Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The 60th Anniversary of Rocky and Bullwinkle

It was sixty years ago today that an animated television series debuted that, along with Beany and Cecil, was a sharp break from other television cartoons of the time. Originally titled Rocky and His Friends, it featured such segments as "Mr. Peabody's Improbable History," "Aesop and Son," and "Fractured Fairy Tales." The primary segment centred on the adventures of Rocket J. Squirrel, a flying squirrel known as "Rocky" for short, and Bullwinkle J. Moose. Their most frequent opponents were Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, spies for the fictional country of Pottsylvania (a thinly disguised parody of East Germany). While the animation on Rocky and His Friends can be rightfully described as primitive, the show's writing was very sophisticated, especially for a television cartoon of the time (most of which were made solely for children). Rocky and His Friends was known for a dry, often mocking sense of humour that combined puns, self-referential comedy, and, most notably, often biting social satire. Not only was Rocky and His Friends more intelligent than the average television cartoon in 1959, it was more intelligent than most primetime live-action shows of the time.

While Rocky and His Friends debuted on November 19 1959 at 5:30 PM Eastern, its origins go back much earlier. In 1948 Alexander Anderson Jr. and Jay Ward formed Television Arts Productions. Television Arts Productions produced the first cartoon made for television, Crusader Rabbit. Following the success of Crusader Rabbit, Alex Anderson created a proposed cartoon called The Frostbite Falls Review. The Frostbite Falls Review would have centred on a group of forest animals running a television station. Among the characters were a flying squirrel (Rocket J. Squirrel or "Rocky" for short) and a Canadian moose (Bullwinkle J. Moose). Bullwinkle's name came from an Oakland car dealer named Clarence Bullwinkel. Alex Anderson simply changed the spelling of the name for his new character. The Frostbite Falls Review failed to sell.

Unfortunately, Alex Anderson and Jay Ward would ultimately lose the rights to Crusader Rabbit. Jerry Fairbanks, who syndicated Crusader Rabbit to television stations across the United States, could not pay back loans he had received from NBC. The network then simply took him to court and ultimately took every single episode. NBC distributed Crusader Rabbit through Consolidated Films, which was bought by Shull Bonsall in 1954. He bought TV Spots, an animation studio, in 1955. Alex Anderson and Jay Ward came into conflict with Shull Bonsall over the possibility of a new Crusader Rabbit series, and in the end Television Arts Productions was sold to Shull Bonsall, and he produced a new series in 1956 in which neither Alex Anderson nor Jay Ward were involved.

Of course, history shows that Jay Ward was not out of television production. While TV Spots would find itself out of business by 1961, Mr. Ward founded Jay Ward Productions, a company that would thrive in television animation throughout the Sixties (and even longer if one counts animated commercials). Jay Ward Productions revived the characters of Rocky and Bullwinkle, beginning production of the pilot episode, "Rocky the Flying Squirrel" in February 1958. It would be eight months later that General Mills signed on as the show's sponsor. While Jay Ward hired the show's writers and designers, it was General Mills' advertising agency, Dancer, Fitzgerald, & Sample, who set up an animation studio in Mexico called Val-Mar Animation and later known as Gamma Productions. Gamma Productions would not only provide the animation for every Jay Ward cartoon until George of the Jungle, but for cartoons produced by rival Total Television (best known for Underdog)  as well. Not only was the animation provided by Gamma Productions very limited, but it also contained such mistakes as Bullwinkle's antlers varying in colour and other continuity errors. Unfortunately, Rocky and His Friends was on the air before any mistakes could be corrected. Here it must be pointed out that Gamma Productions improved over time. The animation for the later seasons of Rocky and Friends and later The Bullwinkle Show was superior to that of the earlier seasons.

Rocky and His Friends ran on ABC until 1961, after which it moved to NBC where it aired under a new title, The Bullwinkle Show. Unlike ABC, NBC originally aired The Bullwinkle Show in primetime, at 7:00 PM Eastern on Sunday. The Bullwinkle Show would see the addition of a new segment. Like Rocky and Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right was nothing new when he finally debuted on television. The character dated back to 1948, when he was test marketed along with Crusader Rabbit as part of a series called The Comic Strips of Television.

Both as Rocky and His Friends on ABC and The Bullwinkle Show on NBC, the show faced censorship from the networks. A Rocky and Friends episode features a sequence in which Rocky and Bullwinkle are about to burned at the stake. ABC complained that this was too much like cannibalism. Jay Ward pointed out that neither Rocky nor Bullwinkle were human. As a result the network passed the scene, although Jay Ward Productions couldn't resist a jab at ABC with the narrator's line "While the network-approved flames climbed higher and higher..." Jay Ward Productions lost a censorship battle with sponsor General Mills over a plotline in which Boris Badenov is counterfeiting cereal box tops. The story, already produced, would end rather abruptly with its twelfth episode. On The Bullwinkle Show an episode of Dudley Do-Right ran afoul of the United States Forestry Service. The episode featured Snidely Whiplash hypnotising a thinly-veiled parody of Smokey Bear called Stokey the Bear, into lighting forest fires. The episode was quickly not rerun during its network run.

With the 1962-1963 season NBC moved The Bullwinkle Show to Saturday morning line-up. It remained there until the 1964-1965 season, when The Bullwinkle Show moved to ABC, who moved it to Sunday morning for their new children's show line-up. The Bullwinkle Show remained part of ABC's Sunday morning line-up until 1973, after which it entered syndication as a rerun. It is quite possible that The Bullwinkle Show was the longest running Sunday morning cartoon ever. The Bullwinkle Show would briefly return to Saturday morning when NBC aired it during the 1981-1982 season.

In syndication there were two packages, one that that consisted of the episodes of Rocky and His Friends and another of the episodes of The Bullwinkle Show. The show was eventually released on DVD under the title The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, a title never used in its original run or in syndication.  In addition to continuing to air in syndication, there would also be various attempts to revive Rocky and Bullwinkle. In the early Eighties, Jay Ward Productions developed a special called "The Stupor Bowl" for CBS in which Boris Badenov sought to fix a football game. The project was killed when CBS checked with the National Football League, who objected to its portrayal of football team owners as crooked and not particularly bright.

In 2000 Universal Pictures released The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, a feature film that combined animation and live action. The movie bombed and received negative reviews. In 2014 a computer animated short film titled "Rocky and Bullwinkle" was set to be seen in theatres before the feature film Mr. Peabody and Sherman, but this ultimately did not take place. "Rocky and Bullwinkle" would be released as an extra on the Mr. Peabody and Sherman DVD instead. In 2018 a new series, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, debuted on Amazon Prime. Unlike the short "Rocky and Bullwinkle," the news series used cel-animation.

Of course, the success of Rocky and Bullwinkle would go beyond television and film. Throughout the Sixties and well afterwards there would be a wide array of Rocky and Bullwinkle merchandise, including Soaky bottles, figures, clocks, games, books, and more. As might be expected, there were Rocky and Bullwinkle comic books. In the Sixties both Dell and Gold Key published comic books featuring the characters. Later Charlton, Marvel (under their Star imprint), and Blackthorne would publish them. Rocky and Bullwinkle also appeared in commercials and print ads for the General Mills cereal Cheerios, and items featuring the two would even be released as premiums for the cereal.  In 1983 a chain of Bullwinkle Restaurants opened. The chain would falter in the 2000s and only a few locations remain. By 1971 there was enough merchandising for Rocky and Bullwinkle that Jay Ward was able to open The Dudley Do-Right Emporium in 1971. The shop featured merchandise related to Jay Ward's many characters and was located only yards away from Jay Ward Productions. It closed in 2005.

Here it must be pointed out that Rocky and Bullwinkle inspired two balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The original Bullwinkle balloon made its debut in the parade in 1961. It would prove to be one of the longest running balloons in the parade, lasting until 1983 for a whole of 23 years. A new balloon, featuring Rocky riding on Bullwinkle's back, debuted in 1996. While the balloon did not appear in the 1997 or 1998 parades, it returned for the 1999 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It made its last appearance in 2000.

Seen today there is much about Rocky and Bullwinkle that is dated beyond its primitive animation. The show occasionally featured stereotypes of Asians, Native Americans, and Polynesians that would be considered racist today. That having said, Rocky and Bullwinkle was a product of its time, a time when ethnic stereotypes were still all to common in American society. As to the show's wry humour, puns, and often biting satire, it still holds up today. While the show's primary conflict with Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale are rooted in Cold War politics, the show still remains relevant. Aside from Beany and Cecil (which debuted in the same season), there was no other cartoon as intelligent or well-written on the air upon its debut. Sixty years later, there still aren't many.


top_cat_james said...

The "Stokey the Bear" episode is NOT lost - It was included in the R&B DVD collections in the mid-2000s, and is also available on YouTube.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks for clarifying that. It has been duly corrected!