(1959, Fantasy-Fairy Tale, color), with:
Here Comes the Circus
(1946, Educational-Newsreel, b&w)
Where is the many-colored dome of the SAMPO?
In a nutshell:
Short: Thrill at a cavalcade of boring circus acts!
Film: The people of Kalevala battle an evil witch over the glorious, undefined SAMPO!
In Here Comes the Circus, an excited narrator tells us all about each and every circus act as it unfolds on the screen. There are lots of acrobats, sword-swallowers, snake handlers…um…elephants…lions, more acrobats maybe? Only the clowns stand out, and not in a good way. Emmett Kelly, the great-granddaddy of all sad clowns, shows up at brief intervals to munch a sandwich at us.
In The Day the Earth Froze, the pale and muscular Lemminkainen leaves a logging camp to visit his mother, riding a felled log down the river like a surfboard. Along the way he sees the young and beautiful Annikki washing and drying several full bolts of cloth on the beach. He stops for some small talk and moves on; somehow this short conversation makes them affianced.
Meanwhile, the awful witch Loukhi drives her trolls to work in the forge, upset that they have not yet created the powerfully wondrous SAMPO! When she threatens the head troll with death, he confesses he has not the skill to make such a thing—but he knows someone who does. Immortal blacksmith Ilmarinen in the land of Kalevala has the skill, but he will not help willingly.
Loukhi takes off her cape and sends it flying through the air to Kalevala. Ilmarinen’s hapless sister Annikki just happens to be sailing home when the malicious cape sets itself as her sail and drags her boat across the sea to the witch’s domain. Lemminkainen sees the sartorial abduction from afar and runs to Ilmarinen with the news. On the advice of an aged bard, they chop down a tree and carve a boat out of it to chase her. Once there, Loukhi offers to let her go in exchange for a bit of manual labor. She wants them to plow a field full of rocks and venomous snakes. Ilmarinen makes a red-hot horse in the forge to pull the plough while Lemminkainen wrestles each snake individually.
They return successful, only to find that the trolls have scuttled their boat. Ilmarinen forges a flaming boat that scuttles the trolls instead. They demand Annikki’s return but Loukhi has one more task: make her a SAMPO! This requires a lot of odd ingredients, like feathers, wool, and barley. He also needs the fires of heaven; the request is a source of consternation to Louhki, but she brings it out. In a confusingly mixed religious metaphor (for Christians, anyway) she keeps the fires of heaven in a goat skull. When they finally complete the SAMPO, it dispenses gold, grain, and salt while glittering like a giant disco ball. The boys retrieve Annikki and start sailing home.
When she learns the price of her freedom, Annikki gets upset that the witch got a SAMPO instead of her. Ever anxious to please his bride-to-be, Lemminkainen leaps into the ocean and swims back to the witch’s territory to steal it. He lets out the mist, which Loukhi keeps it in a large bag wrapped in chains next to the similarly imprisoned four winds. While she gathers and stuffs the mist back into its prison, he carries the SAMPO away. Angered at the SAMPO’s disappearance, she sends the north wind to sink Lemminkainen’s stolen boat.
Back in Kalevala, Annikki worries about her lost fiancé. Lemminkainen’s mother worries as well, disturbed by the “It’s too bad that your son got lost and drowned” small talk of the neighbors. She wanders out into the world, praying to a variety of inanimate objects to find out the ultimate fate of her son. The trees and the road can do nothing but complain back at her. The sun finally tells her what’s going on.
A bedraggled Lemminkainen washes up on shore with a small piece of the ruined SAMPO. The ancient bard accepts it and says something about a broken bit of SAMPO being better than no SAMPO at all. Everyone swallows this tripe and they have a long wedding ceremony for Annikki and Lemminkainen, with lots of feasting, dancing, and rowing.
Louhki sneaks in during the party and steals the sun, locking it away with the winds. She releases the north wind to bury them under snow and ice. Upset by the death of a swan, Lemminkainen calls upon Ilmarinen to forge a new sun for them. Ilmarinen works on this for a while, until the aged bard shows up and says, “Nice try, but it’s just not possible.” He orders some harp strings instead. Everyone in Kalevala builds harps and they push their boats across the frozen sea to the witch’s land.
The trolls come out to fight them, but the gentle strains of the Kalevalian harpers send them all to dreamland. Loukhi sends the north wind, but a human wall shields the harpers from the icy gusts. Loukhi sends out her murderous cape to do battle; it nearly smothers Lemminkainen, but his buddies jump in and drown it through a hole they’ve hacked in the ice. When everyone else is asleep, Lemminkainen strides up to the shining prison with his sword. Loukhi has conveniently turned to stone to block the door, but Lemminkainen splits her in two and releases the sun. It immediately becomes spring again, and they all live happily ever after—except for the witch, and the SAMPO.
Joel and the ‘Bots are all dressed up to take a family portrait. Joel takes exhaustive measurements and fiddles with the camera while Tom and Crow antagonize each other. When the camera finally goes off, Joel is reaching for the light meter.
Host Segment One:
Joel has invented Snaction, which are snack foods based on weapons. Examples include the pixie staff, the five ladyfingers of death, and shuriken cookies. Dr. Forrester has taken all of the 401K money out of Frank’s account to make Unhappy Meals, drab little boxes with things like cold, half-eaten hamburgers, used Q-tips, and roach motels. Frank demands his money back.
Host Segment Two:
Joel takes notes while Tom and Crow think of unfunny new clown acts, including one where Tom convinces all the kids in the audience that they were adopted while Crow runs into the crowd on a homicidal rampage.
Host Segment Three:
Joel and the ‘Bots muse about the nature of a SAMPO. Maybe it increases corn yields. Maybe it’s a strapless evening gown. Maybe it’s intangible, like the laughter of children. They invite their viewers to write down their ideas on a piece of paper, crumple it into a little ball, throw the paper away, and try not to think about it anymore.
Host Segment Four:
Gypsy does her one-woman show, “Gypsy Rose Me!” in which she tells lots of inspiring stories about her plucky, feminine self—most of which involve leaving her boyfriend and wearing the same outfit two days in a row.
Host Segment Five:
The bots chain themselves into bags and hang from the ceiling. When Joel asks if they’re the winds, they reply that they’re things that are borne on the winds, like lilacs in the spring, and the stench of bitter failure. Joel reads a letter. Down in Deep 13, Dr. Forrester has chained Frank into a floating bag. When he continues to complain about his lost 401K, Dr. Forrester cuts his tether and lets him float away.
The trolls despair and cry, “What’s going to become of us now?”
If you’ve ever seen a painting of a sad clown, there’s a ninety-nine percent chance it was of Emmett Kelly. He seems to embody sad-clownness, though I’m not sure if that’s because he was such a great sad clown, or because I’ve never seen a painting of a sad clown that wasn’t him. He must have been at least competent. It’s unlikely that he would have gotten so famous if his only gimmick was thoughtful mastication, and yet that’s the only thing this short shows him doing. I’m guessing that, even as a clown, he was too dignified to participate in the other clowns’ horrific acrobatic spankings.
The Day the Earth Froze is a bright and colorful fantasy that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but hey, it’s mythology, so it must have made sense to the people who told it at the time. I must admit I’m biased towards this kind of film. I laughed very hard while watching Lemminkainen struggle to defeat a cape. Also, why didn’t Ilmarinen just make another SAMPO?
What is a SAMPO? To quote Rune X of the Scandinavian story cycle, The Kalevala: “On one side the flour is grinding, on another salt is making, on a third is money forging, and the lid is many-colored.” Basically, it’s a magic grinder that spits out riches. If I hadn’t already known that before I’d watched the film, I’m not sure I’d have more than a vague idea now. SAMPO is a word that requires bold, italic, capital letters, since the character that says it most often (Louhki, of course) sounds like she’s trying to convey a Sunday school reverence in the crazed shriek of the Wicked Witch of the West.
The best host segments of the Joel era are when they pick an ordinary topic and take it bizarre extremes. Wondering about the nature of the SAMPO is a great example of that kind of sketch. The clown acts imagined by Tom and Crow are cringe-inducing, but no more so than what we’ve already seen in the short. The winds sketches were appropriate, as was the family picture sketch. The cold, half-eaten hamburger was perhaps the unhappiest thing about the unhappy meal. Gypsy’s one-woman show is especially funny if you’ve ever had to go to one of those confessional, self-congratulatory performances.
The film segments are some of the funniest they’ve ever done. The circus short starts off with Crow’s introduction of the oddly dressed, “Klu Klux Clowns!” When Lemminkainen floats down the river on raw lumber, someone says, “My other log is a redwood.” When Lemminkainen’s mother prays to the road for news of her son, the lengthy response provokes Crow’s comment, “Now I know what they mean when they say the road goes on forever.” Also listen for the lengthy “Total Failure” wedding song and a hilarious impression of Bullwinkle on fire. It’s an excellent episode that’s well worth repeated viewings.
(1959, Fantasy-Fairy Tale, color), with: