Thursday, 30 December 2021

tom thumb

Yawn Of
The Bed

tom thumb
UK/USA 1958
Directed by George Pal
Warner Archive DVD Region 1

I must have been not much more than a nipper when I last saw tom thumb. It was one of those films that was perpetually showing on television every Bank Holiday and Christmas in the UK throughout most of the 1970s and probably the 1980s too. A well loved favourite that people didn’t fail to tune into. I wasn’t particularly wanting to see it again however but, my dad was keen to remake the acquaintance of the movie and I can remember him singing songs from this throughout the 70s (and sometimes still). So I took a gamble for his birthday because the only way this is still available to see, from what I can gather, is from a Region 1 Warner Archive DVD (it’s kind of a shame this isn’t available in Blu Ray) and reports were mixed as to whether the film was in the correct aspect ratio or not. Or maybe I’m just too old and ‘full frame’ doesn’t mean what it used to (which certainly used to mean a 4:3 aspect ratio whether the film was shot like that or not). Well, for anyone else wanting to pull the trigger on this one, let me assure you that the film is, at least, presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio on the Warner release.

And it’s such a charming film. It kind of does seem made for kids in some ways because the acting is much broader than what you might normally see in an MGM Musical of the time... but that makes it no less entertaining and, although the special effects which won an award in its day are somewhat creaky now, the film hasn’t really lost any of its magic and, another plus if you’ve never seen it before, is that the story really doesn’t always go in the direction you think it will.

The film starts with a wonderful title sequence where a big old leather or Rexine-style bound book is shown bearing the title of the film in really small print. Then a hand with a magnifying glass passes over it so we can read said title before the pages start turning and we are introduced to the various cast members as page after page of illustrations etc. After this the film carries on with the magical Queen of the Forest (played by June Thorburn) asking the Woodcutter (Bernard Miles) not to cut down the big oak which has enough timber to keep the village warm all winter. For his kindness at eventually agreeing she grants him three wishes but, when he goes home to tell his wife (Jessie Matthews), the two of them accidentally waste their three wishes in sausage related mishaps. However, as a last streak of kindness, the Queen gives this childless couple a child of their own... except, instead of a baby, they get a full grown Tom Thumb, played by Russ Tamblyn, shrunken down to around 10 inches instead.

All goes well and we have singing and dancing and George Pal, who had what was more or less his first go at directing his first feature length film here instead of just producing (and it was a roaring success for him), also uses his ‘puppetoons’, which are basically stop motion characters such as Ray Harryhausen would later animate in movies, as various toys and objects that dance around and speak with Tom when the parents aren’t around (hmm... where have I heard that premise before?).

Then we’re introduced to the romantic interest, Woody, played by Alan Young, who wants to pair up with the Queen of the Forest but can’t until he’s kissed her and made her mortal. And also, the two villains of the piece, played by Terry Thomas and Peter Sellars. The film has some wonderful scoring by Douglas Gamley and Ken Jones (which I can’t believe has not made it onto CD as yet) and some of the work on the songs was by Peggy Lee (I’m not sure how much of a contribution she made, though). Actually, the songs are great and the sequence with the animated ‘yawning man’, voiced by the always brilliant Stan Freberg, is particularly infectious and is almost guaranteed to make any audience watching the scene feel sleepy.

There’s a nice symmetry to some of the shots as Pal uses uprights such as a bed post at centre of the screen while the woodcutter and his wife sleep, somewhat innocently, head to head, horizontally in bed, facing away from each other with the tops of their heads united (no wonder they never produced any kids... this position is not something you’ll find in the Karma Sutra). Something tells me this style of framing is so the audience gets used to it when sly techniques are used to try and cover up certain special effects trick shots throughout the movie. Some of these effects are successful... and there a few oversize novelty sets for when just Russ Tamblyn is on screen... but there are also quite a few bad matte lines in the picture, it has to be said.

There’s also a certain sense of traditional fairy tale cruelty laying at the hear of the film, such as when the woodcutter and his wife are charged with robbing the villages gold and instead of sentencing them to prison they are sentenced to a public whipping. Apparently, the ‘whipping guy’ had forgotten to be cast on the day of the shoot and so the masked character is Peter Sellars, doubling up on roles. Of course, this film is based on a fairy tale from The Brothers Grimm, who were not known for holding back on the gore and nastiness content of their tales in their original translations (they have become somewhat cleaned up throughout the years in different international versions) but the movie, at least, doesn’t make good on this particular set up, as Tom and Woody race against time to bring the real culprits to justice before the whipping begins. There’s even a nod to the source material as Russ Tamblyn is seen dancing on the cover of a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales early in the movie. Of course, he would reprise his role as Tom Thumb as well as playing another character just four years later in the big Cinemascope production of The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm.

The acting in tom thumb is, as I said, not exactly subtle but I do like the fact that the film really doesn’t take itself too seriously and loved the fact that, when Tom is lowered by rope into the treasury, the bags of gold are labelled up as either ‘Gold’ or ‘More Gold’. And its little details like this within the frame that keep the film from getting dull at any point and make it a bit of a carnival ride entertainment. So there you have it... if you’ve not seen tom thumb then maybe you were missing out in your childhood. It’s full of wonderful, larger than life situations which, may seem humdrum now but which must have been a thrill to see at the cinema on its first release and, I for one, am certainly glad to be falling back under its spell again. Definitely worth a watch if you enjoy fantasy cinema and this film opened the doors to Pal directing an unproduced film he’d always wanted to have a go at, his amazing version of The Time Machine (which is another of the many classics which he either directed and/or produced). It would be nice if we could get a Blu Ray of this but, until then, the Warner Archive DVD is probably the best way you’re going to see this, almost but not quite, forgotten classic these days.

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