Excerpt from THE VELVETEEN RABBIT or HOW TOYS BECOME REAL by Margery Williams Illustrations by William Nicholson THERE was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with pink sateen. On Christmas morning, when he sat wedged in the top of the Boy's stocking, with a sprig of holly between his paws, the effect was charming.
There were other things in the stocking, nuts and oranges and a toy engine, and chocolate almonds and a clockwork mouse, but the Rabbit was quite the best of all. For at least two hours the Boy loved him, and then Aunts and Uncles came to dinner, and there was a great rustling of tissue paper and unwrapping of parcels, and in the excitement of looking at all the new presents the Velveteen Rabbit was forgotten.
For a long time he lived in the toy cupboard or on the nursery floor, and no one thought very much about him. He was naturally shy, and being only made of velveteen, some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him. The mechanical toys were very superior, and looked down upon every one else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real. The model boat, who had lived through two seasons and lost most of his paint, caught the tone from them and never missed an opportunity of referring to his rigging in technical terms. The Rabbit could not claim to be a model of anything, for he didn't know that real rabbits existed; he thought they were all stuffed with sawdust like himself, and he understood that sawdust was quite out-of-date and should never be mentioned in modern circles. Even Timothy, the jointed wooden lion, who was made by the disabled soldiers, and should have had broader views, put on airs and pretended he was connected with Government. Between them all the poor little Rabbit was made to feel himself very insignificant and commonplace, and the only person who was kind to him at all was the Skin Horse.
The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
This is a reminiscence by one of us Maciste boys, with just a hint of wistful reflection:
It was early summer, 1973. The sky was a piercing, cloudless blue. The air was crisp and cool. A perfect day for a couple of eight-year-old boys to play outside. Not a chance. Mom had the car and I wanted to go to the movies! So I called my buddy Warren up and off we went to the neighborhood Mann's Fox Theater to see a matineé of CHARLOTTE’S WEB!
Now, I had seen CHARLOTTE’S WEB about ten times already and wouldn’t've minded seeing it twenty more. I loved the cheery tunes, the lively, funny characters and sequences --
-- Templeton the Rat’s carnival gorgefest was a particular favorite --
-- and the wonderful upbeat message about friendship and perseverance during the tough times in life.
This particular afternoon, my mom could only drop us off at the theater, so Warren’s mom would have to pick us up. Turned out, his mom couldn't get us until a couple of hours after CHARLOTTE’S WEB was over... so... naturally... the only thing Warren and I could do was see the movie that was playing immediately following the kid’s matineé... and that movie was something called EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE!
Sounded good to us. We had never heard of EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE. Had to be a fantasy, right? Probably had something to do with Santa Claus fighting an evil genius for control over the North Pole like THE CHRISTMAS THAT ALMOST WASN’T (Rossano Brazzi, 1966) --
-- another matineé that Warren and I had obsessed over during the holiday seasons. And this one starred Ernest Borgnine, whom we both loved on TV in McHALE'S NAVY.
Borgnine was one funny dude! So we were psyched to stay over for EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE... "Hush, hush sweet Charlotte..."
Here’s how it went down: CHARLOTTE’S WEB ends. We’re up, up, up! Warren and I noticed that our friends from school, two really cute identical twin sisters - Lisa and Alicia - were in the audience with their mom. We were so excited about this fantasy about the takeover of the North Pole that we were able to persuade their mom to let them stay over with us through the next feature. Warren’s mom wouldn’t mind dropping them home when she picked us up -- they lived down the street from me, anyway.
We were all so happy after CHARLOTTE --
-- eating our popcorn and candy --
-- singing the songs --
-- and laughing to tears as we went over all the scenes from the movie we had seen only moments before...
...But soon, there would be tears of a different kind...
...and all due to something that we here at DM preoccupy ourselves with now as adults on this very site...
So travel back with me to that fateful moment...
...as the theater went dark for a second time that afternoon...
After informing us, via a pre-STAR WARS crawl, of the desperate plight of the hobos during the Great Depression of the 1930's, we are immediately introduced to a nice, innocuous 'bo who literally crawls out of the woodwork to hop the first train that comes by.
But this ain't just anybody's train... It's Shack's train!
Shack (Ernest Borgnine) is the seasoned train bull -- or railway cop -- whose primary objective is to prevent anyone -- especially hobos --
-- from stealing a free ride...
The carefree 'bo hops onto the train. Thinking he's just another shadow on a sunny day.
In fact, he really does become a shadow --
-- a grim foreshadowing of a more aggressive transformation about to occur.
But shadows aren't invisible...
...and nobody --
-- not even a shadow --
-- rides Shack's train for free!
Our 'bo peacefully settles in for a little lunch...
-- until Shack adds a little extra iron to our sunny-day friend's diet.
One swift clock on the noggin with a ball-peen hammer initiates the transformation...
...to tumbling dummy...
...giving new meaning to the phrase, "riding the rails".
The transformation is witnessed on both sides of the fence --
--by the law whose code is cold and hard and unyielding --
-- and by the 'bos whose human condition is simultaneously transformed, metaphorically --
-- spiritually --
-- and physically --
-- into the realm of the mythic.
Forever a creature that is part man --
-- and part, the blood soaked railways that they were willing to fight to the death to ride.
And that was my first conscious acknowledgment of Robert Aldrich.
If, by the age of 8, I had already lost faith in God, then Robert Aldrich had proven to me, with this film --
-- and a mind-scarring dummy-death --
-- the existence of Heaven on Earth.
In reflection: this introduction to this master’s art was indeed an ironically appropriate one.
Let’s look back to CHARLOTTE'S WEB for a brief moment: what’s the story here?
Wilbur the piglet is saved from the slaughterhouse by a vigorous campaign to prove himself more than just a source of a tasty meal. With the help of a spider skilled in writing webs in the English language and a few close barnyard friends, Wilbur's life is spared as everyone recognizes him to be "some pig".
At this stage in his career, Aldrich hadn’t had a big screen hit since THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) five years earlier.
His previous film, ULZANA'S RAID (1972) told the story of an aging American Indian chief with a ”cruel sense of humor“ named Ulzana who goes on a savage killing rampage in order to strengthen his power with that stolen from the soul of his victims.
Aldrich was clear where his sympathies lay at the age of 55. Aldrich was Ulzana -- an aging cinema chief with a cruel sense of humor who now had to fight for respect in a changing, more youth-oriented Hollywood. And he was more than willing to fight for that respect.
Like Wilbur, winning the battle to be spared a trip to the sausage factory, Aldrich would have one last big blockbuster in him with the phenomenally successful THE LONGEST YARD (1974) the very next year.
But if one watches the more substantial, complex and texturally rich (but no less brutal) EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE (almost immediately retitled EMPEROR OF THE NORTH),
then we are sure that you would agree with us here at DESTRUCTIBLE MAN as we firmly proclaim that Robert Aldrich had, indeed, already proven himself to be ”SOME PIG“.