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Thoughts on SHAZAM! (1974)

Thanks to the DC Universe streaming site, I’ve just finished a rewatch of the 1974 Filmation live-action adventure series Shazam!, which I watched in first run on Saturday mornings as a kid. I haven’t seen the show in quite a long time, though I saw its sister show The Secrets of Isis on DVD back in 2009. I was expecting that it would have mostly nostalgia value and that from a mature perspective I’d find it rather silly. But I was actually surprised at how well it held up. Certainly it had plenty of contrivances and limitations and was made with an absurdly low budget, but it managed to be pretty decent in spite of that.

The show had legendary DC artist Carmine Infantino on board as a creative consultant from the company that was still billed as National Comics Publications at the time — and I’m rather surprised that I saw his name prominently displayed in the credits of this show every week in my childhood (at least in the first season), yet failed to recognize it when I saw it on comic book pages nearly a decade later. Anyway, it was a weird mix of fidelity to and departure from the source. Captain Marvel’s costume was an exact recreation of the comics version, his powers worked basically the same way, and there were a few passing references to Billy Batson working for a TV station, as he did in the comics (though nobody ever recognized him in the show, so either he worked for a local station or he wasn’t an on-air personality). But we never saw him at work. Instead, the implicitly teenaged Billy (Michael Gray, who was in his early 20s at the time) spent the whole 3-season, 28-episode series on an incredibly long vacation, tooling around Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside in an RV driven by his elderly mentor named Mentor (War of the Worlds‘ Les Tremayne), a new character created for the show. In place of the Wizard Shazam, the mythical figures who empowered him and provided the initials of the magic word that transformed Bily into Captain Marvel — Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury — appeared onscreen as “the Elders” in barely-animated cartoon sequences (static paintings with animated eyes and mouths) with a live-action Billy matted in, showing up once per episode to give Billy vague warnings about the problems he would face and the moral principles he’d need to apply in solving them. (All six Elders were voiced by Filmation producer Lou Scheimer. Some sources credit Solomon as his partner Norm Prescott, but I grew up hearing all of Scheimer’s voices — there weren’t very many of them — and I know them when I hear them.) As a kid, I saw the whole series in black & white, and I’m startled by how vivid the Elder sequences are in the remastered HD episodes on DCU.

Mentor is a mysterious figure. He seems like just a friendly grandfather tootling around in an RV with Billy, and Gray and Tremayne have a fun comic rapport as they tease each other, joke around, and occasionally get on each other’s nerves. But Mentor seems to have a connection to the Elders, sometimes repeating their words as if he were some Earthbound facet or agent of theirs, and in one early episode he shows up out of nowhere on a tree branch to give advice, as if he just materialized there off camera. Still, if the original implication was that he had some kind of supernatural connection to the Elders, that was abandoned by the second season. (Also, it was originally clear that he “heard” the Elders’ words when Billy visited them, but in seasons 2-3 he needed Billy to repeat them to him.)

(EDIT: Filmation historian Andy Mangels informs me that the series bible explained Mentor as a former host of Captain Marvel. Which makes perfect sense.)

Another change, incidentally, is that the Elders seemed more stern and proactive in season 1, sometimes sending out threatening thunderclaps when Billy and Mentor were tempted to use Captain Marvel’s powers for personal or frivolous reasons. By season 2, they seemed more indulgent, and there was one closing gag scene where Billy changed to Marvel inside the RV to win a petty argument with Mentor (the one and only time he was shown transforming inside the vehicle, although he did once change while tied up in a warehouse). I guess magic lightning isn’t affected by Faraday cages. Well, nobody ever seemed to notice the thunder or lightning when he changed, so I guess it’s pretty unusual.

Captain Marvel was played by two actors. In the 15 episodes of the first season and two episodes in the second, he was played by Jackson Bostwick, a bright-eyed, square-jawed muscleman who looked the part pretty convincingly aside from needing a haircut. But Bostwick abruptly walked out early in season 2 as a ploy to get a raise, and got fired instead, with the producers hastily casting a new actor, John Davey, to take his place for the remaining 11 episodes and three guest appearances on Isis. Davey was a less visually convincing Marvel, an older, rougher-featured, slightly flabbier man (though he was more toned up by season 3) who looked and sounded more like a blue-collar dad than a superhero. I gather that most people prefer Bostwick in the role, but at least in my current rewatch, I liked Davey much better. Bostwick had the look down, and he was amiable enough, but he was a limited performer who never felt natural in the role, affecting a constant grin that seemed forced and almost creepily ingratiating. Davey was a considerably more experienced actor who gave a much more unaffected, matter-of-fact performance. It might not have been as easy to believe he was the World’s Mightiest Mortal, but it was far easier to believe that he was actually a person involved in the story, rather than a performer mugging for the camera and reciting from a script. Certainly he was better than you’d expect from someone hastily cast in a single day after the first guy walked out.

(EDIT: Apparently the claim that Bostwick walked out over money was disproven; it was actually due to an on-set injury, and Bostwick won a Screen Actors Guild arbitration hearing over his firing and got compensated for it: http://www.angelfire.com/tv2/shazam/bostwick2.html )

The change in CM’s appearance was never explained on the show, and indeed, for some reason Davey’s first episode was aired the week before Bostwick’s last, perhaps to soften the transition. Now, since Billy/Marvel is essentially a shapeshifter, it seems there’s a built-in explanation for the change — except in Davey’s second episode, a criminal impersonates Marvel wearing a mask of Davey’s face and the public instantly recognizes him as the hero.

It’s worth noting that Captain Marvel’s screen time increased significantly once Davey replaced Bostwick. In season 1, he mostly just showed up for a minute or two at a time for one or two rescue sequences per episode, but in seasons 2-3, he sometimes had extended roles whose screen time occasionally surpassed Bily’s. (For instance, in the aforementioned episode, when Billy learns there’s a warrant for CM’s arrest, he Shazams and turns himself in as CM, spending most of the rest of the episode in that form.) Now, this happened soon enough that it probably wasn’t cause and effect — my guess is that the network asked for more screen time for the superhero even before the cast change. But I doubt that Bostwick could’ve handled the enlarged role and more extensive character interplay as well as Davey did.

While rewatching the show from my adult, more comics-savvy perspective, I found myself wondering what Billy/Marvel and Mentor did when they weren’t on the world’s longest vacation. Did this Earth’s Captain Marvel ever fight supervillains like Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind, or did he just deal with bank robbers, catch runaway cars, and save kids from falling off cliffs due to their poor life choices? For what it’s worth, the first Isis crossover episode had the Elders tell Mentor (the one time we ever saw him in the Elders’ cartoon space) that Isis was the only person on Earth who could help Captain Marvel put out a forest fire. So that tells us that their universe had no other superheroes, at least none on a comparable level of power. Of course, the existence of Isis (JoAnna Cameron) invalidates the Shazam! opening narration’s claim that Captain Marvel is “the mightiest of mortals.” He can just fly around and punch through rock and lift cars over his head. She has godlike power over the forces of nature and can reverse time itself.

On the classic “Is Captain Marvel a transformed Billy or another person who swaps places with him?” question, I’d say the show more or less came down on the former side. Marvel sometimes followed through on Billy’s conversations with Mentor or on his goals (e.g. getting a delayed lunch or winning a friendly bet), and Billy once used “I” to refer to something Marvel did. Marvel’s personality didn’t seem quite the same as Billy’s, but this version of Billy wasn’t as boyish as he’s usually portrayed and Marvel’s appearances were usually fairly brief. And we can assume that he’s putting on a more heroic persona for the benefit of the public, though he lets his guard down more with Mentor. To some extent, it depends on the actor. Bostwick’s screen time and talent were both too limited to convey any sense that Billy’s personality was in there. Davey wasn’t doing an impression of Michael Gray or anything, but his manner was similar enough that I can buy that they’re the same person.

The show occasionally had some notable guest stars, either established names from the era or earlier, including Lance Kerwin, Pamelyn Ferdin (who would later star in Filmation’s Space Academy), William Sargent, Ron Soble, Butch Patrick, Hilly Hicks, Dabbs Greer, Kung Fu‘s Radames Pera, Danny Bonaduce, William Campbell, and Linden Chiles, or young actors who would become prominent later on, including Patrick Labyorteaux, Andrew Stevens, and actor-director Eric Laneuville. Laneuville’s episode also featured baseball star Maury Wills in a cameo as himself, which dodged a bullet — I was afraid the episode would get white-saviorish with Billy/Marvel and Mentor showing the light to a couple of black kids, but the producers wisely brought in the African-American Wills to provide the lesson — even making him the only non-regular ever to appear in one of the closing tags restating the moral of the week for the kids at home.  Perhaps the biggest star who appeared in Shazam! was a young Jackie Earle Haley, better known for his work in another DC production, playing Rorschach in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Quite a difference.

As for the main cast, Michael Gray had about five years of prior TV acting experience, but did very little acting after the show — surprisingly, as I thought he was pretty good. Les Tremayne had decades of experience as a radio actor, announcer, and narrator as well as a screen actor, known for The War of the Worlds and North by Northwest, but after this, he worked almost exclusively in animation through the early ’90s. Jackson Bostwick did a handful of roles in various later films, notably as “Head Guard” in TRON. John Davey went on working as a character actor for the next decade or so, appearing in six different roles in The Rockford Files and five in Barnaby Jones, with his final two credited roles in 1987, as a state trooper in MacGyver and a “Metrocop with Stunner” in the American pilot of Max Headroom.

Shazam!‘s production values were nothing to write home about, of course. The endless vacation was an excuse to avoid standing sets and shoot entirely on location (including several episodes shot at the familiar Vasquez Rocks cliff where Kirk fought the Gorn, and several uses of the Bronson Canyon cave area used as the exterior of Adam West’s Batcave). The visual effects were pretty basic, with flying shots for Captain Marvel not dissimilar to those from George Reeves’s Superman a couple of decades earlier. But they did some interesting flying gags where they tied Bostwick or Davey to a board and drove him around with a camera shooting his torso so it looked like he was flying close to ground level. They did a cool stunt with him dragging down a chopper in one episode, but in the episode where he caught a small plane and guided it to a safe landing, I realized after a moment that they just tied a dummy to the back of the plane. The most notable optical effect was the transformation shot created by the Westheimer Company, with Gray’s image fading into Bostwick’s and then Davey’s surrounded by animated flames and superimposed on live-action light and cloud tank effects. It’s mildly impressive that they actually went to the trouble of recompositing it for Davey rather than just cutting it short or replacing it with a simpler transition. But then, much like the stock henshin sequences in Japanese tokusatsu shows today, the “Shazam!” shot was a highlight of each episode, a ritualized moment the audience came to expect, so it makes sense that they’d put the most care into it.

Despite all this adult perspective, though, it was still a nostalgic treat to revisit Shazam! Filmation’s shows were my jam as a kid in the ’70s, and their music composed by Ray Ellis and supervised by Norm Prescott (under the pseudonyms Yvette Blais & Jeff Michael) was the soundtrack I used in my head to score my own life. I feel their wholesome, liberal, educational focus helped shape my moral compass, along with Star Trek. And early Shazam! fits particularly into my comfort zone, a reminder of that last year or so before I lost my mother, the one time I seem to recall feeling most contented and complete and untroubled, though it probably didn’t seem that way at the time. Maybe that’s why I found it so satisfying to revisit. I felt it was written and (mostly) acted better than I expected, but I could certainly be seeing it through rose-colored glasses. Still, that’s fine. I watch other shows with a more critical eye, but this revisit was purely for nostalgia, and I’m glad it held up for me.

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The book on STAR TREK: THE ANIMATED SERIES has finally been written — and I helped (slightly)!

November 7, 2019 1 comment

I am holding in my hands (or was moments ago, since I’m typing now) my contributor copy of Star Trek: The Official Guide to the Animated Series by Aaron Harvey and Rich Schepis, the first official Star Trek publication devoted exclusively to Filmation Associates’ 1973-5 revival/continuation of the original series.

ST Official Guide to TAS

https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Star-Trek/Saturday-Morning-Trek/9781681884219

And yes, it was a continuation, as direct as you could get — produced by Gene Roddenberry, story-edited (in season 1) by D.C. Fontana, around 50% written by veteran TOS writers (and one director and one actor), and starring nearly the entire original cast. It wasn’t given a Filmation-y name like The New Adventures of Star Trek or something — it was just called Star Trek because Roddenberry wanted it to feel as much like the original as possible. (The subtitle The Animated Series wasn’t officially added until the 2006 DVD release, I think.)

Yet people have always dismissed it for being animated, and in 1989 Roddenberry and his aide Richard Arnold attempted to declare it non-canonical at a point when they had no actual authority to do that, since Roddenberry had been eased back to a figurehead role by then. They were able to forbid the tie-in books and comics that Arnold approved from referencing TAS, but they had no power over the actual shows or films, as seen when TNG: “Unification” referenced Spock’s “Yesteryear” backstory, ST V & VI confirmed Grayson as Amanda’s surname and Tiberius as Kirk’s middle name, DS9 referenced the Klothos as Kor’s ship, etc. Granted, the restriction was partly because the ownership of the series was uncertain when Filmation went out of business. But that was resolved decades ago, and TAS has been getting gradually rehabilitated ever since.

This book will probably be a major part of that rehab effort, since it’s a really nice look at the series, lavishly illustrated with TAS art that looks just gorgeous on the page. Filmation’s work has a reputation for being crude, and it is by modern standards, but as someone who was a kid in the ’70s, I can attest that its animation was about as good as you’d get on Saturday morning TV in that era, its alien and creature designs were wildly imaginative, and its background paintings were gorgeous. (I love how many of those wide panoramic shots are reproduced in the book at their full width, presumably by stitching different frames of the pan shots together.) There were many pages where I just paused to admire how beautifully detailed the designs and art were.

As for the text, while it doesn’t go into quite as much depth as something like the Deep Space Nine Companion did (since it’s more of a coffee-table book), it’s still informative, with a fair amount of new information even I didn’t know, thanks to interviews with TAS contributors like Fontana, David Gerrold, Howard Weinstein, and layout artist Bob Kline, who was the principal designer for the show. It’s not a perfect book; in some cases it perpetuates the 1990s Star Trek Concordance re-release’s erroneous attribution of many uncredited voice roles to James Doohan even though they clearly aren’t his voice. But overall it’s a really impressive piece of work and a loving tribute.

So how am I a contributor? Well, I’m one of the people that Aaron Harvey interviewed for the book’s “Series Legacy” chapter at the end, and I’m quoted somewhat extensively there (well, three longish paragraphs on two pages). Aaron sought me out because I’ve incorporated a number of TAS characters and story elements into my Trek novels over the years (and not just my novels, as buyers of my latest Star Trek Adventures campaign will know by now), so he wanted to get my perspective. (Dayton Ward, perhaps the one Pocket novelist who’s referenced TAS more than I have, wrote the afterword.) In exchange, I got a free copy of the book, which is a marvelous reward for answering a few questions.

I really hope this book helps restore ST:TAS’s reputation as a legitimate and worthwhile piece of the whole, because that’s what it deserves. For me, it’s always been coequal to everything else. I discovered TOS while TAS was still in first run, so to 5-year-old me, Star Trek was just a show that was sometimes live-action and sometimes a cartoon. My first Trek book was Star Trek Log Three, one of Alan Dean Foster’s books of TAS episode adaptations (and by coincidence that very volume is depicted on the page opposite my first quoted statements in the book). So it was all a unified, equal whole to me. So I’m glad to see it getting more equal treatment at last in this companion book. And I’m proud that I got to be a small part of that effort.

More vintage cartoons: Filmation’s Lone Ranger and Zorro

Lately I’ve been revisiting two more animated shows from my youth, Filmation’s The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger from 1980 andThe New Adventures of Zorro from 1981, which aired as part of The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour.  Both are available on a combined DVD set (on alternate discs); however, Netflix only has the second Lone Ranger disc in stock at this time, so I’m having to settle for only seeing half the series. These shows date from the two years just after Filmation’s classic Flash Gordon, when their production values became more sophisticated.  They, along with Blackstar, were the final adventure series produced by Filmation under producers Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott together; after 1981, Prescott left and Scheimer continued alone.

As you can see from the titles mentioned above, Filmation at this point was heavily into adaptations of classic adventure heroes, and both Lone Ranger and Zorro were fairly faithful interpretations. The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger starred actor/announcer William Conrad (star of the TV series Cannon) as the voice of the Lone Ranger and the announcer of the opening titles, which faithfully recreated the narration from the original radio and TV shows, and used the standard William Tell Overture as the theme music.  According to the special features, Conrad did the role out of love for the Lone Ranger but didn’t want to be credited by name (perhaps because he was a big star by then and didn’t want to be associated with kidvid, or perhaps as a more benevolent gesture so Filmation didn’t have to pay him as much as his name was worth), so he was billed pseudonymously as J. Darnoc — just his surname in reverse, with the “J.” probably an homage to Jay Ward, producer of shows such as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right, which Conrad narrated. (At least that’s what I’ve always assumed; one of the people interviewed in the bonus features said it was Conrad’s middle initial. In fact his real name was John William Cann, Jr., so it would’ve been his first initial.)  Tonto was played by Native American actor Ivan Naranjo; Filmation was generally pretty good at inclusive casting, making sure that “ethnic” characters were played by actors of the same ethnicity.  The rest of the cast was… variable.  Again, I’ve only gotten the second half of the series, but in the first few episodes on the disc, all the male voices other than the Ranger and Tonto are by Scheimer himself, and the female voices are by his wife Lane Jay (edit: Lane was his son, sorry) and his daughter Erika.  All the Scheimers often did supporting voices in Filmation shows, but Scheimer was no Mel Blanc; he had a relatively wide repertoire of character voices, but they weren’t different enough that he could really carry an entire cast all by himself, so it quickly grew tiresome.  And the female Scheimers simply weren’t very good actresses, especially the shrill-voiced Erika.  Fortunately, the great Frank Welker took over as the main male “guest” voice after a while — a bit surprising, really, since the prolific Welker didn’t do much work with Filmation over the course of his career, except for a brief period from about 1979-81.  Another few uncredited voices showed up here and there, including Alan Oppenheimer (Ming on Flash Gordon, Skeletor and Man-at-Arms on He-Man).  Some of the Native American characters had a voice I recognize from the ’70s show Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, an actor who played a regular Native American character on that show; IMDb credits Hal Harvey in that role, but I’m not sure how much I trust that attribution. (Edit: Turns out this is wrong; the book Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation by Scheimer and Andy Mangels reveals that “Hal Harvey” was a pseudonym for Scheimer’s son Lane, so he was decidedly not Native American.)  And there’s one guest role whose voice I’m almost certain belonged to Mission: Impossible star Greg Morris!

Anyway, Ranger followed a formula that probably wasn’t too different from the original television series, with the Ranger and Tonto travelling the West and nonviolently helping people in danger.  The Ranger carried his gun and used his silver bullets, but only for precision shooting of ropes, branches, playing cards, and other inanimate objects.  (In fact, silver bullets would be terrible for precision shots; the soft metal deforms easily and the bullets tend to spin or fragment.)  He’d usually catch bad guys with his lasso.  And the bad guys were often exceptionally bad for Filmation; usually Filmation antagonists tended to be misunderstood and readily reformed when shown a little kindness, but these were unrepentant scoundrels.  In one episode, a pair of cattle rustlers/land thieves get their lives saved by the homesteader they were trying to rip off, and I expected them to apologize and repent their sins, but instead they remained the same lily-livered varmints they’d always been.

So maybe Filmation was a little less determined to be wholesome at this point, but they still strove to make the show educational, by having the Ranger and Tonto constantly get involved with real events and people from the Old West, including Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, Belle Starr, the James brothers, Matthew Brady, Nellie Bly, etc.  I actually learned a lot about history from watching this show back in the day.  The problem is that these events range from the brief run of the Pony Express in 1860-61 to the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889, and yet the Ranger, Tonto, and their horses remain ageless and unchanging over this span of nearly three decades (which is not presented in any kind of chronological order).  So in the course of teaching history, the show played a bit fast and loose with it.

Filmation’s limited animation at this point had reached the stage where they created some fluidly animated movement sequences — in this case, mainly involving riders mounting, dismounting, and riding horses, horses rearing up, etc. — and kept using them over and over and over again, often several times an episode.  The highlight here is a rather nice shot of the heroes riding away from the camera, with Silver’s and Scout’s tails sweeping in to fill the frame with white and then rather gracefully swishing away while the riders recede into the distance.  It’s a lovely bit of animation, but it does get a bit tired when you see it five times in eleven minutes.  As usual for Filmation, though, the background art is superb — lush vistas of Western landscapes and towns, rendered in a painted-line-art style that’s unusual for Filmation but is quite elegant and beautiful.  Some of the background art looks like it may have been traced from vintage photos or illustrations.

Zorro was a moderately faithful adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s creation, featuring characters from the original book — not just Don Diego/Zorro (one of the models for Batman, a masked hero who hides behind a foppish, dissolute facade), but his corrupt rival Capitan Ramon, the bumbling Sergeant Gonzalez, and his father Don Alejandro.  Although they replaced Diego’s deaf/mute servant with Miguel, who’s basically the equivalent of the Green Hornet’s Kato — a servant who fights alongside the hero and has no nickname of his own (Zorro just calls him “amigo,” leading me to wonder how many non-Spanish-speaking kids thought that Amigo was his hero name). Most of the episodes were written by Arthur Browne Jr., a veteran writer of TV Westerns for decades, including The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, and The Big Valley. They did a good job capturing a classic adventure flavor, and Zorro’s personality as a dashing gentleman thief and Errol Flynn type, though the stories could be fairly simple, and quite repetitive if watched back to back on DVD. The remaining episodes were by Robbie London, who would go on to work on many later Filmation shows (notably He-Man) but who was just starting out here. His first episode, “Fort Ramon,” is an incoherent mess: Ramon takes over a mission and somehow manages to turn it into a fort with high stone walls in a matter of hours; then Zorro and Miguel plant explosives to blow it up but are discovered and driven off, yet it never occurs to Ramon to search the fort and find the explosives in plain sight; etc. Fortunately they weren’t all that bad.

What makes this show unique in Filmation’s canon is that it wasn’t animated in the US.  This was the only time that Filmation gave into the trend of outsourcing the animation work to Asia, since the abundance of other work they had in 1981 required sharing the load. But they had the good sense to go with the best animation studio in Japan, Tokyo Movie Shinsha (who made Akira and did fine work on plenty of other US animated shows including The Real Ghostbusters, Batman: TAS, Superman: TAS, the ’90s Spider-Man, etc.).  The storyboard and layout work was still done in-house at Filmation, though, as is usually the case.  The show thus looks very different from Filmation’s usual work.  On the one hand, the animation is much more fluid and less repetitive, though it still depends heavily on stock rotoscoped animation of swordfighting moves, with different characters traced over the same set of movements in different episodes/scenes.  And it has some of those nifty little touches that make TMS work so expressive, like what I’ve come to think of as “the TMS run.”  Most animation houses give running characters a pretty basic, regular motion cycle, but when TMS characters run, they often move irregularly, flailing and off-balance, their pace syncopated and uneven, and it just gives it such a sense of character and energy and naturalism.  So overall, the animation is a great improvement on Filmation’s usual work. (It was rather amusing to hear Scheimer in the special features complaining that TMS’s work was below Filmation’s usual standard.)  Yet on the other hand, TMS’s drawing and painting style at the time was rougher and messier than Filmation’s — the lines less clean, the background paintings more impressionistic.  It doesn’t work as well for me, and it just doesn’t feel like a Filmation show.

Indeed, despite the fact that Zorro was the only collaboration between two of my favorite animation studios, Filmation and TMS, I’m surprised at how lukewarm I am about it.  The production values are cool, but the stories don’t grab me.  It’s a very straightforward historical series where the threats are things like pirates and floods and the oppressive policies of the greedy governor-general, and I guess that just doesn’t captivate me.  And it has the usual problem of kids’ shows built around swordfighting, in that the fights always have to be inconclusive (see also Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog).  In the show, the fights always end with Zorro or Miguel disarming their opponents — which just makes me wonder why the opponents never just pick their swords back up. Although there are a few times when they do.

And one thing strikes me as odd about Zorro, watching it so soon after the 2012 presidential election. I’ve always thought of Filmation’s shows as socially liberal in orientation — promoting racial tolerance and diversity, peace over fighting, things like that. Yet Zorro‘s narrative of the corrupt government using taxation as a tool of oppression and theft, with the heroic outlaw returning the people’s money to them, feels like kind of a right-wing propaganda message, particularly considering that the show came out right after Ronald Reagan’s massive tax cuts were signed into law. I’m not saying that was the intent, and it probably wasn’t. Scheimer just picked up the rights to Zorro because it was an established property and an easier sell to the networks than an unknown concept, as he explained in the bonus  interviews. And it certainly never occurred to me as a kid watching in ’81 to think of it in those terms. Still, watching it in a 2012 political context, it comes off a little oddly for Filmation.

Still, as with Lone Ranger, Filmation deserves credit for ethnically inclusive casting.  The principal cast here was mostly Latino, headlined by Henry Darrow as Zorro/Don Diego.  Darrow was actually the first Latino to play Zorro, and this was the first of three consecutive Zorro TV series that Darrow starred in, interestingly enough.   Two years later, in the short-lived sitcom Zorro and Son, he played an aging Don Diego trying to train his bumbling son to take his place (yes, nearly the same premise as Anthony Hopkins’s The Mask of Zorro); and in the ’90s, Darrow played Don Alejandro opposite Duncan Regehr’s Zorro in the Disney Channel Zorro.  The rest of the cast consists of people whose names I’m unfamiliar with, though Sgt. Gonzales was played by Don Diamond, who had a recurring role in the 1957 Guy Williams Zorro series as the assistant to Sgt. Garcia, the Gonzales-equivalent character in that show.  So aside from Darrow, the only voice I recognize is Scheimer, who inevitably shows up doing various bit roles.

Both these shows are also from a new era musically; from about ’79 onward, Filmation stopped reusing musical cues from its earlier ’70s shows and its composers Ray Ellis and Norm Prescott (under the pseudonyms Yvette Blais and Jeff Michael) produced lusher, richer scores.  Both LR and Z still used score libraries rather than scoring each episode individually, but each show’s library cues were written specifically for it rather than recycled from earlier shows, though a couple of Lone Ranger cues were recycled in Zorro and both shows cribbed the occasional Flash Gordon cue.  Both scores are in a classy, rich orchestral style evocative of old adventure movies and serials, and are probably the best things about both shows.  Although each show just recycles the same cues over and over (and whoever was editing Filmation’s music around 1980 liked to jump between brief fragments of different cues, which can be quite jarring), the cues themselves are really good, among my favorites of Ellis and Prescott’s work.  Both shows’ scores are very reminiscent of the gorgeous Flash Gordon score, with the flavor of ’30s or ’40s movie and adventure-serial scores, but more tailored to their genres — more Western-sounding and Copland-influenced for LR, more Latin-tinged and Errol Flynn-esque for Zorro.  Repetitive though it is, it’s gorgeous music, and I deeply wish somebody would unearth the original master tapes for all of Filmation’s music, restore and remaster it, and put it all on CD.  Sadly, it’s unclear whether those masters even still exist. And there’s no telling what kind of clearance complications there would be, with so many of the scores written for licensed productions.

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Classic cartoons from the ’70s and ’80s: Batman, Superman, and friends

Thanks to the wonders of DVD sets, I’ve been revisiting some of the cartoons of my youth, particularly superhero-themed ones.  The first was Filmation’s The New Adventures of Batman from 1977.  This was Filmation’s second Batman series; the first ran contemporaneously with the Adam West/Burt Ward sitcom of the late ’60s and was the animation debut of Olan Soule and Casey Kasem as the Dynamic Duo.  By the ’70s, Soule and Kasem were playing Batman and Robin on Superfriends from Filmation’s chief rival studio, Hanna-Barbera.  But in ’77, Filmation brought back West and Ward to reprise their roles in a series that owed at least as much to the live-action sitcom as to Filmation’s earlier effort.  Melendy Britt (the future star of She-Ra) played Batgirl, Catwoman, and every other female role, and Lennie Weinrib played Commissioner Gordon and every male villain except Clayface, while Filmation’s co-founder/producer Lou Scheimer did uncredited voice work as Bat-Mite (in the character’s TV debut), as well as the Batcomputer, Clayface, and various minor roles.

As for the character designs, while Dick Grayson/Robin seemed to be modeled somewhat on Ward, Bruce Wayne and Batman had a very Neal Adams-y design.  Bat-Mite probably had the most changed appearance, given greenish skin and a purple and pink costume with a scrawled “M” on his chest.  This version of Bat-Mite was from an alien planet/dimension called Ergo, and had more limited magical powers than his comics counterpart, but he’s still an overenthusiastic Bat-fan who tends to cause trouble with his well-intentioned bumbling.  The series focuses rather heavily on Bat-Mite, which gets kind of annoying.  Occasionally, though, he manages to be actually funny.  Very occasionally.

While the tone of the show is not quite as campy and satirical as the ’60s live-action sitcom, it’s set in a similar world and influenced by it in a lot of ways, for instance including Batpoles and a Batphone (although for some reason the Batphone in the Batcave is an antique phone hidden in the lid of a barrel) and Robin saying “Holy (something)” every thirty seconds (along with other interjections like “Leaping lumbago!”).  But there’s no Alfred or Aunt Harriet, and Barbara is the assistant DA in this version, although that never serves any story purpose beyond giving her an excuse to be standing around in the Commissioner’s office.  Batman and Robin are aware of Batgirl’s secret identity in this show, though one episode suggested the reverse was not true.  Yet secret identities were handled carelessly; in one episode, Robin went undercover as Dick Grayson, and Batman blithely addressed him as “Dick” while the Commissioner was listening.   Meanwhile, the Batcomputer undergoes a bizarre evolution.  Initially it’s much like the sitcom version, spitting out cryptic messages on paper printouts, but then it acquires a voice (Scheimer’s voice slowed down to make it deeper) and pretty soon ends up as an inexplicably sentient AI with a jovial personality.

Adam West’s return to the role of Batman after eight years works pretty well.  He doesn’t play it as broadly as he did in the original, except in occasional moments, but it feels like it’s largely the same characterization, and West’s performance is more expressive and convincing than a lot of ’70s cartoon voiceover work.  In a couple of early episodes, West even brings back his practice of giving Bruce Wayne a more laid-back, soft-spoken delivery than the more intense Batman, though it’s inconsistent.  Ward, meanwhile, is simply terrible.  He delivers almost every line in the same labored tone.  It’s like he’s trying to recapture the intensity of his original performance, but isn’t able to muster up the same energy or even talk as fast because he’s reading from a script.  Between that and the way his voice changed in the intervening years, it occurred to me that it might’ve worked better if they’d sped up the tape a bit.  The other performers are simply workmanlike, though Weinrib’s pretty good at doing a wide range of voices, and Britt’s Catwoman has a bit of a Julie Newmar quality that’s nice to hear.  (By the way, I’m pretty certain that a number of uncredited voices from the animated Star Trek were Weinrib’s, though the ’90s revision of the Star Trek Concordance indiscriminately credited them to James Doohan — even though they clearly aren’t him — and other reference sources like Memory Alpha have perpetuated that error. EDIT: I no longer think that voice was Weinrib’s; I now suspect it was Lou Scheimer’s son Lane, though I’m not sure yet. They certainly weren’t Doohan, though.)

Like all Filmation shows of this era, the music is credited to Yvette Blais and Jeff Michael, pseudonyms for Ray Ellis (the composer for the classic ’60s Spider-Man cartoon) and Filmation producer Norm Prescott, and includes a mix of library cues created for the show and ones recycled from earlier shows.  This series somewhat straddles the line between Filmation’s adventure shows and comedy shows, and the original cues are much in the same style as Ellis & Prescott’s comedy scores, but the stock cues are drawn heavily from adventure shows like Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, Star Trek, and Shazam.

Like most Filmation shows, TNAoB had a brief tag at the end with the heroes talking to the audience — actually called “Bat-Message” segments in this case.  This was usually done to convey the moral of the story to the viewers, but TNAoB’s tags only conveyed morals in the first few episodes; for most of the series, they were just rather pointless jokes involving Bat-Mite.

I was pleased to discover that Hanna-Barbera’s The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians was also out on DVD.  This was the final incarnation of the Superfriends franchise based on DC’s Justice League, and a departure from previous seasons in that it was actually intelligent, well-written, and fairly authentic to the comics.  A lot of the credit for that goes to story editor Alan Burnett, who would later go on to produce Batman: The Animated Series and most of the subsequent DC Animated Universe shows and post-DCAU Batman shows/movies from Warner Bros. Animation.  Rich Fogel was also a writer on Galactic Guardians who would later be a major contributor to the DCAU.

The Super Powers Team title (also used in-story in place of “Justice League” or “Superfriends” as a team label) was a tie-in to an action figure line being released at the time.  The show also changed the character designs, replacing the Alex Toth models used in previous Superfriends seasons with new designs by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, then a major comic-book artist who also did model sheets (i.e. official character designs) for all DC’s comics at the time.  Much of the cast was a holdover from previous seasons, notably Danny Dark as Superman, Casey Kasem as Robin, Frank Welker as Darkseid and Kalibak, and Rene Auberjonois as Desaad (a role he would later reprise in Justice League Unlimited).  But Adam West replaced Olan Soule as Batman, making this the final time West reprised the role as a series regular, and the first time he played opposite Kasem’s Robin instead of Ward’s.  Actually this is apparently the second season with West and Burnett involved, but the first isn’t available on DVD, at least not at Netflix.  And the previous season was transitional, introducing Darkseid as the main villain and adding Firestorm (Mark L. Taylor) to the cast, but keeping the infamous Wonder Twins, who are mercifully absent from the Galactic Guardians season.  Instead, in this season the team is joined by Cyborg (Ernie Hudson, fresh off Ghostbusters and doing a much poorer acting job than I would’ve expected from him).  As the youngest members of the team, Firestorm and Cyborg are heavily emphasized.

Most of the eight episodes are okay, better than previous Superfriends seasons but nothing really impressive.  But there are two episodes that make this season really noteworthy, both of them either written or co-plotted by Burnett.  I’ll start with the final episode of the series, “The Death of Superman,” written by John Loy and plotted by Loy and Burnett.  Of course Superman doesn’t really die, but it’s impressive that the show was even allowed to tackle the concept of death or use the word, when so many animated shows then and subsequently (including B:TAS) were forbidden to mention it.  And despite having more modern elements like Darkseid and Firestorm, the episode feels like a classic Silver Age Superman tale, right down to the visit to the Fortress of Solitude.  It’s a lot of fun, and there’s some pretty good character work involving Firestorm’s guilt at failing to save Superman.

But the best episode by far is #4,  Burnett’s “The Fear.”  It’s noteworthy as the first time that Batman’s origin story was ever dramatized outside of the comics, and one of the only times it’s ever been depicted in animation (since B:TAS was unable to do more than indirectly allude to it due to FOX’s strict censorship on daytime TV).  Of course there was still a fair amount of censorship on ABC at the time, and “The Fear” couldn’t actually show the shootings, but it got around that very artfully by cutting to flashes of lightning and making it crystal clear from the look on young Bruce’s face what had happened.  I remember that I caught this episode on the TV in a hotel room (or maybe it was a hospital — that was around the time I was being treated for a retinal melanoma) and was very impressed by its power and intelligence, compared to what I’d come to expect from the Superfriends franchise.  I’ve never forgotten it since, and I was thrilled to be able to see it again.  It holds up pretty well, and at times it almost feels like a B:TAS pilot.

In fact, Burnett’s love of Batman comes through clearly.  In every Burnett-written episode, Batman is a major player and is the ultimate detective, always making the Holmesian deductions and staying a step ahead of the criminals.  This was the first time Adam West was called upon to play a serious version of Batman (though nowhere near as grim as Kevin Conroy’s), and it’s interesting to compare to his previous two turns in the role.  I wouldn’t say he knocks it out of the park, but he handles it pretty well, better than I recall Soule’s Batman being.  He’s still a little broad and melodramatic at times, but no more so than typical for voice acting at the time.  And he gets in some good moments of emotion in “The Fear” and when he says farewell to his old friend in “The Death of Superman.”

By this point, like most studios (except Filmation), Hanna-Barbera had outsourced its animation to Japan, so the animation on this season, while still crude by today’s standards, was an improvement on H-B’s usual TV work from the ’70s, and on previous seasons of Superfriends.  But it’s still not much to write home about.  The music is by H-B’s regular composer Hoyt Curtin and is serviceable.  I was never as fond of Curtin’s cartoon music as I was of Ellis & Prescott’s.

The third vintage DC show I’ve revisited is the 1988 Superman series from Ruby-Spears, a studio spun off from Hanna-Barbera (Joe Ruby and Ken Spears were writer/producers for a number of H-B shows).  The show ran for one 13-episode season and is on DVD under the title Ruby-Spears Superman.  But its actual title was just Superman, and it presaged the classic ’90s Batman and Superman animated series (and a few Batman and Superman movies) in having a main title sequence that never actually showed the series title onscreen, instead just using the Superman logo as a sort of ideogram for the word.  Although it did have Bill Woodson (the erstwhile Superfriends announcer) reciting the opening narration from the ’50s TV series, so the name “Superman” was heard repeatedly if never seen.  (But due to censorship, “faster than a speeding bullet” is demonstrated by animation of Superman being faster than a lightning bolt instead.)

The series was developed and story-edited by Marv Wolfman, the noted DC Comics writer and editor.  Yet the storytelling is pretty basic, without even as much sophistication as Galactic Guardians had; it’s pretty much straight action through and through, with the main cast rarely rising above one-dimensional portrayals.  This is partly because the main stories are fairly short, because the last 4-5 minutes of each episode consists of “Superman’s Family Album,” a series of vignettes (mostly written by Cherie Wilkerson) following young Clark Kent through the milestones of his formative years, from his adoption by Ma and Pa Kent in episode 1 to his debut as Superman in episode 13.  Although they spend the most time on his early childhood and only the last few segments on his teens.

Being made in 1988, shortly after DC relaunched its continuity in Crisis on Infinite Earths, it’s a hybrid of the pre-Crisis and post-Crisis versions of the character, along with some elements of the Reeve movies.  The main characters are pretty much their standard pre-Crisis selves, with Clark as a timid klutz and Lois only having eyes for Superman.  But Lex Luthor’s portrayal here is rather unique, a combination of the pre-Crisis evil genius scientist, the post-Crisis business magnate who stays above the law and never gets his crimes exposed, and the Gene Hackman-style wisecracker with a sexy henchwoman (although in this version she’s more cute than sexy, a vacuous, girlish blonde named Jessica Morganberry).  But then, as I recall, Marv Wolfman actually pitched a version of Luthor as a business magnate before John Byrne did, so perhaps this show’s Luthor reflects how Wolfman would’ve approached the character if he’d been picked to do the relaunch.  The “Family Album” segments are a more awkward blend of pre- and post-Crisis elements; like the pre-Crisis version, this show’s Clark has superpowers from infancy, but like the post-Crisis version, he’s never Superboy, only adopting the cape and tights when he first comes to Metropolis.  So basically the “Family Album” segments are about Clark using his powers to get into well-intentioned mischief (when he’s very young) or make it easier to handle mundane problems (as he gets older), and only occasionally using them to help anybody in any way (and only in minor ways).  It seems a great waste of his potential, and it seems out of character for Clark to wait until adulthood before beginning to use his abilities for heroic ends.  Although it was an interesting idea, the “Family Album” segments ended up being pretty anticlimactic and didn’t contribute much to the series.

The voice work was pretty solid, though in the broader, more artificial vein of cartoon voice work of the era.  Superman was played by Beau Weaver, who would later cross the DC/Marvel divide and play Mister Fantastic in the ’90s Fantastic Four cartoon.  He was a fairly good Superman, with a strong, booming voice, but his Clark was too obviously a deep-voiced man trying to sound higher-pitched.  And he could get way too melodramatic when shouting was called for.  One doesn’t expect Superman’s “Great Scott!” to sound quite that panicked.  Lois was Ginny McSwain,  also the voice director for the show and for many, many other animated series since (including The Batman in the mid-2000s).  This seems to be the only show where McSwain played a series regular, but she’s a pretty good Lois (again, given the era).  Character actor Mark L. Taylor was Jimmy, and Perry White, interestingly, was played by Stanley Ralph Ross, best known as one of the chief writers of the Adam West Batman sitcom and the developer of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series.  Michael Bell, one of the top voice actors of the era (he was Duke on GI Joe, among many others), was very effective as a Hackmanesque Luthor.  Alan Oppenheimer and Tress MacNeille were the Kents, and notable guests include Howard Morris as the Prankster, Rene Auberjonois as General Zod, an uncredited but unmistakeable James Avery as the mayor of Metropolis, and Nancy Cartwright (the future Bart Simpson) as young Clark’s babysitter.  Wonder Woman guest stars in episode 8, with B. J. Ward reprising the role she’d previously taken on in Galactic Guardians.

Where this series really excels is in its production values.  The animation, produced by Toei and Dai Won Animation, is superb and gorgeous, better than most of the TV animation of the era.  The character designs are by another noted comic artist, Gil Kane, and it’s just a very good-looking show.  But my favorite part is the music by the great Ron Jones, who was also doing Star Trek: The Next Generation and Disney’s DuckTales around the same time.  Jones’s score here is like a middle ground between those two, and in some ways embodies the best of both worlds (pun intended).  The main title theme begins with a reprise of John Williams’s Superman theme, but then segues into a similar-sounding original theme by Jones which is the basis for the incidental scoring (since they only licensed the Williams theme for the main title).  But it’s a great theme, and Jones uses it very well.  His action-adventure music has always been my favorite part of his work, and this series is right in his sweet spot (except for the “Family Album” segments, which tended to call for more gentle and saccharine sounds, sometimes handled well but sometimes bordering on the insipid).  A lot of the music is original to each episode, but there’s a lot of tracked music too, which is something I always liked in old cartoons because it let me memorize a lot of my favorite cues.  A number of Jones’s cues from this show have stuck with me for decades, and it’s great to get to hear them again.  Much of the series’ score has actually been released on CD, as part of a massive box set from Film Score Monthly.  Scroll down to “Disc 7” at the link and you can actually listen to about 26 minutes’ worth of the score, including most of my personal favorites.

If only the writing on this show had been on the level of what Galactic Guardians sometimes managed, this could’ve been one of the greats.  As it is, it’s great to look at and listen to, but it falls short in the story department.  I would’ve expected that Marv Wolfman’s involvement would’ve let the show embody more of the conceptual and character richness of the comics, much as Galactic Guardians managed to do.  But for whatever reason, that wasn’t in the cards.  So while this show is a major step forward in animation and music from previous DC shows, it’s a step backward in writing, and thus it fails to be the kind of seminal creation that Batman: The Animated Series would be just four years later.  So it’s a transitional work, more the end of one era than the beginning of the next.  (And it goes to show how important and underappreciated a role Alan Burnett played in bringing about the revolution that was the DC Animated Universe.)

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