Saturday, 4 October 2014

Rock & Rule: Canada's Animated Masterpiece

 (This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings)

For much of its history Canada has not been known for its animated feature films. In fact, the first Canadian animated feature would not be released until 1956: the French language movie Le Village enchanté.  While the 1981 feature film Heavy Metal was technically produced in Canada, it was truly an international production. It utilised animators as far afield as Los Angeles and London, and among the companies that produced it was the United States' Columbia Pictures. Canada would have to wait until 1983 for its first English language animated feature film produced entirely in Canada. And there are many who would argue that particular film was well worth the wait. It was the cult film Rock & Rule, now regarded by many as a classic in animation.

Rock & Rule was produced by the Canadian animation company Nelvana. Nelvana was founded in 1971 by Michael Hirsch, Patrick Loubert, and Clive A. Smith. Messrs. Hirsch and Loubert had met while attending York University and would co-author a book on the Canadian comic books of the World War II era, The Great Canadian Comic Books. In fact, Nelvana took its name from Canada's first superhero, Nelvana of the Northern Lights. Clive A. Smith started working as an animator for British animation firm Halas and Batchelor in 1964. While there he worked on such animated television series as The Beatles and the Sixties incarnation of The Lone Ranger. He worked as a freelancer on the 1968 British animated feature Yellow Submarine before migrating to Canada in 1967. Once in Canada he worked in commercials, as well as on cartoon shorts with animators Al Guest and Vladimir Goetzleman.

Nelvana got its start in animation creating animated filler material for the CBC. They would go on to create a series of shorts called Small Star Cinema, which combined animation and live action for the network. It was in 1974 that they produced their first television special, Christmas Two Step. Christmas Two Step would be followed by yet more animated specials, including A Cosmic Christmas (1977), The Devil and Daniel Mouse (1978), Intergalactic Thanksgiving or Please Don't Eat the Planet (1979), and yet others. Among Nelvana's most notable work from this period was a a ten minute segment entitled "The Faithful Wookie" for the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special that aired in 1978. "The Faithful Wookie" would be historic for introducing bounty hunter Boba Fett, two years before he appeared in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

It was one of Nelvana's television specials, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, that would provide the inspiration for Rock & Rule. The Devil and Daniel Mouse was based very loosely on Stephen Vincent Benét's short story The Devil and Daniel Webster. It centred on a pair of struggling folk musicians (who also happen to be mice), Daniel and Jan. When Jan sells her soul to the Devil for success as a rock star, it is up to Daniel to figure out a way to get the Devil to release her from her contract. The songs in the special were written by John Sebastian (formerly of The Lovin' Spoonful) and performed by John Sebastian and Laurel Runn. The success of The Devil and Daniel Mouse led Nelvana to embark on their first full length, theatrical movie in 1979. Originally entitled Drats!, the film was meant to be a rock 'n' roll fantasy aimed at children, not unlike The Devil and Daniel Mouse.

It would be because of Drats! that Nelvana would decline producer Ivan Reitman's offer to work on the feature film Heavy Metal (1981). As it was, Drats! would evolve into something just a little closer to Mr. Reitman's decidedly adult animated feature than the children's movie Nelvana had originally intended. Ultimately the film would touch upon such adult themes as drug use, diabolism, profanity, and mild sexuality. And while the film's characters would still be animals, they were dogs, cats, and rats who had mutated into something approaching human beings in the wake of a nuclear war centuries ago. If Rock & Rule (as it was renamed) was not quite as adult in content as Heavy Metal would be (there is no full nudity or overt sex in the film), it certainly was no longer a children's movie.

Rock & Rule centred on a small-time rock band consisting of Omar, Angel, Dizzy, and Stretch who perform at local venues in their hometown of Ohmtown. Unfortunately  for the group, legendary rock star Mok is searching for a very special voice capable of unleashing a demonic being from another dimension. And, unfortunately for the band, that voice belongs to Angel. The characters of Rock & Rule were largely designed after performers who provided music for the film. Omar, Dizzy, and Stretch resemble Robin Zander, Bun E. Carlos, and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, while Angel resembles Deborah Harry of Blondie. Mok seems like an amalgamation of Mick Jagger and David Bowie (with voice actor Don Francks sounding a lot like Vincent Price), although his songs are provided by Lou Reed. The songs on Rock & Rule were provided by Cheap Trick; Deborah Harry; Lou Reed; Earth, Wind & Fire; Melleny Brown; and Iggy Pop.

Ultimately Rock & Rule proved to be a formidable undertaking for Nelvana. The budget rose to $8 million and over 300 animators worked on the film. In the end it would take three years to complete. It was in May 1982 that MGM/UA acquired the distribution rights for the film. Unfortunately, MGM/UA would not make things any easier for Nelvana. MGM/UA insisted that Omar's voice, Greg Salata, be redubbed by the better known Paul Le Mat. They also changed at least one line of Omar's dialogue. MGM/UA insisted on trimming a few scenes in the film as well. The studio even insisted on changing the film's title, from the more evocative Rock & Rule to the more generic Ring of Power (which had absolutely nothing to do with the movie).

Things would only go from bad to worse for Nelvana and Rock & Rule. In the early Eighties MGM/UA was in a period of flux and it was to Nelvana's misfortune that there was a shake up at the studio before Rock & Rule could be released. Sadly, the new people in charge at MGM/UA were not particularly enthusiastic about Rock & Rule. Because of this Rock & Rule never saw a wide release. The film premiered in the United States in test screenings in Boston, Massachusetts on 14 April 1983 (possibly under the title Ring of Power).  Done with little fanfare, the film played to largely empty houses. Rock & Rule played at film festivals under its original title, such as one in Los Angeles in 1984 and one in Helsinki, Finland on 16 May 1986.  It made its debut in New York City on 5 August 1985 under its original title of Rock & Rule at the Thalia Theatre, where it was shown on a double bill with "Futuropolis" (1984).

Given Rock & Rule received practically no support from MGM/UA, it should come as no surprise that there was nothing in the way of merchandising for the movie. Despite the fact that music featured prominently in the movie and the film featured songs by such acts as Cheap Trick and Deborah Harry, a soundtrack album was never released. Cheap Trick's contributions to Rock & Rule ("Born to Raise Hell", “I'm the Man", and “Ohm Sweet Ohm”) would eventually appear on the box set Sex, America, Cheap Trick released in 1996. Iggy Pop's contribution to the film, "Pain & Suffering", was included as a bonus track on the 1991 reissue of his album Zombie Birdhouse. While there was never an official Rock & Rule soundtrack album, the film would receive a comic book adaptation published by Marvel Comics. The adaptation appeared in Marvel Super Special #25, 1983, complete with actual photos from the film and its production. 

Ultimately the failure of Rock & Rule at the box office very nearly bankrupted Nelvana. The company found itself deeply in debt with no money coming in. Fortunately Nelvana's CEO Michael Hirsh was able to work out deals for work in television. Ultimately Nelvana was able to pay off its debts and become profitable once more through work on TV series ranging from Inspector Gadget to Strawberry Shortcake to The Care Bears. In fact, Nelvana's second feature film would be The Care Bears Movie (1985), which proved more successful at the box office than Rock & Rule. Eventually Nelvana became the top animation house in Canada.

While Rock & Rule disappeared very swiftly from theatres in the Eighties. the film found new life on television. Rock & Rule made its television debut in Canada on the CBC on 14 March 1985. Over the years the CBC would show it several more times. About 1988 the CBC started showing the Canadian version of Rock & Rule, which included a few expanded scenes as well as Greg Salata as the voice of Omar. In the United States such premium channels as HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime showed the American version of Rock & Rule repeatedly. It would later air on the basic cable channels TBS and TNT. In 1984 MGM released Rock & Rule on VHS and in 1986 they released it on Laserdisc. While neither the VHS tape nor the Laserdisc remained in print for long, bootleg copies were sold at animation and comics conventions. For many years people could write Nelvana and the studio would send them a video copy of the film for $80.

Through repeated showings on television in both Canada and the United States, as well as the various video copies of the film floating around (both legitimate and bootleg), Rock & Rule was able to develop a sizeable cult following. When Rock & Rule played at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in 1996 it was to an audience of over 300 people. It was on 7 June 2006 that Unearthed Films released Rock & Rule on DVD in both a 2-disc Collector's Edition and a single disc edition. On 28 September 2010 Unearthed Films released Rock & Rule on Blu-Ray in a 25th Anniversary Edition.

While Rock & Rule never received a proper theatrical release, the film would prove important beyond its status as the first English language animated feature produced entirely in Canada. Indeed, while Rock & Rule was a traditional, cel animation feature, it was also the among the first animated feature films to employ computer graphics. That having been said, only a very few images in the film were generated by computer (a prime example being Mok's holographic music videos).

It must also be pointed out that many who worked on Rock & Rule would go on to other important projects. Several of the film's crew would go on to work on some of Nelvana's better known television shows, including Inspector Gadget, Star Wars: Droids, Star Wars: Ewoks, and Babar. Roger Allers, who worked as an animator on Rock & Rule, would direct both The Lion King (1994) and Open Season (2006). Frank Nissen, who worked as the principal character designer on Rock & Rule, would go on to work on the Disney features Mulan (1998), Tarzan (1999), and Treasure Planet (2002). Tom Sito, who worked as an animator on Rock & Rule, would work on such feature films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992).

For much of its history Rock & Rule would remain a cult film known primarily to fans of animation. Even today odds are good that most people have never heard of the film.  That having been said, after years of being aired on television and particularly after being released on DVD and Blu-Ray, it would seem Rock & Rule has entered the mainstream. What is more, its reputation seems to have grown over the years. The book 100 Animated Feature Films by Andrew Osmond (one of the "Screen Guides" series), published in 2011,  includes an entry for Rock & Rule, where it is largely spoken of positively. At the web site Rotten Tomatoes, Rock & Rule has an audience score of 72%,, higher than its contemporary Heavy Metal (1981).  At IMDB the film has a rating of 6.9 out of 10, a fairly high rating for that site (and one higher than many Disney films). While for decades Rock & Rule remained in obscurity, today it is actually fairly well known, not only among animation fans, but film buffs in general. Indeed, for many Rock & Rule has achieved what may have been unthinkable in 1983--it has become regarded as a classic.



Friday, 3 October 2014

The 50th Anniversary of Underdog

It was 50 years ago today, on 3 October 1964, that Underdog debuted on NBC. It would prove to be one of the most successful Saturday morning cartoons of all time. It ran nine years on network television (most of its run was NBC, although it spent a couple of years on CBS) and then went onto a highly successful run in syndication.

Not only was Underdog very popular, but it was also in many ways historic. It was the first Saturday morning cartoon consisting of largely original material to centre on a superhero. Indeed, it was parodying superhero cliches and conventions nearly two years before the live action Batman debuted. It was also one of the earliest Saturday morning cartoons. Arguably the 1963-1964 Saturday morning schedules for the networks was the first as younger Baby Boomers and Gen Xers would know them, with all three networks scheduling blocks of several hours of cartoons. Underdog then debuted in what could be the second year of Saturday morning cartoons blocks as younger Baby Boomers and Generation X remember them.

Underdog was my favourite television cartoon when I was growing (and to be honest I have to admit that it still is). For that reason I have written about the cartoon several times. Here then is a post I wrote several years ago on Underdog, "There's No Need to Fear...Underdog is Here!", first published on 6 August 2007.

--------------------------------------------------

This weekend saw the release of yet another movie ostensibly based on a television cartoon, in this case Disney's Underdog (I'm calling it this to differentiate it from the classic TTV cartoon on which it was supposedly based). The movie has received largely bad reviews from critics (it has a dismal 14% on the Critics Tomatometer at Rotten Tomatoes). It also performed very poorly at the box office on its opening weekend. While it was the third highest grossing movie this weekend, it only earned $12 million--not a strong vote of confidence for any film.

For many Underdog fans like myself, this probably feels like vindication. We knew it was a bad idea when Disney announced that they wanted to adapt the classic cartoon using a real dog. When the first descriptions of the film's plot and the first trailers came out, we railed against how unfaithful it looked like the movie was going to be. And we were angered even more when, from the trailers, it appeared that Disney's Underdog was not even going to be any good as a family film. Of course, I am guessing that many fans may well have been concerned that the film might undermine the continued success of Underdog. I am guessing that many fans fear that others may mistakenly believe that because the movie wasn't any good, then the original cartoon mustn't have been either. Worse yet, many might fear that with the failure of Disney's Underdog, many Hollywood executives might veto any project featuring our Champion of Champions. Quite simply, they might brush off even projects which are faithful to the original with the words, "Well, that Disney movie bombed..."

Fortunately, while the latter is a possibility (Hollywood has an uncanny history for turning down good ideas while readily embracing bad ones...), I doubt the former will be the case. First, there have been enough horrible live action adaptations of classic cartoons that most people realise that a movie based on a cartoon doesn't reflect how good or bad the source material might have been (quite simply, George of the Jungle is still a classic cartoon even if the movie based on it sucked). Second, Underdog has been around for forty years. I doubt even something as abhorrent as Disney's Underdog is going to spell its doom.

For those of you who are not familiar with Underdog (and if you are under thirty you might not be), Underdog was a wildly successful, Saturday morning cartoon that ran a total of nine years on network television before going on to a highly successful syndication run, and new life on both VHS and DVD. The series centred on Underdog, an anthropomorphic, canine parody of Superman dressed in a red suit and blue cape. The series was set in a world where dogs (and apparently other animals as well) walked upright and were the equals of human beings. Indeed, Underdog was really Shoeshine Boy (his name was the same as his profession), a canine in a large metropolitan city. Whenever there was trouble, Shoeshine Boy would race to the nearest phone booth to become Underdog. Usually that trouble came in the form of some threat to Sweet Polly Purebred, a canine TV reporter for television station TTV. Although their relationship was platonic (this was a Sixties Saturday morning cartoon, after all), it was clear that Underdog was in love with Polly and vice versa. Unlike Superman, Underdog did not naturally possess super powers. His powers relied on taking a Super Energy Vitamin Pill contained in a ring on his left hand.

Like any superhero, Underdog had his own rogues gallery. His chief archnemesis was mad scientist Simon Barsinister. Balding and with a voice like Lionel Barrymore, Simon was trying to take over the world long before Pinky and the Brain were born. Assisted by his over sized, none too bright henchman Cad, Barsinister plotted to dry up the water supply of the world, developed a shrinking potion, invented a net that induces amnesia (the "Forget-Me-Net"), and even united Underdog's entire rogue's gallery (although he had to use his vacuum gun to do it) to battle the Caped Canine. Underdog's other primary archnemesis was Riff-Raff, a wolf who was also the chief crime boss of the city. With his right hand man Mooch, Riff-Raff was known for creating complex plots even for simple crimes. Among other things, he gathered a group of specialists to steal the painting "Whistler's Father," plotted to steal a gold shipment by disguising himself and Mooch as guards, attempted to frame Underdog with a look alike, and even took over a small Western town, turning it into a city of criminals! Beyond Simon Barsinister and Riff-Raff, Underdog faced a variety of colourful opponents, from the super powered alien Overcat to the shocking (literally) Electric Eel to the vampire like Batty Man. Underdog battled a number of aliens from other planets, including the inhabitants of the planet Zot, the Flying Sorcerers, and the Magnet Men.

Underdog was produced by Total Television (TTV, for short), who were also responsible for King Leonardo and His Short Subject and Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales. Following the success of those series, they needed to do another one. During a meeting Gordon Johnson, the head of the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample advertising agency, told producer and writer W. Watts "Buck" Biggers that if they wanted to do well in the ratings they needed a "super series" and that they should avoid frogs (the reason for this being the fact that Jay Ward was then producing a series called The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper, featuring a frog). At first they were at a loss for a concept, but then writer Chester "Chet Stover caught a rerun of the I Love Lucy episode "Lucy and Superman" on television. In that episode, Ricky manages to get Superman (played by George Reeves, of course) to show up at Little Ricky's birthday party. But when Lucy grows concerned that the Man of Steel might not show, she dons her own makeshift Superman suit and goes out on their apartment's ledge in order to make her entrance through the window. Chet Stover then came up with the idea of a hapless superhero.

The idea that the superhero should be a dog called "Underdog" came about when one of TTV's production staff (pretty much Biggers, Stover, and art director Joseph Harris) referred to them as "underdogs." Joe Harris then designed a canine superhero in a red baggy costume and oversized blue cape. Harris designed Underdog so that the colour scheme of his costume was the reverse of Superman's costume and so that he would not look cute and cuddly. Underdog's occupation of shoeshine boy came about as a result of Wally Cox being cast as the Caped Canine's voice; it was a fitting occupation for a character who spoke softly and slowly. For the other major characters on Underdog, Harris looked to the big screen. Underdog's romantic interest, Sweet Polly Purebred, was inspired by none other than Marilyn Monroe. His archnemesis, Simon Barsinister, not only took his appearance from Lionel Barrymore in It's a Wonderful Life, but his voice as well. His other archnemesis, Riff-Raff, was inspired by George Raft and other movie gangsters. Chet Stover and producer W. Watts "Buck" Biggers wrote nearly all of the scripts and provided Underdog with much of his mythos. Biggers would also write the famous theme song.

Underdog debuted on NBC on October 3, 1964. It was the first Saturday morning cartoon featuring a superhero. It was also an immediate success. Even in its earliest years, the cartoon produced a large number of merchandising tie-ins, including a Milton Bradley board game and the prerequisite lunch box. If there was any doubt that Underdog had arrived, it was squashed when Macy's approached TTV for an Underdog balloon in their Thanksgiving Day Parade. The debut of the balloon in the 1965 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was even accompanied by a skit in which an actor dressed up as Simon Barsinister menaced an actress dressed as Sweet Polly Purebred. On NBC, following the broadcast of that Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1965, a special episode of Underdog was even aired--"Simon Says...No Thanksgiving." The Underdog balloon would be a regular in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for nearly twenty years. Underdog would also become the first Saturday morning cartoon character to appear on a cover of The New Yorker. The November 20, 1966 issue of that magazine featured an illustration of the famous Underdog balloon from the Macy's parade.

It was probably due to the show's success that it became one of the few cartoons to enter syndication while still in its initial, network run. In the '65-'66 season (the second season Underdog spent on NBC) there debuted a syndicated series called Cartoon Cut-Ups, which featured episodes of Underdog, Tennessee Tuxedo, and The World of Commander McBragg. Although still popular, Underdog would change networks in the 1966-1967 season, switching from NBC to CBS for a two year run. It returned to NBC in 1968 to run for another five years. In all, Underdog ran for nine years on network television. After its network run it continued for many, many years in syndication (indeed, it is probably still airing somewhere in the United States). Underdog merchandise even continued to be produced throughout the Seventies, everything from collectible glasses to a Little Golden Book. In 1970 Charlton started publishing what would be a ten issue run of Underdog comic books. Gold Key would publish another series of Underdog comic books started in 1975, this time lasting 23 issues. More recently there have been Underdog action figures and even bobble heads. Episodes of the series would be released on VHS and later on DVD.

Beyond the sheer length of its network and syndication runs, the lasting success of Underdog can also be seen in how far it has infiltrated American pop culture. The Underdog balloon made a memorable appearance in the Woody Allen movie Broadway Danny Rose and has been referenced in everything from the movie Detroit Rock City to episodes of In Living Color (a recurring line from the episode "Round and Round" occurs in a Handi Man sketch), The Powerpuff Girls (in the episode "Super Zeros," when the Girls adopt different identities, Bubbles paraphrases an Underdog catchphrase), Will and Grace, Friends, and Scrubs. Underdog appeared alongside various Marvel Comics characters in a famous Visa commercial (aired during Super Bowl XXXIX). In 2005 his image was featured on the No 37 R&J Racing Dodge Charger, driven by Kevin LePage, for two Nascar races. Its theme song has been remade by The Butthole Surfers, and the acapella group The Blanks (who performed it on Scrubs), and The Plain White T's (for Disney's movie). Underdog has also had a lasting impact on television cartoons. He was the first superhero created specifically for Saturday morning television. Only a few years after his debut, Saturday morning would be filled with superheroes from Space Ghost to Jay Ward's own Super Chicken. Craig McCracken has also acknowledged Underdog as one of the influences on The Powerpuff Girls. It may also have been an influence on the Nickelodeon series Kappa Mikey and the children's book series Captain Underpants. In TV Guide's Fifty Greatest Cartoon Characters from a few years go, Underdog was ranked #23 (which some thought was too low, just to show how beloved he is).

All of this points to the reasons why many adult human beings have been so upset by what they have perceived as Disney's lack of respect for the source material when they made Disney's Underdog. There are those who will say that Disney's Underdog is only a movie, and a children's movie at that, that ultimately it is not important whether it is very good or whether it respects the original cartoon or not. These people may think it is silly for many to take the new movie as an affront to their own childhoods. I think what these people are missing is that Underdog ceased to be a mere cartoon years ago and became a pop cultural icon. Indeed, if one listens to Underdog fans explain why they loved what was a low budget cartoon produced primarily to sell cereal (TTV and hence Underdog was sponsored by General Mills), one will soon find that Underdog goes far beyond the average cartoon from yesteryear's Saturday morning.

Underdog was indeed produced on a shoestring budget and at a pace that was hectic even for a Saturday morning cartoon. The animation was not done here in the United States, but at Gamma Studios in Mexico (the same studio which animated much of Jay Ward's work), who could not even afford to buy paint for the animation cels. Regardless, Chet Stover, W. Watts Biggers, and Joe Harris worked a good deal of magic on the show. The scripts were original and imaginative, going beyond simple superhero parody and Saturday morning antics. Perhaps only Stover, Biggers, and Harris could have imagined a plot in which Simon Barsinister develops a machine which turns people into Valentines. And in the Sixties I doubt even Jay Ward would have one of his heroes paraphrase Karl Marx (Shoeshine Boy did--in the episode "The Marbleheads")! The men at TTV weren't below the occasional in joke either. Parodying the old Superman radio show, whenever Underdog flew over the city, people would look up and exclaim, "Look, up in the sky! It's a plane," "It's a bird," "It's a frog..."--a reference not only to Gordon Johnson's advice that they avoid frogs, but a swipe at Jay Ward's The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper as well.

Not only did the series have great scripts, but some of the best voice talent of any Saturday morning cartoon. Joe Harris wanted Mort Marshall, the voice of the Trix Rabbit (which he also created) for the voice of Underdog, but TTV would choose someone else after seeing the movie Spencer's Mountain. In that film, playing Preacher Goodman was an actor who spoke very slowly and in a nearly rhythmic fashion--Wally Cox. Playing the eternal nebbish in most of his roles, Wally Cox had starred on the classic TV show Mr. Peepers in the Fifties and was already a movie veteran when he began giving the Caped Canine his voice. Cox never treated his role as Underdog as that of a mere cartoon character, giving the hero a personality all his own. Allen Swift, who provided the voices for both Simon Barsinister and Riff-Raff, not only voiced many of the puppets on Howdy Doody, but had already done over 10,000 commercials well before Underdog debuted. Comedian George S. Irving, a veteran of Broadway, not only narrated the show, but was the voice of Tap-Tap the Chiseler (Riff-Raff associate and Underdog lookalike). Despite its bargain basement animation, Underdog was very much the sort of cartoon adults could enjoy as well as children.

Beyond anything else, perhaps the reason Underdog remains loved by so many is the fact that, like all TTV shows, it was driven very much by its characters. If Underdog made TV Guide's Fifty Greatest Cartoon Characters, it was with good reason. For a Saturday morning cartoon character Underdog is a fairly complex character. As Shoeshine Boy he is soft spoken, even meek. And yet, upon racing into a phone booth (and blowing it up in the process), he can become Underdog, that Champion of Champions who can lift ocean liners with ease. Despite his great power and the fact that he speaks with a lower voice than Shoeshine Boy, Underdog isn't really that far removed in personality from his alter ego. Both have a strong sense of right and wrong, both seek to live their lives with honour, both are compassionate to others, and both lack any sort of ego whatsoever. It is inconceivable that either Shoeshine Boy or Underdog could ever take a life, even of a hardened killer like Riff-Raff. In many respects Underdog taught children of the Sixties and Seventies more about what is right and wrong than those cardboard, preachy cartoons that proliferated in the Eighties. Underdog was not simply a hero, however, as he also figured in what could be the only real romance Saturday morning ever produced. One does not have to read between the lines of episodes to realise that Shoeshine Boy (and hence Underdog) is in love with Sweet Polly Purebred. Their relationship is strictly platonic--the most either Shoeshine or Underdog might receive from Polly is a peck on the cheek. And yet it is clear that Polly loves Underdog (and possibly Shoeshine Boy as well--I always wondered if she really knew the truth) back. Beyond the fact that this was a Saturday morning cartoon, it is unclear why they never got together--perhaps they both realised that her life was already in enough danger without being married to a superhero.

Disney's Underdog looks like it will bomb. In a few years I suspect it will be forgotten along with such duds as the movie adaptation of The Flintstones and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. And while Disney's Underdog disappears into obscurity, the classic animated cartoon Underdog will still be remembered.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Today in 1965: The Who's American TV Debut

It was today in 1965 that The Who made their debut on American television on the ABC rock music show Shindig!. The Who's segment, in which they performed "I Can't Explain", was actually pre-recorded on 3 August 1965 at Twickenham Film Studios in London. The Who were not only recorded performing "I Can't Explain", but "Daddy Rolling Stone" and "My Generation" as well. The other two songs would be aired on two different editions of Shindig!: "Daddy Rolling Stone" on the 30 December 1965 edition and "My Generation" on the last ever edition of Shindig! on 6 January 1966 (during which "I Can't Explain" was repeated as well).

At the time The Who already had two top ten hits in the United Kingdom. "I Can't Explain" had gone to #8 on the UK singles chart, while "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" had gone to #10 on the chart. Despite having success in the United Kingdom, however, The Who were still largely unknown in the United States. "I Can't Explain" only went to #98 on the Billboard Hot 100, while "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" did not even chart. The Who would not have a hit in the United States until "Happy Jack" reached #24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967. Needless to say, their persistence would pay of and by the end of the Sixties they would be one of the most popular British acts in the U.S.

Without further ado, here is The Who's first appearance on American television, on the TV show Shindig!.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Don Keefer R.I.P.

Don Keefer, who frequently guest starred on television shows in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, died on 7 September 2014 at the age of 98.

Don Keefer was born on 18 August 1916 in  Highspire, Pennsylvania. He studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1939. He made his debut on Broadway in Junior Miss in 1943. In the late Forties he appeared again on Broadway in Othello and Death of a Salesman. He made his television debut in an episode of The Borden Show in 1947.

In 1951 Don Keefer made his film debut in Death of Salesman, reprising the role of Bernard that he had originated on Broadway. During the Fifties he appeared in such films as The Girl in White (1952), Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Human Jungle (1954), Six Bridges to Cross (1955), Away All Boats (1956), Hellcats of the Navy (1957), Torpedo Run (1958), and Cash McCall (1960). He guest starred on such shows as Manhunt; Fireside Theatre; The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse; The United States Steel Hour; The Phil Silvers Show; Richard Diamond, Private Detective; Climax; Peter Gunn; Alcoa Presents One Step Beyond; Rawhide; Wagon Train; and Have Gun--Will Travel. He appeared on Broadway in Flight Into Egypt.

In the Sixties Mr. Keefer played George in the short lived sitcom Angel. He guest starred on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents; Way Out; Car 54, Where are You?; The Real McCoys; The Fugitive; The Twilight Zone; The Munsters; Ben Casey; Petticoat Junction; Bewitched; Mission: Impossible; Star Trek; and The Virginian. He appeared in the films The Clown and the Kid (1961), Incident in an Alley (1962), The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), R.P.M. (1970), and Rabbit, Run (1970).

In the Seventies Don Keefer appeared in such movies as The Grissom Gang (1971), Walking Tall (1973), The Young Nurses (1973), Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies (1973), The Way We Were (1973), Sleeper (1973), Candy Stripe Nurses (1974), The Car (1977), and Fire Sale (1977).  He guest starred on such shows as Nichols, Bonanza, Night Gallery, Gunsmoke, Columbo, Marcus Welby, M.D., Kung Fu, Ellery Queen Barnaby Jones, and Quincy M.E.

In the Eighties Mr. Keefer appeared in the movie Creepshow and guest starred on Alice and Highway to Heaven. In the Nineties he guest starred on ER, Picket Fences, and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. His last appearance was in the film Liar, Liar in 1997.

Over the years Don Keefer played a number of medical doctors on television and in movies. There can be no doubt that he was very good at playing them. At the same time, however, Don Keefer was very good at playing a variety of other roles. He played lawyers, social workers, clerks, and even criminals. What is more, he played all of them well. There should be little wonder that Don Keefer was so prolific. An actor of his talent would certainly be in demand.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

1964-1965: The Greatest Television Season Ever?

Among classic film buffs 1939 is generally considered the greatest year for film ever, although a few might make an argument for 1954 as well. Among classic television buffs there seems to be no general agreement as to what was the greatest season for American episodic television, but it could well have been exactly fifty years ago. The 1964-1965 season saw the debut of several classic television shows that still air today in syndication. Indeed, it could well have seen the debut of more classic shows than any other year. Quite simply, what 1939 is for classic film, the 1964-1965 season could be for classic television.

To give an idea of just how remarkable the 1964-1965 season was, such shows as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Shindig, Daniel Boone, Bewitched, Peyton Place, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Jonny Quest, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.,Gilligan's Island, and Flipper all debuted that season. What is more, that list does not include every single classic show (or at least every show that has persisted in syndication) to debut that season. One would be hard pressed to find another year in American television when so many shows debuted that would remain on the air for literally years after ending their network runs.

Of course, here it must be pointed out that the mid-Sixties as a whole tended to be among the very best years for American episodic television shows. If one were to choose a season when American episodic television began what could be called a "Golden Age", it could well have been the 1963-1964 season, when such shows as The Fugitive, My Favourite Martian, The Outer Limits, Petticoat Junction, The Patty Duke Show, and Burke's Law debuted. And while American episodic television shows seem to have peaked in the 1964-1965 season, the following two seasons would see a large number of classic television shows debut as well: F Troop, Green Acres, I Spy, I Dream of Jeannie, The Wild Wild West, and Batman all debuted in the 1965-1966 season, while The Monkees, Star Trek, The Green Hornet, and Mission: Impossible all debuted in the 1966-1967 season. American episodic television shows seem to have reached their peak in quality from the fall of 1963 to the summer of 1967, with an inordinately large number of classic shows debuting during that time. And the peak of that era appears to have been the 1964-1965 season.

Indeed, the 1964-1965 season produced some shows that were fairly unique, either for the era or perhaps even in television history. Peyton Place, which debuted on 15 September 1964, was the first successful prime time soap opera. While it would not remain the only prime time soap opera for long (CBS debuted its own, Our Private World, in May 1965), it would set the pace for all prime time soap operas to come. Without Peyton Place there might not have been Dallas, Knot's Landing, or Melrose Place.

The 1964-1965 season would also see two primetime animated series. Now animated series airing in primetime were not unusual in the Sixties. The debut of The Flintstones in 1960 had sparked a cycle towards primetime cartoons. That having been said, most followed The Flintstones' example as a half hour comedy. Jonny Quest was a half hour adventure series that was designed and created by comic book artist Doug Wildey. It had much more in common with the adventure shows of the era than it did The Flintstones or The Jetsons. The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo was also a very different sort of primetime animated show for the era. The series placed UPA's popular character Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus) in adaptations of literary classics. Sadly, both shows only lasted one season, although Jonny Quest would reappear on Saturday morning and in syndication.

Another unique show that debuted in the 1964-1965 season was Daniel Boone. While Westerns had been very common on American television in the late Fifties and were still plentiful in the mid-Sixties, dramas set in the American Colonies before there was even a United States have always been very rare. This set Daniel Boone, which centred on the legendary frontier hero in the 1770s, apart from other shows on at the time (and for that matter, shows that have aired ever since). While the show did play fast and loose with American history, it was well written and well acted. It proved to be successful enough to last six seasons and has persisted in syndication ever since.  

Daniel Boone naturally appealed to children, as did another rather unique show, Flipper. Flipper centred around the bottlenose dolphin of the title, a close friend of the Chief Warden of Coral Key Park and Marine Preserve, Porter Ricks (Brian Kelly), and his family. The show proved very popular with youngsters and produced a large number of merchandise. It also went onto a fairly successful run in syndication. Sadly, since the show has aired there has been controversy over the treatment of the dolphins on the show

While there were several unique shows that debuted in the 1964-1965 season, there would be other shows that were either part of an ongoing cycle or, in one instance, a show that actually started a cycle. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was the first show in a cycle towards spy shows that would soon overtake the American broadcast networks. It was also part of a larger cycle (I suppose one would call it a "supercyle") towards shows with fantastic elements that had begun in the 1963-1964 season with The Outer Limits and My Favourite Martian. Indeed, it must be pointed out that the science fiction series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea also debuted in the 1964-1965 season. The following seasons would see the debuts of such sci-fi/fantasy shows as Lost in Space, The Wild Wild West, Time Tunnel, and Star Trek.

Of course the best known shows in the Sixties supercycle towards sci-fi and fantasy might well have belonged to a cycle towards situation comedies that used  the premise of an ordinary person living with an individual who has extraordinary abilities--what I call "supernatural companion" shows. The progenitor of the "supernatural companion" genre was the Fifties sitcom Topper, based on Thorne Smith's novel and the 1937 film of the same name. Topper would prove successful in syndication and would be joined on the airwaves by Mister Ed in 1961. While Mister Ed would prove popular, however, it was the debut of My Favourite Martian in 1963 that sparked an entire cycle towards "supernatural companion" shows. The 1964-1965 season would see the debut of two more "supernatural companion" shows: the classic Bewitched and the cult show My Living Doll. The 1965-1966 season would see the debut of even more: I Dream of Jeannie, My Mother the Car, and The Smothers Brothers Show.

Not only would two more shows that used premise of an ordinary person living with a person with extraordinary abilities debut in the 1964-1965 season, but so too would two shows that were essentially their inverse: extraordinary individuals either living with a normal person or living on their own. The first of these was The Addams Family, based on Charles Addams's cartoons about a macabre extended family. The Addams Family proved popular and would eventually spark a media franchise that included Saturday morning cartoons, feature films, and a musical. The second of these shows was The Munsters. The Munsters centred on the family of that name who resembled monsters from the classic Universal horror movies except for cousin Marilyn, who looked like an ordinary, if very pretty, blonde. The Munsters regarded themselves as a normal family and were often surprised by others' reactions to them. Like The Addams Family, The Munsters proved popular and has lasted in syndication ever since.

Another classic show that was part of an ongoing cycle was also a spinoff of another popular show. The 1962-1963 season saw the start of a cycle towards service comedies that included McHale's Navy. Over the next few years a few service comedies would debut each season, and in the 1964-1965 season one of the most successful debuted. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. was a spin off of The Andy Griffith Show, wherein the none too bright gas station attendant from Mayberry joined the United States Marines. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. proved very popular and remained in the top ten shows every season for which it was on. When its star, Jim Nabors, decided that he wanted to pursue other things, the show ended its network run and has stayed in syndication ever since.

The success Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. saw in syndication was not unusual for shows debuting in the 1964-1965 season, Indeed, an inordinately large number of them went onto success in syndication and are still running today. Indeed, the 1964-1965 season saw the debut of the all time champion of syndicated reruns. Gilligan's Island has been repeated more than any other show in the history of American television, even I Love Lucy.

Of course, while many of the shows from the 1964-1965 season would see success in syndication and are still rerun today, yet others would only last one season and would be largely forgotten. Among these is the aforementioned My Living Doll. While the show received good reviews and had a following while it was on, it also had low ratings and was cancelled after only 26 episodes. Regardless, it would have a lasting impact. Not only did the phrase "does not compute" originate on the show, but it may well have had an influence on other "supernatural companion" sitcoms, particularly I Dream of Jeannie.

Another lost gem from the 1964-1965 season was The Rogues. In a less competitive season The Rogues might well have been a hit. The show starred David Niven, Charles Boyer, and Gig Young as a trio of related grifters who used their skills for good in conning the wicked. Messrs. Niven, Boyer, and Young, rotated being the lead in episodes, so that it was rare two or more of them appeared together. The Rogues received a good deal of critical acclaim and even won the Golden Globe Award for Best TV Show, as well being nominated for two Emmy Awards. Unfortunately the show had the misfortune of airing against the popular Candid Camera on CBS and The ABC Sunday Night Movie. It was cancelled after one season. Currently it is airing on ME-TV on very early Saturday mornings.

The Rogues wasn't the only critically acclaimed show that would fall victim to low ratings. While we generally think of escapist shows when we think of American television in the Sixties, the early to mid-Sixties saw a cycle towards socially relevant or social realist shows that included The Defenders, East Side/West Side, and Mr. Novak. Among the last shows in this cycle was another lost gem from 1964-1965, Slattery's People.  Slattery's People was another lost gem from the 1964-1965 season. The show centred on  Richard Crenna as state legislator James Slattery. The series received a good deal of critical acclaim, and was also nominated for Emmys for Outstanding Dramatic Series, Outstanding Dramatic Programme (for the episode "Rally 'Round Your Own Flag, Mister"), and Outstanding Individual Achievements in Entertainment - Actors and Performers (for Richard Crenna). Even politicians were happy with the show.  U.S. Representative James C. Corman of California even going so far as to praise it in the Congressional Record. Unfortunately Slattery's People found itself airing against the still popular Ben Casey and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It ended its run after one season.

While the 1964-1965 season would produce a number of classic TV shows that have remained popular fifty years after their debut, in some ways it is difficult to say why the mid-Sixties was such a good time for episodic television. Much of it may have been due to the fact that many veterans of classic film had moved into the relatively young medium of television. A perfect example of this is The Rogues. Not only had its leads been movie stars, but its creators were also veterans of film. Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff had also co-written the screenplays for such films as White Heat (1949) and Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951).  The Rogues wasn't the only show with links to classic film. Nat Perrin, who produced The Addams Family, had written gags for Groucho Marx on many of the classic Marx Brothers films, and written such screenplays as Song of the Thin Man (1947).  Even the much maligned Gilligan's Island had links to classic film in the form of star Jim Backus and director Ida Lupino (who actually directed several hours of television in the Fifties and Sixties). Bewitched, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. My Living Doll, and many others shows that debuted during the season had links to classic film.

While many of the creative personnel on the 1964-1965 American television shows had begun working in the Golden Age of Hollywood, yet others had risen up through the ranks during what is widely considered the Golden Age of Television in the late Forties and early Fifties. Paul Monash, producer of Peyton Place, had written for acclaimed anthology shows as Studio One and Playhouse 90 in the Fifties. James Mosher, creator of Slattery's People, had worked on such classic shows in the Fifties as Dragnet and Medic. William Asher, who directed the lion's share of Bewitched and often acted as its de facto producer, had worked on such classic shows as I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, and Make Room for Daddy. The Golden Age of Television was a time when the networks were a bit more concerned about quality than they would be at later points in television history, so that the creative personnel who rose up during that time period would naturally be inclined to do quality work.  This was reflected in the shows of the 1964-1965 season.

Another reason that so many of the shows from the 1964-1965 season have persisted may also be higher production values. This is particularly true of situation comedies. In the Sixties the vast majority of sitcoms were shot with a single camera on film, just as feature films were. Sitcoms from the era then have a much more cinematic look than those made earlier in the Fifties or later in the Seventies. Indeed, in contrast, most sitcoms of the Seventies were shot using a multi-camera set up on videotape. While most sitcoms from the Sixties look like feature films, then, most sitcoms from the Seventies resemble videotaped stage plays. The end result is that the sitcoms of the Sixties ultimately look better and even more modern, particularly on 21st Century high resolution screens. This is probably one of the reasons why many of the shows from the Sixties are still seen today, while many from the Seventies and Eighties are not.

 There were probably other factors that made the mid-Sixties, and the 1964-1965 season in particular, a good time for American television. Regardless, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to pick another single season that produced nearly as many classic shows as the 1964-1965 season did. While seasons from the Seventies and Eighties are lucky to have only two or three shows that are still being rerun in syndication, the 1964-1965 season boasted several that still are. It could quite possibly be the greatest single year in American television, at least with regards to episodic TV shows.