By Anthony Nield
There’s a famous tale relating to MGM and their 1944 adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight. Keen not to have any other version impinging on their success, the studio attempted not only to suppress the earlier British film from 1940, they reportedly even tried to destroy the negative.
For all that is known about early Tintin adaptations, it would be easy to imagine that Spielberg has done the same in order to promote his own motion capture take on Hergé’s classic character. There have been a number of Tintin films over the years, and yet none of them are particularly well-known.
The most recent were a trio of big screen ventures from Belvision, the studio behind the Tintin television cartoon that ran between 1959 and 1963. (The first of the films was merely a compilation of episodes and consequently shouldn’t really count.) Before that were a pair of French live action takes with plenty of cult appeal – Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece (1961) and Tintin and the Blue Oranges (1964) – that the BFI resurrected onto DVD last year. Moving back further we find two semi-animated efforts, King Ottakar’s Sceptre (1956) and The Broken Ear (1957), both of which have settled into complete obscurity. If we wish to encounter the very first Tintin movie we need to rewind over sixty years, all the way to 1947, when Le Crabe aux Pinces d’Or, or The Crab with the Golden Claws was released.
As the title suggests we’re dealing here with an adaptation of the ninth adventure, at the time of production a scant five years old. This is the one in which Tintin first befriends Captain Haddock and, as such, has bled slightly in Spielberg’s current version, an amalgam of tales that also takes in The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure. Yet whereas the E.T. director and his trio of British writers (Joe Cornish, Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright) seem quite happy to pick-and-choose their way through the Hergé back catalogue, The Crab with the Golden Claws is altogether more faithful to its source. Watch the film with the comic strip to hand and you’ll notice that not only is it a scene-for-scene adaptation, but the story also progresses in the same way page-for-page and panel-for-panel. The reason for this fidelity is a simple one: stop motion. The Crab with the Golden Claws possesses a considerable amount of charm owing to its status as a black and white Tintin movie from the forties, and this charm is multiplied by its simple 3D animation techniques.
The designs are really quite basic: egg-headed characters with stick-on ears and noses populating miniature cardboard sets. The main features are drawn on with Tintin receiving a full pair of lips that lends him a slightly effeminate side, one that’s compounded by having a female voice artist provide his dialogue. His arms also appear to be a little disproportionately long, but nonetheless this is unmistakably Tintin. Indeed, all of the main characters are immediately recognisable from their first appearance: Thomson and Thompson, Captain Haddock, even tiny Snowy constructed out of seemingly little more than wool and wire. The supporting cast are an equally distinctive collection of figurines (particularly those with somewhat dramatic jaw lines) though their real function is simply to keep the tale moving along. On the surface The Crab with the Golden Claws is an adventure about Tintin on the pursuit of opium smugglers, but it is also, essentially a collection of globe-trotting set pieces.
In all fairness, animation logistics and budget prevent the action scenes from really delivering. It was clearly cheaper and easier to opt for filming – as opposed to animating – Hergé’s most dramatic panels. The sea is thus represented by a rather obvious water tank upon which model ships and boats can bobble; a sea-plane comes with highly visible wires attached; and our characters have a tendency not to move when such excitement is going on. Also letting the side down is a rather feeble sound design. Certainly, we get an energetic orchestral score as per any number of forties crime flicks to keep the pace brisk. But the crashes, bullets and explosions ring rather hollow; when Tintin narrowly avoids some falling cargo we hear a whimper, not a bang.
Unsurprisingly it is the comedic touches which prove themselves more amenable to 1940s stop motion. Captain Haddock hallucinating in the Sahara is one such moment: Tintin transformed into a puff of smoke (i.e. cotton wool) and then a giant bottle of champagne. Likewise Snowy’s bits of business, such as the skirmish with a discarded tin of crabmeat which opens both comic strip and film, are rendered particularly well thanks to that combination of puppetry and patience.
It’s during these instances that The Crab with the Golden Claws’ charms really shine through, and arguably a little cuteness too. Indeed, cutely charming would be fine summation of the film as a whole. It’s flawed, certainly, and by no means a masterpiece that has remained hidden all these years, but there’s also no denying that it possesses a certain fascination as an early piece of stop motion animation and as the very first Tintin adaptation. Perhaps more so for the ‘Tintinologist’ as opposed to the casual fan, though either way there’s definitely some appeal here.
So how would you set about tracking down The Crab with the Golden Claws? Interestingly it screened only once during the forties having been confiscated by bailiffs shortly after its premiere. (The producer, Wilfred Bouchery, had declared bankruptcy during production). Thankfully placed into storage as opposed to being destroyed, a copy found its way into the Royal Belgian Film Archive and would occasionally screen at Tintin festivals. In 2008 a DVD emerged in France courtesy of Fox Pathé which is still available for around the 10 Euro mark. It lacks English subtitles but given the unerring fidelity to the original strip (director Claude Misonne was a personal friend of Hergé) all you need to follow the action is a copy of the book to hand.