Monday, July 31, 2017

Toon Legends: Rocky & His Friends, aka The Bullwinkle Show (1959)

Today, we start a week-long salute to the grand dame of voice actresses, June Foray, who passed away last week at 99. What better way to start than with the show that made her an icon.

Rocky & His Friends, otherwise known as The Bullwinkle Show, launched in November 1959 on ABC, then moved to NBC and into a Sunday night berth for its final three seasons (1961-4). Reruns ultimately alternated between the two networks until the early 80's before moving to cable.

What you might not know is that the show was originally intended with a different purpose, in that Rocky (Foray) & Bullwinkle (Bill Scott) were part of a group of forest animals running a television station. Nearly 40 years later, the Muppets tried a similar approach, except that between two networks, ABC & Disney Channel, Muppets Tonight was not as successful as The Muppet Show or Rocky, and even occupied the Sunday 7 pm (ET) berth when it aired on ABC. Go figure. As it is, I find it hard to believe they wanted this to be a variety show. With backup features such as Fractured Fairy Tales and Peabody's Improbable History, it wouldn't classify as a variety show.

Digression over. Co-creator Alex Anderson, who'd worked with Jay Ward on Crusader Rabbit, was unwilling to move from San Francisco to Los Angeles, so that's how Scott entered the picture. Writers Allan Burns & Chris Hayward might be even more known for their work writing live action shows, including Get Smart and, in Burns' case, The Duck Factory, a short-lived NBC sitcom we've screened here previously.

During the NBC years, a Bullwinkle puppet, voiced by Scott, served as MC, going so far as biting the hand that fed it, lampooning Disney's Wonderful World of Color, which aired in back of Bullwinkle on Sundays. One stunt led to a lot of complaints from parents after Bullwinkle suggested that children pull the tuning knobs of their television sets to ensure they'd watch the show the following week. Kinda like Soupy Sales' infamous New Year's Eve gag with money that also got him in trouble in New York.

My earliest memory of the series is the Saturday morning reruns on ABC in the early 70's. At the time, the show aired around noon, before it became a death slot for cartoons. Rocky was the smarter one, of course, with Bullwinkle being a little slow on the uptake. Thing was, for all the times they clashed with spies Boris Badenov (Paul Frees) and Natasha Fatale (Foray), they never had any fights. Maybe that's why they kept it around after anti-violence regulations were put in place at the end of the 60's, forcing adventure shows off the air for a time.

Anyway, you might not have seen this intro:

Now, here's the Bullwinkle into we all know:

Amazingly, Bill Scott chose not to be credited as an actor, just as a writer-producer. Talk about being modest and humble. Narrator William Conrad added the same duties on The Fugitive when that series premiered in Rocky's final season (1963).

Could Rocky & Bullwinkle make a comeback today? Well, the closest we've gotten was an appearance in a GEICO ad a couple of years back, but no one's rushing to get them back on TV, even after the modest success of Mr. Peabody & Sherman, first in theatres, then on Netflix. After all, Rocky & Bullwinkle, along with Dudley Do-Right, flopped at the box office in feature film form.

Rating: A.

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