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.
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 tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.