Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Profit of Living in the Past

Social media has created this wonderful yet frightening enigma. It has allowed us to relive our past, revel in our history, learn new facts about those things we loved, discover truths that were hidden, and immerse ourselves in the long forgotten but easily accessible.

Although I have been away from my “retro” blog for awhile, I have posted quite frequently on my Facebook page various you tube clips and general minutiae related to those things I hold dear from the sixties and seventies. TV shows, movies, cartoons, comic books and related toys. With so many of the players of the day passing on this year, the tribute clips and quips have been frequent.

One of my Facebook friends, who is a professional in the cartoon/collecting business, recently posted a photo of a frame tray puzzle of a television cartoon that I had acquired as a child and still lives in my nostalgia crate in storage. Seeing that picture created a swell of joy that is very difficult to mimic in anything current regarding media or merchandising. Many of the commenters, probably baby boomers themselves, share that feeling, that bliss that occurs when those simple yet colorful and creative visions appear.

Switching suddenly, I will say that I also have an avid appreciation for all things seventies, especially television and film. This includes media I watched and didn’t really understand, media I loved and completely got, and media that I completely missed.

Growing up in the seventies was a wonderful thing for a kid hooked on TV. You had two things going on. (And you must remember: we had three networks and a public station…some cities had an independent station for reruns or syndicated programming).

First you had repeats of series from the sixties. Among these reruns (usually appearing in early afternoons before the news and on weekends) were all the escapist sitcoms, westerns and action series that were popular during the “Mad Men” era. A lot of these have been remade into mediocre big budget feature films to appease the boomer crowd. These series were broadcast during the sixties. The Vietnam war, history-changing political assassinations, riots, a growing counterculture, a nation re-examing itself.

But prime time television countered with the escapist escapades of hillbillies, witches, spies, and cowboys. The best American television came from the witty pre-Saturday morning cartoons from the early part of the decade or the quality anthologies of drama and suspense (see “Twilight Zone”) And occasionally, there were still repeats from the fifties mostly of “I Love Lucy” and “Perry Mason” and the Beav.

The second thing happening was the revolution in prime time. When CBS decided to “cut down all the trees” and de-ruralize still-popular yet tired programming, they created the golden age of television. While Lucy was still plugging along with the sort-of modern Bradys, Norman Lear and Mary Tyler Moore were the kings of comedy, offending and enlightening with the best comedy writing and acting since Dick Van Dyke ruled the sixties with premium laughs. So with the Vietnam War drawing to a slow close, changes borne in the sixties crystallizing into a new climate on civil and gender rights, Watergate creating a new cynicism in politics, and a postwar economy turning in on itself, the programming didn’t seek to repress but examine current issues. In a thoughtful way.

The latter part of the seventies led to the “t and a” revolution: titillation and innuendo became the standards for adult entertainment, disco replaced the Rat Pack of the variety hours, and crime shows were less gritty and more, well, bouncy. Fortunately, my puberty landed during this time. As I said, it was perfect.

And Walter Cronkite provided the news through both of these decades.

And as I rewatch the original seasons of SNL, I didn’t remember them being THAT subversive. I didn’t remember Barney Miller being THAT incredibly incisive. I didn’t remember Sonny and Cher being THAT hip. But I DO remember Charlie’s Angels being…well, you know.

As for feature films, my parents took me to see the latest Disney comedy or big screen cartoon. Occasionally, a non-Disney offering such as a Pink Panther sequel or Planet of the Apes film would provide a respite from the cotton candy provided by old Walt. Occasionally, I would be privileged enough to encounter a PG film at the multiplex…usually a disaster epic or a Bad News Bears chapter. But the TV networks would show edited versions of the big screen blockbusters. And I remembered seeing these Movie of the Weeks. Choppy pan-and-scan fiascos. I was cheated. As I rewatch these masterpieces now, they are revelations. I dismissed so many of these films because my initial exposure to them was as edited crap and I was too young to understand it anyway. Can you imagine? This was how I first experienced Ashby, Altman, Lumet, Nichols, Friedkin, Pollack, Pakula and early Scorsese, Coppolla, Spielberg, and Depalma. Comedy stylings of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks redacted of bite.

And the other side to that coin are the grind house flicks from the time period. The ones that Quentin Tarantino has championed as massive inspirations. I NEVER, ever heard of most of these. They came to drive-ins or seedy soft-porn houses and were never even shown on television. I know why. As I examine these seedy films now, I see that Corman element: violent sexploitation…the blacksploitation flicks, the gruesome horror flicks with aging ex-film legends, badly filmed sex comedies with cameos from all of the out of work character actors from the sixties sitcoms…were MORE subversive than the shock film of today that only strives to gross out or disgust rather than pierce into the darkest reaches of your psyche. I recently watched “Coffey” with Pam Grier and found more social comment and wry humor wrapped up with the low budget bad action violence and cheesy sex scenes than in most films made today by committee. Quentin was onto something.

Case in point: “Soldier Blue”. Without going into the plot, this 1970 western, starring a young Candice Bergen, was directed by a man who had done lots of television and was never known as an auteur filmmaker. The cover looked non descript. The first part of the film was almost standard Western fare of the time. Beautifully, colorfully shot, cheesy acting, bad makeup, contrived situations, background hippie ballads with cartoony underscores. I imagine that the PG version made for television ended there. But I realized that the Unrated version, the version that warned audiences in London about stomach-churning, the version that US audiences rarely saw, concluded with a gruesome, realistic battle scene that Private Ryan’s opening minutes look tame. What started out as an almost Apple Dumpling Gang family outing morphed into a stupefying gore-fest designed to shock audiences into the reality of war, genocide and discrimination in an age of cultural upheaval. This was no “True Grit”. It was almost Kubrickian.

Speaking of Kubrick, he owned the cinema of this period with his few masterpieces: “Lolita”, “Dr. Strangelove”, “2001”, and “Clockwork Orange”. And Roman Pulanski owned the ennui, with his gut wrenching urban horror sidelining his own twisted near misses with the brutality of Charles Manson. Peter Bogdonavich, who so brilliantly used his Corman sponsored experiments to create one of the most explosive indictments of the simmering violence (a la Charles Whitman) in “Targets” would turn out to be a master film historian, utilizing the new Hollywood to pay tribute, creating new black and white classics among his overblown duds.

Yet Blake Edwards is one of my favorite directors. In the sixties, he was box office king. His original two Pink Panther films, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “The Great Race”, “The Party” and “Operation Petticoat” were, to a kid like myself, colorful slapsticky eye candy. Watching them now, I see the undercurrent of sophistication and a subtle examination of provocative subjects. After the box office failure of “Darling Lili” (with his wife, Julie Andrews..also a BO bonanza with Mary Poppins and Sound of Music), his career hit the skids in the early seventies. Due to the huge popularity of the new Pink Panther sequels in the late seventies, he was able to reestablish his creds and make “10”, answering to Hollywood’s new acceptance of a bawdier yet mature foray into comedies (see “Animal House”). His 1981 film (shot in ’79), “SOB”, remains an annual viewing to me. That film is his F.U. to the Hollywood that spat him out. “SOB” stars his wife, old Hollywood stars and , yes, sitcom stars form the sixties. It looks and feels like one of his sixties farces. And as the main character cajoles his Disney-fied actress wife to go topless in his new feature (to redeem himself)..Edwards has created, what to me, is a film that is a capstone to the entire saga of my boomer TV and film experiences.

And just yesterday, we lost the director Mel Stuart. He directed “Willy Wonka”…the original. I saw it on the big screen in 1971 and memorized the songs (I still have the lp) and reveled in the colors and comedy. But underneath, I remember the fright and terror during that boat ride, the chills of Gene Wilder’s sarcasm and neurosis. Rewatching it as an adult, I realized I was watching something very special. When I realized that Mr. Stuart followed this up with a documentary about the Wattstaxx music festival…interviewing black leaders of the day with hilarious and insightful comments (Richard Pryor among them), delving into the most pressing social commentary of the times, a no holds-bar examination of race relations…it was then that I realized how special the seventies were.

I could branch off into dozens of topics from here regarding the quality of film and television in the seventies, the independence of producers, writers and directors in the day, the ironic affection for the cheesy lunchboxes and comic books and grindhouse previews of the day…it’s all part and parcel of the same dynamic so many fanboy boomer geeks like myself can relate to.

What sometimes seems like “living in the past” is actually another way of appreciating and understanding where we are today. With all of the changes going on in front of us. With no subtlety, no nuanced perspectives, no intelligent discourse. We are hungry for a past than can, and will, inform the future.

Before you decide to spend a week’s paycheck to see a 3D remake of a seventies classic, just watch the original at home.

Before you decide to waste hours of your life in front of the TV watching “reality series”, think about picking up a season of “All in the Family” to see dysfunction reflected with humor and insight rather than noise and brainlessness.

Before you turn on Fox News or MSNBC to engage in the manufactured culture wars, find a documentary from the sixties or seventies…and learn something.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Prime Time Saturday Morning

In the early days of Saturday morning programming, the late fifties and early sixties...the main purpose of the cartoon blocks was to sell toys and cereal. Most of Hanna-Barbera's early output was sponsored by Kelloggs

General Mills and its ad agency created the Total Television catalog. Ideal Toys sponsored mid-sixties HB characters. And there was even a series based on the cereal box characters for Post:

By the time I quit watching Saturday morning cartoons in the late 70's, there was a trend to cross-merchandise toys and video games with the programs. Especially in the 80's. The beginning of the end of the golden age (in my opinion) was "The Smurfs."

In the seventies cartoon producers were hawking corny lessons about safety and civility due to pressure from anti-violence parent organizations. (It is hilarious to think about where that got us....the lack of civility and the ultra-violence and crassness of programs that kids are exposed to now is breathtaking.)
Characters were drawn from comic books (superheroes from DC and Marvel; funnies from Archie and Harvey), pop music (Jackson Five, The Osmonds); sports (Harlem Globetrotters, Muhammed Ali); and real-life showbiz (Jerry Lewis, Mr. T and Gary an angel).

Along those same lines, The New Scooby Doo Movies featured real-life celebrities in animated form helping those meddling kids solve mysteries: Don Knotts, Tim Conway, Dick Van Dyke, Jonathan Winters, Sandy Duncan, Jerry Reed, Sonny and Cher and, believe it or not, this rock music diva: (Aaah, the seventies)

Most of the unoriginal characters were derived from prime time TV shows, however. It is interesting that the TV series that were being hi-jacked for kiddie consumption in the seventies were actually from the sixties and being rerun to death in local syndication. With a few exceptions. Here are examples of cartoon remakes or outright movie parodies during this time period:

The Brady Kids (Filmation, 1972 ABC): Concurrent with the actual run of the parent series, this cartoon found the kids, sans Mike and Carol, having magical adventures with a mystical mynah bird and Chinese-speaking twin panda bears. The actual kids did their own voices the first season. Legal issues kept half of them from returning for the second season.
Thank God for the panda bears.

The Barkleys (Depatie-Freling 1972 NBC): One of my favorites as a kid, this show was a take-off on "All in the Family" as a family of, yes, dogs. Bigoted, outspoken Archie Bunker was replaced by..well, not really bigoted (this was kiddie time) but, yes, outspoken Arnie Barkley and his dysfunctional family of hipsters and hippies and a dingbat spouse. Great theme song.

The Houndcats (Depatie-Freling 1972 NBC): I never really saw this one as such a tie-in but it was marketed as a "Mission Impossible" for kids. Just a bunch of varied animals that listened to a self destructing message.

Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan (Hanna-Barbera 1972 CBS): Extremely Un-PC take on Charlie Chan as he and his horde of children solve crimes and play bad rock songs.

Jeannie (Hanna-Barbera 1973 CBS): This was an update of "I Dream of Jeannie" with a teenage genie and her teenage master. Although he wasn't an astronaut, he was voiced by a future Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

My Favorite Martians (Filmation 1973 CBS): Uncle Martin returns with a nephew who has only one antenna...poor guy. He also had an alien sheepdog. A point of contention with me was how different Detective Brennan looked on the cartoon from the actor in the original series. Well, I mean cartoon Martin didn't look like Ray Walston either, but the animators didn't add a stinking mustache to the character. Yes, I had no life as a child.

Emergency Plus Four (Fred Calvert 1973 NBC): The famous TV paramedics were joined by four kids who somehow didn't get in the way of Gage and Desoto.

The Dogfather (Depatie-Freling 1974, theatrical): Supposedly these theatrical shorts were featured on The Pink Panther Show but I don't remember them: "The Godfather" gang reinvented guessed it...dogs.

The Addams Family (Hanna-Barbera 1973, NBC): Based more on the Charles Addams magazine cartoons than the sitcom, the macabre family toured America in a giant, well, hearse.

Star Trek (Filmation 1973 NBC): This classic animated series, using the actual voices of the original Enterprise crew predated the Star Trek films by five years. Gene Roddenberry actually contributed to the series writing and this cartoon is considered to have some of the best stories according to certain Trekkies.

Lassie's Rescue Rangers (Filmation 1973 ABC): You can tell 1973 was a year bereft of originality. Lassie herself leads a pack of human adventurers as they perform feats of heroism

Partridge Family: 2200 AD (Hanna Barbera 1974 CBS): The rocking family of teen idols is reimagined in the age of The Jetsons. They were really far out this time. I think Ruben Kincaide was replaced by a robot dog.

These Are the Days (Hanna Barbera 1974 ABC): An animated take on "The Waltons." How's that for excitement, kids? And the family dog was not even cute. Snooze.

The New Adventures of Gilligan (Filmation 1974 ABC): As reruns of "Gilligan's Island" were more popular than the actual series was in the sixties, this was a no-brainer. The original cast returned to provide voices as the castaways learned more things...except how to build a boat. Years later, Filmation animated "Gilligan's Planet"...where I think they met the Partridge Family...or the Harlem Globetrotters....or something.

Return to the Planet of the Apes (Depatie-Freling 1975 NBC): Although CBS had a TV series for this franchise in prime time the same year, this cartoon was based more on the popular movie series from the cinema. I would always much rather watch the live actors in makeup than this version. They were actually better animated.

Secret Lives of Waldo Kitty (Filmation 1975 NBC): Based on the "Walter Mitty" character created by Danny Kaye in the movies, this cat (opening in live action sequences) would imagine himself as animated characters from literature in order to save himself from a bad dog.

The Oddball Couple (Depatie-Freling 1975 ABC): Felix and Oscar were reimagined as...drumroll please....a dog and cat. More suprises: The dog was messy and the cat was neat. People were paid to come up with this.

M*U*S*H (Filmation 1975 ABC): This anthropomorphic animal parody of M*A*S*H was a segment on the kiddie show spoof "Uncle Croc's Block." Instead of 1950's Korea, the comic adventures took place in a frozen outpost somewhere. Good call.

Mister Jaw (Depatie Freling 1976 NBC) and Jabberjaw (Hanna-Barbera 1976 ABC): The most popular thing that year was the murderous shark ("Jaws") naturally, let's make him funny and surround him with a rock band. Both Mister Jaw (featured on the Pink Panther show) and Jabberjaw were wiseacres. Lessened the pain when they ate somebody.

Mumbly (Hanna-Barbera 1976 ABC): Part of the Tom and Jerry/Grape Ape Show" the only tie-in here was that the famous Muttley character was now wearing a trenchcoat as a detective. Like "Columbo." His superior was a Kojak lookalike. HB had to change the name of the famous snickering dog because the rights to Muttley were owned by another company.

Baggy Pants and the Nitwits (Depatie Freling 1977 NBC): I could never figure out what the programmers were smoking when they came up with this. One segment featured Charlie Chaplin as a cat. The other segment and animated version of the Ruth Buzzi-Arte Johnson characters from "Laugh-In." I almost decided to start doing drugs as a kid just to understand this one.

Heyyy, It's the King (Hanna-Barbera 1977 NBC): This was the first "Happy Days" ripoff. Featured as a segment on the "CB Bears" show, Fonzie was a lion surrounded by sycophant forest creatures all wearing fifties clothes. And I don't even think it took place in the fifties. Were lions even cool then? Of course they were!

Robonic Stooges (Hanna-Barbera 1977 CBS): Originally, a segment on "The Skatebirds," the Three Stooges were super-robots. And even though they were super and robots they still screwed everything up. I'm sure the new Three Stooges movie coming out will make no reference to this series.

Godzilla Power Hour (Hanna-Barbera 1978 NBC): Based on the Toho Film series, Godzilla was joined by a family of adventurers and the cute little Godzooky.

The sad Garry Marshall troika on ABC with the original if Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Penny Marshall or Robin Williams needed more money at this time in their careers:
Fonz and the Happy Days Gang (Hanna-Barbera 1979): Fonzie and a cuddly dog travel through time with Richie and buddies.
Laverne and Shirley (Hanna-Barbera 1980): The wacky girls join the army (just like they did on the real show) for animated hijinks with a cuddy pig.
Mork and Mindy (Ruby-Spears 1981): I think there was a cuddly space creature added that looked like Conrad Janis.

The Dukes (Hanna-Barbera, 1983 CBS): I had thrown my TV out by now, but this was an animated "Dukes of Hazzard." It may have been better than the movie remake.

Also of note, in 1973 and 1974, ABC featured a cartoon anthology called the Saturday Superstar Movie. Each week featured different characters in adventures, most of them derivative. In addition to the pilots for "Brady Kids" and "Lassie's Rangers", the series featured the animated exploits of "Gidget" (Gidget Makes the Wrong Connection, Hanna-Barbera), the kids from "Bewitched" (Tabitha and the Clown Family, Hanna-Barbera), "That Girl" (That Girl in Wonderland, Rankin-Bass), "The Munsters" (The Mini-Munsters, Fred Calvert), Nanny and the Professor (Fred Calvert); and Lost in Space (Hanna-Barbera).

In the late eighties, SNL and SCTV characters (Martin Short's Ed Grimley and John Candy) were fodder for a lot of programs.

Saturday Mornings are pretty much gone now as a cartoon programming block and cartoons have become more sophisticated (read: ribald) for prime time and cable outlets. But if the old system were still in place with the poorly animated, cutesy infested churn-out, can you imagine what cuddly animals would populate the animated versions of "Breaking Bad", "Sex and the City" or "Mad Men?"