This 25-minute short (original running time at the 1939 World's Fair and in its theatrical bookings) was made by Petroleum Industry to be primarily at the NYC 1939 World's Fair, but was also available to theatres. Basically, a commercial but many theatres booked it since it was free, in Technicolor and was better than the majority of the 1939 shorts. The reason some people think there is gaps in the narration is because the original had two different interlocking sound tracks, one on the screen, representing the voices of the screen characters, and another in the rear of the auditorium, with the taunts and wise-cracks of an off-screen heckler. The DVD that exists is not only missing nine minutes of footage, it is also missing the second sound track. The story is a phantasy of the oil industry, employing 40 different characters. The story utilizes animated puppets in a, at the time, new way. The puppets were four inches high, had faces and bodies shaped like oil drops. They had ...Written by
Les Adams <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I've seen some strange movies in my time, but this puppet animation short is truly in a class by itself. Pete-Roleum (i.e. "Petroleum") and His Cousins was produced to be shown in the Standard Oil exhibition hall at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and was intended to tout the many uses of oil and oil products in our daily lives. The surviving film is incomplete, so whatever the filmmakers' original intentions their work, viewed today, appears to be a fascinating masterpiece of disjointed insanity. Even given its historical context it's a very odd piece of work.
The movie begins with a shot of our planet spinning in a dark blue universe as a cymbal crashes loudly and the narrator intones: "Out of the earth . . . oil . . . oil . . . OIL!!" At the crescendo a wedge of earth slides out of the planet, like a core sample the size of California, and the camera plunges us into the hole, past curious Dali-like hieroglyphics seemingly painted on cave walls as the music turns ominous and we hear screams. Then suddenly we're back on the surface, watching a comical horse pulling a covered wagon down a deserted road past an isolated Victorian mansion. Little black men with teardrop-shaped heads appear, apparently meant to represent drops of oil. A horseless carriage arrives, and suddenly we're on a 20th century highway covered with speeding cars. Modern planes soar past stylized, Metropolis-style skyscrapers as the excited narrator interjects messages like: "No matter how you refine it, it's still oil!" A bar of soap is presented as an oil product, and a sailor with a teardrop-shaped head dances a hornpipe. Demonic red creatures dance inside a huge machine, as the now-crazed narrator cries: "Oil turns the wheels of industry! Cools and heats! Makes paradise on earth!" And yet the imagery is increasingly frightening. Girls with pointed heads polish a giant apple, but are scared away by a horrible bug who is promptly killed with DDT, another petroleum product. And on to the next sequence!
When Pete-Roleum was shown at the fair a "live" narrator accompanied the screenings, and occasionally engaged in a dialog with the prerecorded narration. Surely this made the movie more understandable, but all we're left with now is the soundtrack, so some sections contain only a portion of what we were meant to hear while others are entirely silent. I was especially disturbed by the sequence showing the deserted, ruined, apparently post-Apocalyptic grounds of the World's Fair. I can't imagine what unexplained catastrophe had occurred, how the narrator explained it to viewers, or how it was related to oil, and I'd sure like to know what was intended. In any case, from the post-Apocalyptic landscape the film jumps to a drunken character representing rubbing alcohol, then to a mannequin woman sunbathing at the beach (her suntan lotion is, of course, a petroleum product), and then the whole nightmare concludes with a rousing musical number in swing time. When it's over you can pick up your jaw from the floor.
I can only reiterate that this short is deeply strange, and urge viewers looking for offbeat movies to give this one a try. Even granting that the surviving prints are incomplete and fragmented, it's difficult to imagine how the filmmakers believed this short with its sinister, crazy imagery might impart a positive message about petroleum.
The filmmakers are of interest: the director of record is Joseph Losey, the man who later gave us those heavy Pinter dramas of the '60s, The Servant and Accident. Losey made his directorial debut with this animated short, while it pretty much marked the end of the road for animator/narrator Charley Bowers. Bowers had worked as an animator since the 1910s, and starred in his own series of silent comedies in the '20s before his career petered out with the onset of talkies. The highlight of Bowers' silent comedies are his animated sequences, which are always intriguing and bizarre, but nothing in his earlier work reached the height of weirdness achieved in this little gem, Pete-Roleum and His Cousins.
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