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Once upon a time, prolific animator turned producer George Pal made it his mission to bring to life memorable flights of fancy. After cutting his teeth on films like When Worlds Collide (1951) and The War Of The Worlds (1953), George Pal took on the very big job of creating a five and a half inch screen hero.
A well known fairy-tale by the brothers Grimm, tom thumb (1958) is the story of a modest couple, Jonathan and Anna (Bernard Miles and Jessie Matthews) who wish for a son that Anna says she would "love with all my heart, even if he were no bigger than my thumb." That night, the couple discovers a tiny boy who reveals that he has been sent by the Forest Queen. Unfortunately this remarkable character soon runs afoul of two rogues (Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas) who plot to exploit the tiny boy for their own nefarious purposes. But since this is a fairy tale, all ends happily in this unique entertainment which features songs by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee, an array of amazing special effects, and an acrobatic performance by Russ Tamblyn as the title character.
For George Pal, the road to tom thumb was a long one, but his patience and persistence paid off. Originally a creator of animated films in Paris, Pal eventually carved a niche for himself in Holland with his famed "Puppetoons" - cartoons using molded or carved puppets instead of drawings. After making hundreds of these stop-motion films in Europe, Pal brought his Puppetoons to Paramount, where they remained wildly popular through the 1940s. Though he worked on a few other films, and was even the FX wizard behind The War Of The Worlds, Pal wanted more control over the scope and breadth of his projects so he eventually gravitated to the MGM studios.
Though it had always been a dream of Pal's to bring tom thumb to the screen, Hollywood had never shown any interest. Oddly enough, it was Donald O'Connor who rekindled the project. O'Connor had heard about the idea, and approached Pal, wanting the role of Tom for himself. Pal made a presentation to the MGM brass who were receptive to the idea, as long as they could fill Tom's tiny shoes with Russ Tamblyn. A respected young actor and dancer, Tamblyn had just received an Oscar nomination for his part in Peyton Place (1957), and welcomed the idea of playing tom thumb.
Convinced he could shoot tom thumb for under a million dollars, Pal moved the production to MGM's British studios, where, quite frankly, they needed the work. Because the success of the film would depend heavily on the effectiveness of its special effects, Pal also decided to direct tom thumb himself - a first for him. Arriving in England, the neophyte director immediately hired expert Tom Howard to supervise the optical work. (Howard would later add 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to his resume.) Then Pal coordinated the daunting task of building oversized sets, scaled one foot to the inch, to give Tom his proper proportion. For one scene where tom dances on a bench, the bench had to be built 35 feet high, and 90 feet long. For scenes that required Tom to interact with other, standard sized characters, some fancy camerawork was employed. Other actors were filmed talking to a miniature figure of tom, while Tamblyn filmed his scenes alone. The footage of tom was then matted over the figure of the tiny hero, blending the two shots into a seamless conversation. To achieve the proper angles and perspective, the camera had to be placed extremely far from Tamblyn. For one scene, in fact, a hole had to be cut in the roof of the stage to get the right angle.
Pal was able to deliver tom thumb for around $900,000, which was slightly under budget and proof that good things come in small packages. Audiences of all ages loved tom thumb for its charm and freshness, and the Academy loved it for its painstaking and beautifully crafted special effects, honoring the picture with an Oscar for Best Special Effects.
Director/Producer: George Pal
Screenwriter: Ladislas Fodor
Cinematographer: Georges Perinal
Composer: Douglas Gamely, Kenneth Jones
Editor: Frank Clarke
Art Director: Elliot Scott
Songwriter: Peggy Lee, Kermit Goell, Fred Spielman, Janice Torre
Cast: Russ Tamblyn (Tom Thumb), Alan Young (Woody, the Piper), Terry-Thomas (Ivan), Peter Sellers (Tony), Jessie Matthews (Anna)
C-93m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Bill Goodman