smoking holes illo

smoking holes illo

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Classic Cartoon: SAMETKA (1967, a.k.a. CATERPILLAR)


 A rosy-cheeked young boy with a pet caterpillar, who dances to the catchy music from the kid's harmonica, is discovered on the city sidewalk by a kindly entrepreneur, who is taking a stroll. Amazed by the charming performance of this unlikely duo, the businessman immediately convinces the boy to sign an exclusive contract. Almost immediately, the dancing caterpillar becomes a global success, and his popular likeness is mass-marketed to an eager public. 


The showbiz trio go on a worldwide concert tour, and even pay a visit to the moon. All goes well, and the boy prepares to shower his larval friend with a plethora of miniature gifts on Christmas Eve, only to find that his little pal has suddenly disappeared. As they frantically search for the caterpillar, it begins to dawn on the boy (and his partner/manager), that perhaps this train of fame, fortune and (assumed) lifelong friendship between boy and bug is about to come to a sad end...

Sametka, released in 1967, is based on an original story by Lucille Fletcher* (see update at the bottom of this article), adapted by eminent author, poet, screenwriter and radio storyteller, Norman Corwin, previously filmed as the Cary Grant feature, Once Upon a Time (1944). In that version, the caterpillar is never shown (it is always either in its box, or is reacted to, off-camera), its act left to the viewer's imagination. Cary Grant plays the entrepreneur/manager as a slick, fast-talking character; almost a scam artist.

In Sametka, the man is a more gentle, kindly sort. While he does basically bribe the kid into signing the contract, and enjoys the fruits of the caterpillar's fame, other than setting the duo up to approve a mass of merchandising licenses, he doesn't come across as particularly greedy or controlling. In fact, he acts more like a caring friend and substitute parental figure, as we are left to assume that the boy is an orphan and otherwise lives on the streets.

Double the length of a traditional Hollywood cartoon short, it fleshes out its simple story nicely, without padding it. It's also an example of "pure cinema", in that no intelligible dialogue is used, nor is necessary, so can be easily understood, regardless of age or nationality. The film aims to be a mild, genial satire of consumerism and the trappings of fame, but doesn't show the world suffering or learning a lesson from the onslaught of caterpillar-mania. Instead, it's about the boy learning a bit about how life can sometimes be about loss, and inevitable change.

It's not quite as serious and downbeat as that might sound, however. While not fall-down hilarious, it has some gentle, visual wit. A typical gag is when our enterprising trio, on their world tour, disembark from their airliner, to a throng of screaming fans waiting for them on the tarmac. Front and center in the crowd is a quintet of long-haired rock n' rollers (apparently stand-ins for The Beatles or The Rolling Stones... though they actually resemble The Ramones, in retrospect), all wearing caterpillar t-shirts. Put into the position of being just like their own typical screaming teenage fans, the group is barely able to contain its enthusiasm, and they make a rush toward our trio, who flee the area in a helicopter, the rockers hanging off the landing gear, in a scene that vaguely prefigures the abortive USO show in Apocalypse Now.

Sametka's director, Zdenek Miler (1921-2011), was born near Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, and had a background in painting and illustration. During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, he was nearly sent off to a concentration camp, for taking part in anti-Nazi student demonstrations, but instead managed to continue to study and pursue a career in graphic design, and eventually, animation. By the mid-1940s, he was working for the Bat'a animation studio, under the famed Czech animator (and co-founder of the studio), Jiri Trnka, who himself was a skilled illustrator and cartoon animator, and who was beginning to branch off into the dimensional puppet animation he would become famous for.

Miler worked his way up to directing his own animated films by 1948, eventually became the head of the studio. He was best-known for his character Krtek, The Little Mole, who debuted in a theatrical short Miler directed in 1957, How the Mole Got His Pants, and continued on in 48 more short films, made over the course of 45 years. Though not very well-known in America, Krtek was otherwise seen worldwide, primarily on television. The series did well for the Bat'a Studio while under the communist regime, and eventually made Miler a wealthy man, after the fall of the Eastern Bloc. Miler also directed some individual cartoon films, as well as a brief 1960s series featuring a puppy character, and late-1970s series involving a cricket, before ultimately retiring from animation in 2001.

Some further images from Sametka:

"Why yes, my young friend would be only too happy to work full-time in all of your sneaker factories! Let's try to hammer out a coordinated schedule and make this happen!"
"Patience, gentlemen, patience... Kate Upton will be out here momentarily."
"Ahhhhh... nothing beats a Saturday night marathon of Faces of Death, eh, boy?"
"Good thinking there, using the super glue, kid... now my nose will never get cold!"
"Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce... No, I'm sorry, but Mr. Draper is indisposed... can I take a message?"
Oh no! The twins were right! Seek cover immediately!!!
"Cool! Check it out-- Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve are having a cat-fight! I love Paris!"
"Mmmmm.... tantalizing treats galore... if I only had a can opener..."
"Gee, this symbiont trend is really taking hold!"
The Six Flags production of "Stop the Worm - I Want to Get Off"...
"It was a grand time for fishing on the Yangtze... live bait was cheap, plentiful and abnormally large..."
"That's right... lose yourself to the lilting music, my fuzzy little friend... a bit closer... closer... you're nearly in the Moon-beast's lair... you'll never know what hit you... damn, my exposed hands are frozen!"
"Excellent! I doubt The Borrowers will even notice the tiny explosives I've installed in each piece!"
"I want to ride my bi-cy-cle, I want to ride my bike... the next stage in my life-cycle, I'll tell them all to take a hike..."
"I've done it... now I just hope the arson investigators find no trace of accelerants..."
"--And the Road Warrior? That's the last I ever saw of him. He lives now, only in my memory..."
They all laughed when Bruce Banner sat down at the piano and started to play...

As you can see from the screen captures, this is an amazing-looking film... essentially like a top-level children's book brought to life, with a very strong sense of design. Everything has a stylized flatness, though with fairly smooth animation, where characters move either in a straight up-down, left-right plane, or in isometric perspective. A lot of it looks like vintage travel posters. It's difficult to get the theme music out of your head, once heard.

Imported  and distributed to U.S. classrooms in 1971 by Columbia Pictures' educational film division, Learning Corporation of America, Sametka ("The Velvet Caterpillar") was retitled as, simply, "Caterpillar". For me, this whimsical little animated tale is a very early memory from the beginning of my public elementary school years... back when the kindergarten teacher wanted to take a break (or give us a little classroom treat, on the eve of a holiday vacation) by wheeling out the 16mm sound film projector and having us watch something cute and harmless for 15 minutes. I saw it two or three times, at a couple of different schools (in different eastern U.S. states), between 1974 and 1976, enough to have it lightly burned into my brain, waiting as a latent, half-remembered recollection for several decades, until freed as a glorious nostalgia buzz, when I stumbled upon it on YouTube a couple of years ago... one of those things lost to time, that you assume you would never see again, if you even remember it at all.

As far as I can tell, from doing some searches, Sametka isn't available on home video in any of the Czech animation collections widely available, so YouTube is pretty much your only option, at this point....

Why not give it a look?

* Update (7/18/15): Reader rnigma correctly points out that, despite my initial solo crediting of the tale to Norman Corwin, the true creator of "Once Upon a Time" was actually author and fellow radio playwright, Lucille Fletcher. Fletcher was most famous for writing one of the greatest radio plays of all time, "Sorry, Wrong Number", performed perfectly by Agnes Moorehead in the long-running radio series, Suspense, and on the big screen by Barbara Stanwyck in the 1948 Paramount film. She also wrote the creepy cross-country tale, "The Hitch-Hiker", as well... which was performed on radio by Orson Welles, and later adapted (with some changes) for television by Rod Serling, as one of the more memorable episodes of the original Twilight Zone, with Inger Stevens encountering the same sinister, shabby man thumbing a ride. During the 1940s, Fletcher was married to the musical maestro of radio, film (and later, television), Bernard Herrmann.