Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Flintstones (1961)

As noted in the earlier post on this series' 1960 episodes, The Flintstones was considered a trail-blazing concept when it first appeared in the fall of 1960--the first animated series to air in prime-time and a clever satire on the progress of the Space Age in its depiction of modern conveniences having low-tech equivalents during the Stone Age. By its July 1, 1961 cover story, TV Guide was touting Hanna-Barbera as the wave of the future--the article notes that when The Flintstones debuted it was the only show of its kind, but due to its early success there would be 5 animated series in prime-time starting in the new fall 1961 season. The hindsight of history shows us that none of those other series, including Hanna-Barbera's Top Cat, would match the success of The Flintstones, and that its success had already peaked as well--though it ranked 18th on the Nielsen ratings list for the 1960-61 season, it fell to 21st the following season, 30th in its third season, and out of the top 30 for the final three seasons. Rather than being the forerunner of a new trend, The Flintstones was more of an outlier.

Even TV Guide saw its appeal as short-lived: while reviewer Dwight Whitney lauded it as the lone fresh entry amongst the new shows as of December 1960, critic Gilbert Seldes was already calling it stale in his March 18, 1961 TV Guide review, saying that the series failed to measure up to feature film cartoons from Walt Disney, earlier Mr. Magoo shorts, or live-action sit-coms like I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best.  While Seldes approved of the overall concept, he claimed that there were better-drawn commercial cartoons than what The Flintstones offered. However, this lack of polish is exactly what Hanna and Barbera cited in the July 1, 1961 article as their reason for making TV cartoons economically feasible. They claimed that their work for MGM before setting up their own shop, as well as other cartoon-producers of the time, like Disney, spent too much time and money trying to make animated characters move like real ones when cruder movement was sufficient to make the animation work. But there is really no counter argument for Selden's other claim that the series' plots were stale--unlike the imaginative stories on the Rocky and Bullwinkle series, The Flintstones seemed satisfied to recycle hackneyed situations from countless live-action sit-coms.

What is perhaps more surprising is that some of the secondary characters seen as integral parts of the Bedrock landscape were rather unsettled well after the series launched. The Flintstone's pet dinosaur Dino wasn't firmly established until March 1961. The initial opening title sequence shows Fred driving home from work, entering the house to grab a plate of food from Wilma before settling in front of the TV. When Fred enters the house a blue, not magenta-colored, dinosaur is curled up in his chair in front of the TV. Hearing Fred coming, the dinosaur quickly scrambles down and curls up next to the chair. This sequence was not changed until Season 3, even after Dino was established as being magenta-colored. The first time we see Dino perform his signature move of knocking Fred down when he walks up the sidewalk on his way home from work and then licking his face is in the episode "Arthur Quarry's Dance Class" (January 13, 1961). But two episodes later in "The Snorkasaurus Hunter" (January 27, 1961) the Flintstones and Rubbles go on a hunting trip dreamed up by Fred as a way to save money on groceries. While the wives play cards, Fred and Barney go hunting for a Snorkasaurus, a purple dinosaur that looks much like Dino. After the Snorkasaurus outwits the men by hiding in one of their tents, Wilma takes pity on the animal and persuades Fred to let her take it home as a pet rather than killing and eating it. She names the Snorkosaurus Dino and soon has it performing all of her house chores, such as vacuuming and ironing. Never mind the disturbing implications of planning to kill and eat an animal that later becomes the equivalent of the family dog, Dino is never again shown as being purple and never does housework after this episode. The next time we see Dino is in "The Long, Long Weekend" (March 10, 1961) when he has returned to being magenta-colored and knocking Fred down when he comes home, which would be his role from then on.

Fred's boss is another character who was unsettled until well into Season 2. In "The Tycoon" (February 24, 1961) Fred asks his boss Mr. Boulder for a leave of absence so that he can secretly impersonate an AWOL business executive who is a dead ringer for Fred and whose assistants want him to pretend to be so that his empire doesn't crumble. In "The Good Scout" (March 24, 1961) Fred's boss is Joe Rockhead, a name that would be used for other characters in later episodes. In "Flintstone of Prinstone" (November 3, 1961), Fred's boss is Mr. Slate, a Prinstone graduate whom Fred is trying to impress by studying at his alma mater. Mr. Slate is also his boss in "The Beauty Pageant" (December 1, 1961), in which Fred and Barney get roped into judging a beauty contest because no one else wants the trouble that would come with such a duty. But in "The Masquerade Ball" (December 8, 1961), Fred's boss is back to being Mr. Rockhead. Though actor John Stephenson is best remembered as the voice of Mr. Slate, that role was not firmly established on The Flintstones until at least 1962.

Things were not helped when the legendary Mel Blanc, voice of Barney Rubble, suffered a near fatal car accident on January 24, 1961, which left him in a coma for two weeks. While he was recovering, the versatile Daws Butler voiced Barney for a few episodes before the producers were able to set up recording equipment in Blanc's hospital room and later at his home to allow him to continue recording episodes with the other cast members at his bedside. Blanc's temporary absence from the program proved to be only a minor hiccup in the grand scheme of the series. Still, for a series being touted as a trailblazer in the animation field, The Flintstones experienced an unusual amount of uncertainty at the height of its popularity.

What the series probably did best was satirize contemporary culture by showing that there's nothing new under the sun. As noted above, the clever recreation of modern conveniences in Stone Age clothing was what received the most praise. But the series also poked fun at other television programs, music fads, and celebrity culture. Crime dramas were a favorite subject of ridicule, even on live-action sit-coms such as Father Knows Best and My Three Sons. In "Love Letters on the Rocks" (February 17, 1961) Fred meets up with a private detective named Perry Gunnite to find out who penned love poetry to Wilma he found in one of their end tables. As soon as Gunnite walks into the bar where they are meeting, he is attacked and pummeled by some mobster's henchmen, an obvious dig at Peter Gunn's near-constant thrashings on his own program. "Alvin Brickrock Presents" (October 6, 1961) pokes fun at Alfred Hitchcock's suspense series by having the Flintstones live next door to an archaeologist who looks and sounds like Hitchcock and whom they suspect of having murdered his wife and disposed of the body (Rear Window anyone?). And "The Soft Touchables" (October 27, 1961) is a transparent  lampoon of The Untouchables in which Fred and Barney decide to open their own detective agency and become dupes for a gang of mobster bank robbers. 

Fickle music fans are parodied in "The Girls Night Out" (January 6, 1961) in which Fred becomes an overnight sensation after recording a hipsterized version of "Listen to the Mockingbird" at an amusement park recording booth. After he leaves the record behind, a teenager finds it and forwards it to a record executive. When the record company finds Fred's true identity, a Svengali figure named The Colonel (modeled after Elvis' Colonel Tom Parker) transforms Fred into Hi Fye and launches a nationwide tour. Wilma soon grows tired of the rigors of touring and even though The Colonel assures her that Fred's fame won't last, she decides to end things right away by blowing his cover and telling his fans that he is really a square, which sends them off in search of the next insta-star. The music business gets another ribbing in the first episode of Season 2, "The Hit Songwriters" (September 15, 1961), in which Hoagy Carmichael plays himself and helps the boys write a song based on Fred's signature phrase "Yabba Dabba Do" after the boys' first attempt, a blatant rip-off of "Stardust," is rejected by a music publisher. Carmichael injects a note of realism into the plot when he tells Fred that only 1 out of every 5,000 song written becomes a hit, advice that doesn't seem to deter Fred until Wilma puts her hand over his mouth to quash any further attempt to collaborate with Barney on new songs.

Movie stars are also fair game in "The Rock Quarry Story" (October 20, 1961) in which movie star Rock Quarry (i.e., Hudson) grows tired of being hounded by adoring fans and decides to go incognito to experience real life. At first he is thrilled with the novelty of bowling and shooting pool with Fred and Barney, who never recognize him since he uses his birth name of Gus Schultz. However, after the novelty wears off, Quarry can't seem to convince anyone that he really is a movie star until he fortunately runs into his boss and is returned to the fans he was tired of just a few days before. While The Flintstones' producers were fond of poking fun at the fickleness of fans and the elusiveness of fame, perhaps they were hedging their bets against their own popularity, which they knew too well had an inevitable expiration date. Still, what they accomplished in keeping an animated series on prime-time TV for 6 seasons was something unmatched for several decades.

The Actors

For the biographies of Alan Reed, Mel Blanc, Jean Vander Pyl, and Bea Benaderet, see the 1960 post for The Flintstones. For the biography of Daws Butler, see the 1960 post for Rocky and His Friends. For the biography of Hal Smith, see the 1961 post for The Andy Griffith Show.

John Stephenson

Hailing from Kenosha, Wisconsin, John Winfield Stephenson first took up acting while attending small Ripon College before matriculating to the University of Wisconsin to study law. His studies were interrupted by World War II during which he served in the U.S. Army Air Force and earned a Distinguished Service Cross. After the war he attended Northwestern University, where he earned a master's degree in speech and drama and worked in Chicago radio. After visiting Chicago friends in Hollywood, he found work out west on the radio shows It's Always Sunday and The Count of Monte Cristo. He then became the voice for sponsor Philip Morris in introducing episodes of I Love Lucy on television starting in 1951. Soon thereafter he also began appearing in acting roles on various TV shows and in feature films such as Day of Triumph, Strange Lady in Town, and The Looters. He appeared in several episodes of the TV drama Treasury Men in Action, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and Perry Mason and had a recurring role as Roger Crutcher on the Jackie Cooper series The People's Choice from 1955-58.  His long and prolific career as a voice actor for animated series began with his first appearance on the 11th episode of The Flintstones, "The Gold Champion," which aired on December 9, 1960. In all, he appeared in 73 episodes during the show's 6-year run, most notably as Fred's boss Mr. Slate.

After becoming ensconced at Hanna-Barbera due to his work on The Flintstones, Stephenson was then cast as ladies man Fancy-Fancy on the 1961-62 animated series Top Cat, followed by the role of Dr. Benton C. Quest on Jonny Quest and Colonel Fusby on The Peter Potamus Show. Concurrently he continued appearing in live-action series such as The Real McCoys, The Beverley Hillbillies, Hogan's Heroes, and serving as the episode-ending narrator on Dragnet. But by the late 1960s his voice acting work far surpassed his live-action credits on series such as Young Samson & Goliath, The Wacky Races, The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, and The Adventures of Gulliver. The 1970s were just as busy with work on Where's Huddles?, Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, Help!...It's the Hair Bear Bunch, The Houndcats, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, Inch High Private Eye, Super Friends, Jeannie, Dinky Dog, and The Fantastic Four. The 1980s, likewise, included considerable voice-acting work on The Incredible Hulk, The Dukes, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, The Littles, G.I. Joe, The Smurfs, and The Transformers, to name but a few. He continued to find work in the various Flintstones and Scooby-Doo revivals up until 2010. He contracted Alzheimer's disease a couple of years later and died May 15, 2015 at age 91.

Don Messick

Donald Earl Messick was born in Buffalo, NY, but his family soon thereafter moved to Baltimore before relocating again in rural Maryland. Messick grew up listening to classic radio programs, such as Fibber McGee and Molly and Jack Benny. By age 13 he had developed his own ventriloquist act and two years later landed his own radio program on WBOC in Salisbury, Maryland. After graduating from high school at age 16, he moved back to Baltimore to study acting while living with his grandparents. At age 18 his father was killed in a freak accident when a flagpole he and two other men were taking down came in contact with electrical wires, killing all three men. Soon afterward Messick was drafted into the army and brought along his ventriloquist dummy, replete with an army uniform made by his mother, which got him assigned to Special Services as an entertainer for the troops. After the war, Messick first relocated to San Francisco, where an Army buddy produced a radio program. He then moved to Hollywood and convinced a theatrical agent to represent his ventriloquist act before landing the role of Raggedy Andy on The Raggedy Ann radio show. But after being noticed in a local talent show, he went on tour with a production company doing his ventriloquist act again and then tried it on the east coast before returning west to work on live puppet shows. Once puppet shows began being replaced in theaters by cartoon shows, Messick began introducing himself to the local animation studios, which is where he met William Hanna and Joseph Barbera just as they were about to leave MGM and start their own studio. But before MGM shuttered its animation studio, Messick met Daws Butler, who introduced him to Tex Avery, who eventually hired him to voice Droopy Dog after Bill Thompson left the show. In 1957 when Hanna and Barbera started producing their first made-for-TV animated series, Ruff and Reddy, they hired Messick to voice Ruff and Professor Gizmo and Butler to voice Reddy. The two would be paired in numerous other Hanna-Barbera productions, including The Huckleberry Hound Show as Pixie and Dixie and The Yogi Bear Show with Butler playing Yogi and Messick playing Boo Boo and Ranger Smith. When Hanna-Barbera launched their first prime-time cartoon series with The Flintstones Butler and Messick were again called on to provide a variety of supporting characters.

Messick continued working for Hanna-Barbera during and after The Flintstones' 6-year run, providing various voices on Top Cat, Mr. Twiddles on The New Hanna-Barbera Cartoon Series, taking over for John Stephenson as Dr. Benton C. Quest on Jonny Quest, playing So-So on The Peter Potamus Show, and Mr. Peebles on The Magilla Gorilla Show. When The Flintstones added children to the lineup in 1963, Messick provided the voice of Bamm-Bamm Rubble. He would go on to play Atom Ant, Shag Rugg, and Precious Pupp on The Atom Ant Show, Blip, Bronto, and Zorak on the original Space Ghost, Kaboobie on Shazzan, Vulturo and Falcon 7 on Birdman, Snork, Aramis, and Professor Carter on The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, Dick Dastardly's sidekick dog Muttley on The Wacky Races, Tagg and Eager on The Adventures of Gulliver, Fumbles on Where's Huddles?, and Scooby Doo on Scooby Doo, Where Are You?  In the 1970s he would also provide voices for Josie and the Pussycats, The Houndcats, Inch High Private Eye, Dinky Dog, The Fantastic Four, and Godzilla, to name but a few. The 1980s saw him playing Papa Smurf on The Smurfs as well as appearing in The Transformers, Paw Paws, Foofur, and Pound Puppies along with various specials and reboots of Yogi Bear, Scooby Doo, Jonny Quest, and The Jetsons. He also played a voice actor like himself on the live-action series The Duck Factory in 1984. He continued working until suffering a stroke in 1996, his last credits coming on yet another Jonny Quest revival, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. A second stroke on October 24, 1997 killed him at age 71.

Notable Guest Stars

Because it was an animated series, The Flintstones did not have many guest stars known from other shows, except those listed below.

Season 1, Episode 19, "The Hot Piano": Frank Nelson (shown on the left, see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Jack Benny Program) plays a music store clerk.

Season 1, Episode 20, "The Hypnotist": Howard McNear (see the biography section for the 1961 post on The Andy Griffith Show) plays a veterenarian.

Season 1, Episode 26, "The Good Scout": Lucille Bliss (the voice of Crusader Rabbit on Crusader Rabbit, Smurfette on The Smurfs and various Smurf specials, and Ms. Bitters on Invader ZIM) plays boy scout Hugo.

Season 2, Episode 1, "The Hit Songwriters": Hoagy Carmichael (see the biography section for the 1960 post on Laramie) plays himself.

Season 2, Episode 3, "The Missing Bus": Sandra Gould (Mildred Webster on I Married Joan and Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched) plays schoolgirl's mother Mrs. Gypsum. Pattie Chapman (Miss Duffy on Duffy's Tavern) plays a nurse.

Season 2, Episode 4, "Alvin Brickrock Presents": Elliott Field (shown on the right, the voice of Blabber and the narrator on Quick Draw McGraw) plays archaeologist Alvin Brickrock. 

Season 2, Episode 5, "Fred Flintstone Woos Again": Frank Nelson (see "The Hot Piano" above) plays a hotel clerk. 

Season 2, Episode 7, "The Soft Touchables": Sandra Gould (see "The Missing Bus" above) plays female con artist Dagmar. 

Season 2, Episode 9, "The Little White Lie": Sandra Gould (see "The Missing Bus" above) plays newspaper columnist Daisy Kilgranite. 

Season 2, Episode 10, "Social Climbers": Paula Winslowe (shown on the left, played Martha Conklin on Our Miss Brooks) plays Wilma's high school classmate Emmy Glutzrock. 

Season 2, Episode 11, "The Beauty Contest": Leo DeLyon (the composer on It's a Business and the voice of Spook and Brain on Top Cat) plays gangster Big Louie.