Once upon a time, there was a first feature-length Puppetoon dream that turned into a live-action reality with Oscar-winning special effects and its own soundtrack story album.
MGM Presents A George Pal Production
Music, Songs & Story Recorded Directly from
the Sound Track of the Musical Adventure
Narrated by Dean Jones
Lion Records (MGM) L-70084 (12” 33 1/3 RPM / Mono)
LP Reissues: MGM Records CH-104 (1962), MCA Records MCAC-2500 (LP & Cassette, 1986)
Originally Released in 1958. Album Producer: Jesse Kaye.
Narrator: Dean Jones. Supervising Producer/Editor: Jesse Kaye. Screenplay: Ladislas Fodor, from the Brothers Grimm story. Musical Direction: Muir Matheson. Running Time: 37 minutes.
Live-Action Performers: Russ Tamblyn (Tom); Alan Young (Woody); Peter Sellers (Tony), Terry-Thomas (Ivan), Jessie Matthews (Anna, speaking voice); Norma Zimmer (Anna, singing voice); Bernard Miles (Jonathan); June Thorburn (The Forest Queen); Ian Wallace (Cobbler).
George Pal’s 1958 live-action/animated fantasy feature tom thumb is a major example of the artistic and career parallels of George Pal and Walt Disney.
Puppetoon Voices: Stan Freberg (The Yawning Man); Dal McKennon (Con-Fu-Shon, Additional Toys).
Songs: “tom thumb’s tune” by Peggy Lee; “After All These Years”, “Talented Shoes” by Fred Spielman, Janice Torre; “The Yawning Song” by Fred Spielman and Kermit Goell.
“They did start off really in a similar way with rather simple animation techniques—one with drawings, one with puppets—but essentially trying to tell rather simple stories through what were then, very new mediums,” Roy E. Disney told Arnold Leibovit (producer of the new Puppetoon Movie Volume Two DVD and Blu-ray). “The parallel goes a lot beyond that. It goes to the fact that animation, whether it’s puppets or drawings, is a science as well as an art. The science side of that seems to have led both of them through the years into these futurist, forward-looking areas of trips to the moon, future worlds, and so on.”
Roy added that the two producers had essentially a handshake agreement between them that Walt would only produce 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had Pal not already done so. Also like Walt, Pal wanted to create a feature-length animated film, but with his Puppetoons rather than cel-animated characters.
“George was trying very hard to sell a feature — Tom Thumb,” said Duke Goldstone, longtime animator and director. “Tom Thumb was going to be a puppet. It was going to be a feature-length Puppetoon. While we were working on these other projects to generate income, we were also working behind the scenes to sell a feature. We photographed the little puppets and drawings and put sound effects with them, but nobody seemed to be really interested in making a puppet movie.”
According to Los Angeles Times, Pal had signed Peggy Lee and Woody Herman for Tom Thumb in 1947, this time pitched as a live-action/animated feature. Both Lee and Herman had already appeared in Puppetoon shorts, Herman in live-action form. Lee provided voices for two Puppetoons (one of which is included in the new Puppetoons 2 video release). Lee wrote songs for the proposed Tom Thumb feature, along with Buddy Kaye and Sam Kiberg. Reports later attached such names as Buster Keaton, Thomas Mitchell and Dick Haymes (as Tom) to the proposed feature.
“In the meantime, we had two other stories that were brought to our attention, one of them was The Great Rupert, which was originally the story of a mouse but was changed into a squirrel because you had Mickey Mouse and MGM’s mouse to contend with in the other field. It starred Jimmy Durante and it was George’s first attempt at a feature film.” 1950’s The Great Rupert, a live-action family comedy/drama featuring a stop-motion squirrel (doubled by an occasional live one) has become a perennial holiday favorite, thanks in no small part to its rebirth on TCM.
Eight years later, Pal finally brought got his first fairy tale feature to the big screen. The “tom thumb” title was deliberately set in lowercase in the same manner Walt Disney requested for his “it’s a small world” attraction at the New York World’s Fair and Disneyland. The 1958 film, which was very well received, is currently available on DVD from Warner Archive.
According to one of the film’s stars, the film’s budget was also lowercase. “He was given a budget that was awfully small for tom thumb as I recall, awfully small,” said Alan Young, who also costarred in Pal’s The Time Machine, TV’s Mister Ed and voiced Scrooge McDuck for decades. “But he could make a silk purse out of any sow’s ear they handed him.”
Filming in England helped Pal complete tom thumb under budget. It also helped to give, in addition to the European style that Pal brought to all his Puppetoons, a distinctive old-world feeling to the presentation. While Peter Sellers would become an international superstar only a few years afterward. Bernard Miles, who plays Honest Jonathan, was the founder of England’s renowned Mermaid Theater (one of his young actors was animation executive Max Howard). Jessie Matthews, who played Anna, was a musical comedy superstar of the ‘20s and ‘30s, including the acclaimed Evergreen.
Singing for Jessie Matthews is the prolific Norma Zimmer, known to TV viewers as Lawrence Welk’s “Champagne Lady” and heard by Disney record listeners as Snow White on the Camarata version of the score (though uncredited) and numerous other children’s records. She was also the soloist heard in the main title of Walt Disney’s Cinderella and the soprano flower in the Alice in Wonderland garden sequence. Why doesn’t a famous singer like Jessie Matthews perform her own song? Perhaps because the offscreen voice work (Stan Freberg and Dal McKennon) was done in Hollywood and recording her would have required a U.K. vocal session that was not in the budget. It is conceivable that even Ian Wallace, also a singer, was dubbed by an uncredited vocalist for “Talented Shoes.”
To kids and animation buffs, the biggest stars of tom thumb are the Puppetoons. The film can sometimes seem steeped in the mid-20th century and brilliant as they are, even the Puppetoon sequences dance on the edge of the PC pit (alas, Con-Fu-Shun). A standout Puppetoon for all time is the Yawning Man, a comical gem of design, animation and voice—one of Stan Freberg’s finest performances—with a song designed to get the maximum comedy from the actor and artists, much as “Trust in Me” did in The Jungle Book.
Stop-motion masters Wah Chang and Gene Warren, whose storied careers include The Time Machine, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and later, for the Krofft’s Land of the Lost, brought the Yawning Man to life. As Warren explained the process to Arnold Leibovit: “The puppet itself was merely a threaded screw rod through the floor with a soft rubber body, covered in velvet. And by retracting and expanding the screw from under the floor, you could stretch him up half again his normal height and squeeze him down, which was a good part of that sequence.”
“The Yawning Man Song” by Fred Spielman and Kermit Goell is presented in its entirety on the MGM Lion soundtrack album, along with “Talented Shoes” and especially touching “After All These Years,” both of which Spielman wrote with Janice Torre. Two years earlier, the duo wrote the score for The Stingiest Man in Town, a live CBS musical adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol starring Basil Rathbone and conducted by Disney Legend Tutti Camarata. The production was animated over two decades later by Rankin/Bass for ABC with the voice of Walter Matthau. We explored both versions in this Animation Spin. Both the live version and the animated version are available on DVD. The cast album from the live version is available here (beware of inferior illegal bootlegs!)
According to Leibovit, Peggy Lee catchy “tom thumb’s tune” was a carryover song from the earlier film concepts. It was covered by several recording artists, including Patience and Prudence (whose biggest hits were “Tonight You Belong to Me” and “Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now”), Britain’s Eric Rogers and His Music and singer/choral arranger Artie Malvin, who sang and arranged singers for numerous records, especially for kids (this version is on Golden Records. He was also a vocal arranger for The Carol Burnett Show.
Russ Tamblyn’s 45 RPM single rendition was lifted directly from the finished film soundtrack itself, as was the LP. The single was released as a premium for Bosco “chocolate milk amplifier” (it turns milk all the up to eleven!). The flip side was a pop tune called “Now or Never” (not to be confused with the Elvis Presley song).
Narrating the album is another actor who at the time was billed in the liner notes as a “bright young Hollywood favorite” but would become an iconic Disney comedy star, Dean Jones. The only final soundtrack mix elements missing from the album are a few stray additional sound effects, most noticeably Woody Woodpecker’s laugh heard in “tom thumb’s tune – “This was a nod to Pal’s good friend Walter Lantz, who helped get his U.S. visa and whose most famous character appeared in a lengthy sequence in Pal’s 1950 sci-fi feature debut, Destination Moon.
[This is a highly expanded version of an earlier post.]