Monday, May 25, 2020

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Hanna-Barbera's Jack and the Beanstalk.

In the history of TV animation, there are few bigger names than Hanna-Barbera.  A company founded by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who created Tom & Jerry for MGM, they created a number of tricks and methods that made producing animation for TV a viable option.  They then went on to create a number of popular characters and series like Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Jonny Quest, Space Ghost, Scooby-Doo and many more.

Why do I bring this up?  Because almost every major animation studio will take a crack at a popular fairy tale at some point.  Hanna-Barbera did it (for probably not the only time) for a 1967 telefilm production of Jack and the Beanstalk.
The film is a hybrid of animation and live action.  It stars Bobby Riha as Jack, Ted Cassidy (aka Lurch from The Addams Family) as the voice of the animated giant, Janet Waldo as the voice of Princess Serena (aka the Harp) and the one and only Gene Kelly as the peddler Jeremy Keen.  I should also note that Gene Kelly also produced and directed the movie.

The movie starts with Jack coming down the road with his cow and meeting Jeremy the peddler.  There’s a song and dance number (these happen quite often in this movie) and Jack walks away having traded the cow for some magic beans.  Jack goes back home and then we see him telling his mother about how he messed up.  Jack’s mother doesn’t actually say anything herself and we don’t even see her face (there’s a reason for this and I’ll get back to it later).  Jack then disposes of the bean and goes to bed only to find it grown into a giant beanstalk.  He goes out to find who else but Jeremy and Jack’s ex-cow.  Jeremy had come by to check on Jack after their trade.  Instead, he found a giant beanstalk which both he and Jack would both climb. 

That’s right.  Jack isn’t alone on his adventure.  Because when you sign Gene Kelly to your movie, you don’t relegate him to a bit part.
Anyway, they go up the beanstalk where they encounter a giant, a golden harp that’s actually a cursed princess, a couple of woggle-birds, a colony of scared mice and engage in many, many song and dance numbers (because Gene Kelly) and also engage in some strange but amusing wordplay (it’s hard to describe, you’ll just have to hear it for yourself).

This isn’t the first time Gene Kelly worked with Hanna and Barbera or their characters.  As you may recall, he danced with Jerry the Mouse in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh.  He acquits himself about as well here.  Though, between his producing, directing and the expanded role of his character, his role here might seem a bit outsized.

In  fact, one could argue that the movie is more like “Jeremy and the Beanstalk” with Jack as Jeremy’s sidekick.  The reason being that Jeremy is given a love story in the movie with Princess Serena aka the Singing Harp.  The payoff is something else though, but describing it involves MAJOR SPOILERS.  So, be warned.  You see, Serena is under a spell by an ogre that bonds her to the rest of the harp.  The spell can be lifted with a kiss (because animated fairy tale).  This kiss being quite naturally accompanied by a song and dance number (again because Gene Kelly).  Jeremy had fallen  for her at first sight, and apparently her for him.  But getting to her proves difficult.  Eventually it does happen, with the kiss and the song and dance and all that.  They escape the giant and Princess Serena wants Jeremy to stay with her.  And he sends her away because (and I’m paraphrasing) they’re from two different worlds.  She’s a princess and he’s just a peddler.  Now, they get back home and dispose of the beanstalk and Jack’s mother comes out to meet them.  Okay, so remember how I said we didn’t see Jack’s mother’s face or hear her speak, to the extent that Jack basically scolded himself?  Well, she shows up and SHE LOOKS JUST LIKE A LIVE ACTION VERSION OF PRINCESS SERENA.  Maybe a little bit older, but still clearly the model for the animated character.  And Jack’s mother isn’t a worn down middle-aged peasant woman.  In this case she’s a middle-aged but still quite lovely woman played by 1957 Miss America beauty contest winner Marian McKnight.  So, that’s the “happily ever after” here: the peddler marrying Jack’s mother.  I know  I usually come across as a bit of a traditionalist about “Jack and the Beanstalk”, but as someone who’s not exactly a spring chicken myself anymore, I have to applaud a fairy tale production where the older people get the happy ending (sidenote: has anyone ever compiled a collection of folk and fairy tales specifically aimed at the over 35 crowd?).  It is a bit strange from a technical standpoint though.  Because even though Princess Serena may have been modeled to look like McKnight, she wasn’t voiced by her.  Princess Serena’s speaking voice was provided by Janet Waldo and her singing voice by Marni Nixon.  I’m not sure why.  Was it the standard for physical acting and voice acting to be two separate things back then?  And why did they avoid letting Jack’s mother speak earlier?
Anyway, it’s not too bad.  Certainly not my least favorite “Jack and the Beanstalk” adaptation.  Though, I’m not sure which would be my most favorite.  It did win some accolades in its day.  It won the '67 Emmy for "Outstanding Children's Program".  Is this one the definitive cinematic adaptation of "Jack and the Beanstalk"?  No, but “Jack and the Beanstalk” doesn’t really have one, and I’m actually kind of glad it doesn’t.  It means that no Hollywood version can dictate expectations for this specific story and how it’s adapted.  Literary versions might still dictate them, but a movie won’t.

I feel like of the popular fairy tales, “Jack and the Beanstalk” can inspire a bit of confusion and debate.  The fact that it’s basically about a young trickster thief who gains his happy ending by robbing another character has caused people to question its appropriateness, its message and where it could have possibly come from.  It’s led to lots of “Jack was really the bad guy the whole time” hot takes and theories that the whole thing is really a metaphor for colonialism (these people would probably have had a field day with Disney’s Gigantic if it had ever been made).  And going back to the earliest printed version only seems to make things more confusing.  Personally, maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s mostly just a power fantasy for pre-Industrial English peasants.  Let’s just say that the giant in this case is a metaphor for the rich and powerful.  The royalty, gentry, landowners, etc.  Wouldn’t your average story listener in ages gone by appreciate the story of little Jack getting the best of the giant, no matter the method?  I know it’s not a very attractive answer for many people.  The idea that this story is basically the equivalent of a dumb superhero comic or summer action movie and that the subtext is as simple as “giant=rich and powerful”, but it is a possibility.  But then, like I’ve said twice, maybe it’s best we don’t have any grand insight into this story.  Let everyone’s interpretation stand on its own.  Let human beings create their own meaning and fill in the gaps. Then we can see how the next adaptation surprises us.  Until then, if you want to watch this version, it's on the Boomerang streaming service and available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Until next time.