Three Cheers for Filmation

It’s the late Norm Prescott’s birthday and so it seems high time I blogged a little appreciation for the company he ran with Lou Scheimer and Hal Sutherland, Filmation Associates. Filmation specialized in Saturday morning children’s programming (both animated and live action) from the early 1960s through the early 1990s, and even produced some feature films for theatrical release. They have always been widely disparaged for their cost-cutting mass production methods, in particular hilariously cheap-looking animation techniques that sometimes made it look like someone were moving a paper doll across a still backdrop that consisted of the same house going by in an endless existential loop. But some of the shows they produced had top notch writing, and many were formative in my upbringing (Like most children of the time, I was brought up by a television set). Another valuable “service” they provided was that they extended the lives of cancelled tv shows like Gilligan’s Island, Star Trek and The Brady Bunch (and the movie career of a star who could no longer get his movies made, Jerry Lewis). And they revived much older classic franchises, exposing kids to new versions of characters that were first popular when their grandparents were kids.

Here are some Filmation productions that loomed large in my childhood. (I was pretty much done with kids shows by the late ’70s — you can learn about their later shows and movies elsewhere)

Aborted Marx Brothers Cartoon (1966)

This one is more a legend than an actual show. One of Filmation’s earliest projects was an unsold pilot for a proposed Marx Brothers cartoon. I blogged about this might-have-been project here. 

DC Comics Superheroes (1966-1970)

In the late 60s, Filmation produced several shows starring the major DC superhero characters, Superman, Batman, Aquaman, etc, as well as their many colleagues and arch villains. These cartoons were a little before my time (my key cartoon watching years coincided with Hanna-Barbera’s Superfriends series) but I’m certain I did see some of these earlier ones in later syndicated packages when I was older.

Various Archie Comics adaptations (1968-1978)

Filmation struck gold with their many tv versions of Archie comics. Above all there was the extremely strange phenomenon of the nonexistent bubble gum band The Archies, supposedly composed of the show’s characters but actually composed of studio musicians managed by Don Kirschner, who’d earlier produced The Monkees’ first couple of records. Things got even more bizarre when their song “Sugar, Sugar” went all the way to #1 on the pop charts. The Archie formula was so successful they followed it for several of their subsequent shows. The Hardy Boys, The Groovie Goolies and The Brady Kids (below) all had their own bubble gum bands. All of the Filmation comedy shows had laugh tracks, although that didn’t make any sense on an animated show either. And voiceover actor and comedian Howard Morris (who did the voices of Jughead, Moose and Dilton Doily) would be a familiar ingredient in several other Filmation shows.

The Hardy Boys (1969-1971)

Okay, as we all know, The Hardy Boys go around solving mysteries. But here, they are also twisted into a rock band. The most memorable aspect of the show was the opening and closing credits where live action actors lip sync the theme song, “Oh Boy! Here come the Hardys! Oh, boy! We’ll have a party!” while girls scream in the background. Dallas Mackennon, the same guy who did Archie’s voice, provided the voice of Frank Hardy.

The Groovie Goolies (1970-1971)

We blogged about this monster/ sit com/ rock band hybrid here

Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down? (1970-1972)

For a bit of context, Jerry Lewis was not just a movie star but for a number of years there had also been a comic book The Adventures of Jerry Lewis, and an animated series is just a small leap from that (a la Archie comics) rather than the much larger leap it would have been from his live action films. The beauty part of making him animated was that he could still be the young, gangly, adenoidal adolescent his character had originally been, rather than the confusing, pretentious middle aged cineaste he had become by 1970. I say “he” but he didn’t do his own voice in the show — that was provided by David Lander, best known as Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley. The title is a reference to a catchphrase from the game show To Tell the Truth: “Will the real ____ please stand up?” As in Jerry Lewis movies like The Family Jewels and The Big Mouth, “Jerry” plays multiple characters, although that’s pretty conceptual when you consider the characters are all illustrated and they aren’t even played by Jerry Lewis. More here.

Journey Back to Oz (1971)

Filmation’s first feature was begun in 1962 and not finished until almost a decade later. The Wizard of Oz is my favorite movie; and this is one of the few Oz sequels I have ever enjoyed. The art is crude, but it sticks close to the original book (The Marvelous Land of Oz) and like the original film has a magical all-star cast: Milton Berle, Herschel Bernardi, Paul Ford, Margaret Hamilton, Jack E. Leonard, Paul Lynde, Ethel Merman, Liza Minnelli, Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Mel Blanc, and Larry Storch.

The Brady Kids (1972-1974)

The first of many co-productions with Sherwood Schwartz, actually produced concurrently with The Brady Bunch’s last couple of seasons. Way to get maximum work out of those kids, Sherwood! The parents and Alice are absent, but there is a talking Minah Bird named Marlon, voiced by Larry Storch.

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972-1976)

This show meant the world to a whole generation of kids, not just as entertainment but for its message. As Fat Albert used to say, “If you’re not careful, you might learn somethin’!” Thanks for spoiling all the memories, Cos!

Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974)

This is probably Filmation’s most artistically venerated show. The graphics still suck, but they adapted leftover scripts from the original Star Trek series (1966-69), written by top science fiction writers. And, as with The Brady Kids, the parts are voiced by the original actors. It’s the next best thing to being there! And the show did a wonderful job (for kids at least) of filling the void during the years between the end of the original series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture a decade later.

The New Adventures of Gilligan (1974-1975)

Another Schwartz property, Gilligan’s Island, exhumed for the kiddies. The one disappointment of this show was that Ginger and Mary Ann were not voiced by their original actors. Filmation regular Jane Webb played their parts. When Schwartz and Filmation came back with Gilligan’s Planet in 1982, that was perhaps a bridge too far, even for children.

Shazam! (1974-1977)

A wonderful throwback to the serials of the 30s and 40s, and one of Filmation’s first live action shows. The hero was actually Captain Marvel, whom young Billy Batson transforms into by uttering the magical word Shazam! But kids on the playground were often confused, and called the hero himself Shazam.

The Secret Lives of Waldo Kitty (1975)

As you may guess from the title this was actually a pirated version of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in which a cat (voiced by Howard Morris) has the imaginary adventures. But the Thurber estate wasn’t having it. They sued, and the show ended up being very short-lived.

The Secrets of Isis (1975-1977)

A very hip and original show, the first female superhero series on tv. And a highly original character and format. A nerdy high school teacher who changes into the ancient Goddess, usually to get her own students out of trouble. It was broadcast before either Wonder Woman or The Bionic Woman. Very much of its times, yet, a little shocking it never happened earlier.

The Ghost Busters (1975-1976)

The original franchise by that name. We blogged about it here.

Uncle Croc’s Block (1975-1976)

Perhaps the best show ever! We blogged about it a couple of weeks ago. 

Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle (1976-1980)

With each passing year the Tarzan stories seem more problematic. But we enjoyed this version when it ran, and used to re-enact the episodes on the playground, often unwisely, from the branches of trees. For context on the history of Tarzan adaptations, see my earlier post here (although it needs updating…there are always new versions of Tarzan to add, dash it all)

Fabulous Funnies (1978-79)

A terrific show that schooled me in some classic comic strips! The show featured short segments drawn from the comics Alley Oop, The Captain and the Kids (a version of the Katzenjammer Kids), Nancy, Broom-Hilda, Emmy Lou, and Tumbleweeds. 

*******

Lord knows many other Filmation shows followed this bunch in the ’80s and ’90s, but I never watched ’em, Around this time, I was transitioning from a kid who watched Saturday morning cartoons, to a teenager who watched Saturday Night Live.