Trained as an architect at the Budapest Academy of the Arts, Hungarian filmmaker George Pal had trouble securing work in his chosen profession in the late 1920s; to keep food on the table, he designed "art" subtitles for silent films. At the Berlin studios of UFA in 1931, Pal began designing sets, then cultivated an interest in stop-motion animation. Moving to Holland in 1933, Pal produced a group of animated puppet shorts for Phillips Radio of Holland. Reportedly, Pal's European career was cut short when he had the temerity to produce an anti-fascist allegorical short. Pal arrived in the U.S. in 1939 to lecture at Columbia University, where he was approached by representatives of Paramount Pictures, who were interested in releasing a series of Pal-produced animated one-reelers. Beginning in 1940, Pal was responsible for the Puppettoons series (also known as Madcap Marionettes), a lucrative property that won the producer a special Oscar in 1943. Seen today, the Puppetoons remain dazzling technical achievements, even though their storylines range from skimpy to bewildering. The best of the Puppetoons include John Henry and the Inky-Poo, Tubby the Tuba, and the "Jasper and the Scarecrow" series. After filming a special animated sequence for the 1947 feature film Variety Girl, Pal and Paramount parted company. He became an independent producer with the 1950 Jimmy Durante comedy The Great Rupert, in which Durante costarred with an animated squirrel. Pal's next project, the slow-moving but visually exciting science-fiction endeavor Destination Moon (1950), won an Academy Award for best special effects. Back at Paramount in 1951, Pal inherited two unproduced sci-fi properties from Cecil B. DeMille. The resultant films, When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1951), added two more special-effects Oscars to Pal's mantle. Curiously, his first non-fantasy Paramount production, Houdini (1953), was utterly unconvincing in recreating Houdini's legendary illusions (that "jump cut" as Houdini saws his wife in half is particualarly offensive). Pal's remaining Paramount productions were equally disappointing, but he made up for his past missteps with his first directorial assignment (which he also produced), MGM's Tom Thumb. This imaginative musical comedy not only won Pal his fourth Oscar, but also happily revived his "Puppetoon" concept, now smoother and more convincing than ever. Oscar number five was bestowed upon the special effects for Pal's The Time Machine (1960), which falters in the dramatic scenes (he never was comfortable directing people) but excells in its vision of the future. The cheapjack Atlantis the Lost Continent (1961) was next, followed by the Cinerama "special" The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), which had as its main attractions a screenful of Pupppetoon elves and a fire-breathing dragon. Many of Pal's fans consider 1964's Seven Faces of Dr. Lao his finest work. Unfortunately Lao was a bit too rareified to succeed at the box office, and it would be a decade before Pal would direct his next -- and last -- film. Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975), a serviceable adventure romp, was weakened by post-production efforts to "camp" the material (e.g. adding an animated gleam to the hero's eye). The failure of Doc Savage prevented Pal from raising the necessary funds for his proposed series of science-fiction films in the late 1970s. As one fan has noted, Pal may have been too nice a guy to survive in the sharktank Hollywood of the era. Nonetheless, the George Pal legend has endured long after his death in 1980. Devotees are referred to two recent retrospective films, the semi-documentary Fantasy World of George Pal (1986) and the compilation feature The Puppetoon Movie (1987).
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Was trained as an architect in his native Hungary but was unable to find work in that field.
- Began his film career at the UFA studio in Berlin and then made a series of animated puppet short films in Holland before moving to the United States, where he created his Puppetoons series for Paramount Pictures.
- His first feature-length film was Destination Moon (1950), which won an Oscar for special effects, as did When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953).
- Made his directing debut with Tom Thumb (1958) for MGM.
- His final film was 1975's Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze; its disappointing box-office performance prevented him from making a planned series of science-fiction movies.