What a Wonderful World

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Lost and gone, lost and gone, as the spectral “jury of the damned” intone in THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER. And so it is with THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM, directed by George Pal and Henry Levin. While the other Cinerama feature, AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS and HOW THE WEST WAS WON have enjoyed restorations and blu ray releases, this one may never be seen in the form intended or any digital approximation thereof, since the elements have not shown up anywhere. Collectors gathered bits and pieces from around the world and were able to screen a patched-together, Frankenstein’s monster print, with the three different panels of the giant Cinerama frame consisting of different bits in different conditions, varying from near-pristine to lamentable — and a couple of seconds of the thing got destroyed in that screening.

It’s not the tragedy it would be if the film was as good as Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE, which still holds up beautifully. Pal’s weakness for flat, TV lighting, and his uncertainty with script and gags, hold this one back considerably. The plot in the framing structure consists of a wearisome romance between one Grimm Brother and Barbara Eden, and the financial woes and employment troubles of the pair of them. This is a startlingly dull premise for a roadshow family picture, and the last half hour, when a happy ending has been all but guaranteed, is a life-sapping ordeal.

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Also, the elves are horrible, charmless things. Worse than Oompa-loompas.

But here are some flaws that don’t matter: one brother is German (Karlheinz Boehm from PEEPING TOM, prompting me to cry “Tell us the one about your magic camera!”) and the other is Lithuanian with an English accent (Laurence Harvey, very good in a role which requires warmth and a childlike quality, both of which you might think are entirely outside his range but NO); two directors, but in fact Levin, brought in to handle the serious parts, is no better at drama or extreme-wide-screen decoupage than Pal, so their virtues and inadequacies blend seamlessly; European and American actors generally mingled randomly — it’s a melting pot, so what?; the stop start of a framing narrative continually interrupted by fantasy fairy tale sequences – since the framework is mainly a drag, the interruptions are ALWAYS WELCOME.

And here are the virtues ~

A great stop-motion dragon, more cartoony than anything Harryhausen would dream of presenting, but perfect for the tone of this show. He breathes cartoon flames, too.

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The whole Russ Tamblyn section, which makes exhilarating use of the star’s athleticism and only makes you wish somebody had cast him in a Keatonesque thrill comedy at feature length. Fun perf from Jim Backus as a kind of King Magoo (“You’re just a princess, whereas I’m a king, which is better.”) And we finally discover a reason for Yvette Mimieux: she dances beautifully.

The singing bone. It has a spooky, vocoder voice and it sings about being dead. And it once belonged to Buddy Hacket’s shin.

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Some effective use of the wide frame, for rushing movements, and dance, and spectacle. And some very weird uses, like fast pans which make the screen ripple as if it were being projected on Miles Mander’s ribcage. Peculiar shots where each character is in a different part of the cine-triptych, acting in his own little world, and doesn’t seem to be looking at the others, due to the fisheye type distortion of the three lenses looking at the action from different directions. See here for delirious examples from other films.

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Fever dream with fantasy characters, genuinely trippy. Best fever hallucination feeling outside of THE TENANT. Although see also the Mirkwood scenes in HOBBIT II.

The sad thing is that people demand perfection from their restorations. I have no doubt that a version of TWWOTBG could be assembled with much tidier joins between the panels, but there would still be visible flaws, some of them glaring, and so there’s no will to embark on such a project.

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15 Responses to “What a Wonderful World”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    H.B. Warner’s ribcage was a veritable marimba compared to Miles Mander’s.

  2. Yes, but Miles Mander WAS a ribcage.

  3. I saw a version of this back in the 70s at a Saturday afternoon matinee for kids. My little local theatre (the only one in town) can’t have been set up for Cinerama. Are there non-Cinerama versions of this?

  4. I saw this on tv as a kid and was completely freaked out by the Singing Bone’s voice. And not just the voice. The whole damn concept! A bone that sings to you in a synthesized voice about how its owner was murdered. Brrrrr.

  5. The part that disturbed me most was Buddy Hackett being murdered. Buddy Hackett! Plus I think it was Terry-Thomas did the evil deed (?)

  6. Yes, murdering the sympathetic comedy character is a tough thing to get over. I didn’t even remember that they solve that problem and make everything OK again, it was just so disturbing. Probably he should’ve been played by a leading man type, someone we would know we didn’t have to worry about.

    I imagine the film would have played in non-Cinerama venues eventually — I don’t know if they chopped the edges off or shrunk it down or what. By the seventies they could have made a Scope version I guess.

  7. Saw it in normal 35mm ‘scope not long after the roadshow. Was mostly bored at age twelve. Did perk up for the dragon scene. Then they projected it in Junior High School, in the cafeteria. A 16mm ‘scope print, projected flat. A double disaster. The music is cute. My friends still talk about the attempt to reconstruct-project it at the Cinerama Dome a couple of years ago. Some of it had to be projected from video. TCM screens it, but not frequently. The music is cute…

  8. Pal always had good taste in music for his films. Dr Lao is super-cute, and The Time Machine is heart-breaking. Even The Power is nifty in that department.

  9. One note: AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS was in TODD-AO, a widescreen process using a single 70mm camera to create something like the three camera Cinerama.

  10. Randy Cook Says:

    Well, Cinerama started out peddling immersive travelogues and that remained a staple of their 3 camera films until the west was finally won. As a boy, I saw a roadshow of BROTHERS GRIMM (not to be confused with Jay Ward’s version: “The Grimm, Grimm World of the Wonderful Brothers Sisters”) , and–aside from the stop motion– I mostly remember the scenery. Sit close, in the center, and you pretty much feel like you are right there, albeit with a distorted sense of perspective (three vanishing points require some getting used to). Cinerama was useful when you were being shown real Bavarian scenery, and not so much so when you were being shown Stage 7 at MGM. And I DID see the reconstruction a couple years back, finding that I had erased it from my mind almost entirely. Now I can’t remember much about THAT screening, either, except that was faded and scratched but still big and turgid. The scenery, though, still immersed me. THAT’s something that never comes across on the TV, even when presented in “Smilebox” format, which faithfully reproduces the film as seen from the worst seats in the house.
    From an archivist’s point of view, it’s a shame that the film is all but lost. But, in my case, anyway, it’s pretty easy to forget, immediately after viewing.

  11. Jim, you are quite correct. Now I remember Mike Todd’s line when he fell out with his Cinerama partners and resolved to develop his own process: “I’m gonna make it all come out one hole!” And he did.

  12. chris schneider Says:

    I have dim memories of seeing this in the theater, as a child, and watching the “dividing” lines between the three portions of the image. Perhaps, if you’re caught up with Tamblyn here, you should check out George Pal’s “tom thumb”. Never did see it, but … along with the virtues of Pal and Tamblyn, there’s also songs co-written by Peggy Lee. That’s usually good news.

  13. Peter Sellers, too, paired with Terry-Thomas in a double-act that seems inspired by the foxy villains of Pinocchio. It’s quite good fun.

  14. Randy Cook Says:

    I am told that Peter Sellers patterned his character’s voice on that of George Pal.

  15. Lovely! He had a tradition of doing that.

    I’ve always been convinced that Donald Pleasence in Chabrol’s Blood Relatives is impersonating his former director Polanski. He plays a child molester.

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