I’ve been wanting to write about George Pal for a long while now. A master of stop motion animation, he adapted the techniques of hand-drawn animation (such as squash and stretch) and created smooth, appealing and living characters. While I’m still researching him and his works, I have decided to write about one of my favorite animated films by him, Rhythm in the Ranks.
Rhythm in the Ranks is one of the earliest Puppetoons George Pal produced in the USA. Hailing from Hungary, George Pal had produced animation all across Europe. He eventually set up shop in the Netherlands where he mostly produced films in his trademark Puppetoon style for the Phillips company. By the end of 1939, he moved to the United States to get away from the Nazis, and started producing his Puppetoons for Paramount.
Rhythm in the Ranks is about an army of toy soldiers, focusing on one small toy soldier who is responsible for a cannon. He focuses on having fun with a girl instead of his soldierly duties, and ends up discharged. The villainous Screwball Army attacks, and with the Toy Soldiers in trouble, the little toy soldier redeems himself.
It’s a beautiful cartoon; the sets are streamlined and colorful. The hills are colored lumps with glitter used to give the appearance of grass, and the trees are cones. Basic geometric shapes make up this cartoon, but the tasteful lighting gives the forms great depth. The textures of the material are wonderful and give the film a very physical appearance. The characters are also made from simple shapes, and are brought alive by the animation. As I already mentioned, George Pal’s Puppetoons stand out from other stop motion animation by incorporating principles of hand drawn animation. The characters squash and stretch and move smoothly, displaying very little of the trademark stop motion “jerkiness.” My favorite scene is probably the skating bit early in the film. It features some of the best shots of the beautiful sets built for this film, and the reflections in the ice are just magical to look at. George Pal not only takes advantage of hand drawn animation techniques, but also advantage of the fact that he works with real world objects and light. It’s an animated film that could not exist as hand drawn animation, yet understands hand drawn animation techniques and is able to use them to push itself to greater heights. George Pal’s strong awareness of the strengths and techniques of different forms of animation is a rare one shared only by a handful of masters of animation, such as Koji Nanke.
The Screwball Army, who would appear in later Puppetoons, make their first appearance here. They are mechanical, monotone creatures based on the Nazis. They are frightening foes, but this is not their finest hour. Camera angles and mechanical wires sell them as a enemy, but their later appearance in “Tulips will Grow” portrays them much more effectively. Their introduction via an aggressively sung telegram is however probably one of the best moments in animation.
As anyone who has ever watched a Looney Tune would know, Raymond Scott’s music just works with cartoons. But before Scott’s songs were adapted by Carl Stalling at Warner Bros, Rhythm in the Ranks utilized them to great effect. The score is heavily based around his composition “The Toy Trumpet” (with some cameos from his other songs, such as the famous “Powerhouse” when the Screwball Army appears). These brilliant music choices make the film as enjoyable to listen to as it is to look at.
Rhythm in the Ranks is a wonderful cartoon and a great introduction to George Pal’s work. I highly recommend it.
Sources: Giannalberto Bendazzi’s Animation: A World History Volume 1