Several Puppetoons characters, including the most prominent, Jasper. From a comic book cover.


Original medium: Theatrical animation
Released in America by: Paramount Pictures
First Appeared: 1932
Creator: George Pal
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George Pal's Puppetoons are so different from their contemporaries in animation, they're scarcely even mentioned in that context. They're not even entirely comparable to other puppet animation, in which carvings with hinged limbs are posed …

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… in slightly different positions from one frame to the next — in Pal's productions, whole new limbs are made in slightly different positions, and replaced between frames. They aren't even cartoons, at least if you consider the word to apply only to two-dimensional applications of cartoon-like exaggeration and distortion.

Puppetoons began in 1932, with a commercial film titled Midnight. It functioned just like a TV commercial does today, providing revenue for movie houses in the form of advertising, shown between entertainment items in an evening's film program. This particular one was a oneshot, advertised cigarettes, and appeared only in Europe — Pal (born Julius György Märczincsák) was still living in his native Hungary. A couple of years later, he was producing them on a regular basis, to promote a European radio manufacturer.

The public responded so well, some theatre owners didn't even charge for the advertising — the films were such a good draw, they could be considered part of the entertainment. Before long, he was producing short films that stood on their own, without commercial sponsors — again, mainly for the European market.

He was lecturing on stop-motion animation at Columbia University, when his Puppetoons came to the attention of Paramount Pictures, and he was offered a chance to produce them in America. Seeing Europe as a less congenial environment for artistic pursuits just then, he accepted. The first done for Parament (which already handled traditional cartoons, produced by Max Fleischer's studio before they took the operation in-house with Famous Studios) was Western Daze, released January 7, 1941.

On Feb. 26, 1942, Pal introduced the his best-known Puppetoons character. Jasper was far from the first, worst, or most prominent of the pre-enlightenment black stereotypes in cartoons, but in later years, he stigmatized the whole line. There may have been a lot more cartoons about Bosko, but he could more easily be ignored against the vast bulk of Warner Bros. cartoons as a whole. Jasper was in more than a third of Paramount's Puppetoons, and thus, couldn't be overlooked. Like most such characters, he was clearly not meant to cause offense, but as people grew more sensitive to such things, he did anyway. Pal, who admired America's black people as a rich source of folk wisdom, made John Henry & the Inky-Poo (1946, a powerful retelling of the eponymous legend) in part to make his true feelings on the subject clear.

The Puppetoons, by the way, were the first animated characters that Paramount licensed into comic books. From 1945-47, years before Casper, Baby Huey and the rest appeared in print, Fawcett Publications (Captain Marvel, Ibis the Invincible etc.) put out 18 issues of George Pal's Puppetoons. (A 19th issue showed up in 1950.)

As far as public interest goes, the Puppetoons could have gone on much longer than they did. What caused their demise in 1947 was the fact that Pal moved on. Feature-length films, such as Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide, occupied his later attention, to the point where the Puppetoons simply had to go. He sometimes used the term "puppetoon" in connection with his work in special effects, but it bore only scant resemblance to the real Puppetoons.

In 1987, The Puppetoon Movie was released, with Gumby hosting a collection of both European and American Puppetoons. Others are available in various video collections. Even Jasper is only a minor impediment to viewers' love of these gems, which delight young and old as much today as they did generations ago.


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Text ©2007-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © George Pal.