Thursday, September 30, 2010

 

Yabba Dabba Doo!


By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
If William “Bill” Hanna and Joseph “Joe” Barbera had done little else in animation but direct a cat-and-mouse team that answered to Tom and Jerry, that alone would insure their place in The Cartoon Hall of Fame. Teamed together at MGM’s cartoon studio in 1939 and directing their first short, Puss Gets the Boot, a year later — the duo would go on to win for the studio seven Oscars in the field of Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) between 1943 and 1953. MGM was the Tiffany’s of motion picture studios, and having Bill and Joe in their animation stable was merely the icing on an already prestigious cinematic cake.

So how did “Tiffany” reward their valued employees after 17 years of devoted service? They closed the cartoon studio in 1957, and for a while it appeared that Hanna and Barbera would have to find honest work. The only medium that was still open to animation was that upstart known as television, so Bill and Joe worked out a system that allowed them to produce cartoons for TV without necessitating the lofty expense required for full, theatrical-style animation (a stylized format first practiced by animation studio pioneer U.P.A.). Their first boob tube success was The Ruff and Reddy Show, and following that they would introduce iconic characters such as Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and Quick Draw McGraw to boob tube audiences young and old.

Fifty years ago on this date, Hanna-Barbera premiered their biggest project to date on a Friday evening at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time — the first prime-time animated situation comedy. And until a certain jaundice-colored family from the town of Springfield set up shop on TV 29 years later, The Flintstones’ six seasons in prime-time would be the longest — a page right out of (television) history.


Bill Hanna made no bones about it — The Flintstones was essentially a cartoon version of Jackie Gleason’s classic sitcom The Honeymooners with, as the Wikipedia entry notes, “rock puns thrown in.” But his partner Joe disavowed this in a separate interview — though he did confess that he would be flattered if people compared it to the legendary Gleason half-hour — and most of the special feature documentaries in any of the show’s DVD releases are careful not to mention the connection between the two programs. But they’re not fooling anyone: the Flintstones’ main character, Prehistoric caveman Fred Flintstone, was an animated Ralph Kramden and his sidekick, Barney Rubble, was Ed Norton (Art Carney) in cartoon form. (Their wives, Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble, completed the quartet in the roles established by Audrey Meadows as Alice Kramden and Joyce Randolph as Trixie Norton.) In fact, The Great One himself gave serious thought to hauling Bill and Joe into court for copyright infringement until one of his associates asked him if he wanted to be remembered as “the man who killed Fred Flintstone.”

Fred and Barney were blue collar slobs who toiled at a rock quarry owned by the autocratic Nate Slate — though his first and last names varied throughout the show’s run. Many of the Flintstones’ plots were lifted right out of Honeymooners 101 — in fact, the premiere episode, “The Flintstone Flyer,” finds our two heroes faking illness to get out of taking their wives to the opera and going bowling instead, taking advantage of Barney’s newest invention, a primitive helicopter. If the pair weren’t sneaking out to go bowling or to the fights or some other leisure activity frowned upon by their spouses, they would be attending meetings at their lodge, The Loyal Order of Water Buffalos. Now, belonging to a fraternal organization was certainly not a novelty on television at that time — but it was certainly suspect when Messrs. Kramden and Norton were members in good standing in The Loyal Order of Raccoons.

In its early stages, The Flintstones originally was called “The Flagstones” — and in fact, a two-minute pilot for the series was discovered a few years ago with this appellation. (The legend has it that the creators of the comic strip "Hi and Lois" weren’t as bashful as Jackie Gleason and did threaten to take Hanna-Barbera to court because the comic strip family’s last name was Flagstone.) The surname of the modern Stone Age family was then changed to Gladstone, and finally Flintstone — though there are some surviving character sheets that have “The Gladstones” printed on them and then, marked out with a red pencil, the final and eventual choice.

One huge benefit provided by The Flintstones was that it provided a lot of work for acting veterans who spent most of their time in radio — Mel Blanc, the voice of Barney Rubble (and the Flintstones’ pet, Dino), was of course no vocal stranger to the public having appeared on practically every popular radio comedy show at the time (most notably Jack Benny’s) and also voicing most of the players in the Warner Bros. cartoon stables such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. Bea Benaderet, another Benny vet, was a familiar face to television viewers as next-door neighbor Blanche Morton on George Burns & Gracie Allen’s television series; she would voice Betty Rubble until the 1964-65 season, when the role was taken over by Gerry Johnson (Benaderet’s starring duties on Petticoat Junction by that time kept her fairly busy).

As for Alan Reed, Fred Flintstone would make him a household name — as Teddy Bergman, he had headlined his own comedy series on radio back in the 1930s and would become a prominent character actor on radio sitcoms such as Duffy’s Tavern, My Friend Irma and Life with Luigi. Only Jean VanderPyl was a relatively unknown quality (her best-known radio gig was playing Robert Anderson’s wife on the radio version of Father Knows Best); but that would no longer be the case upon taking on the role of Wilma Flintstone (and also the addition to the family in the series’ third season, baby Pebbles). (Interestingly, VanderPyl would be the only performer from the “Flagstones” pilot to be retained for the series; the other voices were done by Hanna-Barbera utility man Daws Butler and June Foray, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel.) Other actors who appeared on The Flintstones in a regular capacity were Don Messick, Howard Morris, Hal Smith, Allan Melvin and Henry Corden; radio veterans who lent their speaking voices included John Stephenson, Janet Waldo, Frank Nelson, Paula Winslowe, Verna Felton, Howard McNear, Sandra Gould, Herb Vigran and Dick Beals.

The Flintstones was struck by misfortune in its sophomore year when actor Blanc came close to saying “Th-Th-That’s all folks!” as a result of a near-fatal automobile crash. Hanna-Barbera’s Butler came to the rescue by voicing Barney Rubble for five Flintstones shows, but Blanc’s recuperation was speedier than expected and he was able to continue on as Rubble — with the remaining cast and sometimes up to 16 people at a time crowded around in Blanc’s bedroom, where he was on the mend in a full body cast. This also explained why the Barney Rubble voice changed from a sort of nasal whine in the series' first year into the more familiar (and deeper) “hee hee hee” register sometime in the second season.

Years of reruns, series permutations and Pebbles Cereals commercials tend to overshadow how groundbreaking The Flintstones’ debut really was. The prohibitive cost of producing theatrical cartoons was taking a toll on those studios still making them, which is why it was necessary to adopt, adapt and improve for television. But even by “limited animation” standards, production of Flintstones was a daunting task — it required 24-25 minutes of animation per week, whereas the adventures of Huck, Yogi and Quick Draw usually only required six minutes at a time. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off — The Flintstones ranked at No. 18 among all television shows in its debut season, giving the still-struggling ABC a much-needed hit (only My Three Sons, which also debuted the same year, ranked higher). (Unfortunately, the network’s other prime-time cartoon experiment, The Bugs Bunny Show, didn’t do quite as well…and would leave the airways after its second season to toil in the lush orchards of Saturday morning programming for the next three decades.) The success of Flintstones also blossomed into a real cash cow for those companies fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor merchandising games, dolls, puzzles, comic books, coloring books and other kid-like swag.

During its six-year-run on ABC (for a total of 166 episodes), The Flintstones established many television animation “firsts.” The most prominent of these occurred in the third season (in fact, Flintstones became the first prime-time cartoon series to last more than two seasons), when Fred learns from Wilma in an episode entitled “The Surprise” that she is great with child, making her the first pregnant cartoon character. (Fred and Wilma were also the first cartoon couple to sleep in the same bed, though they also kept separate accommodations in some episodes.) Wilma’s pregnancy became a major story arc during Season Three —
making Flintstones the first series to use a continuing plotline, whereas earlier the show utilized stand-alone episodes, and in Season Four, when Barney and Betty adopted a young son named Bamm-Bamm they became the first cartoon couple unable to conceive (though this was conveyed subtly; it would have been a bit untoward to have one of the show’s many cartoon prehistoric animal appliances remark: “Betty’s insides are a rocky place where Barney’s seed can find no purchase...RAWWK!!!”).

Again, because of its pervasive presence on Saturday mornings and in syndication it’s often easy to forget that The Flintstones was geared primarily toward adult audiences (although children could certainly enjoy the show, too) — which is why a casual surfing of YouTube will occasionally turn up the now infamous commercial of Fred and Barney relaxing in flavor country smoking a pack of Winston cigarettes. The Winston people sponsored the series in its first two seasons and featured the denizens of Bedrock in integrated commercials…but the tobacco company pulled out in season three when Wilma was enceinte, letting Welch’s (grape juice and jelly) pay the bills; the switch in sponsor and arrival of Pebbles also shifted the show toward a more family-friendly direction. Miles Laboratories (makers of One-a-Day Vitamins and Alka-Seltzer) was also one of the series’ original sponsors, and after the show’s network run introduced a brand of vitamins called Flintstones Chewables that remain popular to this day. (Post Cereals followed Miles’ lead in the 1970s by manufacturing a line of breakfast foods to capitalize on the Flintstones’ fame, dubbed Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles.)

The success of The Flintstones ushered in several other attempts to capture its prime-time magic; Hanna-Barbera adapted The Phil Silvers Show into the series Top Cat in the 1961-62 season, and even copied their own Flintstones formula with The Jetsons in 1962-63, only this time with a "modern Space Age" family. The Alvin Show, The Bullwinkle Show, Calvin and the Colonel, The Famous Adventures of Mister Magoo and The Adventures of Jonny Quest (another H-B entry) all followed, and for a while it was not at all strange to see cartoons mingling with sitcoms, dramas and variety shows in the evening hours. But none of them managed to last the length of Flintstones; a show whose prime-time longevity would be broken with the debut of The Simpsons in 1989…a show that still soldiers on as of this post.

Generations of couch potatoes grew up singing the fabled lyrics of The Flintstones’ theme song (“Let’s ride with the family down the street/through the courtesy of Fred’s two feet”)…but it may interest you to know that that oh-so-familiar ditty wasn’t actually introduced until three years into the show — the series’ original incidental music was an instrumental known as “Rise and Shine” (which many people have noted sounds similar to the “This is It” theme song of The Bugs Bunny Show). “Shine” and the program’s credits in the first two seasons were removed when the show went into syndication, so when reruns of Flintstones made the rounds on Cartoon Network (with the original theme and titles) people were more than a little puzzled. The Flintstones, according to animation historian Earl Kress, “are the crowning jewel in the Hanna-Barbera legacy” — and on this momentous occasion I’d like to wish all those involved with the show a happy golden anniversary, with hopes of many more to come. Maybe future television generations will continue to laugh and enjoy watching series…and maybe someday Fred will win the fight (and that cat will stay out for the night).


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Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and theorizes that somewhere among people who live without any contact with or knowledge of advanced civilizations, their offspring can sing all the words to The Flintstones theme. (Oh, and Gilligan’s Island, too.)


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