If you were walking through a bookstore sometime in 1982, you might have seen a curious volume titled Who Censored Roger Rabbit?. Written by Gary Wolf, it was a brilliantly conceived parody of a hard-boiled detective novel set in a world where cartoon characters are real, the Sunday funnies are not drawn but photographed, and an animated cartoon was filmed like any other movie. One of the best concepts in the book was that some of the ‘toons spoke through speech balloons, just like in the comics. The balloons hung in the air and could be turned, balled up like tissue paper and if left alone would float down to the floor and turn to brown flakes and dust like an old comic book.
As a cartoonist, my biggest disappointment on seeing Who Killed Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 hit film based on Wolf’s book, was that despite all the computer generated wizardry mixing live action with animation, the speech balloon idea wasn’t used.
Had I been aware then that, back in 1966 — 18 years before Roger Rabbit was written — Czech filmmaker Vaclav Vorlicek had used the same idea in his sci-fi comedy spoof entitled Who Wants to Kill Jessie?, my disappointment in Hollywood would have increased, and my admiration of Wolf’s book would have been lessened.... a sort of lose-lose situation.
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? has live action figures portraying come-to-life comic book characters who speak through FX speech balloons — wow! — and in 1966, too!
Did Wolf know about Who Wants to Kill Jessie? I think it’s unlikely as it was only in 2003 (when it was included in a traveling Czech “Bohemian Gothic” film series) that it made its presence more widely known in the West.
But influences can run both ways. Vorlicek was probably aware of the French comic strip Barbarella by Jean-Claude Forest (begun in 1962) starring a satirically sexy female action character. The opening credits in Who Wants to Kill Jessie? are quite like Forest’s Barbarella. Vorlicek may have also known of the early 60’s Pop Art paintings of American Roy Lichtenstein, whose use of comic-book speech balloons in his paintings was revolutionary in its day. What would make a film about comic book characters in the real world more Pop-Art cool than to include wacky speech balloons?
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? also puts me in mind of the original Batman TV series which was airing in the US at that time. Batman didn’t have the speech balloon gag, but was ironic and used campy insertions of ‘POW!’ and ‘BAM!’ cartoon graphics.
There is one more possible influence here by the name of Octobriana. She was a comic book character from the Soviet world of the self-published Samizdat underground. A collection of Octobriana drawings and comics surfaced in the West in the late 70’s delivered by a Czech named Petr Sadecky. How Sadecky acquired the Octobriana material is somewhat murky, but he may have brought it with him to Prague when he left the Soviet Union in 1966. The fact that Sadecky and Vorlicek were in the same general area at the same time is suspicious.
Dreaming of You
The thing that really is amazing about Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is that the Czech officials ever allowed it to be made in the first place. Apart from its quaintly risqué heroine, there are some odd comments about life in a model socialist state. The main plot device is an injected serum that eliminates inappropriate dreams with pleasant and socially correct ones. The problem is that the ‘bad’ dreams are forced out of the dreamers’ heads and into the real world. By suppressing the bad dreams you make them real? ... a curious theme for a state-backed film.
The serum’s inventor, Dr. Ruzenka Beránková (Dana Medrická), uses her dream reading machine (what?... you don’t have one in your lab?) to determine that her engineer husband Dr. Jindrich Beránek (Jir’ Sovák) is dreaming about the very hot Jessie (Olga Schoberová ), a comic book character the doctor has recently discovered. The aptly cast Ms. Schoberová also starred in Lemonade Joe and graced the March 1964 cover of Playboy (“Girls of Russia and the Iron Curtain Countries”).
The nerdy Jindrich’s interest is all very innocent in that he’s fascinated not by Jessie’s disintegrating dress but her anti-gravity gloves; the same gloves that two comic book villains are trying to steal from her. Jindrich gets an injection of the dream serum and soon Jessie and the two bad guys, one a cowboy, the other a caped muscle-man superhero, pop into real life. This may be the point where the Party censors popped out of the screening room for coffee, and good riddance, too.
As Noted, a Fantasy/Comedy
What I liked about Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is its sense of humor and its Mickey-Rooney-like “gee-whiz, kids, let’s put on a show” enthusiasm. When a milk cow is cured of her bad dreams of tormenting gadflies, she’s shown in her pasture relaxing in a hammock and listening to a string quartet.
All the characters take turns winning and losing in the comic chase to get the secret of the anti-gravity gloves. Even the bad guys show a human side, like when the over-muscled superman knocks down an innocent bystander’s wall and then sits down at their piano and dashes off a tune. And if in the end Jindrich falls for Jessie, then his wife ends up lustily chasing after the superhero... as noted, a fantasy/comedy.
There’s been a lot of celluloid under the bridge since 1966 and many a film has tried to recreate a comic book, but few have succeed (Sin City, and the very underrated Popeye being notable exceptions). Sure, there may be good films and entertaining movies using a comic book’s title but I have to put Who Wants to Kill Jessie? in that exclusive group of winners that got the simple goofy charm of a comic book right. This film deserves a wider audience.
There are minimal extra features on this disc. There’s the ever useful Facet’s Cine-Notes (the printed booklet) and that’s about it.
Picture and Sound
Picture and sound are probably the best that could be expected from a minor Czech novelty film made in 1966. If you want wide screen, hi-def, big sound in your comic book films, go watch an X-Men movie.
How to Use this DVD
Just like an old school comic book, it’s simplicity itself. Insert disk, press play, enjoy.