All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
Can anyone, born recently, even imagine a World, without cell phones, computers, and TV? Could they possibly conceive of reaching the age of three, without ever seeing a moving image? I remember my first movie, vividly. I remember how it felt, how deeply it affected me. The year was 1940. It spoke to me on levels so primitive that they were practically primordial. My tiny psyche had not yet evolved into what one might call rational. After all, I was only three years old. The total experience of the movie grabbed me in the very fiber of my being, and some might say, never let go. Little did my parents suspect, or ever realize, that the simple act of taking their kid to his first movie was going to shape the course of his entire life.
The film, of course, was Pinocchio. Pinocchio was, also, the first word I learned to spell. I just liked the melody of how the letters sound. Typing it, just now, still gives me a little thrill.
I can still recall the intricate thought processes of trying to figure out what I was seeing. I innocently believed that the world that was visible, through that enormous window, was unquestionably real. I perceived it as an open doorway, inviting me into a deliriously delicious world that was far more attractive than the hum drum one, around me, which I, eventually, came to learn was referred to as, “reality.
Even so, small things about it troubled me. Well, I should rather say, big things did. I could accept the abrupt changes of scenery, but it was the close-ups that confounded me, the sudden change in scale. How did the people, beyond the arch of the proscenium, who I knew, of course, were really there, grow instantly so big? I didn’t view the people seen in close ups as being closer. To my untutored eyes, they had literally grown larger. And the huge bodies, attached to those big faces that filled the screen, how did they all fit, back there?
These nuances were difficult to account for, but, as in religion, if one accepts the basic premise, and believes, one can spend the remainder of their lifetime dealing with, and rationalizing, the seeming inconsistencies. Thus, due to those 90 magic minutes in a darkened theater, I became a true believer, and set my sights on, one day, living in the Wonderful World of Disney.
I never knew a living soul who collected Pinocchio. And none of the Pinocchio artifacts I collected, quite captured the Magic of the movie, and yet I acquired them, because they were there, all part of the doctrine, like attending services on Sunday, when one might rather be elsewhere.
I do know that I loved the styling of the character. Pinocchio, himself, is the perfect combination of reality and fantasy, developed to a point of delicate perfection. The drawing on the cover of this magazine says it all, the exquisite essence of appealing!
A revelation just occurred to me: That look, that face, it has always remained in the corners of my mind. I must have been channeling it, unconsciously, when I did a line of Dolls called, “Friendz and Family” that became “The Play Along Club”, about 10 years ago. I had become tired of trying to second guess, and please everybody in the toy industry, and decided to simply make the best doll that I could. Looking at Betty Brown (Olivia), now, I realize she was the "sister" of Pinocchio, only with a smaller nose. In a sense, the elusive essence of the life force in Pinocchio is more "alive" in her than many of the toys, below.
Perhaps, it was the abstract styling of his nose that made Pinocchio unique. I’d be lying if I said the message that it conveyed, about falsehood and honesty, appealed to me. And, at three, and, again, when I was 10, its Freudian overtones eluded me. But I do know that when Pinocchio became a real boy, and the nose had to go, I saw it as a tragedy. Suddenly, his comic aspect sank into the mire of cutesy mediocrity. This, so called, happy ending was nearly as gut wrenching as Bambi’s mother dying! I wished he was a puppet again. And he did, in fact, become one, for the sake of merchandising. No one wanted a doll of Pinocchio, the “Real Boy!” But Dolls of Pinocchio “before” were produced in profusion. A pretty much definitive sampling of them fills the showcase, below.
The best of them, naturally, were produced by Joseph Kallus, for Ideal Toys. They came in three sizes, the biggest being that large doll in the middle. In the far left corner at the back, is a Marx toy called, The Pinocchio Acrobat. Next to that, is a rather handsome large doll from France that walks mechanically. Then, the big Ideal Pinocchio, and, next, a curious doll by Krueger that is part fabric, and part wood. The next row down, are three ideal medium sized dolls, one, on the right, with the box, and in the center, the largest Pinocchio by Knickerbocker, the only company that challenged Joseph Kallus in the composition Doll category. Here, too, is a Knickerbacker Jiminy, fully sculpted. This won a blue ribbon, which, ironically, resembles the one he given by the Blue Fairy. At the far right, is a Pinocchio figurine that I got when I was six. He has had a tough life, but is still here. Along the way, he lost his head, but it is attached again.
The "Ideal" Pinocchio dolls fulfill an unresolved desire for me. As a kid, one could not purchase one of these with money, as I never saw them in any store. Rather, I remember them, in profusion, as carnival prizes, adorning booths that tested one’s luck and skills, at carnivals and amusement parks, galore. I can visualize them, to this day, hanging there in rows, long after the movie had come and gone, all hopelessly unavailable to me. The only carnival prize that I could win, and by the way, always did, was at the booth called “Guess your Weight”. My bedroom was adorned with glittering plaster effigies of Superman and Donald Duck, all prizes I had won, for being unfathomably fat. But never a Pinocchio.
This angle highlights a group of items that were made in Italy. The fact that they appeared in the Kay Kamen Catalogue as Official Pinocchio Merchandise in 1940 is confusing, a curious spin on marketing. They represent the traditional image of Pinocchio as illustrated by Atillio Mussino for the original story by Collodi. Munsey offers this photo from the 1940 Catalogue, stating that the toys “are designed after the Disney character of Pinocchio.” That , of course, is not so.
They are here, in Mouse Heaven, because I like the image, especially, the strangely stylized Pinocchio on a windup bike from “Ignap” of Italy. It predates the Disney movie by 15 years, at least. Collodi's Pinocchio is to Italy what Don Quixote is to Spain, or Peter Pan is to England, a fictional entity that has come to embody the spirit and essence of its native country.
Here is a very pleasant image of the classic Pinocchio, along with some objects from a former lifetime, a World I lived in, long ago.
The toy, below, is a personal favorite. This is one wild and crazy plaything. Look at the way the contents are packaged. Every single little piece has its own place in the complexly illustrated platform. It is a Miracle that the toy could be shipped and arrive in tact. And, yet, it did, 72 years later, every piece is still in place. Would that I could say the same! And the cover art was actually created for the toy. It subtly bridges the gap between the ugliness of the contents, and the delicious art of Disney. This toy bears a strange affinity to Colorforms, where I toiled for 20 years to earn the funds to collect all this stuff. We had the same dilemma there, romancing the basic ugliness of the barely bearable plastic pieces with every bit of visual trickery that we could muster up.
There is some amazing virtuosity, going on here, as the creator of this package piles on one nuance after another, in an attempt to make the crude wooden pieces, inside, look appealing and consistent with the delicious World of Disney. Check out the plugs on the letters of Pinocchio! Nice touch! I admire the simplicity, with which, using just a few flat colors, the artist managed to make the cover appear to literally glow. And the strange color scheme, made up of limited and unattractive colors, that, somehow, succeeds in looking beautiful.
Just, contemplate the intense labor, involved in simply packaging this toy! What kind of work force did it take to put each piece in place? This wasn’t made in some country where labor was two cents an hour. This was made in Indianapolis, in the heart of the USA, in the days when there was no such thing as jobs Americans wouldn’t take, and everyone was proud to earn a living wage. Oh, would you believe Pinocchio’s noses, three of different lengths, all neatly set in place, in the complex platform that offers up a heavy dose of magic, and, at the same time, serves as the instruction sheet? This is a toy designers pleasant dream, of making a silk purse out of a donkey's ear, a toy maker’s toy, indeed!
Finally, to fill out what would, otherwise, be a very short page, I’ll add some cels. I never collected cels, agressively, especially when they started to become expensive. But, in the early days, a few cels fell my way. I was playing the game of Monopoly, the easy way, the version, in which the properties are distributed, like dealing out a deck of cards. And so Fate arbitrarily shuffeled a few cels to me.
The first of these, is a Jiminy Cricket cel, sold by Courvoisier Gallery. The background is an airbrush painting, made specifically for each cel, a silhouette of the figure had to be cut out, to serve as a mask to spray the background shadow.
On the back of each framed cel was this label. It tells the entire story of what these cels were all about. Disney felt that to create some vestige of value for these handpicked few, they had to destroy all the others.
There is a signature on the mat, God knows who actually wrote that! Amazing! From what I have been able to learn, just now, searching the internet, that signature is, most likely, real! Disney’s signature changed, over the years but that flourish remained largely unchanged. And “he tended to “print” his name on matted cels!”
And there are three more cels from Pinocchio. They came to me in a roundabout way, via France. The first is a lovely image of Cleo, enveloped in a halo of bubbles.
And here is Jiminy in a bottle, out to sea. The water ripples etc., were all seen in the movie.
The last cell is called a “set up.” It is oversized, complete, and incredibly complex. Everything, the water, the waves and white caps, gulls in the sky, wind in the sail, and the raft with characters, are each on different levels, separate sheets of celluloid. The art and mechanics of animation could hardly get more spectacular than this.
This is the pinnacle of Animation! Could anyone, including Disney, outdo it? The answer is, YES! Coming up next: FANTASIA!