Monday, May 1, 2023

Top Cat (1962)


Just as the premise for Top Cat was unoriginal--being based on the popular Phil Silvers 1950s sit-com You'll Never Get Rich--the Top Cat series itself failed to display any originality or evolution in the episodes that aired in 1962 versus those from 1961. Top Cat continues trying to scheme his way to riches but always finds a way to miss out. In the 1961 episode "The Maharajah of Pookejee" he throws away a ruby, believing it to be fake before later learning that it was genuine; in the 1962 episode "The Grand Tour" (January 31, 1962) he and the gang discover a chest of ancient Dutch doubloons in a condemned building but are forced to turn them over to the police commissioner because the building belongs to the city, and when they return to the building hoping to find even more treasure, Benny sneezes, causing the building to collapse and thereby prevent any further treasure hunting. Officer Charlie Dibble continues to be outwitted by Top Cat, such as handcuffing himself to a trash can in "King for a Day" (March 14, 1962) after Top Cat asks him what he would do if he apprehended one criminal but then got a call to go after a second one. And despite their differences Top Cat and gang are really fond of Dibble and vice versa, as Dibble describes their relationship akin to a marriage in "Dibble Breaks the Record" (March 28, 1962) saying that he can't live with them and he can't live without them while inviting them to accompany him on his vacation. Dibble also goes soft again when he thinks Top Cat is dying in "The Late T.C." (February 21, 1962), just as in the 1961 episode "Top Cat Falls in Love." Speaking of romance, we have another 1962 infatuation episode involving Choo-Choo in "Choo-Choo Goes Gaga" (March 7, 1962) where he falls for gold-digging Hollywood actress Lola Glamour (obviously based on Zsa Zsa Gabor), just as he does for Parisian kitten Goldie in the 1961 episode "Choo-Choo's Romance." And then there is the return of Don Messick's hyena-laughing canine Griswald--the prototype for Dick Dasterdly's later sidekick Muttley-- in the 1962 episode "Griswald" (April 11, 1962), first seen in the 1961 episode "The Missing Heir." Added to this are the casual digs at The Untouchables in "The Case of the Absent Anteater" (January 10, 1962) and "Dibble Sings Again" (April 4, 1962), and it's clear that the series couldn't even make it through a single season without repeating itself.

There are a couple of episodes, however, that stand out above the usual rehashed plots and borrowed stories. "Space Monkey" (February 14, 1962) depicts the then-current inhumane practice of shooting animals into space to measure any harm they might incur in order to use this information for later sending humans into orbit. When Choo-Choo reads Top Cat a newspaper article about the luxurious accommodations afforded to space monkey Marvo, Top Cat sees it as an opportunity for he and his gang to lead the good life, so they travel to space agency headquarters and apply to take part in the space program themselves. They quickly learn that the newspaper article was all propaganda--the accommodations are spartan, not luxurious, and Marvo himself wants only to return to his family in Africa, not become a space pioneer. Top Cat has to use all his wits to avoid being shot into orbit himself, and the story has a happy ending in that Marvo survives and appears to have landed in Africa after orbiting the earth, eventually finding his way back to his family. But the cruelty of subjecting animals to testing to benefit humans is a topic that can't simply be swept under the carpet by a laugh track.

The other standout episode is "Dibble's Birthday" (February 28, 1962) because it is the one in which Top Cat's gang stands up to him and makes him do the right thing. When Top Cat overhears Dibble talking to the Sergeant about his requirement to go in for a physical since his birthday is coming up, Top Cat hatches a plan to get all the local merchants to chip in free merchandise for the policeman who protects their precinct. Only Top Cat has no intention of actually giving the donated gifts to Dibble; instead, he plans to hock them for his own financial gain. But all the other members of his gang refuse to go along, insisting that the gifts actually be given to Dibble, whom they genuinely appreciate. This is not the only time they overrule their leader: in "T.C. Minds the Baby" Benny finds a baby in a picnic basket left on the doorstep of an abandoned building. Top Cat at first decides to leave the baby on the doorstep of the nearby McGillicuddy home, but after hearing how overwhelmed the mother is with the many children she already has, he thinks they should turn the baby over to the local orphanage until Benny pulls on his heart strings by saying he was raised in an orphanage and though his physical needs were taken care of he never got enough love. While the comic trope of bachelors caring for a baby had been played for laughs decades before Hanna & Barbera borrowed it, it rarely in real life is the best environment for raising a baby, so in this case Top Cat has the right idea in giving the baby up to the authorities but is worn down by his gang's sentimentality. Eventually Dibble learns about the baby and confiscates it, after which it is reunited with its mother, who now regrets abandoning it. However, both episodes demonstrate that Top Cat's power relies solely on his gang's acquiescence. And given how unsuccessful he is in his many money-making schemes, no matter how clever they appear, one wonders why the gang continues to follow his orders.

Despite their success with The Flintstones, Hanna-Barbera failed to repeat their success with Top Cat. According to Joe Barbera's 1994 autobiography, My Life in 'Toons, he and Hanna made a couple of mis-steps early on that almost sunk Top Cat before it ever got on the air. The first was in originally casting feature film star Michael O'Shea as Top Cat due to his suave on-screen persona. Even though O'Shea seemed perfect in rehearsals, when it came to actually taping the episodes, he could not handle the rapid pace of the dialogue and eventually had to be replaced by Arnold Stang. The second mistake was in focusing too much on the dialogue at the expense of visuals, which he did not realize until Screen Gems executive John Mitchell viewed some of the first seven episodes and asked Barbera where were the laughs, meaning there were none of the typical sight gags found in cartoons. Barbera realized that Mitchell was right and had to have those early episodes revised to include the brand of humor viewers were used to seeing in cartoons. Unfortunately, while Mitchell may have been correct about cartoon viewers' expectations, many of the sight-gag sequences in Top Cat do appear tacked on with no real relevance to the story. While Hanna and Barbera may have considered Top Cat their most sophisticated cartoon creation, all one has to do is compare it to The Bullwinkle Show to see what true cartoon sophistication looks like.

The Actors

For the biographies of Arnold Stang, Maurice Gosfield, Leo de Lyon, Marvin Kaplan, and Allen Jenkins, see the 1961 post for Top Cat. For the biography of John Stephenson, see the 1961 post for The Flintstones. For the biography of Paul Frees, see the biography section for the 1960 post on Rocky and His Friends.

Notable Guest Stars

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

Season 1, Episode 16, "The Case of the Absent Anteater": Don Messick (see the biography section for the 1961 post on The Flintstones) plays a costume shop clerk.

Season 1, Episode 17, "T.C. Minds the Baby": Jean Vander Pyl (shown on the near left, see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Flintstones) plays the found baby and overwhelmed mother Mrs. McGillicuddy.

Season 1, Episode 18, "Farewell, Mr. Dibble": Don Messick (shown on the right, see "The Case of the Absent Anteater" above) plays new policeman Officer Ernest Prowler.

Season 1, Episode 20, "The Golden Fleecing": Sallie Jones (shown on the left, played Mona McKenzie on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) plays nightclub singer Honeydew Mellon. Bea Benaderet (see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Flintstones) plays Fancy-Fancy's girlfriend Julie.

Season 1, Episode 21, "Space Monkey": Herb Vigran (shown on the right, appeared in Susan Slept Here, Dragnet, The Candidate, and Benji, played Muley Evans on The Life of Riley, Ernest Hinshaw on The Ed Wynn Show, and Judge Brooker on Gunsmoke, and voiced Glum on The Adventures of Gulliver and Mr. Dinkle on Shirt Tales) plays the space agency Lab Director. Walker Edmiston (Enik on Land of the Lost and voiced Dr. Blinkey and Orson Vulture on H.R. Pufnstuf, Admiral Scuttlebutt, Bela, and Big Chief Sitting Duck on Lidsville, Sebastian on Dumbo's Circus, and Sir Thornberry on Adventures of the Gummi Bears) plays his assistant Bernie.

Season 1, Episode 22, "The Late T.C.": Bea Benaderet (see "The Golden Fleecing" above) plays Fancy-Fancy's party guest.

Season 1, Episode 23, "Dibble's Birthday": Bea Benaderet (see "The Golden Fleecing" above) plays Fancy-Fancy's girl friend.

Season 1, Episode 24, "Choo-Choo Goes Gaga": Jean Vander Pyl (see "T.C. Minds the Baby" above) plays movie star Lola Glamour. Bea Benaderet (shown on the left, see "The Golden Fleecing" above) plays her maid Fifi.

Season 1, Episode 25, "King for a Day": Bea Benaderet (see "The Golden Fleecing" above) plays Fancy-Fancy's girl friend and the TV station receptionist.

Season 1, Episode 28, "Dibble Sings Again": Bea Benaderet (see "The Golden Fleecing" above) plays a TV studio receptionist.

Season 1, Episode 29, "Griswald": Don Messick (see "The Case of the Absent Anteater" above) plays police dog Griswald.

Season 1, Episode 30, "Dibble's Double": Don Messick (see "The Case of the Absent Anteater" above) plays master thief Al the Actor. Bea Benaderet (see "The Golden Fleecing" above) provides the old lady's voice and plays a Lady's Club member. Jean Vander Pyl (see "T.C. Minds the Baby" above) plays another Lady's Club member.