Books continue to be written about Walt Disney today, showing people are still fascinated by him and his evolution from a cartoon producer to, as some put it, a visionary.
Studio publicity started with Mickey Mouse in the late ‘20s but slowly switched to Disney himself by the early ‘30s as the focus moved from a funny mouse to colour cartoons, then feature cartoons, then experimental musical cartoons, then live action/animated features. There was always something new for Walt to tell columnists with space to fill, and tell them he did, no doubt making sure they put only one ‘s’ in “Disney.”
While his films may have been new, Walt himself was old news, so reporters interested in animation went looking for something different to tell (no wonder UPA was embraced by the media when it came along). And they found it in unassuming George Pal. Better still, it was wartime so reporters could work in a patriotism angle.
The Hollywood reporter for the National Enterprise Association seems to have used a comparison between Disney and Pal as an excuse to give Pal’s biography in a column released to newspapers for April 6, 1943. As he found, there really isn’t much about the two to compare.
BY ERSKINE JOHNSON
NEA Staff Correspondent
George Pal and Walt Disney are the only film producers in Hollywood these days who are not worried about where their next actors are coming from.
Disney draws his leading men. Pal carves them out of wood.
The draft, food and gasoline rationing, the increased cost of living, higher taxes, frozen salaries and three pairs of shoes a year don’t mean a thing to Pal’s puppets and Disney’s cartoon characters.
In fact, their business is booming.
Pal has been so successful with his color puppetoon shorts that he’s about to produce his first full-length feature, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Pal’s color puppetoons are similar to cartoons except that, instead of flat drawings, he uses small actual miniature sets and wooden figures six inches tall. It takes about 3,000 of them to provide the animation for a one-reel short. Like animated cartoons, the illusion of movement is accomplished by photographing the puppets, one after another, on the miniature sets.
It’s a slow, tedious job. A one-reel short, running seven to eight minutes on the screen, requires a shooting schedule of 22 weeks. All the puppets are carved by hand. Twenty-four separate puppets have been used just to show a character walking a few feet. A kiss—which lasts for but a moment on the screen—takes 48 hours to produce. A wink or a smile requires from 10 to 15 different heads.
When one of Pal's heroines gives the eye to the hero, 28 different leading ladies must be carved, each in a different position, starting with eyes wide open till they are closed. Each of these is painted by hand. Each line must be drawn in exactly the right place, else the lines would jump nervously on the screen.
You can see now why Pal’s first full-length feature is going to be quite a job. He figures a year and a half production schedule, a “cast” of 65,000 individual puppets and a cost sheet of nearly a million dollars.
George Pal is young, only 34. He was born in Budapest, but now he’s an American—thanks to Adolf Hitler. His parents were traveling entertainers. He graduated as an architect from the Budapest academy, but no one needed a young architect. So he took a job as an animator for a Budapest film company, later moving to Berlin as chief of UFA'S cartoon production department.
Then, as the Nazis rose to power, the Gestapo started snooping around Pal's home, and following him on the streets, because he was a foreigner and he fled to Prague. In Prague, he hit upon the idea of painting faces on cigarets and using them as puppet actors. But no one was interested in the idea.
So he went to Paris and immediately sold his cigaret actors to a French tobacco company for advertising films. In less than a year, he was carving puppets out of wood, and became the Walt Disney of France.
In 1939, worried about the impending war, Pal and his wife and two children sailed for New York, where Paramount studio soon gave him a contract to produce 12 puppetoon shorts a year.
Pal’s films range all the way from ridiculing the Nazis he hates—the Screwball army which rusted and fell apart in “Tulips Shall Grow” — to his next films, a delightful juvenile story, “The Truck That Flew,” and further adventures of Jasper, the little Negro boy who just can’t stay out of watermelon patches.
While Walt Disney employs hundreds of animators, Pal has a staff of only 45, mostly skilled woodworkers. His studio is a converted garage which looks more like Santa Claus’ workshop than a film factory.
But there’s nothing wooden about the nickels he’s bringing into the boxoffice. And he’s proved once again that there’s always something new under the Hollywood sun—this time that stars aren’t always born — some are hewn.
In a column a couple of weeks earlier, Johnson revealed: “George Pal’s latest Puppetoon, “Star-Studded Stampede” will be a satire of “Star-Spangled Rhythm” with puppets of Goddard, Lake, Hope and Crosby. Someone else realised the value of animation publicity, too.