Rasputin Blows Up, Turns Into Gandhi

VERY early Looney Tune from Warners. The portrayal of Rasputin — or “Rice Puddin” — seems modeled loosely on Lionel Barrymore in RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS, although it’s not as close as the caricature in Disney’s MICKEY’S GALA PREMIER.

But the singularly remarkable moment in WAKE UP THE GYPSY IN ME is the ending, when a bomb in Rasputin’s pants blows off his hair and clothing, darkening his skin and turning him into Gandhi. Which makes me wonder what the American perception of Gandhi was at the time. I imagine British cartoons, had there been any, would’ve demonized him. This seems to suggest he was a figure of fun in America, or at least at Warners, but with a sinister edge. Here’s another Warner toon with added Mahatmanimation —

A horse gets drunk and is frightened by a manifestation of Gandhi in the mirror, at 6:46.

(How does GOOPY GEER relate to Satyajit Ray’s GOOPY GYNE BAGHA BYNE?)

Did this inspire the appearance of Gandhi in Hell in SOUTH PARK: BIGGER LONGER AND UNCUT? Not necessarily, but it does suggest that this great world leader has been rather ill-served by cartoons. Maybe the time is right for an animated remake of Richard Attenborough’s bloated biopic? The idea is not a wholly original one —

When GANDHI was in the pipeline, there was controversy in India, and some doubted that any mere human actor could do justice to the role. Was it perhaps akin to blasphemy to have some ham play the great-souled one? A concerned citizen wrote to Sir Dickie and suggested that perhaps the solution would be to have India’s leader portrayed by a moving light. Attenborough wrote back “I’m not making bloody TINKERBELL.”

But maybe he should’ve?


12 Responses to “Rasputin Blows Up, Turns Into Gandhi”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    I get the feeling that in 1930s showbiz America, Gandhi was recognised for being recognisable — sheet, bare legs, glasses, what a gimmick! In the theatre revue AS THOUSANDS CHEER, there’s a sketch where he and Aimee Semple MacPherson team up as fellow publicity experts. And Warners used him as a visual punchline in “You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me” in 42ND STREET. No ideology, just an image to be recognised. Sort of like the “Oh look, a Jew!” humour in a lot of pre-Codes.

  2. And that’s the essence of ideology: “Oh look — someone who’s not like us at all !”

  3. Also, in films of the time, “Gandhi” is a popular costume for costume parties. So yes, a figure of fun for his looks.

    Aimee Semple McPherson was a figure of fun in the entertainment periodicals of the day, I don’t think I’ve read one that didn’t take a dig at her. That is, after her “kidnapping”. I haven’t seen her as a figure of fun in films (maybe because her base was in L.A.?)

  4. La Faustin Says:

    David E, yes! — sort of reminiscent of the little boy in Flannery O’Connor’s ARTIFICIAL NIGGER:

    Mr. Head’s grip on Nelson’s arm loosened. “What was that?” he asked.

    “A man,” the boy said and gave him an indignant look as if he were tired of having his intelligence insulted.

    “What kind of a man?” Mr. Head persisted, his voice expressionless.

    “A fat man,” Nelson said. He was beginning to feel that he had better be cautious.

    “You don’t know what kind ?” Mr. Head said in a final tone.

    “An old man,” the boy said and had a sudden foreboding that he was not going to enjoy the day.

    “That was a nigger,” Mr. Head said and sat back.

    Nelson jumped up on the seat and stood looking backward to the end of the car but the Negro had gone.

    “That’s his first nigger,” Mr. Head said to the man across the aisle.

    The boy slid down into the seat. “You said they were black,” he said in an angry voice. “You never said they were tan. How do you expect me to know anything when you don’t tell me right?”

  5. La Faustin Says:

    Although in the pre-Codes, there’s something warmer and more haimisch (if a bit cringing): “Oh look — there WE are! We’re funny-looking and funny-sounding, but inoffensive. There we are — and no one’s chasing us out!”

    Baby steps …

  6. In my friends Colin & Morag’s recent feature, Donkeys, Brian Pettifer (of If… & O Lucky Man!) drags up as a well-fed Gandhi at a party, so this fine tradition has not yet ended.

    I guess the “Look!” impulse is instinctive (not that that makes it good), it’s the layering of supposed meaning on top that makes things ideological. Acknowledging difference is fine, and it’s one of the good things in pre-code cinema, but one should be aware that all human difference is mere decoration.

  7. Warner Brothers eventually acknowledged that Gandhi possessed a philosophy perhaps antithetical to that of Yosemite Sam.

  8. The first Warner ‘toon even has a celebrity caricature.

    Silent and precode films often have the “we’re/they’re different, but still American” idea floating around. From the Cohen and Kelly films (Abie’s Irish Rose has a lot to answer for) to stuff like The Kibitzer (the best part of the film is noticing the levels of assimilation), it’s one of those things that’s used as either a subject or seasoning (like Cagney speaking Yiddish in Taxi!) with films of the era.

  9. I remember when I was young, there was a popeye cartoon I saw that ended in a similar way, the bad guy ended up looking like a big fat baby with glasses and a diaper which to me looked like him, which was striking since one sees Gandhi’s image every day here in India. It’s on our currency after all. I didn’t know what to make of it. Now I do, I guess. That Yosemite Sam clip was funny.

    Now’s as good a time as any to say I don’t care too much for Attenborough’s ”Gandhi” or him as a film-maker in general. Ben Kingsley is excellent but the film isn’t close to getting how complex and intelligent the real guy was, an extremely self-conscious and self-aware individual. As per Chris Fujiwara’s biography, Otto Preminger considered making a film on him and even visited Nehru in the 50s to talk about it. Doubt it got further than a vague idea, but that would have been an interesting attempt.

    I believe Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top” also refers to Gandhi.

  10. Preminger is exactly the kind of guy who’d want to make that film, but not necessarily the kind who should. But I agree it’d be more interesting than Attenborough’s.

    Attenborough is a great advocate for British film, and a terrific actor at his best, but not such a good filmmaker. His friend Bryan Forbes is much better.

    In the UK, the strongest memory of his Gandhi is a TV sketch show which produced a fake commercial for a Ben Kingsley posable action figure, “the Handhi Bendhi Gandhi.”

  11. I have a soft-spot for the GANDHI 2 bit from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s motion picture vehicle UHF. It’s nowhere near subtle (the actor is clearly in greasepaint), but there is always something hilarious about the one-dimensional characters of a hagiography getting turned into shitty action movie characters (also see Family Guy’s “Passion of the Christ 2” where Jesus is a loose cannon cop with Chris Tucker as his sidekick).

  12. “The best form of satire is the thing itself,” said Andy Warhol, which is why the Family Guy thing works — it sounds like a movie Mel Gibson would actually make.

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