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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Seuss From the Source (originally published 11/00)

People often look at me askance when I voice my opinion that Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was one of the great literary figures of the Twentieth Century. They seem to think that I couldn't possibly be serious. I, on the other hand, don't understand how anyone could seriously question the proposition.

I think it may have something to do with the fact that Geisel, like all master craftsmen, succeeded in making his work look easy to the untrained eye. If you think it's child's play to invent those simple, lilting rhymes, however, I can only suggest that you try it sometime. Better yet, spare yourself the humiliation by reading a few reviews of the newly-released live action version of Geisel's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Few reviewers have been able to resist the temptation to try their hand at some Seussian rhyming couplets. The results speak for themselves. Geisel's verses fly on gossamer wings; his would-be imitators' efforts limp along with all the grace of a wounded rhino.

That, bottom line, is the trouble with a project like Ron Howard's "Grinch." In order to pad it out to feature length, they had to embellish the original. Unfortunately, Geisel was no longer around to guide their efforts. Still, there are pieces of the Seuss canon available on video that were touched directly by the master's hand. If you want to see what Seuss material looks like with creative input from Geisel himself, look for these titles on home video.

"Private Snafu" (1943 - 1945). During World War II, Geisel was inducted into the Army Signal Corps as a captain, where he worked under Hollywood director Frank Capra to write and produce military training films. Instead of dry, boring talking-head short subjects, they invented an animated character called Private Snafu, the embodiment of everything a good soldier should strive to avoid. The name came from a familiar military acronym that stands for Situation Normal, All Fouled Up (actually, I've cleaned it up a bit). All 28 of the Snafu shorts have been released on a DVD called "The Complete Uncensored Private Snafu." Keep in mind that these cartoons were made to be shown exclusively to soldiers, so they were permitted to be much racier in content and language than most cartoons. By today's standards, they would rate, at worst, a PG-13, but you wouldn't want to confuse them with standard Dr. Seuss fare. Geisel didn't personally write all the scripts, but he did have a direct hand in "Gripes," "Spies," and "Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike." Geisel collaborated on several of these cartoons with Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones, a partnership that would bear additional fruit some twenty years later.

"The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T." (1953) Geisel's only original screenplay for a feature length film was this delightful fantasy about a ten year old boy who hates taking piano lessons. Drifting off to sleep instead of practicing, he dreams of his piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried) as an evil madman who imprisons 500 youngsters in a remote castle, forcing them to labor like galley slaves at a gigantic keyboard. Reproduced below is a promotional trailer for the film's long-awaited home video release, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Horton Hears a Who" (1971). I'm skipping over the half-hour animated version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1966) on the grounds that no one can be unfamiliar with it, especially in this Year of the Grinch. I'll only mention that it represented the happy creative reunion of Geisel and Chuck Jones. They later teamed up yet again to produce a short animated adaptation of Geisel's "Horton Hears a Who." The result, if not as altogether splendid as their Grinch adaptation, is still quite good. It deserves to emerge from the Grinch's shadow and be appreciated on its own merits.

I think one of the reasons Jones and Geisel worked so well together is that they both believed that entertainment for children can only be considered superior if it is equally entertaining to both adults and children. With Geisel already gone and Jones in his mid-eighties, I hesitate to speculate on how much longer that philosophy will continue to guide those who would translate Dr. Seuss to the screen. We can only hope that other talents will come along whose attitude toward the Seuss texts leans less toward fruitless embellishment and more toward Horton the elephant's credo of remaining "faithful, one hundred percent."

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