Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Rocky and His Friends (1960)

Like The Flintstones, Rocky and His Friends (later called The Bullwinkle Show) was a cartoon series aimed to entertain adults as well as children, so much so that it was often criticized as being too sophisticated for children. While Hanna & Barbera's Flintstones riffed on The Honeymooners in a mild parody of the situation comedy, Jay Ward's Rocky and His Friends satirized all authority figures (particularly those in the government) as well as the American public in a way that made everyone appear ridiculous except for the talking dog Peabody. Additionally, much of the show seemed to be little more than a set-up for agonizing puns, from the double titles for each Rocky and Bullwinkle episode, to Peabody's closing line in his Improbable History shorts, to Aesop Junior's alternative aphorisms at the end of his father's fables, bad puns that only a grown-up would "appreciate" were sprinkled throughout each show. But the show was nonetheless popular with children, providing Ward and the show's sponsor General Mills with a gold mine of merchandising tie-ins. However, its adult appeal eventually prompted NBC to move the show into evening prime time, like The Flintstones, by its third season.

But the beginnings of the show were chaotic, to say the least, as chronicled exhaustively in Keith Scott's The Moose That Roared. Ward, who was neither an animator nor a voice actor himself, had decided to get into animation more than a decade earlier with his boyhood friend Alex Anderson with a series they named Crusader Rabbit, which like Rocky and His Friends, featured a small, plucky adventurer teamed up with a larger, more slow-witted sidekick, in this case a tiger named Rags. Anderson was the animation side of the team: his uncle Paul Terry ran Terrytoons. Ward was the businessman, holding a Master's degree from Harvard in business administration and working as a realtor off and on while launching his show business career. Ward also had a keen eye for talent and a diabolical sense of humor. He and Anderson at first came up with an idea for a 30-minute show of what would essentially be animated comic strips, but when they pitched their idea to NBC the network said they wanted only a 5-minute show airing four days a week. Crusader Rabbit ran a total of 195 episodes over a year and a half before being canceled by NBC. Due to financial difficulties by their promoter Jerry Fairbanks, Ward and Anderson eventually lost creative rights to the series, which was later resurrected by the man who bought those rights, Shull Bonsall. But while they were still working on Crusader Rabbit Ward and Anderson came up with an idea for another show called The Frostbite Falls Review about a staff of animals producing television from a small, remote north mid-western town. Amongst the animals on the staff were a small flying squirrel wearing an aviator helmet and a large moose. Though the show idea never got picked up for production, Rocky and Bullwinkle would find a new home nearly a decade later. In the meantime, with Crusader Rabbit canceled and in legal limbo Ward returned to realty and Anderson took a job with an advertising firm.

But by 1957 Ward got the animation bug again and went to work for Shamus Culhane on a series called Phineas T. Phox, Adventurer. There he met Bill Scott, a talented writer and voice actor who had bounced around a number of animation houses, including Warner Brothers, Paramount, and United Productions of America. Ward proposed a new series starring the moose and squirrel from The Frostbite Falls Review and the two of them wrote a 5-minute pilot episode and were able to recruit established voice actors June Foray, Paul Frees, and Daws Butler to do the voices, along with Bill Scott, for the pilot. The pilot garnered interest from several parties, as chronicled extensively in Keith Scott's book, and eventually wound up being picked up by NBC with General Mills as the sponsor. However, during final negotiations Ward was suffering from the after-effects of a nervous breakdown and did not attend some of the final meetings in which General Mills had said they wanted a 30-minute program and the advertising agency committed to an extremely low budget that forced the bulk of the animation to be done by a start-up animation firm in Mexico that had not produced anything to date. Added to the mix was the fact that the network and sponsor wanted the show to debut in late September 1959, which proved an impossibility. American producers, animators, and supervisors had to be sent to Mexico to work with the local talent and get them up to speed, which was fraught with all manner of problems, so that the show did not actually appear until two months later, on November 19, 1959. Also, because the show had been expanded from the original concept of just the adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle to a 30-minute program, Ward and his team had to come up with several other segments. In its initial episodes, each show consisted of two Rocky and Bullwinkle episodes at the beginning and end, with one segment each of Fractured Fairy Tales, Bullwinkle's Corner, and Peabody's Improbable History in between. 

The first season, which ran until early May 1960, consisted of 26 episodes and traced two Rocky and Bullwinkle story arcs. The first, "Jet Rocket Fuel," which ran for 40 installments (or the first 20 episodes of the show), lampoons the Cold War and the Space Race as Bullwinkle accidentally discovers a powerful rocket fuel while baking a fudge cake using his grandmother's recipe, thereby drawing the interest of both Washington and the mythical Soviet-like country Pottsylvania, whose operatives Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale attempt to steal the formula's secret ingredient. The second story arc, "Box Top Robbery" (12 installments), pokes fun at the box-top redemption craze by claiming that the entire world economy is driven by box tops, which prompts Boris to counterfeit them and threaten global stability. This second story arc caused considerable discomfort for advertising agency D-F-S since the show's sponsor, General Mills, was heavily involved in box top redemption programs, but it also is typical of Ward's and the show's irreverence, almost literally biting the hand that fed them.

But the box top plot was not the only segment to meet with sponsor disapproval. In The Moose That Roared, author Keith Scott mentions that Fractured Fairy Tales was not popular with General Mills and that after 52 scripts of the fairy tales had been completed and Ward was in discussions about renewing the show for a second season, his team came up with the Aesop & Son idea and got approval for the new segments from the sponsor based on storyboards for the pilot of the series, "The Lion and the Mouse." But this pilot actually aired during the 9th show of Season 1, broadcast on January 14, 1960, and both Fractured Fairy Tales and Aesop & Son continued airing throughout the remainder of Season 1 and on into Season 2. It seems unlikely that Ward and his crew would have completed all 52 fairy tale scripts only 9 episodes into their first season (or actually earlier), and if General Mills was really unhappy with the fairy tales, why would so many more have been produced (there were 91 in all during the 5-year run of the series)? This incongruity is but one example of the many inaccuracies surrounding the show's chronology, despite its place as one of the most ground-breaking and influential animated series in television history. The episode index currently published on imdb.com (admittedly not a scholarly source) drops off in the middle of Season 2, and while the episode index published on thetvdb.com is complete, the air dates are incorrect for the Season 2 episodes that aired on Thursdays, when the show was being shown twice a week. 

Fractured Fairy Tales was not the only segment to alternate with another, nor was it the only one to suffer from sponsor and advertising criticism. When the show debuted, Fractured Fairy Tales was followed by a segment called Bullwinkle's Corner in which the moose read part of a famous poem, which was also illustrated with humorous results that usually ended badly for Bullwinkle. Keith Scott notes that there were 39 segments in this series and that later it was "reformatted" as Mr. Know-It-All. The Mr. Know-It-All segments featured Bullwinkle giving advice on how to accomplish something, like "How to Train Your Doggy for Fun and Profit," again with disastrous results. But Keith Scott's chronology is off: The first Mr. Know-It-All appeared in the 12th episode of Season 1 on February 4, 1960 and thereafter alternated with Bullwinkle's Corner, though there were more of the former segments than the latter from that point on.

The show's crown jewel, Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties, began alternating with Peabody's Improbable History in the 11th episode of Season 1, which aired on January 28, 1960. The segment features the always pure and gullible title character, his commander Inspector Fenwick, Fenwick's daughter Nell, with whom Dudley is in love but who loves Dudley's horse instead, and arch-villain Snidely Whiplash. The stories are set in Canada in the late 1800s with music and settings meant to recall silent-movie melodramas in which Snidely often tries to do away with Dudley, who inadvertently foils the plot but lets Snidely escape through sheer stupidity. The Peabody segments came in for their own round of criticism from sponsor and advertising agency because they depicted famous historical figures as being inept and only able to carry out their exploits with the brilliant assistance of a dog. At one point, according to Keith Scott, Ward was asked not to do any more segments featuring American historical figures, though the show continued airing segments on characters like Sitting Bull and Alexander Graham Bell at least through the middle of Season 2. The segment on Pancho Villa (December 1, 1960) stirred such displeasure in Mexico, where the animation for Peabody was being done, that Ward had to move production for that episode back to the States.

But despite the various criticisms, the show was a hit, and General Mills overall was pleased with the results. Soon Rocky and Bullwinkle began appearing in commercials for Cheerios as well as occasional spots for other cereals like Trix, Cocoa Puffs, and Jets. Peabody and Sherman appeared in a commercial for Wheathearts, Boris and Natasha plugged Lucky Charms, and Dudley and Nell shilled for Frosty O's. This commercial success would later lead to a long and lucrative deal for Ward Productions creating and producing all the commercials for Quaker Oats' Cap'n Crunch from its introduction in 1963 well into the 1980's.

But some considered the show a bit too clever. Bill Scott recalled that one advertising executive once told him that the show was too funny. And its satire of everything from government incompetence to television viewers themselves was seen as subversive. However, the show was hardly ahead of its time in its treatment of ethnic stereotypes. Native Americans said, "Ugh" and "how," Italians had exaggerated accents and an obsessive love of spaghetti, and Asians mixed their "l's" and "r's" and spoke in the chopped manner often seen in movies and other TV shows of the era. Yet the show was advanced in breaking down the "fourth wall" of theatre--having characters speak directly to the viewer and refer to the fact that they are part of a television show, not something real in its own right. In the episode airing April 15, 1960, the second Rocky and Bullwinkle installment begins with the narrator having lost track of where they were in the story, so Rocky provides the usual recap by reading from a script. During the Upsidaisium story arc, Captain Peachfuzz gets up to speed on what has happened with Rocky and Bullwinkle by watching their show on TV, which provides a deja vu moment by repeating the recap that played at the beginning of the installment. And the Metal Munching Mice story arc begins in Frostbite Falls where Rocky and Bullwinkle are celebrities because of the success of their TV show. This story arc is also the most critical of television viewers, most of whom stare dumbly at their sets once their antennas have been devoured by the mice or plan to travel to another country where television transmission has not been interrupted. But despite the pokes at sponsors and viewers, the show was such a success that General Mills ordered twice the number of episodes for Season 2 as they had for Season 1, going from 26 to 52 and airing the show twice a week, on Sundays at 11:00 a.m. and on Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. Because not all markets carried the Thursday broadcasts, Ward and company had to keep two story arcs airing concurrently--one that ran only on Sundays and the other that ran only on Thursdays.

The theme and incidental music for Rocky and Friends was composed by Frank Comstock, a largely self-taught arranger who got his start when high school friend and trumpeter Uan Rasey recommended him to band leader Sonny Dunham. Dunham, in turn, recommended him to Benny Carter, and from there he moved on to arranging for Les Brown, whose girl singer at the time was Doris Day. When Day left Brown's band in 1946, she continued to work with Comstock, whose arranging on her screen test for Warner Brothers landed him a spot composing and arranging for their movie studio, though quite a bit of his work went uncredited. Among his credited movie works were Calamity Jane, April in Paris, Lucky Me, The Music Man, and Hello, Dolly! Besides Rocky and His Friends, his television work included Adam-12, Dragnet, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley. He also worked with a number of vocalists, in particular for Doris Day and eight albums with The Hi-Lo's, as well as Rosemary Clooney, June Hutton, Andy Williams, Frankie Laine, Margaret Whiting, and Bob Hope. Additionally he worked freelance for the Disney theme parks, arranging and orchestrating music for several attractions still used to this day. He died May 21, 2013 in Huntington Beach, CA at the age of 90.

All five seasons of Rocky and Bullwinkle have been released on DVD by Sony.

The Actors

Bill Scott

Born in Pennsylvania (Keith Scott says he was born in Philadelphia; the Wikipedia author says Pittsburgh), Scott's family moved to Trenton, NJ then to Denver when he developed tuberculosis as a child. After high school, he did voice acting on a number of radio shows in Denver until World War II broke out, at which time he joined the military and eventually wound up working for the First Motion Picture Unit, initially for Lt. Ronald Reagan. There Scott got to meet and work with many of his animation idols, including Disney veteran Frank Thomas. After the war his connections from the FMPU landed him a job with Warner Brothers, and, as mentioned above, later Paramount and UPA. At Paramount he worked with noted comedian Stan Freberg on the live-action puppet show Time for Beany. At UPA he moved up to assistant producer on the award-winning The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show. As also mentioned above, Scott met and worked with Jay Ward on the Phineas T. Phox show, and when Ward later asked him if he was interested in working on an animated series about a moose and squirrel, Scott replied, "Sure," though he had no idea if he could do such a thing but was never one to turn down a job offer. The rest, they say, is history. Scott not only co-wrote the pilot for Rocky and His Friends with Ward, he was also co-producer for the series and provided the voices for Bullwinkle, Peabody, Dudley Do-Right, Fearless Leader, Mr. Big, and others. He wrote many of the Cap'n Crunch commercials and did voice work and writing for Ward Productions cartoons that followed Bullwinkle--George of the Jungle, Super Chicken, Tom Slick, and Fractured Flickers. When Ward Productions finally closed its doors, Scott was immediately hired by Disney to voice the characters of Moosel on The Wuzzles and Gruffi Gummi, Sir Tuxford, and Toady on The Adventures of the Gummi Bears. He died of a heart attack at age 65 on November 29, 1985.

June Foray

Born in Springfield, MA in 1917, Foray began her career as a voice actor on radio at the age of 12. After high school her family moved to Los Angeles, where she continued working in radio on WBZA and then on nationally syndicated programs such as Lux Theatre and The Jimmy Durante Show. Her work in animation began in the 1940s, most notably voicing Lucifer the Cat in Disney's Cinderella, Witch Hazel both for Disney and Warner Brothers, and taking over the role of Granny in the Sylvester and Tweety cartoons from Bea Benaderet. She auditioned for but lost out to Benaderet for the role of Betty Rubble on The Flintstones but wound up being hired by Jay Ward to voice Rocket J. Squirrel, as well as Natasha Fatale, Nell Fenwick, and most of the other female parts on Rocky and His Friends. She continued working for Ward after Rocky and Bullwinkle, voicing Ursula on George of the Jungle. She also worked extensively with Stan Freberg on his albums, commercials, and radio programs. She played Cindy Lou Who on How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Jokey Smurf and Mother Nature on The Smurfs, the Talky Tina doll on an episode of The Twilight Zone, and was the original voice of the Chatty Cathy doll. She reunited with Bill Scott to play Grammi Gummi on The Adventures of the Gummy Bears and more recently appeared in episodes of The Powerpuff Girls, has done cameos on The Simpsons and Family Guy, and received her first Emmy nomination for playing Mrs. Cauldron on The Garfield Show in 2012. At age 95, she is still an active performer.

Paul Frees

Born Solomon Hersh Frees in Chicago, Frees, like Mel Blanc, was a man of a thousand voices, thanks to a four-octave range. Like Blanc, he was also extremely prolific, doing everything from radio dramas to cartoon voices to narrators to overdubs for actors, such as the falsetto faux female voices of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. His radio work included alternating with William Conrad (who would later become the narrator on Rocky and His Friends) as the announcer on the series Suspense and filling in for Howard McNear as Doc Adams in an episode of the radio version of Gunsmoke. For Disney he provided the voice for Ludwig von Drake as well as the ghost host for the Haunted Mansion and various pirates and an auctioneer in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at their amusement parks. For Rankin/Bass he voiced Santa Claus for the stop-motion animated special Frosty the Snowman. He did the voices of John Lennon and George Harrison for the cartoon show The Beatles and provided the Peter Lorre impersonation for Spike Jones' recording of "My Old Flame." On Rocky and His Friends Frees voiced Boris Badenov, Inspector Fenwick, and a host of other characters on Fractured Fairy Tales. After Rocky and Bullwinkle, Frees worked again with Ward Productions on Hoppity Hooper. He also appeared in many TV commercials, playing the Pillsbury Doughboy, Little Green Sprout in the Jolly Green Giant commercials, Boo-Berry, and taking over for Blanc as the voice of Toucan Sam in Froot Loops commercials. He died at age 66 on November 2, 1986.

Daws Butler

Charles Dawson Butler from Toledo, OH got his start as an impressionist, winning many amateur contests before moving into animation work after World War II for Screen Gems and then MGM in 1948. The next year he began working on the Warner Brothers puppet show Time for Beany, which paired him with Stan Freberg and would eventually introduce him to future Ward Productions stalwarts like Bill Scott and writer Lloyd Turner. In UPA's Mister Magoo theatrical shorts, he provided the voice of Magoo's nephew Waldo. He provided the voice of Fred Flintstone in the show's unaired pilot The Flagstones and filled in as Barney Rubble on five episodes after Mel Blanc was injured in an auto accident. But Butler is best known for his work at Hanna-Barbera, where he voiced such icons as Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, Wally Gator, Elroy Jetson, and Snagglepuss. Because he was under contract to Hanna-Barbera at the time Rocky and His Friends debuted, Butler is not included in any of the show's credits, but he provided the voices of Aesop's son and a variety of characters for the Fractured Fairy Tales segments. He also worked with Ward Productions on their Quaker Oats TV commercials, providing the voices for Cap'n Crunch and Quisp. By the 1970s Butler scaled back his prolific workload but started a voice actor workshop that included Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, among its students. Butler died of a heart attack on May 18, 1988 at the age of 71.

Walter Tetley

Walter Campbell Tetzlaff was born in New York City and began performing on stage at age 7. Due to what has been described as a hormonal condition, Tetley retained the voice of a prepubescent boy for his entire life, making him perfect for a variety of childhood voice roles, though Bill Scott reportedly once said that Tetley's mother had him castrated to prolong his successful radio career. He began working in radio in the 1930s, appearing with such notables as Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and W.C. Fields before moving to Hollywood in 1938 where he was cast as Leroy on The Great Gildersleeve radio program for 17 years. He also played the part of sarcastic delivery boy Julius Abruzzio on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. Tetley met Bill Scott while working on The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show, and Scott picked him to provide the voice of Peabody's boy Sherman in the Peabody's Improbable History segments. In 1971 he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident that confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He died at age 60 September 4, 1975.

Hans Conried

Hans George Conried, Jr. was born in Baltimore, MD, studied acting at Columbia University, and became a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre Company. He began working in radio in the 1940s and, besides working in Welles productions, played a psychiatrist on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. He appeared in both live-action and animated films, playing the title role in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T and Captain Hook in Disney's Peter Pan. On television, he played Uncle Tonoose on Make Room for Daddy, was a regular on Jack Paar's Tonight Show, and had guest appearances on many shows, including The Donna Reed Show, The RealMcCoys, Mister Ed, Have Gun -- Will Travel, and Lost in Space. On Rocky and His Friends Conried provided the voice for Dudley Do-Right's nemesis Snidely Whiplash. He later worked for Ward Productions on Hoppity Hooper and Fractured Flickers. He died from cardiovascular disease on January 5, 1982 at the age of 64.

William Conrad

Born John William Cann, Jr., Conrad became a household name as an actor in the 1970s playing the title role in the crime drama Cannon and continued that success into the next decade, starring in the series Nero Wolfe and Jake and the Fatman. But before his late-found TV fame Conrad was a film actor in such noir classics as The Killers (1946), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Tension (1949), and The Naked Jungle (1954). He also appeared in numerous westerns during the 1940s and '50s, but like many other voice actors, his career began in radio. He was the voice of Marshal Matt Dillon in the radio version of Gunsmoke, narrated the adventure series Escape, and was a cast member in Jack Webb's Pete Kelley's Blues, to name but a few of his estimated 7500 roles. He also narrated the TV version of Escape a decade before landing the narrator role on Rocky and His Friends. As Keith Scott tells it, Conrad begged Jay Ward to let him do other voices on the show as well, but it always came off sounding like himself. He didn't have the flexibility to take on a variety of personas the way Frees, Foray, and Butler could. In later seasons he would occasionally receive a bit role, as Sam the cannibal in one episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but largely his role was describing the action as one would expect to hear in a movie serial from the 1940s. He would work again for Ward Productions as the narrator on Hoppity Hooper but he had a bigger narrator role before that on the David Janssen crime drama The Fugitive. He also directed and produced for many TV shows in the 1950s and '60s, including multiple episodes of Bat Masterson, Have Gun --Will Travel, and Naked City. He died of congestive heart failure at the age of 73 on February 11, 1994.

Edward Everett Horton

Horton was in the last decade of a prolific acting career when he was tabbed by Bill Scott to be the narrator of Fractured Fairy Tales on Rocky and His Friends. Like many of the Ward Productions team, Horton had worked on The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show narrating a segment titled "The Unenchanted Princess," which convinced Scott he would be perfect as the fairy tale narrator on Rocky and His Friends. Horton began his performing career in vaudeville, then moved to Los Angeles in 1919. His film career dated back to the early 1920s, appearing in the comedy Too Much Business in 1922 and playing the title character in one of several film versions of Ruggles of Red Gap the following year. He appeared in several Fred Astaire - Ginger Rogers pictures, including The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat and also appeared in such classics as The Front Page, Lost Horizon, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and Arsenic and Old Lace. He continued appearing in films into the 1960s, including It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Sex and the Single Girl, and The Perils of Pauline. Besides his narrator role on Rocky and Friends he appeared on several TV shows in the 1950s and '60's including three episodes of Dennis the Menace as Ned Matthews and six episodes of F Troop as Chief Roaring Chicken. He passed away at the age of 84 on September 29, 1970.

Charlie Ruggles

When Ward and his team developed the Aesop & Son segments as an alternative to Fractured Fairy Tales, they brought in another veteran movie actor to play the part of Aesop, though Ruggles was never listed in the credits. Los Angeles native Charles Sherman Ruggles appeared in over 100 films from the silent era up to the mid-1960s, his first being Peer Gynt in 1915. His first talking picture was Gentleman of the Press in 1929, and he appeared with W.C. Fields, George Burns, and Gracie Allen in Six of a Kind, with Charles Laughton and Zasu Pitts in the 1935 production of Ruggles of Red Gap, with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman in Anything Goes, and with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. In 1949 he moved over to television, playing the lead role of a character named Charlie Ruggles in The Ruggles and later starring in The World of Mr. Sweeney. He guest starred on a number of series, including multiple appearances on The Red Skelton Show, Burke's Law, and as the character Lowell Redlings Farquhar on The Beverly Hillbillies. He died of cancer at age 84 on December 23, 1970.

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