The Bootleg Files: The Juggler of Our Lady

BOOTLEG FILES 594: “The Juggler of Our Lady” (1957 Terrytoons animated short).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It’s just one of those things that slipped through the proverbial cracks.


Among the major animators of the post-World War II period, Gene Deitch had one of the most erratic careers, with output that ranged from memorable (the Oscar-winning “Munro”) to excruciating (the near-unwatchable feature “Alice of Wonderland in Paris”) to mind-boggling (those disturbing Tom and Jerry cartoons from the early 1960s). Deitch first gained prominence in the early 1950s at the United Productions of America (UPA) studio before moving to Terrytoons, where he became creative director. At the time, Terrytoons turned out a series of noisy and frenetic works that lacked the artistic polish of Disney or the subversive wit of the Warner Bros. output. Indeed, even Deitch would ruefully admit that his studio “made the most gross and grotesque cartoons in the galaxy.”

In this unlikely environment, Deitch brought forth one of the most charming animated shorts ever made: “The Juggler of Our Lady,” which combined gentle humor, a distinctive visual style and an unprecedented level of religious piety to the screen – or, to be more precise, the excessively elongated CinemaScope screen, whose rectangular dimensions challenged Hollywood’s animations studios.

“The Juggler of Our Lady” was based on a slender 1952 book by R.O. Blechman, which in turn was adapted from Anatole France’s 1892 book, which was itself inspired by a medieval legend. Blechman’s book featured delicate hand-drawings to present its charming tale, and Deitch later recalled, “I had never seen anything published with this wispy drawing style, the little figures more suggested than drawn.”

The story had already been filmed in 1942 as a live-action short by MGM, but Deitch believed that Blechman’s fey creative vision belonged on the big screen. After convincing the author to allow the studio behind Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle to film his work, Blechman teamed with Deitch (who took on supervising director title) and Al Kouzel (who held director credit) on an adaptation.

“The Juggler of Our Lady” follows the misadventures of Cantalbert, a medieval juggler who always fails in his attempt to win the attention of an audience. No matter what tricks and stunts he devises, his street performances are ignored by all around him. And the indifference is not just a blow to his ego – Cantalbert hoped that juggling could bring peace and harmony to the world, as envisioned in a brief dream sequence that featured warring armies substituting combat with juggling and two spaced-apart entrances marked “For Serfs” and “For Freemen” blended together into a single “S&F Juggling Club” entrances.

Cantalbert theorizes that he could win audiences if he presented himself as an ascetic. Making himself a hair-shirt – he lures a wooly dog and scissors off his fur – Cantalbert starts juggling again, but only gets the notice of a couple of ascetics wearing the same uncomfortable garment. Upset that he will die a failure and disappear into wind-blown ashes, Cantalbert decides to forsake street theater and become a monk.

Alas, Cantalbert’s entrance into a monastery is not serene – all of the monks possess some creative talent (cooking, painting, hand-printing manuscripts, music composition), but Cantalbert’s efforts to assist them in their tasks are unwelcomed disasters. When Christmas comes, the monks bring their finest output as gifts to the statue of the Virgin Mary, but poor Cantalbert has nothing material to offer as a present for the Holy Mother.

How does Cantalbert resolve his dilemma? Well, there is no spoiler here – to tip it off would give away the extraordinary surprise that is unlike anything that ever turned up in a Terrytoons short.

Deitch brought Boris Karloff to narrate “The Juggler of Our Lady,” and the celebrated movie bogeyman gave a sincere and grandfatherly recitation of the story. Philip Schieb, Terrytoons’ in-house composer, created a gentle score performed by woodwind quintet that perfectly captured the medieval environment along with the deceptively minimalist animated style of the work.

Terrytoons’ shorts were distributed by 20th Century Fox, but both studios were initially concerned by “The Juggler of Our Lady,” especially in view of its overt Catholic theology, but the film went into release in December 1957 as a Christmas presentation. The film received a BAFTA nomination and, according to animation historian Jerry Beck, the film was shortlisted for the Academy Award as Best Animated Short along with another animated short version of “The Juggler of Our Lady” created by one-time Disney artist Les Novros – details on the latter production are scant. But the Terrytoons offering – and, for that matter, neither did “What’s Opera, Doc?”, with the award ultimately going to the mediocre Sylvester and Tweety entry “Birds Anonymous.”

Oddly, Blechman was rather tactless in his view of the work. In a 2016 interview, he dismissed the production as “an okay film” and gave a backhanded compliment to Schieb by stating, “The guy did junky stuff for junky films so he must have been thrilled to get an assignment for something like this. He did a wonderful soundtrack.”

To date, “The Juggler of Our Lady” has yet to be made available in an official home entertainment release. Copies of the film can be found on various online video sites, usually with the wrong screen dimensions – this version has the correct CinemaScope parameters that gives an idea of what the film looked like in a theater. Sadly, it seems that the last time anyone got to see “The Juggler of Our Lady in an original CinemaScope print was in a 2004 retrospective of Deitch’s work at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Yeah, online video is fun, but widescreen movies were meant to be seen on a very, very big screen and not a cell phone.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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