Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Flintstones’ 50th Birthday

50 years ago today, people first parked themselves in front of the TV set to watch The Flintstones. And they’ve been doing it ever since.

I caught most of the seasons in first-run and then every weekday through the latter part of the 1960s in syndication. To explain what I liked about the show, I have to explain what I didn’t like about the show.

The worst episode was when Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm unexpectedly sprouted voices and constantly sang an annoying and insipid song. As the episode unfolded, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. The fact it turned out to be a dream struck me, age nine or so, as an outrageous attempt to screw with my head and add sense to a nonsensical idea.

And that anomaly speaks to the reason about why The Flintstones has been popular all these years. The characters are believable.

They behave in a way we all recognise. Who doesn’t know at least a toned-down version of a loud guy who thinks he has all the answers but, at the same time, has a softer side he doesn’t like showing? Or a friend who’s happy-go-lucky, if not a little goofy? Or an enthusiastic pet that seems to take on human qualities? Crappy work-days, lack of money, trying to find time for simple recreation, being wide-eyed at Hollywood hype, raising a kid. The Flintstones treated them with humour and occasional lampoonery. Viewers understood, empathised and believed.

Yes, we all know no one ever used talking mastodons as kitchen hoses. But that’s believable, too. The show follows a certain logic—it’s set in the Stone Age, so what else would they use? So we’re willing to accept a talking bird as an intercom or a little tyrannosaurus as a lawnmower. And an extra element has been added. They act almost as a Greek chorus, talking to us about the previous dialogue or their lot in life, much like Warner Bros. cartoon characters making weary or silly (but always pertinent) asides to the audience.

And for young viewers like me, there was an added bonus. The Flintstones reinforced our belief adults sometimes did a lot of really stupid things. Kids wouldn’t do them. That meant we were smarter.

To pull it all together, Joe Barbera put together a stellar cast of actors—Alan Reed, Mel Blanc, Jean Vander Pyl and Bea Benadaret, ably assisted by Don Messick, John Stephenson, Hal Smith and a bunch of others, including radio’s incomparable battle-axe, Verna Felton.

You’ve read the rippings the critics gave the show after its first broadcast. Let’s jump ahead of October 4, 1963. No less than Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, the paper that called The Flintstones “an inked disaster” in Jack Gould’s column three years earlier, praised the show and elucidated his reasons far better than I have. I can only wonder what Gould must have thought of his co-workers’ words.


Cartoon Flintstones Possess Freshness Rarely Found in Acted TV Comedy
SINCE Actors Equity has co-existed with animated cartoons through most of its history, it has taken no official action against “The Flintstones,” now in its fourth season on American Broadcasting Company television.
But the comedians’ section of Equity might consider a suit on grounds of unfair competition. No actor could duplicate the exuberant frenzy of Fred Flintstone, the Stone Age extrovert whose combination of bullheadedness and blundering—both in an excessive degree—is the weekly topic of a remarkably fresh cartoon. “Barney, you know I never have any trouble sleeping,” Fred once gloomily observed to his pint-size buddy. “It’s when I am awake that my troubles begin.” Fred is a rugged individualist with a feeble brain-bone.
If the cartoon elements could be scientifically analyzed, they would probably emerge as a version of the familiar big-man, little-man comedy—Mutt and Jeff, Bert and Harry Piel, etc. But William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who invented the characters in 1960, lifted their cartoon out of mediocrity by setting it in the Stone Age. It is pure fantasy in the genre of “Alice in Wonderland.” Although the Flintstones, and their next-door neighbors, the Rubbles, lead modern lives with modern equipment, they are Stone Age people who have domesticated Stone Age animals and birds to perform the household chores.
AS A CRANE operator in the Rock Head and Quarry Construction Company, situated in Bedrock, Fred drives a patient dinosaur. The current introduction to the program pictures Fred sliding joyously down the back of the dinosaur when the whistle blows and yelling “ya-ba-ba-ba-doo,” which is his theme cry. The family pet in the home cave is a young dinosaur that obeys Fred’s “Down, boy” literally by knocking Fred down and smothering him with kisses.
A starving buzzard under the sink is the garbage disposal, and an elephant’s trunk is the kitchen faucet; a lizard with sharp teeth is the can opener; a mastodon with an evil look is the vacuum cleaner; a bitter crow with a sharp beak is the needle on the hi-fi set; a pterodactyl with gnashing teeth and a mean disposition is the lawn mower.
During the last season, “The Flintstones” lost some of its original enthusiasm for the fantastic setting. It has become increasingly preoccupied with domestic affairs, like the birth of a bland, self-contained daughter, Pebbles, to Fred and Wilma (Isn’t Pebbles rather large for her age?) But the original genius of the cartoon was the comic ingenuity with which it played variations on the incongruous, inventive and humorous background of the Stone Age.
The traditional business of cartoons is to explore the battle between the sexes. After losing one round to Wilma recently, Fred said: "Why doesn't someone invent something but women for us to marry?" Both Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble are more sophisticated than their husbands and take appropriate action in defense of their prerogatives when necessary. There is nothing mean about any of them. But an ominous drop of sentimentality intruded on domestic dissonance the other day. After Fred had worn himself out trying to look after the baby and the house simultaneously, Wilma said: “Fred, you are the dearest bungler in the world.” This expression of mawkish affection in a cartoon is wholly untraditional.
A sentimental cartoon is a contradiction in terms. It is getting close to the stuff that human beings act. On the drawing board, Fred and Barney are outside human scale. Everything they do is excessive. In their Stone Age model T they bounce through a grotesque landscape with superhuman speed and utility. At the meetings of the Order of Water Buffaloes they luxuriate superhuman gusto. Thanks to raciness of the cartoon medium, they are worth a hundred of the standard comedies, and they make actors look inept and anxious.

ABC got six prime-time seasons out of the Bedrock gang and that was a little too long. Anyone who has watched TV situation comedies—and I had seen plenty of them before reaching my teenage years—knows when a show has run out of ideas or originality. That’s what happened with The Flintstones. The Rubbles got a pet and a child. The show did that already. The Gruesomes? Too much of a direct copy; anyone could come up with that. Darrin and Samantha Stevens. In the Stone Age? And as cartoons? The Great Gazoo. Can’t the principal characters carry the plot any more? What show needs an unlikable twerp?

Sorry, but stuff like that hurt the crux of the series’ popularity—its believability.

Normally, missteps like that would kill a show. However, it seems to me there was still enough good to overcome the bad in the old episodes that were rerun endlessly so that the Bedrock gang was still entertaining to millions as the years rolled on.

But The Flintstones is more than a cartoon and more than a cash cow through commercial tie-ins. It’s become a cultural reference point. The show, the characters, even the situations still come up in every day life. Stone Age references generally invoke the name of the show. So did a recent news story about a foot-powered car. A strong football player recently got tagged with a nickname belonging to a boy Bedrock tyke born long before he was. The Flintstones aren’t alone in this. Read any story about flying cars or futuristic homes and you’ll see the word “Jetsons” somewhere. News items about hungry or friendly bears include “Yogi” or “pic-a-nic” (Daws Butler’s contribution to the vernacular). Even Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw are still used as comparative examples to people or events because they are known and liked. Their lasting popularity is proof of the skill of the many creative people at Hanna-Barbera through the ‘50s and into the ‘60s to overcome the artistic limitations imposed by television on time and money to create lasting entertainment and fun, believable characters.

Like many of you, I’ve been watching The Flintstones for as long as I can remember. It’s not my favourite Hanna-Barbera show, but the best episodes are still engaging and funny, 50 years later. And you can believe that.

Here are a few news stories you can check out. The first talks about Google’s salute to Hanna-Barbera’s biggest success of the ’60s with a special masthead today. Animation writer Harry McCracken has pointed out Bamm-Bamm’s severed head is on the roof.

A blog on The Toronto Star has a humorous look at what we’ve learned from The Flintstones in 50 years. Apparently, people in Toronto must have humour because the writer states she likes Gazoo. That’s a hot one!

Agence France Presse has a nice summary of 50 years of Life in Bedrock (en Anglais).

Try your hand at a Flintstones Quiz, courtesy of Stony Browntosaurus at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Want your own Flintstones car? Some guy has actually designed one.

And here’s a site that links to four Flintstone flash games you can play.

Oh, yes, what would the Yowp blog be without cartoon music?

You want background music? Here’s 18-plus minutes of Hoyt Curtin’s incidental music from the seasons before that god-awful compressed crap from Magilla Gorilla inflicted the soundtrack. Lots of bassoons and tubas to provide an earthy sound.









Remember the party music in the first produced cartoon, ‘The Swimming Pool’? You can hear it below, along with some other cool jazzy music. It’s the best stuff Curtin wrote for Fred and Barney. The trumpet playing is wild. Pete Candoli, I’ll bet.









And from Wonderland Records LP-285 is an original cast recording of the second Flintstones theme that the world knows and loves, with an extra chorus and a few different words. Everyone’s singing in character, though Bea Benaderet is actually sing/speaking, despite the fact she sang on stage and when she began in radio in the ‘20s. Alan Reed struggles a bit. Have a listen and have a gay old time. You know what we mean.









Finally, let us dedicate this post to Warren Foster. You all know Foster’s background. He ran a music school in New York City then got a job with the Fleischer studio. Mike Maltese recommended him to (likely) Bob Clampett and Foster travelled west to the Warner Bros. studio where he and Maltese wrote some of the funniest cartoons ever made. The two were lured to Hanna-Barbera and adapted nicely to the limits of TV animation. Foster maintained a little cynical streak toward show business and marriage which fit in nicely at H-B. I believe he’s with Alan Dinehart in the photo you see here, with one of his fine storyboards in the background. Maltese may be my favourite writer, but it was Foster’s workhorse efforts that helped ensure The Flintstones were a hit.

19 comments:

  1. Atkinson's perceptive on the 'softening' of the characters that, along with the more childish plots, would start to really negatively affect the show by Season 4. Foster, Maltese and the other Season 1-2 writers were working off "The Honeymooners" template, of course, that demanded a lot of friction between the characters, and the pre-Pebbles shows during Season 3 continue that, while the pregnancy/birth arc offered enough new ideas to make the stories worthwhile.

    But once Pebbles was born and settled in, if became less acceptable to have a dysfunctional family in front of the baby, and only a few shows from Season 4 and on figured out a way to take advantage of the new 'kinder, gentler' situation ("Daddies Anonymous" and "Pebbles Birthday Party" being the two best, IMHO).

    It's also interesting to note that at the same time the show went to syndication in September 1966, it also went to Saturday mornings on NBC. But the network and/or Hanna-Barbera only used selected shows from the series' six-season run, the bulk from Seasons 1-2 and only a handful from Seasons 4-5-6 (ABC, like the developing Fox 25 years later, targeted young viewers more than the other two networks, which meant that its long-running successful comedies of the 1960s tended to get more child-friendly/dumbed-down as the seasons went on unless there was a really strong producer/star to say 'no').

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  2. Interestingly, two of the last episodes ever made- "How To Pick a Fight With Your Wife Without Trying" and "Jealousy" respectively deal with Fred and Wilma separating, and Fred coping with Wilma being feted by an old boyfriend (thanks to the old plot chestnut of Fred feigning illness to bowl instead of attending a cultural event).

    The kids don't even appear, or are even mentioned in "Jealousy". But Gazoo figures prominently in both episodes. It's as if the writers wished to (a) return to an early series theme of exploring Fred and Wilma's relationship; and (b) using Gazoo to dispense domestic advise rather than rescuing the 'Dum-Dums' by showing up at the last second to vanquish a villian.

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  3. As other H-B series premiered through THE FLINTSTONES' prime-time run, their 'dedicated' score would also be used on the parent series. Most of the 'urban traveling' cues from TOP CAT was used to good effect. Even most of the JETSONS score fit rather well in FLINTSTONE episodes. (I imagine it would have worked well on a never-realized Season 2 of TOP CAT.) Some of the JONNY QUEST adventure cues fit well in the later, more 'fantastic' episodes.

    I agree that the MAGILLA GORILLA score didn't suit the 'Stones well; nor did much of the sedate music used in the Snagglepuss/Yakky/Hokey/new Yogi episodes that were produced concurrent with the first two seasons.

    Thankfully the PIC-A-NIC BASKET CD clearly separates the various sets of cues by the series for which they're best associated.

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  4. Maybe by the later seasons, cartoons were primarily used to entertain kids? Could it be that adults were tuning out simply because they thought cartoons were for kids? Maybe that's why HB changed the direction of the episodes somewhat. Regardless, I disagree that the show jumped the shark with the introduction of the kids and pets. Some of my favorite episodes are from the later years, including "No Biz Like Show Biz," when P&BB sang as well as the guest starring episodes with Ann-Margrock, Stony Curtis, etc. Sure, the show changed course and I can see why people prefer the earlier episodes. But I think it's unfortunate that people's opinion is posted as authoritative "fact" when there are many of us that can sit back and enjoy the series without a high-brow attitude.

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  5. Two other of the last episodes ever made have nice throwbacks to two of the earliest episodes. In "Dripper" (3d to last episode made & aired) we see a pool that looks a lot like the Flintstones/Rubbles' shared pool in "The Swimming Pool" (S1, 1st produced, third aired). And in "Rocky's Raiders (2d to last episode made & last aired) we see the plane Grandpa Flintstone flies powered by the Barney-stand-in peddling system that looks similar to the one Barney invented in "Flintstone Flyer" (S1, 2d episode produced, first aired). Could I be reading too much into it, and these are total coincidence? Absolutely. Flintstones continuity, after all, is nothing to count on! Still, I like to think there was some nostalgia attached, if by that point they knew the series was ending (and even if not).

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  6. I also meant to say that in "Dripper" Barney wears a diving suit that calls back to the one in "Swimming Pool", and of course in the Flagstones test. Again, maybe meaningless, but I like to think there are some intentional ties at the end with the origins of the series.

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  7. Yowp, you hit the nail right on the head. Personally, the first two seasons of the Flintstones were the best that Hanna-Barbera ever produced, and then came (gasp!) Pebbles, and then the show began its gradual nosedive into mediocrity. Quite a shame. Imagine if they had produced six seasons of the Jetsons in the 1960s. That might have been even worse, don't you think?

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  8. I wonder how many people have ever commented that on the "Meet the Flintstones" show opening, at no point does the title of the program actually appear on the screen? Presumably the brief shot of the mailbox with "The Flintstones" in small letters was meant to substitute for that... but it must set some sort of record in TV history for assuming viewers were so familiar with the show that they didn't even need to see the title.

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  9. Come to think of it, TOP CAT never had the title appear during the opening theme song, either... only when TC pulls down the shade in the taxicab's back window, which was actually more a part of the sponsor's identification. Something strange was going on at ABC!

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  10. Tim, considering the lyrics, I don't think they needed to put the title on the screen (what were viewers going to mistake it for?). And unlike most sitcoms of the era, they didn't open with star credits either.

    Robto., that's an interesting question. I think they would have run out of ideas, too. Most sitcoms do and have to evolve. Generally, it's for the worse. All in the Family was a brilliant show that was unwatchable at the end.

    As I mentioned, my favourite Flintstones was actually the 3rd season debut. And there were some good later ones, too; someone mentioned Daddies Anonymous, which I really liked (you can see Carlo Vinci at work). And the Christmas one in the fifth season cloys a bit and is predictable but it wasn't as unwatchable as that Yogi Christmas thing at the inn. I think the problem was the Flintstones episodes that were bad in the later seasons were real stinkers.

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  11. Overall, the best Pebbles episodes were "Groom Gloom"," with Arnold the newsboy and the first teenage Pebbles (written by Herbert Finn, guest starring Don Messick & Janet Waldo), "Dino Disappears", with the lookalike Dino and Ed Wynn like owner, both show biz tyupes (written by Joanna "Plan 9" Lee, guest starring Jerry Hausner), & the two that J.Lee mentioned, "Daddies Anonymous" & "Pebbles Birthday Party".

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  12. FLINTSTONES - 50 YEARS (1960-2010)
    HANNA-BARBERA 4 EVER!
    YABBA-DABBA-DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

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  13. As other commenters have mentioned “The Swimming Pool”, I thought I’d mention an amazing bit of detail- especially as The Flintstones was not known for any sort of visual continuity!

    In “Alvin Brickrock Presents”, there’s a shot of the Flintstone and Rubble houses – and the SWIMMING POOL spanning the two yards (!) behind the houses!!!

    I never noticed this before watching the episode LAST NIGHT, despite seeing the episode for years – and several times on DVD! I think I’ve just discovered a NEW piece of Flintstones trivia… and just in time to be a part of the 50th Anniversary celebration!

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  14. Wow, Joe's right! It's around 7.5 minutes into "Alvin Brickrock" that you see the pool with the two diving boards on either end spanning both yards. Great find! Definitely the strangest thing about Flintstones continuity is the odd time that you do find a consistency you don't expect.

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  15. And how many times have we – ALL of us – watched “Alvin Brickrock Presents” over the decades and never noticed this!

    The things you find by accident!

    In a show where the car and even the HOUSE (See “The Hot Piano”!) change shape from one scene to the next, this little bit of continuity is amazing!

    At least for me, it proves that I “watch closer” when I watch DVD, than I did when watching TV. With DVD, I’m always noticing little things I didn’t see before.

    Is that true of the rest of you?

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  16. Happy 50th Birthday to the Flintstones. YABBA DABBA DOO!!

    Speaking of The Flintstones, I want to go over a movie that was released in 1966, "The Man Called Flintstone" (which, by the way, I'm sure you heard of). This guy named Rock Slag (voiced by Paul Frees, looks EXACTLY like Fred Flintstine) was injured, and Fred Flintstone fills in for the injured spy.

    Later, The Flintstones and Rubbles go on a trip to Paris.

    The two villains that were trying to get rid of Rock Slag once and for all (and of course would mistake Fred for Rock Slag throughout the movie) also boarded on the plane. So, in that scene the family gets on. Then, Wilma starts to feel a little nervous, while Fred gets her to relax.

    Here's what bothers me. The two villains try to get rid of what they think is Rock Slag, but the knife lands on one of the pilots' hats. The pilot opens up the curtains and says "All right, who's the wiseguy?". So, I guess the first thing they do is search for the two villains, locate them, and throw them off the plane?































    No.













    Instead, they (as usual) change the subject and cut to another scene. In that scene, Wilma wants to know how the Rubbles were doing (they were in last class) and Fred goes out to check. The plane was going to land in a little bit, so they didn't bother to take their places.

    The people shouldn't just ALWAYS change subjects. They should've just stuck to the scene and LOCATE THE VILLAINS (whom luckly fell out of the plane after that previously mentioned scene). I'm really having concerns to Hanna-Barbera for those things.

    Anyways, as of Saturday morning, I'm a little ill, but I hope I can feel better soon.

    Thanks for reading.

    Have a great Yabba Dabba Doo day, and thank you!

    Ryan

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  17. Hey, sorry my post didn't make sense somewhat. I'm only 12 and I'll need to learn to type a little slower. Although I do hope my previous post ain't deleted after this.

    Anyways, I'm still having a sore throat, but I'm recovering from my illness somewhat.

    Gotta get off. Thanks!

    Ryan, #1 fan of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid"

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  18. J.Lee made a VERY good point in the first comment. I don't really remember seeing much of a handful of 1965-66 shows like the Gazoos and "No Biz Like Show Biz" where that "Sunshine" song is crooned by the babies, though I don't mind parts of it. In 1971 though when "The Flinstones" went into daytime syndication ALL the episodes appeared and I was confounded by that little dum dum hating green space alien and that cowboy that Pebbles and Wilma go ga ga far,etc.Steve

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  19. And regarding a comment Mr.Lee made, yes, ABC and FOX later targeted younger, but at opposaite ends in a way: The mid 60s ABC shows were more
    soft, the Fox shows definitely not so..! SC

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