The best animator you've never heard of.
Even aficionados of animation rarely know his name. You may dimly remember seeing clips of his work on cable late at night. Even the IMDb incorrectly identifies his masterwork, "The Mascot," under the name "The Devil's Ball," and dates it eight years too early (and offers no other credits at all). His name is Ladislaw Starewicz. And if you like Henry Selick, or the Brothers Quay, or George Pal's Puppetoons, you might want to remember who he is.
Ladislaw Starewicz began his career at the birth of filmmaking, in pre-Revolutionary Moscow. His initial interests lay in documentary filmmaking, particularly nature films. But when Starewicz found himself using stop-motion effects to simulate a beetle fight, he discovered his true talent was narrative.
The Cameraman's Revenge collects six of Starewicz's masterpieces, covering several phases of his long career. Image's DVD presentation defaults directly to the feature itself, but any of the films are selectable from the main index. The first four shorts are presented with restored tinting and stock silent music, while "The Mascot" is presented in black and white, with a restored soundtrack by Edouard Flament. "Winter Carousel" was photographed in color.
"The Cameraman's Revenge" (1912): This first short is an amusing, if oddly sordid soap opera about a pair of married beetles who are unfaithful to one another. This is more than a simple children's film: it is most intriguing for its critique of a sexual double standard in marriage (the husband beats his wife for having an affair, but is himself exposed publicly for cheating as well).
"The Insect's Christmas" (1913): A tiny Father Christmas escapes from atop a tree in order to treat the insects of the forest to a Christmas party. This is perhaps the most lightweight of the shorts on this disc, but a nice example of Starewicz's happier pre-Revolutionary tone (and an interesting contrast with the final short in the program).
"The Frogs Who Wanted a King" (1922): Now things get interesting. Fleeing for his life following the Russian Revolution, Starewicz settled in Paris and began to infuse his work with a subtle political agenda. Sponsored by the expatriate Russian Art Society of Paris, this short, sometimes entitled "Frogland," retells the fable of a group of frogs who demand Jupiter send them a king. At first, he sends a log, which sits and does nothing. Dissatisfied, the frogs plead to Jupiter (does he look a little like Karl Marx?) to send somebody a bit more active. So Jupiter sends a stork, who eats the frogs. Finally, Jupiter tops it all off with a lightning bolt attack on the survivors. A conspicuous critique of the recent political turmoil in Russia (from the disinterested tsar to the vengeful Lenin), this beautifully animated work stands as a political fable for any generation. What is most striking at this stage of Starewicz's career is his command of film technique: dozens of smoothly moving figures given a strong sense of personality. And his skills only improve from here.
"Voice of the Nightingale" (1923): A little girl (played by Starewicz's daughter Nina, who appeared in many of his films) traps a nightingale. That evening, the bird sings visions into her dreams: lovely dancing flower petals and insects (clearly a visual influence on the "Nutcracker" segment in Fantasia) and the touching story of the nightingale's courtship and marriage. The moral: birds (and all of nature) are not toys and should be treated as independent subjects.
"The Mascot" (1933): You may remember that I listed this film in a recent column as one of the most important short films ever produced. Well, here it is: the story of a poor mother and daughter, and a loyal toy dog on a quest to bring his beloved owner an orange. Sound sentimental? It is, but it holds up well as an allegory for the Depression that gripped Europe in the 1930s. The dog's desire to bring the little girl a small bit of hope, a glimpse of a world of sunshine and flavor, is nearly thwarted by a horde of monstrous creatures that stand in his way. The classic sequence here is the notorious "Devil's Ball," featuring some of the most stunning stop-motion animation ever put on film. How did Starewicz manage to animate creatures made from torn paper, twigs, shoe leather, bones, and even balloons and make them all breathe with life? A masterpiece of surrealism, "The Mascot" alone is reason for animation fans to track down this disc.
"Winter Carousel" (1958): By the end of his long and prolific career (Starewicz died in 1965), Starewicz had achieved huge success producing commercial films for clients throughout Europe. But his first love remained children's films. A rabbit and brown bear dance and skate through a Christmas wonderland, flirting with a cute female bear and teasing a plump snowman. But soon, the seasons pass, and the snowman melts into a scarecrow-like piper of spring. The rabbit and bear play a bit, but must soon settle down and get to work planting (keep an eye on that dancing grasshopper—Henry Selick will pay tribute to him later in James and the Giant Peach). The moral: seasons change, and play must give way to work, but friendship always holds fast.
As noted above, the films come in a mix of tinted black and white and color. The earlier ones are not in ideal condition: numerous scratches are evident on the prints, but the films appear complete and are probably in the best shape possible under the circumstances (considering that some of them are older than Strom Thurmond).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although much is made on the packaging of Starewicz's importance to the history of animation, extras on this DVD are conspicuously lacking. A few lines of biography on the inside of the snapper case—and that is it. No background or documentary information, much less anything on his amazing animation techniques, are contained in the film presentation itself. This is a major disappointment. In addition, at only 80 minutes, the program seems far too short. Where is Starewicz's famous hour-long adaptation of "Reynard the Fox," a decade-in-the-making effort long considered a masterpiece on par with "The Mascot?" Starewicz made dozens of short films in his career, and it seems rather stingy of Image to give us only six. And no supplemental material to boot.
Given the lack of extras, I expect only real animation buffs will appreciate this disc. Casual fans who have never heard of Starewicz or his legacy will find this taste intriguing, but not as enlightening as it should be. It is always great to see the great film pioneers preserved (considering how much of film history has been lost or ignored by the general public), but there is just too little here to draw in newcomers. If you are a fan of classic animation, particularly stop-motion, then I highly recommend adding this disc to your collection. "The Mascot" by itself is almost worth the disc price alone.
This court sentences Image Entertainment to a class in film history. Your "Milestone Collection" needs to be more accessible to the general public. Otherwise, this court finds no fault with Ladislaw Starewicz or his work
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