I saw "Rabbit Hill" on TV last Sunday, which set me off on another nostalgia kick, this one on the works of Robert Lawson & how much I enjoyed them when I was a kid, and on books of the same sort that I read back then -- say from 1948 to 1953 or '54, at a rough estimate, or when I was between 7 and 12 years old. Lawson was one of my favorite authors before & after I discovered s-f; indeed, several of his juvenile books could be classed as s-f themselves, while others are definitely fantasies. I suppose his best-known book is Ben and Me, which Disney made into a cartoon feature, with Sterling Holloway supplying the voice of Amos, the mouse, who was the unseen pet/friend of Ben Franklin and actually contributed all of the brilliant ideas for which the amiable but bumbling colonial took credit. Unfortunately, this book was so successful that Lawson spent most of the rest of his life writing the same plot over and over again, giving the "true" history of Paul Revere as told by his horse, or of Capt. Kidd as told by his ship's cat, or of Christopher Columbus as told by his parrot, and so on. His earlier books showed a lot more originality, though.
To draw a comparison that isn't as ridiculous as it sounds, Robert Lawson was a children's Thorne Smith. Not bawdy, no; but with much the same style of satiric humor, and fantastic plots. There was Mr. Wilmer, the meek, mild, little clerk who suddenly found he could talk to animals, and the effect it had on his life. I remember one episode , in which frightened Mr. Wilmer was besieged inside the office of the Zoo by the hordes of newspaper reporters, advertising promoters, curiosity seekers, and so on, and was taken under the wing of the Curator, a friendly and sophisticated man-of-the-world who proceeded to teach him how to take advantage of being a celebrity. Or Mr. Twigg's Mistake, in which, through a packing error, a box of a certain breakfast cereal contains a concentrated dose of the miracle growth-producing Vitamin X and no other ingredient, and the effect that box has on the family who gets it. (This story is certainly science-fiction.) This was the sort of stuff that I kept coming back to, out of all the different kinds of fiction in the juvenile collection at the Library, until I discovered s-f and didn't have to look for further types of fiction to hold my interest. A juvenile form of such fantasies as Miracle on 34th Street, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, or, as I said, the fantasies of Thorne Smith.
Rabbit Hill is different from these, though, reflecting more the spirit of The Wind in the Willows. It's about an animal community living on a deserted estate in New England, and its reaction to the news that a new family of humans will be reopening the estate. What will this mean to the animals? Will the new people be nature lovers, or hunters and trap-setters? Should the animals try to make friends with the people, try to ignore them, or leave their homes before the people arrive to avoid any possible dangers? This was an excellently written book; it won the Newbery Medal in 1945 as the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children for the preceding year. And I was very pleased to see, last Sunday, that an excellent job was done of translating it for the TV screen.
The most fascinating thing about the show was that it was filmed "live", using real animals, instead of being a cartoon adventure. I had my doubts beforehand a s to how this would work out, since it's difficult enough to make even the more intelligent animals look as though they're really on an equal standing with humans (as anyone who has seen the "intelligent" dogs, horses, mules and monkeys will know), and it's almost impossible to get any expression at all from such small animals as rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, fieldmice, skunks, and the like. The film succeeded beyond my expectations, though, due to very skillful camera work and directing. Individual shots of the different animals were blended together so smoothly that you could believe they were all standing in a group, talking together. Fortunately, no attempt was made to dub in dialogue, to make it appear that the animals were really speaking their lines (usually a failure in the best talking-animal movies and TV shows); instead, the dialog was left in the story narration, which was all read very pleasantly by Burl Ives. In effect, Ives delivered a reading of Lawson's original book, condensed to fit the TV show's one-hour time slot, in synchronization with a series of live-action film footage prepared to illustrate the text. Most of the camera work consisted of either close-ups of the animals, or moving footage of the landscape taken from the eye-level of the animals. The result may not have been as dramatic as an animated cartoon could have been, but it captured the rural atmosphere of Lawson's book exactly -- frankly, I suspect that if anthropomorphized cartoon characters had been used, the producers might not have been able to resist the temptation to jazz up the plot for the sake of more action, as happened with Disney's version of The Wind in the Willows. But for once, I was really given what was advertised: a cinematic edition of a book that is one of my favorites, with everything that made the original such a success; rather than somebody's "adaptation" or "improvement" of the real book. I'm satisfied.
-- BEING COMMENTS ON LAST WEEK'S DISTRIBUTION
Lord Triffid III: -- Apa L's first anniversary Dist'n (#53) was 149p., which stands as our record so far -- and with the way things look now, of course, we're not likely to ever top it. I think the 140p. Dist'n (#24?) was our second largest, and I suppose there were maybe half-a-dozen others that topped 100p. I don't think the exact statistics are really worth looking up. Anyhow, 142p. is not enough to top our record. And the comparison looks even less even when you consider that Apa L's 149p. were prepared in only one week, while ValAPA had two weeks to prepare its 142p. ## If the Fellowship is ever revitalized to the point of being in a position to get on an inside track in Tolkien matters, I'd like to see some information about the feature cartoon movie of "The Hobbit". Mainly, I'd like to get some contacts who can help us latch onto Trnka's colored stills when they're through being used, assuming that they'd be discarded otherwise.
Tom Digby -- Whatever happened to Buffalo Bob?
Ken Rudolph -- Welcome, and thanks for telling us how you found the club. The Collectors Bookstore is supposed to know how to direct people to us; I guess we'd better mimeo up some new direction sheets for them to hand out, like Len & Mal say they'll be glad to do.