12/2/10

RVOD143 Santa Claus' Punch and Judy

(1948, Holiday/Children, b&w)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy

Santa: Giving the gift of domestic violence for Christmas.

Rating: ***

In a Nutshell:


Santa just loves him some good old fashioned racist, misogynist puppetry.

Summary:

Giving the gift of puppet hate crimes in miniature.Poorly recorded children approach Santa one at a time to petition him for gifts. Santa complies with each request, and in some cases gives even more. One misguided youth, for instance, wants a toy Punch and Judy show. Santa gives him one, and then waves his arms to conjure a full-sized puppet theater into the room. Out pop Punch and Judy!

Punch and Judy are a pair of hideous European hand puppets who beat each other with a stick. This is their only means of communication. Other puppet characters are brought in to liven the proceedings. (Only two are on stage at any given time, for obvious reasons.) Punch and a cat beat each other with a stick. Punch and a monkey beat each other with a stick. Punch narrowly avoids being eaten by an alligator, which then beats him with a stick. Two nameless blackface puppets beat each other with a stick. Judy comes back at the end to raise the olive branch of peace and open lines of communication, fostering mutual understanding and appreciation to begin their relationship anew... Oh wait. My mistake. She beats him with a stick.

Thoughts:

Yes, this is a real still from the real movie.  Your jaw should be hanging open right now.  I know mine was.Did children actually like this? With no context or consequences attached to the violence and a lack of alternative entertainments, I’m sure many did, but I would note Kevin’s comment partway through the show: “I hear kids squealing, but I see kids sitting quietly.”

There are many possible nits to pick here, but I probably won’t get to any of them. Why speak of mere nits when there’s an elephant in the room? Of course the violence depicted against blacks and women is nothing short of reprehensible, even when partially obscured by puppet avatars. As metaphorical elephants go, this one is so large even the filmmakers of 1948 seem to sense its shape. I think they’re attempting to get around it by directing the violence almost entirely at Punch, while the blacks only beat up each other. Not that this helps any. The next time some curmudgeonly relative moans about how movies and videogames are so much more violent these days, I think I’ll mention Punch and Judy.

Much of the commentary’s humor has to do with the inappropriateness of the subject matter. Kevin starts us off by calling it, “Sequel to the Ice Cream Bunny’s Amos and Andy.” Bill feigns shock when the black puppets appear. “Minstrel puppet shows are for Easter!” he objects. When Santa magically dismisses them, Mike provides the incantation: “Back to the level of Hell where you reside, suffering the torments that fuel your violent rage.” It’s a good commentary coupled with a well-performed puppet show, but the uncomfortable subject matter both fuels the humor and overshadows it. It’s worth a look if you’re not easily offended.