Thriftstorm is Captain Video’s secondhand anthropology project. Follow @Thriftstorm on Twitter for the latest news on things people were just going to throw away.
Artifact: Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971), 1990 home video release.
Description: High fidelity VHS tape (with closed captioning!) in a cardboard sleeve.
Source: Thrift store free pile. The price of VHS tapes has either stayed flat or gone down in the decade-plus that I’ve been thrifting; this particular store just puts all its tapes out for free.
Is there any better evidence for the clouding power of nostalgia than the library of Rankin-Bass? Over two decades, they made 17 stop-motion TV specials, and odds are that you have collectively seen them a thousand times. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (their first holiday special, and their best) will run in Decembers until the sun burns out. Rewatch it or any of the others as an adult, though, and the uncanniness of stop motion starts to bleed through. Stop motion characters move through fast twitches without blur, which is also how spiders move. That can be a distraction in a good movie like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It is a mortal wound in Here Comes Peter Cottontail.
The setup here simple, and presented to the viewer by Seymour S. Sassafras, a traveling salesman (voiced by Danny Kaye) who “deal[s] in magic and moonbeams and pretty, pretty colors.” In April Valley, the Chief Easter Bunny, Col. Wellington B. Bunny (also Kaye), is preparing for retirement. Vying to be his replacement are Peter Cottontail (Casey Kasem, doing a slightly less shrill version of the voice he would later use for Shaggy on Scooby-Doo) and the villainous January Q. Irontail (Vincent Price, being Vincent Price and loving it).
Irontail’s introduction is just him cackling on a mountaintop, then flying away on a bat. That level of character development dovetails nicely with his permanent frown. Because he’s supposed to look evil, Irontail’s Wario-like countenance is actually less disturbing than that of Peter, who spends the runtime trapped between being a protagonist and being a ball of felt cursed with life.
Sassafras presents their battle as an after-the-fact replay, seen by the viewer through a magic egg with a viewing glass built into one end. There are numerous breaks in the movie – which must have initially been for commercials – where the story stops and cuts back to Sassafras, who recaps the last few events and then holds up the egg again. By the second or third time he did it, I wanted to decline the offer.
As the only candidates for Easter Bunny, Peter and Irontail have the challenge of giving away as many Easter eggs as possible. Irontail only wants the job “to get even” – “years ago,” he expostulates, “a small child roller-skated over my tail.” Wielding a new tail made of riveted iron, he plans to disappoint the hell out of children henceforth. To beat Peter, he cheats by giving Peter’s alarm clock (specifically, the rooster that stands on top of the clock) bubble gum so it can’t crow in the morning. That is but a small taste of the cheating that will take place in this, a movie predicated on honesty.
You see, Peter has a habit of telling “fibs,” which are telegraphed to the audience and the other characters by the drooping of his left ear. The other characters chastise Peter endlessly (he’s a slow learner), but Sassafras wastes no time lending Peter a time machine so he can go back and hand out eggs after sleeping through the big day. (Irontail won after giving away all of one egg, which he left in the arms of a sleeping hobo.)
The introduction of the time machine – a sputtering dirigible helmed by a caterpillar named Antoine (Kaye again, doing a terrible French accent) – is where the story goes off the rails. Antoine and Peter fly from holiday to holiday, and the middle half of the movie is just them constantly missing the mark. Unsurprisingly, nobody wants Easter eggs on Thanksgiving, Christmas or the Fourth of July, and Peter ends up constantly repainting them. Irontail dogs Peter throughout, although exactly how he is traveling through time is unclear. It seems plausible that anything can happen in April Valley, but most residents are too polite to act on their worst urges.
The movie’s idea of time travel as a whole is bonkers. The dirigible flies over – and then crashes through – enormous calendar pages that hang in the sky. At one point, Antoine tells Peter that “we are traveling at one ‘undred hours an hour.” This movie dares you to give a shit.
Holiday hopping (and Sassafras’ after-commercial recaps) take up the middle half of the movie, which becomes tiresome the further on it wears. Speckled through are musical numbers, including one in which Antoine is joined by other caterpillars for a dance that will haunt my dreams.
Something viewers in 1971 would have picked up on, and the home video crowd of 1990 probably wouldn’t, is the nostalgia for the Gilded Age. America in the mid-20th century pined for the simpler time before the World Wars. Sassafras’ appearance is of a snake-oil salesman, and even though he’s the good guy, he’s also a bit of a shyster. (In the closest thing he has to a character-defining moment, Sassafras juices a yellow carrot for liquid color, then accidentally writes “blue” on the bottle. He solves this by magically making the color blue. That sort of weapons-grade whimsy can almost explain why he decided to rig an Easter Bunny contest.)
The human characters dress in what could plausibly be contemporary fashions, but the rabbits have waistcoats and pocket watches; Antoine dresses like an air ace from World War I. It’s hard to say when, exactly, this nostalgia faded out of the popular consciousness, but 1971 was already pushing it.
The tape itself has held up surprisingly well across 28 years, especially considering that it was copied in SLP mode. VHS has three tape speed settings – Standard Play, Long Play and Super Long Play – and each one degraded the picture slightly more in exchange for letting you fit more video on the tape. In the case of prerecorded movies, this means the manufacturer could use less physical tape overall, since it only had to be long enough for the prerecorded program. There are only some minor tracking errors (visible at the bottom of these screencaps) in the picture.
The company that made the tape was called Family Home Entertainment, and when I was a kid, I thought they were a big deal. They licensed for home video a vast library of animation from around the world, and I probably saw as many tapes with their logo at the front as I did Disney. Online information about FHE is spotty – they seem to have been merged into Lionsgate Home Entertainment and shut down in 2005 – but this will not be the last time you hear from them in Thriftstorm.
Next time: If I can find which pile I put it in, get ready to be wowed by a 1990s brochure for the Dodge Caravan!