upon this film here, Jasper and the Haunted House, which we had never seen or heard of before, and we were so shocked, so bowled over, so speechless, that we decided we just had to share it with everyone. 
Here we must briefly say that the short films we choose, like the feature-length films we watch in general or eventually list in our annual "Best of" selection, are not necessarily good films. What matters to us as that they move us in some way, be it in pleasure, in shock or whatever. And Jasper and the Haunted House didn't just shock us, it knocked us over: other than D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915 / trailer / full film), we have never seen a more racist film than this one.*** It surely is not even the best of Pal's Puppetoons, or even the most typical, but that is not why we chose it: we have chosen it as our "Film of the Month for May 2013" simply because it is as shockingly unforgettable as it is technically brilliant. 
We don't know if Harryhausen worked on this or any of the other Jasper shorts,**** but despite the amazing stop motion animation found in this film (and all the Puppetoons), Jasper and the Haunted House is not the kind of film that one would, after the days of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, proudly claim as having worked on. According to The George Pal Puppetoon Site, even when the Jasper series was made the shorts "were criticized for being racist"; the website then goes on to say that "George Pal was a peaceful man who was shocked when people were offended — he never intended to be hostile. Indeed, Pal had a great respect for African-American culture, particularly their music and folklore [...]." Could be, but as funny and well made as this short is, not only is it — like the other Jasper films, if it and the even more surreal Jasper and the Watermelons (1942 / full short) are typical of the series — shows a huge disrespect for an entire folk, as do many of Pal's shorts, actually, which not un-rarely display some notably blatant minority stereotypes. 
Not only that, but Jasper and the Haunted House itself wasn't a one-shot exception, it was one of a series featuring the same stereotypically racist jigaboo characters. If nothing else, the general tone of this and the other Jasper films (as well as Pal's penchant for racial stereotypes in general) does indicate that if Pal wasn't overtly racist then he was — like white society in general — innately and subconsciously racist, for otherwise the blatant expression of racist stereotypes as found here wouldn't have been met without a blink by him and the ruling class, as they were in general at the time. But then, unlike nowadays, if you were amongst the lily white audience watching Jasper and the Haunted House et all. as the opening supporting short, your most likely didn't have any Afro-Americans sitting close by — they were probably (in the South) all at a theatre "of their own", so to say, or (in the North) seated separately in the balcony — so unlike now you wouldn't feel guilty laughing out loud. In any event, back then in those simpler, more innocent days, Jasper the character was popular enough not only to warrant a continual series of films, but even a toy tie-in (see below left).
Needless to say, you probably won't catch Jasper and the Haunted House on television today. As with all the Jasper films, which are often as amazingly surreal as they are well made and racially objectionable, there are three main characters in Jasper and the Haunted House: Jasper, the Scarecrow and Blackbird. The ever-gullible Jasper — he is a nee-grow, after all — is on the way to deliver a gooseberry pie to Deacon Jones when the Scarecrow, who always calls Jasper "Boy", and the Blackbird decide they want it. They trick Jasper into going the wrong way and he ends up at the haunted house, where things just don't work out exactly as Jasper's two devious friends expect...
Enjoy Jasper and the Haunted House — if you can. But be forewarned, it might shake your PC roots right down to the bone and deeper. (Anyone ready for Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs [1943 / full short] yet?)

* He did, however, win another one for special effects in 1950 for Destination Moon.
** Embarrassingly enough for them, however, they did nominate Pal's short Jasper and the Beanstalk in 1945 (short).
*** Not quite true; we have seen some anti-Jew films (like The Eternal Jew [1940 / full film]) that are just as or even more racist, but those films were produced by idiots (i.e., Nazis) and not filmmakers we respect.
**** Though we found a questionable site and source, the ALEF Network, which claims that 25 Jasper films were made — and which also makes no bones about it and calls Jasper and the Haunted House "the flaunting of all the worst and most disingenuous Black stereotypes: An audacious inundation of racist filth" — we could only locate 18 others titles: Jasper and the Watermelons (1942), Jasper and the Choo Choo (1943), Jasper Goes Fishing (1943), Jasper's Music Lesson (1943), Jasper Goes Hunting (1944 / short), Jasper's Paradise (1944), Say, Ah Jasper (1944), Package for Jasper (1944), Jasper and the Beanstalk (1945), Jasper's Booby Trap (1945), Jasper's Close Shave (1945), Jasper's Minstrels (1945 / short), Jasper Tell (1945), My Man Jasper (1945 / short), Hot Lips Jasper (1945 / short), Jasper's Derby (1946 / short), Olio for Jasper (1946), Jasper in a Jam (1946 / short) and Shoe Shine Jasper (1947).

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