If someone asked me this week about my thoughts on the existence of a Higher Power, I would ponder upon different answers, upon arguments I would hope to elucidate with all the finesse of an old-school British professor sitting in a leather wingback chair next to a crackling fireplace (as they do). I say “might ponder.” Because what I instinctively wanna blurt out is “Heck yes a Higher Power’s gotta exist, because He made sure I never saw The Mascot when I was a kid!!”
In the past, I’ve mentioned that there’s certain, shall we say, unique silents that would’ve terrified me back when I was a kid–especially ones with papier-mache goblins or weird stop-motion sequences. The Panicky Picnic (1909)? Ew. Ah! La Barbe (1906)? No thank you. Don’t even bring up Le cochon danseur (1907)–it just stopped making cameos in my nightmares. So now I must announce that Ladislas Starevich’s The Mascot (Fétiche Mascotte, 1933), which I saw for the first time recently, is currently #1 on my “Do Not Show To Sensitive Children” list. Did I mention its alternate title is The Devil’s Ball?
While exploring Starevich’s work for Silent Stop Motion Month I became fascinated by this peculiar short, a distinctively European work showcasing some of the era’s most brilliant stop motion animation and some of its creepiest imagery. Apparently it’s already freaked out a generation of ’80s children, thanks to being shown with other cheaply-acquired shorts on late-night British TV. Now it dwells on YouTube, to unsettle all unsuspecting animation fans who doth click on it (and oodles of indie rock bands who use clips for their music videos–like flies to honey, my friends). Since The Mascot is practically a silent film and was made by a silent era master, I say we take a look at it.
The plot sounds like it was pieced together with scraps from shredded Edwardian children’s books: A mother, who ekes out a living making toys, brings a stuffed toy dog to life with one of her tears (unknowingly–there’s a definite Toy Story vibe). The toy dog overhears the mother’s sick child ask for an orange, but she says they have no money for such luxuries. When the dog ends up in the big outside world, he goes on a quest to bring the child an orange. In the process he ends up at a devil’s ball, attended by a whole fleet of bizarre creatures. Will they try and take the orange from our toy hero? Will he make it home safely to that poor sick child?
The roly-poly star of this short is Fétiche, called Duffy in English versions of the short (The Mascot was made in France). As far as 1930s stop motion characters go, Duffy is actually pretty cute–a droopy stuffed puppy dog with doleful eyes who makes you go “awww” every few minutes.
The personality Starevich gives this little dog is just exquisite–look at how he perks his ears when he finds the orange, then shrinks back when he thinks someone spotted him. He’s both a sweet, cartoon-like character and believably doggish. His costars are equally well-animated toys: a clown, a ballerina, a cat, some sort of peasant woman, a malicious chimp, and a thug-like Apache dancer (what every kid wants to play with, obviously). The Apache dancer in particular has spot-on tough-guy mannerisms, very James Cagney, and must’ve presented a fun challenge for Starevich.
The leap from the toys’ exploits to the devil’s ball is somewhat abrupt. While en route to the toy store, the toys make a break for it and end up in the gutters–all except Duffy, who makes it to the store’s display case. He’s sold and used as a dangling decoration inside an automobile, but soon he escapes too. After he finds the precious orange, the film cuts to a shot of a bell tower clock chiming midnight. Then a devil springs out of a drunk’s liquor bottle (no, no, this is the same film) and the most feverish part of The Mascot begins.
The premise of the devil’s spooky gathering seems to be that discarded Things (do they have souls, like in The Blue Bird?) can be brought back to life in anthropomorphic form. Thus, the ballerina, the Apache dancer, et al. are back again, and we also see a whole horde of bizarre creatures made of tossed-out cans, old shoes, vegetable scraps, bits of paper, wisps of hay, handkerchiefs, broken glasses, and even fish and chicken skeletons. All are beckoned into the ballroom by the laughing devil, whose staff is topped with a glowing skull (very metal).
The phrase “spectacular animation” almost seems inadequate here–and trust me, “trippy” barely begins to cover it. Starewich had come a long way since his slow-jumping characters from The Cameraman’s Revenge and other early shorts. At times, particularly when we see a mob of characters galloping after Duffy, there’s a slight uncanny valley effect. Only American animator Charley Bowers came up with equally mad stop motion visions, and I’m sure he’d be jealous.
Aside from the creepiness of the imagery, there’s an undercurrent of danger running through the short–the creatures at the ball treat Duffy with a kind of mocking savagery, the devil tries to prod the Apache dancer into stabbing someone, and the ballerina is preyed upon by the nasty chimp. Characters do get various comeuppances, particularly the devil, who no one takes very seriously. Still, the short would almost be too nasty without the saving grace of Duffy.
I love the music for this short, and catch myself humming it sometimes. I also like Starevich’s incorporation of live action footage, especially the documentary shots of traffic and busy city streets, giving The Mascot an avant-garde vibe. A drawback, however, is the dubbing for this British version. The kid’s voice is done by an adult speaking in a falsetto–and yes, it’s horrifying. Don’t be surprised if what ultimately invades our nightmares isn’t the laughing devil or the dancing fish skeleton, but: “Mommyyy…I want an orrrraaaange…I should like an oraaange…a nice, ripe, juicy oraaannnge….” *Shudders*
The 25-minute UK cut of The Mascot is the version you’re likely to see. Starevich’s original version was 40 minutes long, which fortunately survives more or less in complete form. Sadly it’s only available on region 2 DVDs, but get your hands on it if you can–it’s so clear and crisp it could’ve been filmed yesterday. I’ve seen excerpts, and it’s almost a different film. It begins with a quote from Starevich: “A simple human and sentimental story with some mysterious visions, such as can be presented by the enfeebled fantasy of a sick child.” (The best translation I could find of the French title, by the way.) So that’s a clue. We then see a toy wizard coming to life in the mother’s home and producing an orange, which the other toys start squabbling over–introducing us to the chimp, ballerina, cat, etc. (They’re dropped into the short pretty randomly in the 25-minute version.) And, believe it or not, there are a couple scenes that make The Mascot even more disturbing. One shows a baby doll forced to perform on a stage in front of the jeering, heckling creatures–Jabba the Hutt’s palace is normal by comparison.
Terry Gilliam described this short as “absolutely breathtaking, surreal, inventive and extraordinary, encompassing everything that Jan Svankmajer, Walerian Borowczyk and the Quay Brothers would do subsequently.” What else can I add, but to say that it’s just perfect for a spooky evening’s viewing? Just don’t show it to impressionable children, if you please.
- The Mascot was the first of a series starring Duffy. The other shorts were The Ringmaster (1934), The Mascot’s Wedding (1935), The Navigator (1936), and The Mascot and the Mermaids (1937).
- Duffy’s look is similar to Bonzo the Dog, a popular cartoon character by British comic strip artist George Studdy.
- The faces of the puppets were made of chamois leather, and tweaked with tweezers into different expressions.
- The police officer and the drunk are both played by Starevich himself–who obviously didn’t mind hamming it up.
- Distributors chopped up the original version of The Mascot and put it in theaters in 1934. For decades the 25-minute version was the only one available.
- The restored 40-minute version is called Fetiche 33-12, referring to the year it was restored (2012), in case you have a hard time finding it.
- “Mascot” might refer to Duffy’s function as an automobile accessory (a “mascot”) or, since he’s “Fetiche” in the original French, it might refer to a magical object or “fetish.”
- Starevich was drawn to folklore and fairytales from Eastern Europe, hence why he liked using devil imagery (note the long tongue his devil has, similar to Krampus).
- The devil also popped up in an earlier Starevich short, The Little Parade (1928).
- According to Starevich’s relatives, the Duffy puppet still survives and occasionally goes on exhibit.