I will admit that the day my state’s lockdown got extended for another month is probably not the best time for me to write about a movie where someone is so desperate for a child that he carves one out of wood; there will be all kinds of times in the next month where I’ll offer people mine, I’m sure. I love them, but they are standing in their bathroom screaming as I write this. Why? Because they are children. “I want a child so desperately I will do something bizarre for one or accept a bizarre one” is a longstanding fantasy/folk tale trope, and while Pinocchio is a considerably more modern take on it than people realize, I’m not even sure it’s the weirdest.
Kindly old woodcarver Gepetto (Christian Rub) desperately wants a child. He carves a puppet out of wood, that being a thing with kindly old woodcarvers, and wishes on the evening star that it would come to life. The Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable) comes to his shop and brings the puppet to life. She gives him a conscience, Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards), and tells him that, if he is good, he can become a real, live boy. Gepetto names him Pinocchio (Dickie Jones) and sends him off to school. He never gets there, because he is dumb as a plank.
I mean, in many ways, Gepetto’s not the world’s brightest, either, but there it is. He sends Pinocchio to school alone. Doesn’t take him, which you figure would be a good idea on the first day for a puppet that’s been brought to life. You know, to explain it to the teacher if nothing else. He doesn’t even send him with another child, just says, “Okay, Pinocchio, go to school!” No wonder Pinocchio immediately ends up in unfortunate circumstances.
I’ve read a little of the book, which is only from 1881, but none of the bits with Gepetto in them, so I don’t know how accurate an adaptation he is. But it feels to me as though people forget that literally we’re seeing, what, Pinocchio’s first day? Maybe two? Yes, he’s got wood for brains, but you know, the thing about a nature-versus-nurture debate is that there has to be some nurturing going on there. It’s made quite clear that Pinocchio loves Gepetto, but why? He barely knows him, and yes, Gepetto’s his “father,” but my kids’ affection for their father developed over time, and no one expects them to show it in their first week. Admittedly because their eyes still didn’t really focus yet that early, but still.
You can tell I’m in kind of a weird mental place, because I’d never really thought about this before. My friend and occasional Solute contributor Michael Guarnieri wrote a very interesting essay some time ago about how strange Pinocchio was for a feature film in the early days of World War II, before the US entered the war—where we would, in point of fact, invade Italy—and I hadn’t thought about that before he sent me a copy of the essay. And, yes, he’s right; Pinocchio is made an extremely wholesome American sort for the movie, not the way Italians tended to be pictured in US pop culture of the time at all.
I could also write about how very, very bonkers that book is; the movie is darker than people tend to remember—seriously, some of those scenes in the back third of the movie are terrifying—but I’ve barely read any of the book. The chapter I’ve read most often, the only bit I’ve read since the ’80s, is in a book of children’s literature I have and features a giant who catches Pinocchio in a net of fish and plans to eat him, and that’s a scene that didn’t make it to the movie. And I distinctly remember that there’s a rabbit funeral in there somewhere. The book is very, very bonkers, as I say, and it’s an odd choice for a feature. I also suspect the fact that people keep trying to make new versions only happens because the Disney is so successful.
But you’ve caught me on a day where I’m just as inclined to blame Gepetto for Pinocchio’s failings as Pinocchio himself. Does he even have a reason to believe that Pinocchio knows where the school is? Heck, we don’t see any other kids—is school even in session? Maybe Pinocchio wouldn’t have fallen in with Honest John (Walter Catlett) and Gideon (Mel Blanc, when he hiccups) if he’d had a father-figure willing to take a little more time on his son’s first day of school.
Appropriately enough, as I was reading the trivia section to discover if this “J. Worthington Foulfellow” was the character Pinocchio calls “Honest John” (he is; the formal name is on the promotional stuff and is never mentioned in the film), I learned that Christian Rub was in fact a Nazi sympathizer. Which is a heck of a thing to discover about a voice actor in a beloved children’s classic. It seems he’d go on unsolicited rants about how great Hitler was, and everyone at the studio hated him. So that’s something, I suppose.