Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Jack and the Beanstalk

I got a Classicflix in the mail!

What is Classicflix?  Well, it’s kind of like Netflix only all the movies and TV shows they carry are from before 1970 (I find it useful for watching old monster movies and classic comedy team flicks).  When I started this blog, I made it a point to go onto Classicflix and put some older, non-Disney fairy tale movies on my queue.  Now, the first one has arrived.  So, what fantastic actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood are here to depict the tales and lore of yesteryear . . .

Okay, so maybe not what everyone was expecting.  I actually have a better picture around here somewhere that I used for a different post.  Where is it?  Ah, here we go . . .

Yes, this is Jack and the Beanstalk, a 1952 picture starring comedy team Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.  Now, I don’t know if I’ve made it clear here or not, but I am a big fan of the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk”.  Everyone’s got their childhood favorite and that was mine.  It had a young boy as the protagonist, plus a giant, lots of climbing, some mischief (stealing the gold, hen and harp), ax-swinging and best of all there were no princesses and no kissing!  What more could a 7-year-old boy ask for?  I’m still a fan.  In fact, such a fan that I actually bought this shirt online:

And I wear it proudly!  Now, you may think that as such a big fan that I wouldn’t be happy with a couple of clowns like Abbott and Costello adapting it.  But I’m actually a big fan of Abbott and Costello too.  I’ve liked those guys ever since I saw them meet Frankenstein.  So, let’s see how the boys do with their fairy tale adaptation.

Now, the plot starts out in a sepia toned “real world” setting.  Here, we’re introduced to the players.  Jack (Lou Costello) and Mr. Dinkle (Bud Abbott) are looking for work at an employment agency.  Jack makes a pass at the woman at the desk (Dorothy Ford) only to run afoul of her boyfriend, a very tall police officer (Buddy Baer).  The duo get assigned to a babysitting job looking after an intelligent but problematic child named Donald so that his big sister (Shaye Cogan) and her fiancée (James Alexander) can go out for the night.  Upon arriving, Jack attempts to read Donald the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” (which our hero refers to as his “favorite novel”) only stumbles over the big words.  So, he gets Donald to read it to him instead.  Jack starts to fall asleep and dream the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk”.

So, they’ve already turned the Hollywood cliché of the kid dreaming the story he’s being told on its ear b having the kid read the story to a dreaming adult.

Anyway, here is where the color kicks in.  The story starts as expected.  Jack (Costello again) has to sell his cow because they’re too poor not too.  Only this time, along the way he meets a prince (Alexander again) and princess (Cogan again), both of whom are not eager to enter into an arranged marriage to fix the kingdom’s giant-induced monetary crisis.  When Jack gets to the market, he meets with the butcher Mr. Dinklepuss (Abbott again) who swindles him into selling the cow for beans.  Jack plants the beans and they  grow into a giant beanstalk.  Now, here’s where the story alters a little.  Jack does indeed climb the beanstalk.  However, upon hearing that there is a hen that lays golden eggs at the top, the selfish Mr. Dinklepuss joins him.  Also, rather than hiding and stealing from the giant, they find themselves prisoners of the giant and all sorts of schtick results.  There are some exploding eggs, resulting from when Jack feeds some hens gunpowder.  There’s some matchmaking for the prince and princess who previously got captured and don’t know who each other is.  Finally, there is an escape attempt involving trees being used to catapult people over a wall.  Now, as you can probably guess the giant and his housekeeper (replacing the giant’s wife found in many versions of the story) are played by Buddy Baer and Dorothy Ford.  Now, there aren’t any big special effects in this production.  Buddy Baer as the giant is just as tall as, well, Buddy Baer.  Maybe about 7 feet.  This may seem kind of weak sauce, but let’s remember that putting aside technical limitations, height for giants has never been standardized.  At one point in history, a 7 foot tall man may have been called a giant.  Heck, lets look at this illustration by Arthur Rackham:

The giant is only twice as tall as his wife, who looks to be an average size human.  Yet, in some versions of the story, regular people are practically the size of bugs by comparison.

Getting back to the movie itself, it’s really not a bad little film.  There are some songs, as many family films of the time had.  They’re not fantastic, but they’re not bad either.  As for Costello’s performance as Jack, he doesn’t come across as a typical hero.  However, that’s what makes it work.  While “Jack and the Beanstalk” is a fairy tale, traditional English “Jack Tales” are often fool stories about a foolish boy whose actions defy traditional logic yet comes out okay in the end.  I have to say, other than maybe the version from Into the Woods, there are few versions that capture the essence of “Jack as fool” quite as well as Costello’s version.  It’s not to his detriment, either.  While he may be a fool most of the time, he also proves himself uncommonly brave and resourceful at other times.  It’s just what you’d want in a Jack.

Jack and the Beanstalk isn’t any kind of landmark film when it comes to fairy tale inspired cinema.  It didn’t redefine any genres or anything.  I also can’t say that it’s Bud and Lou’s best film.  However, it is a fun little family-friendly romp with a classic comedy duo.  I won’t say run out and see it, but it could be worth a watch if it pops up on Turner Classic Movies or something.  I don’t know what to say to finish this off, so I’ll just say something that I’ve always wanted to say:
Heeeeeeeey, Abbooooott!

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