This week’s column pays tribute to the greatest actor who ever lived: Jim Backus. Yes, Jim Backus, who epitomized versatility and talent which few members of his profession could ever obtain.
Seriously, can you imagine any celebrated film star trying to fill the mighty shoes of Backus? Can you envision John Wayne as James Dean’s apron-clad dad in “Rebel without a Cause”? Can you imagine Cary Grant standing nude in a stall shower while being slapped by Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett, as Backus brilliantly did in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”? Could any of the royals of British acting (Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson) have been as effective as Backus as Thurston Howell III on “Gilligan’s Island”? And, of course, could anyone else have been the voice of Mr. Magoo? Nonsense! When it came to acting, Jim Backus was a god!
Strangely and sadly, Backus was not pegged to play the title role in the 1957 production “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” But even in his supporting guest role, Backus stole the show. We’ll get back to worshipping at his glory later in this article.
But now, let’s shift attention to “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” This film is notable as being the first movie made for American television. While some television series were shot on film (most notably “I Love Lucy”), the majority of American television productions of that time were staged live. Even more significant was “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” was made in Technicolor, which was curious since relatively few people had color television sets in 1957. Even more remarkable was the fact the film was an original musical – or a semi-original musical, since the score basically consisted of adding new lyrics to the classical compositions of Edvard Grieg.
So why would a color musical fantasy film suddenly appear on television in 1957? Simple: another color musical fantasy film debuted on television the year before: “The Wizard of Oz.” Clearly impressed with the ratings success of the Yellow Brick Roadsters in their TV debut, it was decided to follow their lead and spin a new production based on that winning formula. But even with the power and magic of Jim Backus, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” didn’t quite measure up to “The Wizard of Oz.”
Based on the old folk tale, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” follows that legendary story while throwing in some comic embellishments. This time around, the medieval village of Hamelin has been commandeered by its vain-egotistical mayor (Claude Rains) to build a mighty tower that will be capped with golden bells. This project is meant to win the banner of the king, who has annual contest regarding innovative urban development plans (or something like that). Every man, woman and child is ordered to work on the tower, and having the kids doing hard labor gets the goat of a local teacher and civic goody-goody (Van Johnson). This character is in love with the mayor’s lovely daughter (Lori Nelson), and even she realizes her dad is a jerk.
In the neighboring town of Hamelout (get it: Hamel-in, Hamel-out?), there has been a flood that left everyone homeless. The mayor of Hamelin is delighted by this, since it means Hamelin has a better shot of getting the king’s honor. But among the homeless of Hamelout are the village’s rats, which flood into Hamelin and make quite a mess (especially when it comes to the cheese supplies). The rats are only seen in silhouettes as shadows against walls, which is quite a threatening camera effect.
Suddenly, a mysterious figure emerges with the offer of ridding the village of its rats in exchange for a price of 50,000 guilders. It’s none other than the Pied Piper, who is played by Van Johnson in a dark wig, goatee and pointy eyebrows. Don’t ask why Van Johnson was given a dual role here, since that makes no sense. However, Johnson is quite funny as the enigmatic and potentially diabolical piper. The nasty-silly mayor reluctantly agrees to the deal and the piper plays a special melody that only the rats can hear (it’s from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt,” which is an unintentionally funny anachronism since that well-loved composition was written centuries after the story takes place). The rats follow the piper and happily jump to their deaths in a nearby river (that’s achieved via animation, much less effectively than the aforementioned shadows on the wall).
When the piper goes to collect his cash (he actually gets to say “It’s time to pay the piper!”), the mayor produces an absurdly long contract full of tiny print relating to escrow accounts, indemnification and miscellaneous legal ramifications in the event the rats return). Seeing that the mayor will not keep his bargain and the townspeople will not rally to his support, the Pied Piper plays another tune that captivates the children of Hamelin. All of the kids follow the piper to a distant mountain which opens up to reveal a kiddie playland. Everyone dances inside before the mountain seals up – except for a little lame boy who fell before making it to the mountain opening. Having that kid bang his crutch on the mountainside and cry to let inside is very unsettling to witness.
After a bit of mourning for the loss of the kids via a torch song performed by Kay Starr, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” does something very strange: it changes the famous ending of the folk tale. In the original source, the children and the Pied Piper never return, leaving the Hamelin adults to rue the treachery in breaking their word to the rat-killing musician. In this film, however, the Hamelin villagers remove the mayor from office, name the goody-goody played by Van Johnson as mayor, and all get down on their knees in prayer asking for forgiveness. And lo and behold, the abducted kids magically return and everyone lives happily ever after. Even the Pied Piper is happy at this turn of events (don’t ask why, since he never gets the 50,000 guilders he was due).
So where is Jim Backus? Well, he comes around about hour into the film as the king’s emissary. And, boy, does he make quite an entrance: carried by a quartet of knights in a palanquin, he blithely brushes away the curtains of his comfy vehicle and happily harrumphs at being the center of Hamelin’s attention. Although he rudely dismisses the mayor’s speechmaking and the honorary key to the city, he nonetheless finds himself enjoying the mass quantities of food and wine served in his honor. And when a comely blonde lass with large breasts is presented for his viewing pleasure, Backus pops his eyes and drops his jaw with the dexterity of a Tex Avery cartoon wolf.
But when it is discovered that the Hamelin kids are sealed up in a mountain, Backus takes charge of the military operation to blast them out of their rocky prison. Backus mixes different colors of gunpowder with the finesse of Wolfgang Puck making a gourmet dinner, and then absent-mindedly stands in front of the cannon being pointed at the mountain. The cannon is aimed at his crotch, and who else but Jim Backus would be willing to have his balls blown off in the name of entertainment?
Despite the potential prospect of having Jim Backus emasculated by cannon fire, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” failed to gain the public favor the way “The Wizard of Oz” did. In fact, the movie was only broadcast once (November 26, 1957, on NBC) and was virtually forgotten until 1966 when K. Gordon Murray (the man who brought one of the recent Bootleg Files titles, the Mexican monstrosity “Santa Claus,” to American theaters) rescued it and put it into theatrical release on the kiddie matinee circuit. However, the movie was a commercial flop on the big screen.
The copyright on “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” lapsed into the public domain and there are plenty of bootlegged dupes floating around now on video and DVD. Most of these bootleg copies are pretty good (the color is fine and the soundtrack is clear), and the film is actually quite acceptable for younger viewers. And, of course, any card-carrying member in the cult of Jim Backus must see this one – our man JB outdoes himself here! But if you’re not a little kid or a Jim Backus addict, the film is a lively enough curio to warrant a peek on a rainy afternoon (provided that you have absolutely nothing else to do).
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on August 5, 2005 in Features by Phil Hall
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE PIED PIPER OF HAMELIN”
- RATS RUN AMOK AT SXSW
- THE AWAKENING OF “NOCTURNE”
- LOL-RATATOUILLE (PART 4)
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