Watch “The Hangman,” a Classic Animated Film That Explores What Happens When No One Dares to Stand Up to Evil

Last Fri­day, I was down­town at an open air cin­e­ma to watch a col­lec­tion of ani­mat­ed shorts. It was also a beast­ly hot night with roar­ing sun­down­ers, a very present dan­ger of being clocked in the head by falling palm fronds, and an exis­ten­tial dan­ger of fire in the hills. The oth­er exis­ten­tial dan­ger was that of the author­i­tar­i­an turn of this coun­try that, at that moment, seemed so far away from our pic­nic bas­kets and wine in a can.

In the mid­dle of the pro­gram of well made but light and fluffy shorts came the above ani­mat­ed film, “The Hang­man.” The ver­sion above is not the restored ver­sion we saw, but it’s pret­ty much the same, give or take a scratch. Les Gold­man and Paul Julian’s 1964 short deliv­ers a moral mes­sage along the same lines as anti-Nazi pas­tor Mar­tin Niemöller’s “First they came for the Social­ists” statement–currently a meme you’ve prob­a­bly seen pass through your social feed. And though the nar­ra­tive, based on the poem by Mau­rice Ogden, is easy to suss out as it trun­dled towards its mor­tal con­clu­sion, it did not stop the fact that the ram­bunc­tious Fri­day night audi­ence fell dead silent upon its con­clu­sion. You may too.

The poem first appeared in a 1954 issue of Mass­es and Main­stream, a month­ly Marx­ist pub­li­ca­tion that con­tin­ued pub­lish­ing through the worst excess­es of the McCarthy hear­ings to an under­stand­ably van­ish­ing read­er­ship. The poem has occa­sion­al­ly been taught in the con­text of the Holo­caust, but any kind of creep­ing fas­cism will do. Not much is real­ly known about Ogden, who wrote the poem under the pseu­do­nym Jack Denoya in its orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion. (He is pos­si­bly the same man who taught at Coast Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege in Cos­ta Mesa, CA, and min­is­tered at Orange Coast Uni­tar­i­an Uni­ver­sal­ist Church.)

The ani­mat­ed ver­sion, with its mod­ernist look influ­enced by UPA’s ani­ma­tion stu­dio, came out one year after Mass­es and Main­stream fold­ed. Dur­ing that Fri­day night view­ing, I sus­pect­ed the nar­ra­tor to be Ken Nor­dine, who record­ed a vocal jazz album around that time. But actu­al­ly the voice belongs to Her­schel Bernar­di, a film and the­ater actor who would have been known to Broad­way fans for his star­ring role in Fid­dler on the Roof but to tele­vi­sion fans as Char­lie Tuna in the Stark­ist com­mer­cials. Before all that, how­ev­er, he was a vic­tim of the Hol­ly­wood black­list, which made him a per­fect choice to nar­rate “The Hang­man.”

Direc­tor Paul Julian illus­trat­ed much of the back­ground art used in Warn­er Bros. car­toons, and his claim to pop cul­ture fame is pro­vid­ing the “beep beep” sound for the Road Run­ner car­toons by the same stu­dio. Pro­duc­er Les Gold­man went on to pro­duce sev­er­al oth­er influ­en­tial ani­mat­ed shorts, such as “The Dot and the Line” and “The Phan­tom Toll­booth.”

How­ev­er, “The Hang­man” is seri­ous food for thought in these fraught times, and it’s good to see it back in cir­cu­la­tion, thanks to cura­tor Ron Dia­mond. Here’s to hop­ing his­to­ry doesn’t repeat itself.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch a Sur­re­al 1953 Ani­ma­tion of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” Vot­ed the 24th Best Car­toon of All Time

A Short Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Karl Marx

The Best Ani­mat­ed Films of All Time, Accord­ing to Ter­ry Gilliam

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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  • Kathy Shaidle says:

    “McCarthy­ism” zzzzz. You know there WERE actu­al­ly card-car­ry­ing Com­mu­nists in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, schools and Hol­ly­wood tho right, many of whom were spies for the USSR? Just check­ing…

    This may sound vague­ly famil­iar…

    “In the ongo­ing kul­turkampf divid­ing the soci­ety, the elites of Hol­ly­wood, Cam­bridge and lib­er­al think-tankery had lit­tle sym­pa­thy for bow-legged men with their Amer­i­can Legion caps and their fat wives, their yap­ping about Yal­ta and the Katyn For­est. Catholic and kitsch, look­ing out of their pic­ture win­dows at their flocks of pink plas­tic flamin­gos, the low­er mid­dles and their for­eign pol­i­cy anguish were too infra dig to be tak­en seri­ous­ly.

    “Once a year these peo­ple would hold huge Cap­tive Nation Day ral­lies in cities across the coun­try, which Demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cians of taste and sen­si­bil­i­ty avoid­ed. The only Democ­rats in evi­dence at these ral­lies of unstyl­ish anti-com­mu­nists were often dis­missed by their social supe­ri­ors as smarmy, cor­rupt, machine pols. Auschwitz, Tre­blin­ka, Belsen, all the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps were dis­man­tled, but the Gulag grew and left-lib­er­als like Cal­i­for­nia con­gress­woman Helen Gaha­gan Dou­glas and the edi­tors at the New Repub­lic mag­a­zine seemed not to care. Work­ing class anti-com­mu­nist vot­ers did not fail to notice the dis­dain with which some of the lib­er­al intel­li­gentsia regard­ed them. The ear­ly 1950s, not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, marked the begin­ning of the great out­mi­gra­tion of the blue-col­lar work­ers from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty.” (…)

    “An ade­quate his­to­ry of the McCarthy/Truman peri­od, one that gives prop­er atten­tion to the class, eth­nic, reli­gious and cul­tur­al antag­o­nisms of those times, has not yet been writ­ten. But enough new infor­ma­tion has come to light about the com­mu­nists in the U.S. gov­ern­ment that we may now say that point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was still clos­er to the truth than those who ridiculed him.”

  • James Barlow says:

    As the gal­lows grow in con­fused sym­bol­ism and sur­re­al­i­ty the struc­tures of the town become more anti­re­al and cubist final­ly trans­form­ing into wartorn ruins! The music at 4:00 trans­forms from sim­ple lis­ten­able folk melody to dis­cor­dant jazz. The cit­i­zens have tak­en up the car­pen­ter’s square—symbolizing right­ness and rectitude—and begin hold­ing it gun­like as the Hang­man does with shroud­ed heads: a dou­ble pre­ten­sion of blind jus­tice and rec­ti­tude, when what one real­ly has is bureau­crat­ic anonymi­ty and jus­tice weaponized–really bril­liant dou­ble sym­bol­ism and an hor­rif­ic irony. Just as the alien is scape­goat­ed for rep­re­sent­ing the globe (he holds), the ‘out­side world’, and the man with the emp­ty bird cage rep­re­sents the ‘live and let live’ of free­dom (“nat­ur­al law”).

      The man­ic, xylo­phon­ic melody briefly laps­es into the theme of the open­ing bars of “Yan­kee Doo­dle” at 4:39–4:43. Bril­liant allu­sion: the blood beneath the gal­lows chute makes the gal­lows tree grow is rem­i­nis­cent of Thomas Paine: “The tree of lib­er­ty must occa­sion­al­ly be watered by the blood of patri­ots.” The fact that hang­ings don’t result in a lot of blood­let­ting but guil­lo­tin­ings do alludes to the French Rev­o­lu­tion as well. 

      “And so we ceased, and asked no more.” Right at the moment when the Hang­man begins using as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for his death edicts and their pub­lished pro­nounce­ment of sen­tence the mot­to above the obso­les­cent cour­t­house door. But nota bene: that mot­to,  which began as admon­ish­ment and end­ed as absolute obiter dic­tum ratio­nal­iz­ing mur­der, was a half-truth. “And do not trans­gress the gods” (“et non tem­nere divos”)–do not dis­re­spect the divine–was sum­mar­i­ly neglect­ed BY THE COMMUNITY AT THE OUTSET!

      So the sig­nif­i­cance of the film is much more than the Jef­fer­son­ian “all that’s required for evil to tri­umph is that good men do noth­ing” (&tc). It does require a degree of moral sen­si­tiv­i­ty and gen­uine lit­er­a­cy, per­haps more plau­si­ble in 1964, to get it. 

      The asso­ci­a­tion with Amer­i­can­ism, demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues etc, is telling. 1964 was the same year Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter said “extrem­ism in defense of lib­er­ty is no vice,” the kind of slo­gan a hang­man would applaud. Some­where Niet­zsche, com­ment­ing on the ori­gin of democ­ra­cy in the west not­ed how it became pos­si­ble thanks to the sci­en­tif­ic inven­tive­ness of Dr. Guil­lo­tine, who per­suad­ed the Nation­al Assem­bly of the pain­less­ness of his device, result­ing in the reign of ter­ror. “How much grue­some thun­der and blood there is beneath all good things!” Niet­zsche con­clud­ed. 

      The guy who wrote the intro to this is sur­pris­ing­ly good. Haven’t heard the Cal­i­forn­ian term “sun­down­er” since liv­ing out there. Fun­ny he would con­fuse the nar­ra­tor’s voice with that of Ken Nordeen.…..

    At 1:09 is first seen part of the famous phrase of Vergil. 

    See: (from Stu­di­olum web­site):

    Virgil’s Best Verse

    Discite iusti­ti­am, moni­ti, et non tem­nere divos

    In the chap­ter ded­i­cat­ed to Phl­e­gyas – the king of the Lap­ithes, who burnt down the tem­ple of Apol­lo at Del­phi – Bal­tasar de Vito­ria quotes and trans­lates into Span­ish a verse that Vir­gil puts into the mouth of the king. Phl­e­gyas, for his impi­ous act, was con­demned to keep shout­ing aloud, in the Infer­no, “Discite iusti­ti­am, moni­ti, et non tem­nere divos” (learn jus­tice, you admon­ished, and be not dis­re­spect­ful towards the gods). But Bal­tasar de Vito­ria also adds a sur­pris­ing sto­ry:

    And by the way I tell you the sto­ry that I heard from a priest, a man of great verac­i­ty, who, being called to one pos­sessed by the dev­il, asked the demon which was the best verse of Vir­gil, and it respond­ed that this was: Discite iusti­ti­am, &c.

    The judge­ment of the demon might be influ­enced by the fact that this verse of Vir­gil is pro­nounced in the Infer­no, and will be ring­ing there for an eter­ni­ty, and that those con­demned for impi­ous acts – indeed, such as Lucifer him­self – must hear it with a spe­cial hor­ror: this is the case of Salmoneus*, Tan­ta­lus, Sisy­phus and oth­er obsti­nate rebels against the gods. And its impact must be that much greater, as the com­men­tary by Servius explic­it­ly tells us that this imper­a­tive was direct­ed towards those “now under­go­ing pun­ish­ment”. This does not lack in para­dox, for how should they accom­plish this order in those cir­cum­stances?

    * On Salmoneus, king of Elis, who dared to com­pare him­self to Jupiter, a com­plete tragedy was ded­i­cat­ed by Joost van den Von­del («Salmoneus», Ams­ter­dam 1657), which bears on its fron­tispiece, as a mot­to of the work, this admon­ish­ment by Vir­gil (cf. its dig­i­tal edi­tion in dbnl).

    Apart from the sit­u­a­tion in which it is pro­nounced, the great­ness of this verse is due to the per­fect sym­me­try and sen­ten­tious­ness with which it marks the duties of the prince towards his infe­ri­ors and his supe­ri­ors, towards his sub­jects and towards the gods. Exact­ly these duties are empha­sized – although gen­er­al­ized, con­cern­ing every­one – by Lip­sius in his De con­stan­tia.

    Thus it is no sur­prise that in a copy of the author­i­ta­tive Basel 1562 edi­tion of Vir­gil’s Opera omnia edit­ed by Georgius Fabri­cius (1516–1571), con­served in the Hun­gar­i­an Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, this verse is under­lined – as if it were a mot­to – by the same Renais­sance hand who num­bered the vers­es of this book:

    That this verse in effect func­tioned as a kind of mot­to, or sen­tence of com­mon use, is attest­ed by its pres­ence in many poliantheae: thus for exam­ple in that of Joannes Langius (Basel 1613), where it appears under the con­cepts “Jus­tice” and “Fear of God”. It also fig­ures as a mot­to of emblems in Juan de Horoz­co’sEm­ble­mas morales (2.23, f. 45) or Juan de Solórzano Pereira (Emblem 19), always with ref­er­ence to the work of judges.

    Nev­er­the­less, it is strange – and almost mys­te­ri­ous — that in an edi­tion of Vir­gil’s Opera omnia by Petrus Bur­man­nus Jun. (1746) we can find a com­men­tary quot­ed from Georgius Fabri­cius that can­not be read in his own edi­tion. This com­ment refers to the Human­ist priest Laz­zaro Bonam­i­co (1477–1552), who asked a pos­sessed Pad­u­an girl – who was flu­ent in Latin and Greek, and well-let­tered – which was the best verse of Vir­gil, and she pro­nounced in a loud and clear voice exact­ly this one that is quot­ed here.

    At this point we have good rea­son to doubt the “great verac­i­ty” of the priest of Vito­ria, who relat­ed this sto­ry as if he him­self had lived it.

    How­ev­er, the sto­ry does not fin­ish here. James Rus­sell Low­ell (1819–1891) attrib­uted it to Melanchthon (in whose exhaus­tive index we can­not find a sin­gle word about it), trans­pos­ing it from Pad­ua to Bologna, and affirm­ing that the girl oth­er­wise “did not know Latin”. The only cer­tain fact is that Melanchthon starts with this quo­ta­tion one of his epi­grams as an admon­ish­ment to lyric poets “that have to warn us that God pun­ish­es the arro­gant princes”. Per­haps with this admon­ish­ment in mind, Hegel – albeit not in a lyri­cal vein – gave this verse as a title to his trans­la­tion of Jean-Jacques Cart’s pam­phlet against small Ger­man tyrants.

    How­ev­er, the sto­ry ends with a twist on behalf of injus­tice and the con­tempt of gods: indeed, Poe cen­sures Voltaire for hav­ing inten­tion­al­ly mis­trans­lat­ed this verse in order to deny the Juda­ic ori­gins of monothe­ism…

    And final­ly, while we might have had doubts in the “great verac­i­ty” of the priest men­tioned by Vito­ria, what rea­sons do we have for believ­ing the asser­tion of a demon?

    Servius, In Vergilii Aenei­dos, 6.620

  • marmer says:

    I guess you did­n’t watch the whole thing, huh?

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