Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Flintstones (1960)

The Flintstones has the distinction of being the first animated situation comedy to air in prime time, shown at 8:30 ET on ABC starting September 30, 1960, an idea considered so novel that Dwight Whitney in the December 31 edition of TV Guide claimed that the show was the exception to the "year's dearth of new entertainment series with anything resembling a new idea." But the show owed a great deal to Jackie Gleason and The Honeymooners, as readily admitted by co-producer William Hanna and just as eagerly denied by his partner Joseph Barbera. Gleason himself noted in a 1986 interview that at the time he had thought about suing Hanna-Barbera for copyright infringement and his lawyers had told him he could probably have the show pulled off the air, but the move would make him very unpopular and he decided not to proceed.

But while the characters Fred and Barney (and to a lesser degree Wilma and Betty) bear more than a passing resemblance to those on The Honeymooners, the show was quite original in its clever depiction of modern technology in stone-age terms. Everything from record players to garbage disposals are recreated using wood, stone, and animals. The irony in these deliberate anachronisms is that the conveniences of the dawning space age are shown as if they had been around for millenia, as if to say that the advances and progress of modern times were in fact reinventions of the wheel. The show also parodied contemporary show-biz personalities, with Cary Grant sound-a-like character Gary Granite in "The Monster of the Tar Pits" (November 4, 1960) and Wilma casually referring to Perry Masonry in another episode.

The humor obviously made the show a hit, ranking 18th overall in the Nielsen ratings for 1960-61, and leading to a 6-year run, a record not equaled by an animated series until The Simpsons decades later. Subsequent attempts by Hanna-Barbera to replicate this success with Top Cat in 1961 and The Jetsons in 1962 lasted only a single season each.

What is most striking in viewing the 14 episodes from 1960 is how thoroughly unlikeable the character of Fred Flintstone is. He is almost always rude and mean to his friend Barney, who is almost always a devoted and true friend (with the possible exception of the few times that he tells Fred bluntly that he is fat). He treats Wilma like a slave, though this is probably typical for the era (the 1960's, that is). He has an over-inflated belief in his own importance and abilities. And he is not above cheating, lying, or causing physical harm to get what he wants. For example, in "The Flintstone Flyer" (September 30, 1960), he attempts to usurp Barney's invention of a flying machine by merely stating that he will be the company president when he made no contribution to the invention nor did Barney ask his help in selling it. In "Hollyrock Here I Come" (December 2, 1960), he tries to use a two-headed coin to cheat Barney and Betty out of a trip to Hollyrock, though Barney is keen to his trickery. The show even acknowledges Fred's boorish character in "The Split Personality" (October 28, 1960), in which Fred is hit on the head with a bottle and is instantly transformed into the perfect husband and the model of refinement as his alter-ego Frederick. To use a more modern comparison, Fred Flintstone is like Homer Simpson with a mean streak and without Homer's endearing cluelessness.

When brainstorming the series, Hanna-Barbera tried other names, The Flagstones and the Gladstones, before settling on The Flintstones, and tried out the characters in other historical and cultural milieu before settling on the stone age as the ideal setting. The DVD release for the first season includes a short excerpt from The Flagstones using differently drawn characters and different voice actors than those in the final production. This pilot or concept short includes a sequence of scenes that would be included, redrawn and re-voiced, in the episode "The Swimming Pool," which was the second episode ever aired, though it was likely completed before the debut episode, "The Flintstone Flyer."

The first season did not include the iconic theme song "The Flintstones" but was introduced with a generic instrumental titled "Rise and Shine," which sounds a lot like the theme song for The Bugs Bunny Show. However, the musical score for many episodes, composed by long-time Hanna-Barbera music director Hoyt Curtin, often contains the melody, subtly rendered, that would later become "The Flintstones" theme song. The opening sequence, accompanied by the "Rise and Shine" theme music, shows Fred driving home from work and parking the car in the garage, then going inside and turning on the TV, obviously the inspiration for the opening sequence of The Simpsons. Starting in Season 3 with the addition of "The Flintstones" theme song, this sequence was changed to show Fred, Wilma, Barney, and Betty going to a drive-in restaurant. Also in the Season 1 opening sequence, when Fred enters the house, Wilma is waiting for him with a plate stacked with food. He grabs the plate while walking past her on his way to the TV, then stops, returns to give her a kiss, before proceeding on to the TV. This little double-take is very reminiscent of the opening sequence for The Donna Reed Show in which Donna gives each family member a sack lunch on their way out the front door, with her husband Alex having to return to give her a peck on the cheek before leaving.

All six seasons have been released on DVD, as well as a complete series package that includes them all.

The Actors

Alan Reed

Born in New York, Reed studied journalism at Columbia University, then found success as a radio announcer and voice actor as well as appearing on Broadway. He began appearing in films in the 40s and had starring roles in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Viva Zapata! (in which he played Pancho Villa), and I, the Jury. In the 50s he also had recurring TV roles as Finnegan on Duffy's Tavern and J.B. Hafter on Mr. Adams and Eve. He also provided the voice for the character Boris in Disney's Lady and the Tramp in 1955. His casting as the voice of Fred Flintstone was no doubt owed to his vocal similarity to Jackie Gleason and his physical resemblance to Flintstone. He came up with the phrase "Yabba Dabba Do," which Fred first utters in the very first episode, "The Flintstone Flyer," but uses sparingly thereafter in the first season. During The Flintstones run and continuing in the later 60s he made occasional appearances on other shows like Batman, Dr. Kildare, and The Addams Family. He died June 14, 1977 at the age of 69.

Jean Van Der Pyl

Born in Philadelphia to Dutch immigrants, Van der Pyl got her start in voice acting with Hanna-Barbera on The Huckleberry Hound Show in 1959 and appeared in two episodes of Quick Draw McGraw before landing the role of Wilma Flintstone. She had a long, prolific tenure with Hanna-Barbera, providing the voice for Pebbles on The Flintstones, Rosie the Robot on The Jetsons, Ma Rugg and Floral Rugg on the Atom Ant and Secret Squirrel shows as well as The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, and Marge Huddles on Where's Huddles?, amongst many others. She also made on-camera appearances on Leave It to Beaver, Petticoat Junction, and The Donna Reed Show. She died April 10, 1999 at age 79.

Mel Blanc

The most famous and prolific cartoon voice actor ever, Portland, Oregon native Blanc not only provided the voice for Barney Rubble but also Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester and Tweety, Porky Pig, Speedy Gonzales, Yosemite Sam, and many more. He was in a near-fatal car accident in January 1961, which put him in a coma. Doctors were able to lead him out of the coma by getting him to respond as some of his cartoon characters, such as Bugs Bunny. When he regained consciousness the production team recorded several episodes of The Flintstones from his hospital room and at his home after he was discharged. However,  he had to be replaced by Daws Butler for five episodes in Season 2. He also developed the voice and laugh of Woody Woodpecker, though he appeared in only the first four Woodpecker films before being signed to an exclusive contract by Looney Tunes' Leon Schlesinger. He later sued Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz for continuing to use his laugh in later films without compensation. His rare on-screen appearances included numerous characters on The Jack Benny Show and as Dr. Sheldrake in Billy Wilder's 1964 feature Kiss Me, Stupid. He also provided the voice for various birds on non-animated TV shows, including The Raven on The Munsters and various parrots and mynah birds on Perry Mason, Burke's Law, and Gilligan's Island. He died July 10, 1989 at age 81. His tombstone reads, "That's all, folks!"

Bea Benaderet

Born in New York and raised in San Francisco, Benaderet began doing voice work on radio at age 12 and was given a regular role on Campbell's Playhouse by Orson Welles. She continued doing radio voice work as well as a number of film shorts, including Looney Tunes cartoons, throughout the 40s and into the 50s. In 1950, she transitioned to television when she was cast as Blanche Morton on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. She was offered the role of Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy but had to turn it down because of her contract with the Burns and Allen show. She provided the voice for Mother Magoo on the Mister Magoo TV show before being cast as the voice of Betty Rubble on The Flintstones, which she continued for the first four seasons, thereafter replaced by Gerry Johnson. After appearing in 290 episodes of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, she appeared as the character Wilma on Peter Loves Mary in 1960-61 and Cousin Pearl Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies before appearing as Kate Bradley on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. She died October 13, 1968 at age 62, while Petticoat Junction was still on the air.

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 5, "The Split Personality": Howard McNear (Floyd Lawson on The Andy Griffith Show and Jansen the Plumber on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show) plays a doctor called in to examine Fred after he is hit on the head with a bottle.

Season 1, Episode 13, "The Drive-In": Hal Smith (Otis Campbell on The Andy Griffith Show and Engineer Taurus on Space Angel) plays a butcher and the M.C. at the Rockadero nightclub.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Johnny Staccato (1960)

Like much of his work in mainstream cinema and television, Johnny Staccato represented an opportunity for budding film trailblazer John Cassavetes to earn enough money to help fund his independent efforts. The show, a 30-minute private detective drama that first aired on NBC, seems like a direct rip-off of the more popular Peter Gunn, with Staccato set in New York and featuring the edgy Cassavetes in contrast to Gunn's L.A. backdrop and the laconic Craig Stevens in the titular role. Both shows feature a jazz soundtrack with regular appearances by real-life jazz stars and are often set in a jazz club that serves as home base for the respective private eyes--Peter Gunn hangs out at Mother's; Johnny Staccato, a jazz pianist who turned to private detective work when he realized he would never make it big in music, crashes at Waldo's, run by his elder friend of the same name.

But true to his independent streak, Cassavetes' Staccato is more of a lone wolf than Gunn--there is no Edie to come home to. And even though Staccato has a pretty young thing dangling on his arm at the beginning of some episodes, she is never a developed character, often not mentioned in the credits, more of an accessory than a living human being. The members of the police force Staccato deals with on a regular basis are a rotating cast of characters, while Gunn develops a friendly, though occasionally strained, relationship with Lt. Jacoby The other primary difference between the two series is that Gunn ran for three full seasons, 114 episodes, and was the defining role in Stevens' career (after the series ended he played the same character in the feature-length film Gunn in 1966), whereas Staccato ran for a single abbreviated season, 27 episodes (16 of which aired in 1959, the last 11 in 1960), and was only a payday for Cassavetes. Cassavetes also had a little more creative control in his series, even directing a few episodes, but reportedly grew irate when an episode about drug use was canceled and thereafter complained in the press about the producers and sponsors in the hopes of being let go.

As crime dramas go, it's no better or worse than others of the era. It's easy to imagine that Cassavetes must have bristled when forced to play in tired plots like that in "Double Feature" (January 28, 1960), in which Staccato has an evil doppelganger whose crimes land Staccato in jail. Or in "The Only Witness" (January 14, 1960), in which the sister of the murder victim turns out to have been the one who plotted the murder. In the last two episodes, the show also tried to broach political issues: in "A Nice Little Town" (March 10, 1960), Staccato is called to a friend's small hometown to help investigate the murder of her brother, who was a Korean War P.O.W. who succumbed to torture and was thereafter branded a communist. And in "Swinging Long Hair," Staccato befriends and tries to help an Eastern European defector who plays classical piano and is on the run from assassins sent from his home country. However, this last episode surprisingly seems to conflate the feelings of Cassavetes and Staccato when the latter utters his final monologue, "Killing. I kill; they kill. It seems it never ends. Now the bald-headed man has to be found, and someone will kill him. But not me, I've had it." Cassavetes had had his fill of formulaic crime dramas with their quota of dead bodies and ambiguous political statements.  He had his own chapter on American film to write.

The soundtrack for the series was written and conducted by the great Elmer Bernstein, one of the most prolific and gifted soundtrack composers of the 20th century. Bernstein wrote soundtracks to literally hundreds of films, received an Academy Award for the score to Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967, and was nominated a total of 14 times. Other well-known scores he composed included The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Ghostbusters. Johnny Staccato, along with the Darren McGavin-Burt Reynolds vehicle Riverboat, were his first television soundtracks, both of which aired during the 1959-60 season. Before Staccato he had cut his teeth in the crime jazz genre with the scores for The Man With the Golden Arm(1955) and The Sweet Smell of Success(1957). He passed away at age 82 on August 18, 2004.

The Actors

John Cassavetes

Cassavetes was born in New York City to Greek immigrants but spent his early years with his family in Greece before returning to New York at age 7. After high school, he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and graduated in 1950. After small parts in films and TV, he began running his own workshop out of which grew his first film Shadows, which appeared in its initial form in 1957 and its final form in 1959. After his brief tenure as Johnny Staccato, he continued making guest appearances on TV shows and appeared in various studio films, such as The Dirty Dozen in 1967, which garnered and Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and Rosemary's Baby in 1968. From 1968 to 1977 he directed the films Faces starring his wife Gena Rowlands, Husbands with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, A Woman Under the Influence, for which Rowlands was nominated for Best Actress, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with Gazzara, and Opening Night, again with Rowlands. He continued directing and occasionally acting into the 1980s but died February 3, 1989 from cirrhosis of the liver at age 59.

Eduardo Ciannelli

Ciannelli was born in Naples, Italy and originally trained to be a doctor but gave it up to sing opera as a baritone. He moved to American after World War I and began singing in Broadway musicals. He began appearing in American films in the 1930s, and his credits include Gunga Din, Foreign Correspondent, The Mummy's Hand, and Gilda. In the 1950s he appeared in a number of Italian films and began appearing on American TV shows beginning with I Love Lucy in 1956. Playing Waldo on Johnny Staccato was his only regular TV role, but he appeared as the character Pappas three times on Dr. Kildare and played Arturo "Fingers" Stilletto in two episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He also continued appearing in feature-length films up until his death in 1969 at age 80.

Notable Guest Stars

Season 1, Episode 17, "The Man in the Pit": Pete Candoli (real-life west-coast jazz trumpeter) plays jazz trumpeter Pete Millikan. Norman Fell (Det. Meyer Meyer on 87th Precinct, Sgt. Charles Wilentz on Dan August, and Stanley Roper on Three's Company and The Ropers) plays theatre manager Bill Lentz. Nita Talbot (Marya on Hogan's Heroes, Judy Evans on Here We Go Again, Delfina on General Hospital, and Rose on Starting From Scratch) plays showgirl Narcissa.

Season 1, Episode 18, "The Only Witness": Garry Walberg (Sgt. Edward Goddard on Peyton Place, Speed on The Odd Couple, and Lt. Frank Monahan on Quincy, M.E.)  plays police Sgt. Sullivan. Geraldine Brooks (Angela Dumpling on The Dumplings) plays Karen Buford, whose brother is murdered. Frank London (Charlie on Peyton Place) in a recurring role plays Staccato's stoolie Shad.

Season 1, Episode 19, "Night of Jeopardy": Frank De Kova (Chief Wild Eagle on F Troop and Louis Campagna on The Untouchables) plays counterfeiter Eddie Waynewright. Mario Gallo (Tomaso Delvecchio on Delvecchio) plays Waynewright's confidant Dave Roman. Frank London (see "The Only Witness" above) reappears as Shad.

Season 1, Episode 20, "Double Feature": John Marley (starred in Cat Ballou, Love Story, and The Godfather)) plays harassed business owner Oliver Keely. Bert Freed (Rufe Ryker on Shane) plays police Sgy. Joe Gillen. Frank London (see "The Only Witness" above) reappears as Shad.

Season 1, Episode 21, "The List of Death": Paul Stewart (starred in Citizen Kane and Champion) plays dying thief Joe Alieto. Monica Lewis (real-life jazz/pop vocalist) plays singer Millie Collins. Charles Seel (Mr. Krinkie on Dennis the Menace and Tom Pride on The Road West) plays mob informant Blind Willie. Lewis Charles (Lou on The Feather and Father Gang) plays mobster Charlie Taxi. Maxine Stuart (Maureen on Norby, Ruth Burton on Room for One More, Mrs. Hewitt on Peyton Place, Marge Newberry on Executive Suite, Amanda Earp on The Rousters, and Eleanor "Gram" Rutledge on The Pursuit of Happiness) plays Alieto's former girlfriend Velma Dean. Wally Brown (Chauncey Kowalski on The Roaring '20's) plays police Sgt. Baker.

Season 1, Episode 22, "Solomon": Cloris Leachman (Ruth Martin on Lassie and Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis) plays professed pacifist Jessica Winthrop, accused of murdering her husband. Elisha Cook, Jr. (starred in The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Great Gatsby (1949), and The Killing and who played Francis "Ice Pick" Hofstetler on Magnum P.I.) plays her defense attorney Solomon Bradshaw.

Season 1, Episode 24, "An Angry Young Man": Warren Berlinger (Larry on The Joey Bishop Show, Walter Bradley on A Touch of Grace, Chief Engineer Dobritch on Operation Petticoat, and Herb on Too Close for Comfort) plays angry young man Carl Humboldt. Sig Ruman (starred in A Night at the Opera, To Be or Not to Be, House of Frankenstein, and Stalag 17) plays his father Otto. Arthur Batanides (Sgt. Sam Olivera on Johnny Midnight) plays bookseller Louis Sacorro.

Season 1, Episode 25, "The Mask of Jason": Mary Tyler Moore (Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary Brenner on Mary, and Annie McGuire on Annie McGuire) plays beauty contestant Bonny Howard. Vito Scotti (Jose on The Deputy, Capt. Gaspar Fomento on The Flying Nun, and Mr. Velasquez on Barefoot in the Park) plays her manager Carlos. Bert Remsen (Mr. Pell on Gibbsville, Mario on Making a Living, and Jack Crager on Jack Crager on Dynasty) plays disfigured Jason Eldridge.

Season 1, Episode 26, "A Nice Little Town": Christine White (Abigail Adams on Ichabod and Me) plays Staccato's friend in trouble Royal Purvis. Glenn Cannon (Manicote on Hawaii Five-O) plays her brother Joe. Rayford Barnes (Ike Clanton on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp) plays local war hero Ray Farragut.

Season 1, Episode 27, "Swinging Long Hair": George Voskovec (starred in 12 Angry Men, The Iron Mistress, and The Iceman Cometh and who played Peter Skagska on Skag and Fritz Brenner on Nero Wolfe) plays Eastern Bloc defector and classical pianist Stanley Kaye. Real-life musicians Fred Katz, Paul Horn, and John Pisano play themselves.