Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Rocky and His Friends / The Bullwinkle Show (1961)

Calendar year 1961 would prove a momentous one for the animated moose and squirrel cartoon as NBC, in an attempt to cash in on the sudden popularity of cartoons aimed at both adults and children due to the success of The Flintstones, renamed the program The Bullwinkle Show for its third season and moved it to prime-time on Sunday evenings in the fall of 1961.

But first a look back at the remaining Season 2 episodes of Rocky and His Friends, which aired on Thursday afternoon and Sunday morning. There were four Rocky and Bullwinkle story arcs remaining in Season 2, beginning with "Rue Brittania," which ran for 8 installments, or four episodes. This story arc shows little of the cultural satire for which the Bullwinkle series is best known, as Bullwinkle is believed to be the inheritor of a large British fortune due to a mark on the bottom of his foot, and the nephews of the late Earl of Crankcase try to kill him so that they can collect the inheritance instead. There is the horror-film staple of having the will stipulate that Bullwinkle must spend a week in Abominable Manor, with the nephews, after failing to have him killed even with the help of Boris and Natasha, then try to have him set foot outside of the mansion to be disqualified, but this also fails. The only cultural reference in the entire arc is when Boris poses as Dr. Kildarovitch to perform an operation on Bullwinkle from which he is not supposed to recover. Two of the Mr. Know-It-All shorts that air in the midst of this story arc offer more satire. In one such short, Bullwinkle shows how to buy a used car, with Boris acting as the used car salesman, always directing the customer to the model he wants to sell rather than the one the customer wants to buy, and with the customer always ending up with a defective model so that the salesman can talk him into buying yet another model. In the other short, Mr. Know-It-All shows how to be an archaeologist and travels to Egypt to explore the pyramids only to discover that Boris has commercialized the historical treasures by turning them into an amusement park. 

Crass commercialism was a favorite target of Jay Ward and Bill Scott and would continue to be exposed in future episodes, such as the next story arc "Buried Treasure" in which a newspaper editor tries to rescue flagging sales of his paper by holding a buried treasure contest. The buried treasure is $1 million in worthless Confederate money and the grand prize is a nearly worthless 1910 Stearns-Wright automobile, but by placing clues about the treasure's location in each day's edition of the newspaper, publisher Colonel McCornpone is able to spur sales of his paper while also turning the town into a field of pot holes where readers have dug to try to find the buried money. The distraction from the contest also makes it easy for Boris and his gang to dig a tunnel into the bank and empty the vault. After a series of misadventures in which Rocky and Bullwinkle get, then lose, then recapture the stolen real money, they also discover the hidden Confederate money, thereby winning the contest but are unable to drive their new automobile on the streets because there are too many pot holes, so Rocky resorts to creating a faux landscape to roll past Bullwinkle seated at the wheel of their car, up on blocks, so that he can simulate the enjoyment of driving his grand prize. Ward and Scott satirize not only the unintended side effects of shameless promotional stunts but also suggest the prizes offered aren't really worth anything.

"The Last Angry Moose," which ran for only 4 installments over 2 episodes, satirizes Hollywood and celebrity culture as Bullwinkle becomes convinced that he has the makings of a great actor when he mistakenly thinks that women are fainting over his acting talent when they are actually frightened by mice who have escaped from the pet store conveniently located in the movie theater lobby. Bullwinkle then takes his life savings in his mattress and travels to Hollywood where Boris and Natasha try every trick in the book to separate him from his money, first by offering to sell him worthless movie souvenirs. Then Boris impersonates a talent scout who takes 10% of Bullwinkle's money as his standard fee and hands him over to an acting coach, also Boris in disguise, who teaches him a "method" called The System in which Bullwinkle must slouch, mumble, and wear torn clothing, an obvious poke at then-popular method actors such as Marlon Brando and the late James Dean. The acting coach then sends Bullwinkle to famous director Alfred Hitchhike who casts him in "The Last Angry Moose," but Bullwinkle's acting is so bad it turns the drama into a comedy that is a huge hit and prompts a gossip columnist based on Louella Parsons to proclaim Bullwinkle a star. Despite making a fortune from his hit movie Bullwinkle retires and returns to Frostbite Falls because he thinks it a waste to spend so much time and effort making a movie only to have people laugh at it. Though they manage to lampoon nearly every link in the Hollywood chain of self-promotion, Ward & Scott's disparagement of method actors and overinflated egos is hardly novel for the era--many other satirists were making the same point at the time.

The final story arc of Season 2 is "The Wailing Whale," a spin on Melville's Moby Dick in which the giant ship-eating whale is named Maybe Dick, and a criticism of both comic books and immoral capitalism. The story begins with Bullwinkle telling Rocky that the comic book story he has just read about the giant whale Maybe Dick is thrilling, but Rocky tells him it's just a made up story, only it turns out that there really is a Maybe Dick who eats large ocean vessels and thereby sends the entire shipping and cruise ship industries into a tailspin. Enter shipping mogul Pericles Parnassus, clearly based on real-life shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who actually owned a whaling business based in Peru from 1950-56 which he was forced to sell after an expose showed that his whaling ships were killing mostly infant whales rather than adults. This sort of ruthless pursuit of profit is depicted in the Parnassus character, who confabs with his shipping colleagues and comes up with a promotional stunt to save their business--hold a contest offering a free boat and fishing equipment for anyone willing to go capture Maybe Dick. No one but Bullwinkle would think that they could capture a whale that large with a fishing rod, but Parnassus has also stuffed the boat's cargo hold with dynamite, fully expecting that Maybe Dick will swallow the boat, which will then explode and kill Maybe Dick, and, of course, whoever is helming the boat, meaning Rocky and Bullwinkle. But once aboard the ship, the heroes discover another person at the controls, Capt. "Wrong Way" Peachfuzz, whose knack for doing the exact opposite of what he should actually do saves them and sends the dynamite-laden ship back to port to blow up Parnassus and his cronies. 

At two points during this part of the story, Ward & Scott take aim at their bread and butter, the TV industry, first by having one of the shipping executives so despondent at the decline of his business that he considers another career as a TV producer. When one of his colleagues says, "I thought we all agreed to commit suicide," the first shipping executive replies, "It amounts to the same thing." And when news reaches TV audiences around the world that Rocky and Bullwinkle have disappeared after being swallowed by Maybe Dick, audiences around the world are upset, but an American TV viewer says "So what?' but then cries uncontrollably when he hears that the Giants lost again. The story then takes a turn away from its original premise once Rocky and Bullwinkle, along with Peachfuzz, are swallowed by Maybe Dick. They run into Boris and Natasha, trying to commandeer all the booty from the ships Maybe Dick has swallowed, and after they exit the giant fish they discover an underwater community called Submerbia, but neither of these plot excursions offer the biting satire of the story's initial narrative.

Equally sarcastic are several of the "Bullwinkle's Corner" shorts included between the main story arcs, which focus again on promotional stunts. In one Bullwinkle's fan club does not have enough members to field a softball team, so he turns to a promoter, Boris as publicity agent Moranski, to raise his membership. Moranski has Bullwinkle perform a number of physically painful stunts but the subsequent write-ups in the newspaper always mention Moranski and not Bullwinkle, leading to a huge growth in memberhips for the Moranski fan club, not Bullwinkle's. In another short Boris objects to a clause in the Bullwinkle fan club oath that requires members to pledge to be trustworthy and exhibit other noble traits. Boris says this goes against his principles, so he forms his own fan club and runs a series of TV ads recruiting members by offering them an outlet for their unsavory personality traits. The fan club's membership grows quickly, but Natasha wonders if they can trust such sketchy characters. Boris tells her not to worry because they are just "our kind of people," a rationale that should be familiar in certain contemporary political circles.

When it debuted in prime-time on September 24, 1961, The Bullwinkle Show opened to fairly positive reviews from the newspaper critics across the country and even into Canada, though an introductory Bullwinkle puppet sketch by Bill Scott was jettisoned when it raised complaints for telling children to do things like remove the control knob from their TV set so that it would always be set to the channel on which the program appeared or emptying their parents' wallets and sending the money to Bullwinkle (these puppet segments are not included in the DVD release). Even TV Guide's hard-to-please critic Gilbert Seldes remarked in the December 30, 1961 issue that of all the cartoons then flooding the airwaves Bullwinkle appeared to be "of the sturdier contestants. It has one advantage: Each of the shows I've seen has been divided into two or three short takes, so that the grim job of being funny on a single topic over a long stretch of time is avoided." But while the critics may have approved, the viewing public, particularly the family unit, refused to give up its long-standing devotion to Lassie, which was airing in the same time slot.

Season 3 had four total story arcs over 33 episodes, with two of those story arcs appearing in episodes that aired in 1961. While some sources, such as, list the first episodes for Season 3 as "The Three Mooseketeers" story arc, Keith Scott's book The Moose That Roared and 1961 issues of TV Guide show that "Missouri Mish Mash" was the first story arc to air, beginning on September 24, and it was followed by "Lazy Jay Ranch," which ran into February 1962. "Missouri Mish Mash" is one of the longer story arcs with 26 installments over 13 episodes and is notable for introducing the character of Fearless Leader, Boris and Natasha's boss in the mythical country of Pottsylvania. Though I have yet to find any record of Ward & Scott being asked to tone down the anti-Soviet message of having the arch-villain Boris and his sidekick Natasha sport obviously Russian stereotypical names and accents, June Foray commented in an interview included on the Season 2 DVD release that when she was assigned to do the voice of Natasha, she was told to do a continental European accent rather than one strictly identifiable as Russian because they did not want to offend their Cold War antagonist. Foray's remark suggests she was given this instruction from the very start, but the addition of the obviously Nazi-derived Fearless Leader can be seen as an attempt to lessen the show's anti-Soviet bias because now a Nazi is calling the shots, and everyone agrees that Nazis are bad, right?

"Missouri Mish Mash" is also notable because it caused another controversy with a then-popular TV star, Durward Kirby, then appearing on The Garry Moore Show and Candid Camera. The story arc has Bullwinkle hoodwinked into traveling to Peaceful Valley, Missouri to attend a moose convention when he is actually being recruited to find the elusive Kirward Derby, a hat that makes its wearer the smartest person on earth and an obvious plum for someone hoping to rule the world, like Fearless Leader. As Keith Scott notes in his book, Kirby was not amused by the play on his name and had his lawyers issue a Cease and Desist letter, but Ward & company knew that the challenge would not hold up legally and actually encouraged Kirby to sue, figuring that there was no such things as bad publicity, particularly for a program that was being beaten in the ratings by Lassie. Eventually Kirby and his team dropped the request. 

Though much of the story arc is spent on Rocky and Bullwinkle getting swept up in a long-running Peaceful Valley feud between the Hatfuls and the Floys and then the pursuit of, theft of, and recapture of the Kirward Derby, which we eventually learn belongs to the moon men Cloyd and Gidney, the last few installments also take a few shots at Washington as Rocky figures that the easiest way to get there--to turn over the derby to government officials--is to run for Congress. He is successful because he promises  the Hatfuls and the Floys the same thing--to rid their town of their rivals, a shot at politicians who will contradict themselves and say whatever it takes to get themselves elected. Once Rocky arrives at his new office in D.C. a passerby remarks to his friend that you don't see a squirrel in Congress every day, while the friend remarks that it was bound to happen with all the nuts already in office. 

The next story arc, "Lazy Jay Ranch," which debuted on December 24, 1961, began by poking fun at the current craze for TV westerns, which Bullwinkle is so smitten by that he winds up shooting his television set (perhaps this is where Elvis Presley got the idea) in trying to outdraw his television hero and is forced to resort to that most boring of past-times, reading. But of course his reading material consists of pulp magazines and an occasional newspaper where he notices an ad for a ranch for sale in Wyoming at the bargain basement price of $28. Soon he and Rocky are on their way out west but discover when they finally make it to the ranch that the only livestock being raised there are worms. They soon run into Boris and Natasha, who believe the ranch is laced with rocks containing precious gems, and Bullwinkle gets a chance to shout the Rawhide slogan "Head 'em up, move 'em out" while driving the worms to a fishing village where he and Rocky hope to sell them as bait. However, though the plot then veers in several zany directions, it consists of the typical failed attempts by Boris to ruin or kill Bullwinkle and Rocky and culminates with an attempted bank robbery. The story also has some continuity issues when Bullwinkle and Rocky are driving an armored car across the bottom of a lake. Not realizing that he is driving on the lake bed completely submerged, Bullwinkle at first feels stuffy and is about to crack the window in "The Bush Pusher" (February 4, 1962), but when the story is picked up in the next installment, "Underwater Trap" (February 11, 1962), he supposedly sees a left turn sign and plans to roll down the window to signal. Likewise, in this installment they are carrying a sack full of money they made from selling bait at the fishing village, but in the next installment the money is in a box when Rocky is shot out of the cannon mounted on the armored car's turret. These small mistakes don't really compromise the story as a whole, but it still isn't one of the best plots in the series, relying too often on overused situations. 

However, the Mr. Know-It-All segment about being an effective member of the Peace Corps, included in the DVD episode with "Buzzard Bait," mercilessly ridicules advanced nations' attempts to help the disadvantaged. Bullwinkle tries to placate the natives with trinkets only to discover that they have very advanced machinery that deems the trinkets worthless. He then attempts to make improvements to their machine but only ruins it. And finally, when he tries to work hand in hand with the native, Boris, he discovers that they are making a rocket so that the native can send him back to his own country. In short, Americans' attempts to improve the lives of third-world countries are not appreciated and frequently make things worse.

Another Mr. Know-It-All segment targets the hit-making record industry, a foil often spoofed by musical artists themselves. Bullwinkle's attempts to make his recording a hit fail because he cannot win over famous DJ Disc Dawson, played by Boris, of course. Even his "Payola Kit" consisting of a dog that listens to a gramophone backfires when Dawson sics the dog on Bullwinkle. Though radio DJs figure less prominently in determining what becomes a hit today, there still is a rigged system that often elevates mediocre music to the top by sheer brute force.

It's remarkable that Bullwinkle and Rocky remained on the air for five seasons given how subversive much of the content was, but there is no mistaking that their legacy paved the way for contemporary shows such as The Simpsons and South Park that enjoy the freedom to mock anything and everything.  

The music for the 1961 episodes Rocky and Friends and The Bullwinkle Show is credited to Fred Steiner, who was profiled in the 1961 post for Perry Mason.

The DVD releases for Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show are obviously syndicated versions bearing a copyright date of 1997. At one point when the series went into syndication it was whittled down to a 15-minute show. The episodes on the DVDs each run about 22.5 minutes rather than the typical 25 minutes for shows of that era. Also, an examination of 1961 TV Guide listings shows that many shows contain both a Peabody segment and a Dudley Do-Right segment in the same show, whereas the DVD versions only contain one or the other. Furthermore, the intermediate shorts--Fractured Fairy Tales or Aesop & Son, Peabody, and Dudley Do-Right do not match the ones on the DVDs. So it appears that at some point the Bullwinkle and Rocky installments were stripped of their original intermediate shorts and then recombined in a different order for the DVD release.

The Actors

For the biographies of Bill Scott, June Foray, Paul Frees, Daws Butler, Walter Tetley, Hans Conried, William Conrad, Edward Everett Horton, and Charlie Ruggles, see the 1960 post on Rocky and His Friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment