Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Wizard of Oz as you never wanted to see it


It was very strange to see these again. This is a bizarre take on The Wizard of Oz, with everything turned upside-down: Rusty the Tin Man really is heartless and nasty; Socrates the Straw Man (straw man? Just what IS a straw man, anyway? Sounds like something out of The Wasteland: "We are the hollow men, head-piece filled with straw") is really brainless; Dandy the Lion (an interior decorator who has definite "tendencies") is scared shitless of everything. So the weird twist in the original, i. e. that the characters already possessed the things they wanted, is twisted the other way. Nobody has any good qualities at all. The result is. . . pretty twisted.

You can find virtually pristine-quality videos of this 1961 series on YouTube, but for some reason the opening and ending sequences have been cut. When I look at them, it's very strange: I originally watched them on a grainy b & w set, so seeing them looking so brand-new and vividly, even garishly coloured is disconcerting. Almost hallucinogenic. Were the animators dabbling in exotic '60s substances, I wonder?

I wanted to include those opening and closing sequences, so I had to use this faded, slightly blurred cartoon as an example, even though it doesn't include all the characters (i.e. the Wicked Witch, who has a voice that could shred steel). There are other oddities, such as teardrop-shaped munchkins that seem completely expendable (i.e. they are casually killed in nearly every episode), a Wizard that talks like W. C. Fields, a dragon that pops up now and again (scaring the shit out of Dandy), and a land where everything is upside-down.

I can't find any one cartoon that gets all this across, so I chose this one where the main three characters demonstrate their "special" qualities. When I was about seven and watching these for the first time, I just sucked it all in like Jell-o or Junket or Cream of Wheat, without analyzing it. It's only now that I see how very strange and even disturbing it all is.

(Post-script: someone posted a comment on YouTube claiming that these cartoons were made in Canada, and I wondered: could it be? They were produced by an American animation giant, Rankin-Bass, best known for their cheesy-but-beloved Christmas specials with stop-action figures that reminded me of that annoying little Alka-Seltzer guy.  (And Davy and Goliath? We'll get into that later.) This series isn't stop-action, in fact it falls under the category of hallucinogenic art. But when I began to probe, some familiar names popped up. This series was apparently created by the '60s entertainment impresario Budge Crawley. Among the voice actors were Bernard Cowan and Carl Bana: I remember Cowan as an announcer on game shows or something. All Toronto guys. Well, why not: Spiderman was voiced by Paul Soles, a veteran Canadian jack-of-all-trades actor and entertainer, and where would we be without catch-phrases like "Walloping web-snappers!" and "My spidey-sense is tingling." There's just something about Canadians. Strange people.)

The best TV theme song of all time!

No doubt about it. Superchicken has it all over Quick Draw McGraw and Deputy Dawg and even Cool McCool for great theme songs, summing up all that was super-cool about that era in animation.

"That" era being the '60s, which immediately gives away my age. Good thing I don't give a rip about it.

It's not just the lightning-fast delivery, it's the split-second montage of images - not equalled or even approached until The Big Bang Theory - that makes this theme song memorable.

I found a clip of Jerry Seinfeld singing it once. I can't, but it's still fun to watch.