A Celebration of Life–And Hope: George Pal and TULIPS SHALL GROW (1942)

1 Feb

When searching for the best way to celebrate the birthday of George Pal, I could think of none better than to discuss a work of his that is itself a celebration–of triumph over adversity, of hope over despair: his 1942 Oscar-nominated Puppetoon, “Tulips Shall Grow.” May you find the cartoon as inspirational as I did.

by Rachel Newstead

Animation at its best has tremendous persuasive power:  the power to evoke laughter or, as we’ve seen as recently as Pixar’s “Up,” tears. It can make us forget our plight, or see ourselves in pen-and-ink drawings, lumps of clay or blocks of wood. At no time, however, is that power more evident than in times of war.

The animators who worked on the home front during World War II to entertain and inform the public instinctively understood this. The war years represented a creative blossoming of the medium of animation; this was the era of Tex Avery’s Blitz Wolf, of Walt Disney’s Der Fuehrer’s Face; when the animated denizens of the Walter Lantz studio moved to a swing beat. Bugs Bunny would find his comedic voice in these years, and set the pattern for other studios to follow.

Yet ironically, the man who most understood the persuasive and emotional power of animation is perhaps, today, the least talked-about. It’s that man whose birthday, whose life we celebrate today, the stop-motion animator and filmmaker George Pal.

To call Pal’s work “stop-motion animation” almost seems to disparage it somehow; it falls into a category all its own. It always fascinated me how Pal could bring his characters to life. Using interchangeable parts with varying degrees of distortion, he could simulate the “squash and stretch” of hand-drawn animation.

Not only did this enable him to avoid the jerky movement so typical of stop-motion, but it bestowed on his characters that same “illusion of life” Disney so fervently strove for. One could “believe” Pal’s characters were living, breathing creatures, and audiences cared for them as if they were. This ability proved invaluable in what is perhaps Pal’s greatest animated film, Tulips Shall Grow.

Tulips Shall Grow couldn’t be a more personal film for Pal, his allegory of the 1940 Nazi occupation of Holland. A country that, for a brief time in the thirties, he had called home. (He produced animated commercials there, for Phillips radios). Pal himself was a refugee, having fled Germany at the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power; he, his wife and family would later barely escape Nazi rule in Holland. He would experience the pain of hearing of the fall of his native Hungary. No one could say, therefore, that he didn’t know his subject.

The cartoon opens much as Hugh Harman’s Peace On Earth did, with a deceptively cheerful atmosphere. (The parallels to Peace On Earth, in fact, are so obvious one wonders if Pal had seen it before making this cartoon). Dutch boy Jan calls on Dutch girl Janette in her windmill home; he presents her with a red tulip, while she presents him with a cake. Jan plays a tune on his accordion to which they both do a lively dance.

But all is not right in their idyllic little land. Dark clouds start to form–Jan and Janette’s peace is shattered by the “Screwball” army, who look just as their name implies: like anthropomorphic metal spheres with screws attached to the top of their bodies. (They don’t have anything resembling a head, or features). At once both silly and terrifying, they destroy everything they come in contact with as they goose-step their way through the countryside. Their transparent, bat-winged planes bomb a nearby church, and the beautiful little windmills, to ruins.

Jan and Janette run in desperation to escape the Screwball tanks and machine guns, and although Jan manages to run to safety, he and Janette are separated in the confusion.  He watches in horror as Janette’s once-cozy little home is smashed to bits by a tank–presumably with her still inside.

With everything gone, and believing Janette to be dead, Jan prays for deliverance in the remains of the bombed-out church. His salvation–and that of the land he lives in–comes in the form of the only thing that can vanquish the metal monsters: rain, which causes them to rust.

The Screwball onslaught soon bogs down as their inner workings start to seize up. One is permanently frozen in a “heiling” position; a tank, meanwhile,  sinks slowly in the mud in an eerie echo of the “last men on earth” scene in Peace On Earth.

As soon as the Screwballs are defeated, everything returns as it was: Jan finds Janette, and their joyous dancing makes the tulips return, bringing life back to their land. They look off in the distance to view  clouds in a “V For Victory” formation as the cartoon ends.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

It would be too easy–and innacurate–to dismiss this as a frivolous treatment of a serious subject, in contrast to the presumably more realistic Peace On Earth mentioned earlier. Harman’s cartoon might have portrayed war more realistically, but Pal’s film is about its effect on innocent people rather than warfare itself. Pal does what Harman did in combining the serious with the lighthearted, but does it better by making us care more. In Pal’s cartoon, the enemy is impersonal. In Harman’s, man is.

Harman sees no hope in the human race, preferring to look instead to the animals. Pal couldn’t think that way–humans may have caused the war, he felt, but humans could stop it. It’s a pretty difficult statement to argue with.

(Edited 2/3/10 to correct minor typos and “tidy up” the text a little).

(Edited to remove embedded video due to a claim by the copyright owner, 3/2/10)

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