George Pal: A Career in Perspective

The Birth of George Pal

For anyone who loves classic cinema there is a handful of filmmakers who indisputably stand out as the epitome of a certain type of film. For many Charlie Chaplin is comedy; Frank Capra social drama with a conscience; Cecil B. DeMille is most certainly spectacle; Alfred Hitchcock is forever thrillers; and George Pal – thought-provoking science fiction. Yet there is so much more to Pal as a filmmaker. When he arrived in America in late 1939, it wasn’t on the back of any groundbreaking sciencefiction films, but on a series of animated puppet films that had earned him the title “the Walt Disney of Europe.”

Born to travelling stage performers Gyula and Mária Märczincsák on February 1, 1908, in Cegléd, Austro-Hungary, he was given the name Gyula György. His parents sent their only son to be cared for by his grandparents, actors with the National Theatre in Budapest. Despite his surroundings, young Gyula forsook the theatrical path to follow a career in architecture. However, he was never to use his degree to design buildings.

Instead he called upon his natural drawing skills to land a job at the Hunnia Studio, drawing creative embellishments to title cards, helping with set design and even utilizing limited cut-out animation for local advertising films. Most importantly for his future career, he was taught the process of drawn animation.

Around this time Pal met his future wife, Zsoka, but for many reasons a life together depended on his willingness to leave his new studio and Hungary forever. Pal first travelled alone to Berlin, and despite being unable to speak a word of German, within weeks secured a place with an advertising agency. Shortly thereafter he joined the prestigious Ufa studios as a staff artist. Life was changing apace for Pal. He returned briefly to Hungary to wed Zsoka on June 7, 1930, and with his bride settled in Berlin. Soon afterwards, at the age of 22, he found he had been fast-tracked to head the Ufa advertising and animation department, which was filled with some of the greatest talent in the German film industry at that time. Many of Pal’s German colleagues struggled with the pronunciation of his Hungarian name. So he decided to adopt his parents’ stage name and use the German equivalent of one of his first names to become Georg Pál, later becoming established as George Pal.

Pal’s tenure at the Ufa studios was not only extremely prolific, but also artistically successful, with the films under his direct control collecting several advertising awards. It has to be stressed that in no way, shape or form was Pal just an administrative head of the department; he was involved in every aspect, from design to hands-on drawn animation. This was, in many ways, the reason why he was able to survive in the years ahead. He not only was capable of organizing the day-to-day logistics of getting a project off the ground, but also was more than able to perform every aspect of its production. However, for Pal, in spite of the success he was achieving, there was always the underlying yearning to run his own business that would give him the freedom of choice he most desired. With this in mind, he was about to take an enormous gamble.

The Birth of Replacement Animation

In early 1932 in Berlin, Pal and his wife were sitting in the production office of his new film studio. It was now six months since he had left his secure job at Ufa to fulfill his dream of running his own company. With two successful drawn animation films already completed, he was mulling over his latest brief. A tobacco company wanted a film showing rows of cigarettes marching military fashion. Pal considered the daunting prospect of drawing row after row of cigarettes while absentmindedly turning a real one in his fingers. As Zsoka recalled, “He suddenly reached out and pulled another cigarette from the packet. With a pin, he fixed them together, and then made a marching action to me. I believe, at that very moment, the Puppetoons were born.”

This story is typical of Pal, who tackled every project with inventiveness and boundless enthusiasm, whether it was marching cigarettes or sending a rocket to the moon. This was only the beginning, of course, as the actual methodology for this initial film would take months to perfect. From this original idea, a form of model animation was developed that, instead of using a single figure moved and photographed a frame at a time, a number of individual figures were used, each carved into a single pose. Taken in its simplest form, it was the replacement of these individual figures, each following a planned movement, that carried the character and action along. The resulting film, “Midnight” (1932), was not only a tremendous success, it would influence the whole industry, changing the style of advertising films forever. From this early step the technique would grow, and the following films progressed from using real cigarettes to ones made of wood and rubber, gaining faces and arms and legs until they became individual characters in their own right.

Unsettled in Europe

With a thriving business, Pal and his wife were enjoying a comfortable life in Berlin, but it wasn’t to last. While Pal was totally immersed in the running of his studio, it was Zsoka who was attuned to what was going on around them. She was witnessing firsthand the rise of the Nazi Party and the increased intimidation of foreign nationals. Finally, Zsoka expressed her fears, and although it would mean losing everything they had achieved, her husband was not blind to the growing danger. They left Berlin, their home, their studio with all its equipment, on the very night that Hitler came to power.

The couple returned briefly to Hungary, but through friends soon had the chance to begin again in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Pal still had a loyal client base, but he was forced to simplify his production methods by returning to drawn animation, even making his own portable animation stand when faced with a lack of equipment. Their stay in Prague was not long, and within a short time they moved to Paris. It was here that a major breakthrough came. Preliminary work had begun in Prague on a color cartoon for a new client, the Dutch company Philips Radio. After it was completed in Paris, “Radio Valve Revolution” (1934) proved to be a sensation, prompting Philips Radio to offer Pal a long-term contract. Philips representative Sies Numann approached them with an offer of a fully-equipped and largely independent studio in Eindhoven, Netherlands, plus the guarantee of further assignments from Philips and use of their manufacturing facilities. It was an opportunity too good to refuse. The Pal replacement animation system was about to be reborn, beginning with a film that tested the Philips glass factory to its limits. Pal asked for hundreds of slightly differing glass figures that with his replacement system he would bring to life on the screen in “Ship of the Ether” (1934). It is difficult to imagine the consummate skill of the craftspeople who could create a series of figures so perfectly that they would appear to walk, talk and stretch, yet move smoothly across a giant screen that would magnify any defects a thousandfold.

Pal’s business was growing fast and they quickly outgrew their original studio. Their new premises, charmingly called Sunny Home, gave them the extra studio area they needed as well as spacious living quarters. They needed it, as the Pals’ first son, George Sies Pal Jr. (later to be known as David), was born on January 30, 1937.

Towards the end of 1939, Hitler’s power was reaching new heights as his sweep across Europe gained momentum. Pal was invited to America on a lecture tour, a repeat of the trip he had taken the previous year. This time Zsoka was determined that she and their young son would accompany him, never to return. The problem was obtaining three visas, as the authorities were suspicious of their ultimate intentions. The British government could see that the Pal style of filmmaking would be ideal for propaganda purposes and dispatched Lord Francis Chichester with all the necessary papers to transport the Pals to England. But at the very point that Pal was putting pen to paper, Zsoka noticed that a card had arrived in the post to tell them that all three of their American visas were ready to pick up. Emigration to America had been Zsoka’s dream from the very beginning, and nothing was going to stop them now.

Pal in America

When the Pals arrived in New York in late 1939, all they had with them were some personal items and a handful of the animation models from the earlier films. Pal had his lecture tour to perform, but beyond that the future was uncertain. By a stroke of good fortune, around the same time Barney Balaban, president of Paramount Pictures in New York, saw one of Pal’s European films at a party and fell in love with the unusual animation style. Others had shown interest, but it was Paramount that signed Pal to a contract to initially produce six short subjects, with not an advertising slogan in sight. A small studio was set up in a converted garage at 1041 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood, only a short distance from the main Paramount lot.

Pal as in Hollywood, with his own studio, but he still had the problem of obtaining the equipment he needed for his Puppetoons as well as the skilled personnel. What he did have was the support of two established filmmakers who would become lifelong friends, Walt Disney and Walter Lantz. Several of the Disney staff were allowed to work on a freelance basis for Pal in the early days, and a few would actually become permanent staff at the studio. It took nine months to get the studio into full production, with Pal tackling much of the animation himself on the first few films. In 1941 the Pals’ second son, Peter, was born, but it wouldn’t be until 1946 that they would all finally become American citizens, sponsored by his friend Walter Lantz.

During the seven years of production at 1041 N. McCadden Place, a wonderful array of talent would pass through the studio doors. At various times Ray Harryhausen, Willis O’Brien, Wah Chang, Bob Baker and Gene Warren plus many others would contribute their considerable expertise. The films themselves received several short subject Academy Award® nominations, with Pal being presented with a Special Award in 1943 “for the development of novel methods and techniques in the production of short subjects known as Puppetoons.”

Puppetoons and Politics

As America entered World War II, so did the film industry, with each studio providing their share of morale-boosting and propaganda films. The Pal studio was no exception, producing training films for the armed services. A number of the Puppetoon series also reflected the times, with a thinly disguised version of the German forces appearing as the Screwball Army in the Academy Award-nominated “Rhythm in the Ranks” (1941), “Tulips Shall Grow” (1942) and “Bravo, Mr. Strauss” (1943), the latter in which the composer comes to life and, like a modern-day Pied Piper, leads the invading army to its destruction in the River Danube. If only real life had been that simple.

It is a shame that this unique series of films has all but disappeared from sight. The problem has arisen through the use of a character that appeared in nearly half of the 42 Puppetoon films produced. Like most series animators of the time, Pal wanted to create a roster of recognizable characters. In the first few films, a rather nondescript character called Jim Dandy was used, as well as another called Little Jan, but although the films themselves were well received, Jim Dandy and Little Jan never really captured the imagination of the general public. The most popular character would also prove the most controversial. Jasper was a small African-American boy who, following a tradition in most of the contemporary drawn animation films, lived in a wooden shack with his mammy and was prone to getting into scrapes. His regular fellow protagonists were a scarecrow and a crow who, with their sly jibes, were constantly trying to lead poor Jasper off the straight and narrow, but often coming off second-best. Jasper was an innocent, whose basic goodness far outweighed any negative straits. Pal was accused that through these films he was perpetuating the myths of the lazy, good-for-nothing Negro, when this was never his intention.

In answer to these complaints, Pal made what many consider his greatest Puppetoon film, “John Henry and the Inky Poo” (1946), which received praise from every quarter. Even the magazine Ebony, which had been at the forefront of the accusations, had this to say about the film: “It is the first film that deals with Negro folklore, that has a Negro as its hero. Miracle of miracles, it is that rarest of Hollywood products that has no Negro stereotypes, but rather treats the Negro with dignity, imagination, poetry and love.” The Jasper stories, as well as most of those in the Puppetoon series, carried a strong moral message, so it is all the more annoying that political correctness gone mad has removed these films from public view.

A George Pal Production

It was pure economics that drove Pal into feature film production at the end of 1947, the cost of producing the Puppetoons not being matched by the films’ profits. The Puppetoons would make one last appearance in the multi-star “Variety Girl” (1947), then the Puppetoon studio closed its doors for the final time. It was no real surprise that Pal’s first live-action film, “The Great Rupert” (1949), was a light, whimsical tale featuring an animated squirrel, as this seemed a natural progression from the Puppetoon films, but it was his next film that made people sit up and take notice. Viewed today, “Destination Moon” (1950) may seem as far-fetched as the early Flash Gordon serials, but to contemporary audiences this was as close to the real thing as they could imagine, and also stunning in its execution. The film’s popularity meant that Pal’s path was set. He would go on to produce provocative science fiction films such as “When Worlds Collide” (1951) and “Conquest of Space” (1955), but it is a pair of enduring classics, “The War of the Worlds” (1953) and “The Time Machine” (1960), that has secured his place in the hearts of science fiction fans worldwide. By any standards, “The War of the Worlds” is a good film. Brilliantly updated from the novel, the invading aliens are made more terrifying by the simple ploy of making all modern weapons, including the H-bomb, useless against them. Whereas the modernization made the film more plausible to contemporary audiences, fixing “The Time Machine” firmly in its original late-19th century setting provided recognizable reference points in the early passage through time before commencing the voyage into the future.

Throughout his career, Pal would not forget his roots, and his beloved animated puppets would appear again in the popular “Tom Thumb” (1958) and “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm” (1962) and even in the later science fiction film “The Power” (1968), in which toy soldiers, animated by Pal’s son David, come to life.

When Pal died of a heart attack at his home on May 2, 1980, he left behind an amazing and diverse film legacy. One of the strongest attributes of a George Pal film is the imagery that remains in the audience’s mind long after the film has ended: wooden figures that could somehow change shape and have distinct personalities; the sleek spacecraft Luna on the Moon’s cracked surface in “Destination Moon”; the space ark sliding along its long takeoff ramp, leaving the doomed Earth in “When Worlds Collide”; Albert Nozaki’s wonderfully designed Martian war machines gliding effortlessly across a devastated landscape while defying the best efforts of the American military to dent their protective shields; the iconic Time Machine expressing visually the ultimate human fear that life – even an inspired, fruitful life – passes in a blink of an eye.

Mike Hankin is the London-based author of Ray Harryhausen: Master of the Majicks. © 2008 Mike Hankin

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