The Bootleg Files: Petroushka

BOOTLEG FILES 604: “Petroushka” (1956 animated short based on the Stravinsky ballet).

LAST SEEN: A copy is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: As part of a VHS anthology of John David Wilson’s animated films.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It seems to have fallen through the cracks.


At least two generations of television-weaned cartoon lovers identify some of the greatest works of operatic and symphonic music by linking the landmark melodies to the knockabout mayhem of Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Heckle and Jeckle, Woody Woodpecker and Tex Avery’s menagerie. Of course, not every animation studio believed that the only way to approach classical musical was by having cartoon characters dancing on pianos or flooding an opera house. Disney did include comic highlights in his groundbreaking feature “Fantasia,” but he also mixed in segments of compelling artistic wonder – including an interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” tied to the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.

Stravinsky clearly saw the potential in the union of animation and classical music, and he returned to the paint-and-ink media in the 1950s on another groundbreaking animated endeavor based on one of his most beloved works.

British-born animator John David Wilson came to the U.S. after World War II and worked for the Disney and UPA studios before setting up his Fine Arts Films in 1955. His first production, the animated short “Tara the Stone Cutter,” received positive feedback from critics and audiences, and he reached out to Stravinsky on an animated adaptation of the great composer’s ballet “Petroushka.” This may have seemed a bit ambitious, since Wilson was working on a tight budget and his penchant for the UPA style of limited animation was at odds with the fluid movements of a balletic presentation. Remarkably, Stravinsky agreed to adapt his work to the tight parameters of an animated short, even going so far as to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for the soundtrack.

Wilson’s “Petroushka” begins with abstract shapes twirling and fluctuating in time to Stravinsky’s music. The abstract objects then begin to become recognizable as fireworks, a Ferris wheel and roller coaster. The scene is a carnival, and one of the attractions are the Living Puppets: the clown Petroushka, a beautiful ballerina and an oleaginous villain who is a Moor in the original ballet but is presented here as an acrobat. The malevolent Puppet Master rules over them with violent authority – but since they are puppets, they suffer no physical or emotional scars from his cruelty.

During one evening at the carnival, the Puppet Master plays a flute that hypnotically captures the attention of the fairground crowd. The stage show involving the Living Puppets commences, but Petroushka’s physical clumsiness brings laughs from the crowd and anger from the Puppet Master. The crowd throws hats on the stage at Petroushka, who juggles them into a monumental moving sphere. While he is doing this, the acrobat is on the trapeze and the ballerina is on the tightrope – but Petroushka’s juggled hats fly so high that he knocks them both from their aerial feats.

The Puppet Master is furious at Petroushka and throws him into a box, where he has a surreal dream involving the ballerina. When he awakes and emerges from the box, he intrudes on the acrobat’s efforts to woo the ballerina. The infuriated acrobat grabs scissors and tries to stab Petroushka, who escapes into the carnival. The acrobat pursues Petroushka across the roller coaster and through a hall of mirrors before stabbing him in front of a circle of people. A police officer comes to investigate, but the Puppet Master shows up and displays that Petroushka is merely a creation of sawdust and cloth. The Puppet Master throws Petroushka away, but the dead puppet miraculously comes back to life, ascends the pole for the trapeze act, and swings across the carnival to his freedom.

“Petroushka” is a wonderfully strange and compelling work, with Stravinsky’s challenging music beautifully matched against Wilson’s eccentric artistic designs – most jarringly, the presentation of the laughing crowd as rows of disembodied heads. While a too-serious culture vulture could rue the replacement of balletic grace with slapstick, it is difficult not to be impressed with the harsh climax with the scissor-wielding acrobat, which was uncommonly mature for a cartoon of that era.

“Petroushka” made history by becoming first animated film accepted by the Venice Film Festival. American audiences saw it in 1956 as a segment on the NBC broadcast of “The Sol Hurok Music Hour,” and film historian Jerry Beck has reported that “Petroushka” was submitted for consideration (but not nominated) in the 1962 Academy Award Best Animated Short category – a peculiar effort, considering the film was six years old at the time.

Wilson went on to a long and successful career in animation. And while he may not have become a household name, much of his work – including the 1971 feature “Shinbone Alley,” the animated shorts he made for Sonny and Cher’s television variety show and the opening credits of the 1978 film “Grease” – are recognizable. A 1985 collection of Wilson’s animated shorts, including “Petroushka,” was released on VHS video under the title “John Wilson’s Fantastic All Electric Music Movie.” However, that has never been reissued on DVD or Blu-ray. A faded 16mm print of “Petroushka” has been transferred to YouTube – and while it may not capture the full vibrancy of the original presentation, it nonetheless provides a much-needed (if unauthorized) viewing of this fascinating work.

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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