Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske (1940)
One of the very few books I still have from early childhood is a hardback copy of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (first published in 1883). The book has a home-made dustjacket of brown paper with my name and address handwritten on the front cover – I’d guess when I was seven or eight. I don’t recall getting the book and I suspect it wasn’t mine: inside it, my brother has written his name and our address too. It looks like Steve’s handwriting from his early teens. He was probably, tactfully, reminding me that the book really belonged to him but wasn’t inclined to fight to retrieve it. This is an advantage of being the youngest child by a few years: by the time you appropriate your siblings’ possessions they’ve grown out of them. Yet in spite of taking the trouble to claim ownership, I’m not sure I ever read The Adventures of Pinocchio or that, until yesterday, I’d ever seen the classic Disney film in its entirety – as distinct from clips across decades of BBC Disney Time compilations at Christmas and Easter.
The opening of Pinocchio has Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket) singing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ after a celestial choir intro. The credits give way to shots of an antique-looking edition of Collodi’s book (with, on the shelf behind it, volumes of ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ – both forthcoming Disney attractions). I was all ready to be sentimentally nostalgic. My mood had changed, a few minutes later, on completion of the tour of the workshop of the woodcarver Geppetto. The surrounding Tuscan landscape is beautiful and the lighted windows of Geppetto’s house, which we first see with Jiminy Cricket from the outside looking in, are greatly welcoming. Inside, however, the place is full of comical clocks and waggish automata; Figaro isn’t quite a cat or a kitten but a sort of dwarf feline; and Geppetto’s goldfish Cleo bats long eyelashes and has pouty lips. As is often the case in Disney, the external world is invested with an enchanting, sometimes menacing quality – the images are supercharged picture-book illustrations. He and his animators realise ingeniously their complete understanding of the essence of movement of particular animals or natural phenomena (in Pinocchio, for example, the lapping of sea on the sand after Geppetto and his household have escaped from the belly of a whale). But many of the living creatures on planet Disney make you queasy.
I didn’t like the look of Pinocchio (voiced by Dickie Jones) either before or after the Blue Fairy brought him to life – although there’s no denying that you empathise with him enough to be horrified by the nose he grows when he tells lies. (It eventually extends to a branch in bloom with a bird’s nest full of fledglings.) The story must have presented a particular challenge to the Disney team: they had first to animate the inanimate before finally humanising Pinocchio, once he’s proved himself, through the courage and altruism he shows, as a ‘real boy’. The scheme of metamorphosis in the film is, in some other instances, more complex and more worrying. The ne’er-do-well boys who go to Pleasure Island are eventually transformed into jackasses, to be sent to work in salt mines or perform in circuses. It’s upsetting enough to see them grow donkey ears, hooves and tail; when the Coachman who transports the boys to the island yells at one of the semi-morphed creatures that he isn’t yet a proper jackass because he can still do more than bray, this momentary reminder of the real order of things is jolting. You think: why shouldn’t a donkey speak, when a cricket and a fox have just been talking and singing? The magical being that is the Blue Fairy, who grants wishes made upon the wishing star in the night sky, is the most humanoid in terms of physique, hairdo and voice (by Evelyn Venable) – all of which combine to turn her into a Hollywood star of the period.
If I ever did see Pinocchio as a child, I think I’d have been taken with the classy, composed Blue Fairy. I’d have been troubled – I was even yesterday – by the comic humiliation of the vulpine ‘Honest’ John Worthington Foulfellow (Walter Catlett), inflicted inadvertently by his dim (mute) alley-cat sidekick, Gideon. It’s probably a legacy of being impressed, like Jemima Puddleduck, by Beatrix Potter’s sandy-whiskered gentleman in a frock coat. Anyway, I felt embarrassed for Honest John when Gideon’s sledgehammer trapped the fox’s head inside his own top hat. The actor’s life offered to Pinocchio by disreputable Honest John is a more specific temptation than the attractions of Pleasure Island. I’m certain I’d have seen a place devoted to all-lads-together self-indulgence as purgatory. I’d rather have gone to school and read books than played hookey and games so the moral lesson of Pinocchio would have been lost on me. (It does seem to be a lesson for boys rather than for children generally – although, when the delinquent Lampwick shows Pinocchio how to shoot pool and smoke cigars on Pleasure Island, this idea of corrupted youthful behaviour brought to mind C S Lewis’s (later) illustration, in the last of the Narnia books, of how girls go wrong: Susan Pevensie is dismissed from the fulfilment of the Christian story, and presumably loses out on Heaven, once she’s interested in lipstick and nylons.)
The moralising is underpinned by humorous but persistent xenophobia in the characterisation of Stromboli, the man who runs the travelling puppet show, and the Dutch, French and Russian marionette dance acts that feature on the bill. It’s no coincidence that Pinocchio’s conscience, Jiminy Cricket, is the most straightforwardly and unpretentiously American voice to be heard but Cliff Edwards does make it likeable. I felt comfortable with the visualisation of Jiminy too – perhaps because I don’t have a clue what an actual cricket looks like. The song score by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington has achieved deserved longevity. The soundtrack of only five numbers includes, as well as (the Oscar-winning) ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’, ‘Give a Little Whistle’, ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee’ and ‘I’ve Got No Strings’. The relatively unremembered song is ‘Little Wooden Head’, sung by Geppetto (Christian Rub). I wonder if the ‘Worthington’ in Honest John’s name was inspired by Noel Coward’s warning against the stage, released in 1935?
1 March 2015
 Sharpsteen and Luske are named on IMDB and by Wikipedia as the film’s ‘supervising directors’, among Walt Disney’s seven-strong directing team for the film.