Saturday, November 11, 2023

The Bullwinkle Show (1962)


Despite being moved into a 7:00 prime-time slot by NBC in an attempt to cash in on the sudden interest in "adult-oriented" cartoons like The Flintstones, The Bullwinkle Show could not crack the top 30 in the ratings because it was scheduled opposite the more popular Lassie. This caused friction between the network and Bullwinkle producer Jay Ward as well as the show's sponsor General Mills. The always irreverent Ward also antagonized NBC by ridiculing its push for more color TV sets, telling children viewers to pull the knobs off their TV sets in the show's opening Bullwinkle hand-puppet skits, and in several of his relentless publicity stunts, one of which took place outside the offices of rival CBS. The ongoing feud between network and producer even generated  a feature story about the skirmish in the August 11 issue of TV Guide, which probably counted as a win for Ward who considered any publicity--good or bad--a victory.

However, Ward seemed more devoted to his publicity stunts and side projects, like commercials for Quaker Oats, than he was on actually producing his television program. He sent out a weekly newsletter to some 2000 industry insiders (including FCC Chairman Newton Minnow, who was a big fan) offering spurious movie and TV production deals and staged numerous public stunts, such as sending missionary-clad actors to the CBS building urging pedestrians to repent and watch The Bullwinkle Show, holding an elaborate "picnic" for media contacts in the ballroom of the swank Plaza Hotel, and leasing a tiny island in the Lake of the Woods, dubbing it Moosylvania--Bullwinkle's birthplace, and launching a petition for statehood for the island. Needless to say, all of these activities consumed a great deal of time and money and didn't have any impact on the show's ratings. Executive producer Peter Piech also felt they were unnecessary because the show's sponsor was powerful enough to keep it on the air. TV Guide also covered Ward's publicity antics in a feature story in the January 20, 1962 issue, which ended with this warning: "It's all very funny and fine. There's only one thing that should be worrying Ward and [Bill] Scott. People may decide that Bullwinkle Moose isn't as funny there on the screen as he is in his [publicity] handouts." In a sense, Ward had ironically become like Boris Badenov in the 1961 story arc, "The Last Angry Moose," an entertainment promoter whose every move is to promote himself rather than his client.

The warning proved to be spot-on because the 1962 episodes, which comprise the end of Season 3, all of Season 4, and the beginning of Season 5, seem to trod the same ground as those from earlier years, and if anything have less satiric bite. There are the usual, by now tired, digs at the U.S. Congress in the "Topsy Turvy World" story arc in which Bullwinkle is able to keep their fuel-empty airplane aloft by reading from The Congressional Record into a tube that connects to the fuel tank, thereby supplying the plane with sufficient hot air, and in the "Goof Gas Attack" story arc where Rocky and Bullwinkle decide that the nefarious agent turning the nation's top minds into babbling idiots will have no effect on politicians because they are already goofy enough.

Many of the other stories are based around Boris and Fearless Leader's attempt to take over the world or, at the least, degrade America, or around Boris's vow to himself to eliminate all goody-goodies like Rocky and Bullwinkle, as he espouses in the opening segment of "The Guns of Abalone" (June 29, 1962), which is essentially saying the rationale for the story is because he is a bad guy and Rocky and Bullwinkle are good guys. This story illustrates how empty the Bullwinkle formula had become by this point, because while the title is an obvious spoof of the then-popular feature film The Guns of Navarone, the plot is a simple attempt by Boris to kill Rocky and Bullwinkle that fails when he turns all the guns on each other with Rocky and Bullwinkle in the middle, who simply bend down to avoid being hit, and the guns end up blowing each other up. Ironically, the title for the third segment of this thankfully short story arc is "I'm All Out of Bullets." "Bumbling Brothers Circus" is another story arc based simply on Boris trying to kill Bullwinkle, in this case by disguising himself as a lion tamer who initially plans to turn loose his most vicious lion. The previously mentioned "Topsy Turvy World" starts out like a seemingly prescient prediction of climate change but turns into a ploy for Boris to impersonate Santa Claus so that he can easily rob every house in the world on Christmas Eve. Likewise, "Treasure of Monte Zoom" (July 10, 1962) is predicated on a simple theft with Boris trying to recover the buried treasure of a deceased race car driver from the bottom of a lake. This story re-uses the gag of Boris as shady used car dealer seen earlier in an installment of Mr. Know-It-All in 1961. The aforementioned "Goof Gas Attack" depicts Boris and Fearless Leader trying to take over the U.S. missile program by turning all the nation's scientists into babbling idiots. The story includes a gentle dig at mindless TV programs by having one addle-brained egghead addicted to watching the sit-com Pete and Gladys, though he also admits that his favorite part of the show is the commercials. And "Banana Formula" has Boris and Fearless Leader trying to steal the secret formula for a silent explosive that Bullwinkle has ingested when it was written on a banana. This story has another mild TV-related barb when Boris disguises himself as host of Candied Camera Allen Fink and asks Bullwinkle to speak into a giant lollipop with a hidden camera, telling what he ate an hour ago so that he will recite the Hush-a-Boom formula he just ate on a banana. These passing references to current TV fare seem more like winks to a knowing audience than any kind of substantial satire. Some story arcs name-drop contemporary little-known TV series such as Thriller and Cain's Hundred, while other pop culture allusions are even more obscure, such as a mention of the early 1950s TV series Martin Kane in "Topsy Turvy World," 1940s popular singer Ella Mae Morse in "The Guns of Abalone," and a parody of the TV series Zorro (which had ended in 1959) in the story arc "Mucho Loma." Making fun of a TV show that has been off the air for 3 years is hardly cutting-edge comedy. While Ward and Scott largely depict pop culture as a vast wasteland (to borrow a phrase from the FCC chairman mentioned above), these in-jokes expect the viewer to have committed the minutiae of this wasteland to memory in order to get the humor.

One of the show's better satires of current TV fare is the Aesop & Son segment about a frightened rabbit (which in the DVD release is included between episodes 3 and 4 of "Mucho Loma") who is advised by a frog to develop a gimmick to intimidate anyone who might challenge him, just as Bat Masterson has his cane and The Rifleman has his repeating rifle. Being a rabbit he is able to wiggle his ears upon command, and for some inexplicable reason, this unnerves other more ferocious animals. Granted, making fun of TV westerns was a common comic trope in the early 1960s because the TV landscape was overrun with them. And this multitude made it necessary for show creators to come up with a different angle to make their show stand out from all the others, which is what eventually gave us, for example, Frontier Circus. What's surprising is that Ward and Scott didn't mock this series, as it seems tailor-made for their brand of humor and could have been a much funnier story than the rather tame "Bumbling Brothers Circus" story arc.

Easily the best Rocky and Bullwinkle story of 1962 is "Painting Theft" in which Boris and Natasha steal 10 old master paintings from a French museum and decide to hide them in Frostbite Falls, where they fall into the hands of Bullwinkle who first uses them to decorate his chicken coop and then whitewashes them when they seem to upset his chickens. The art world is another topic ripe for ridicule, and many other shows of the era take their jabs at it, though usually at "modern art" as something that any unskilled hack could produce. When Boris shows up incognito to reclaim his stolen paintings, he has to bargain with Bullwinkle to buy them back, but Rocky becomes suspicious of his initial offer and decides to have some art experts appraise them to ensure that Boris is offering a fair price. Initially, the critics are unimpressed, until Boris, in a panic that someone else may snatch his stolen masterpieces, keeps increasing his offer. Given that somebody is willing to pay a reasonable price suddenly makes the paintings valuable to the critics, who immediately claim Bullwinkle is a new genius in the world of art. Ward and Scott have exposed the art market's real motivation--profit--in assigning value to works of art (think Banksy's recent mockumentary Exit Through the Giftshop), and the outsize role that such "critics" have in determining which artists are true visionaries and which are hacks.

This story, like many others in the series, also demonstrates Ward and Scott's anti-authority beliefs. The fact that Captain "Wrong Way" Peachfuzz keeps turning up as a high-ranking government agent, as in "Topsy Turvy World," and wisecracks like the term "military intelligence" is a contradiction further illustrate this view, while the heroes of the show are ordinary citizens of the midwest who aren't very bright and are easily misled. But the cynicism runs even deeper as many episodes from 1962 have Bullwinkle and Rocky commenting on the fact that they are cartoon heroes and therefore have to behave a certain way even if it makes no sense. In short, no one seems to have a clue about anything, which, depending on your point of view, could be hilarious or deeply depressing. However, no matter how dark things may seem, there is always Dudley Do-Right to cheer us up. Despite the other segments of the show becoming more watered-down and repetitive, the Dudley Do-Right segments always seem fresh and funny, perhaps because they are more rare--he appears in only about 1 out of every 4 episodes. It's possible more Dudley and less Peabody, Fractured Fairy Tales, and Aesop & Son would have made The Bullwinkle Show a bigger hit. In 1969 the Dudley Do-Right segments were repackaged with segments of "The World of Commander McBragg," "Tooter Turtle," and "The Hunter" and billed as The Dudley Do-Right Show. It ran only 13 episodes and contained no new Dudley Do-Right material, still leaving us wanting more.

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.

Notable Guest Stars

Season 5, Episode 2 "A Red Letter Day": Julie Bennett (voiced Cindy Bear on The Yogi Bear Show, Yogi's Gang, and The New Yogi Bear Show, Lois Lane on The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure, Kitty Jo and Chessie on Cattanooga Cats, Lady Constance and Queen Anne on The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, Monica on Dinky Dog, and Aunty May Parker on Spider-Man: The Animated Series) voices the fisherman's wife on Fractured Fairy Tales.


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