I begin this week with what amounts to a footnote, just to prove I haven’t forgotten about a decade. The 70’s (at least to this writer’s tastes) were a decidedly fallow period, with Hanna-Barbera still primarily in command of the airwaves, but its creative spark at its nadir. While some of its character designs retained some appeal, the execution of the concepts simply wasn’t there, and one can only dream how much more of an impact the characters might have had were they allowed the writing freedom and creative staff of the early 1960’s. The non-violent network standards and mystery-solving rut into which H-B had fallen prevented even the best of concepts from developing any life, and so I find myself as listless as the characters in facing any task of writing in depth about these episodes as relating to our subject topic. Instead, I will merely list a few for your perusal, in case you are direly set upon completeness, or just curious to confirm how boring these episodes really were.
Josie and the Pussycats would have to wait until they arrived in Outer Space in their preposterous second season before meeting robots, but quickly had two instances of it. Make Way For the Multi-Men (9/16/72) – a robot (Don Messick in standard Uniblab voice range) set on conquering a planet uses a device he must have borrowed from The Impossibles, to infinitely duplicate himself and any other thing he chooses. Unfortunately, his circuits can’t stand musical vibrations from Josie’s band – and neither can his all-glass capital city. The Mini-Man Menace (10/21/72) features a live megalomaniac in charge of a legion of mini-robots, rather conical in shape and resembling wind-up toys, but strong as iron and possessed of rope guns to bind up prisoners. All it takes is a little reprogramming of one by Valerie on the assembly line to make his personality “human” to upset the tyrant’s plans.
Inch-High, Private Eye included three robot episodes. The Doll Maker (10/13/73) somewhat rips off the concept of Super Chicken’s Salvador Rag Dolly, with a larcenous toymaker (Spumoni) supplying mannequins to the local fur shops, which are robotically-controlled to smuggle the valuable furs out of the stores by night, leaving no clues of a break-in. Conveniently, Spumoni is also Inch High’s personal tailor – the only person who knows how to properly fit him in his size one outfits. When Inch’s verbal ramblings about the case he is trying to crack lean too close to revealing the truth, Spumoni sics his mannequin on Inch, and subjects Inch to a contrived series of ordeals, in a Robin Hood-style joust with a toy medieval archer, and a slot car race with a mini-Mario Andretti impersonator, who uses dirty tricks a la Dick Dastardly. Poor timing and unenthusiastic execution do this episode in as usual, and it even ends with the plot stretch that Spumoni turns out to be a mechanical toy himself. (So, who created him?) Other episodes included Super Flea (11/24/73), a miniature robotic insect equipped with camera, designed for profitable industrial espionage, and The Return of Spumoni (12/1/73), in which the somehow rebuilt robot genius creates robot duplicates of Inch ad his boss Finkerton to impersonate them and learn the combination of a vault housing a priceless statue.
Episode 3 of Hong Kong Phooey was entitled Iron Head, the Robot (9/14/74). He is a dome-headed, rounded body creation with glowing eyes and an antenna on his head, who surprisingly reminds me in design of the Iron Giant, long before the feature was ever conceived. But his powers are merely brute strength, which he uses to crash through walls and carry away safes for his master. Phooey converts his custom car into the shape of an oriental safe, allowing him to be carried to the boss’s hideout in a gymnasium. A supposedly-funny chase on stationary bicycles and rowing machines leads to the robot submerging into the pool, unable to swim. Phooey pulls the pool plug to crack the case, also revealing the cracks where the robot hit the pool tiles.
Even the All New Popeye Hour failed to generate much mileage from Popeye the Robot (1979, air date unknown), which plays like a warmed-over reworking of Paramount’s TV episode, Robot Popeye, with Bluto using a robot to humiliate Popeye at an arean public unveiling of a statue in his honor by making him look weak and foolish in front of his fans. The script generally lacks about as much energy as Popeye before eating his spinach,
There were other creations such as Speed Buggy, who might have been considered a robot car, and in all probability additional robots in miscellaneous mock mysteries such as “The Funky Phantom”, “Goober and the Ghost Chasers”, “The Buford Files”. “The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan”, “The Partridge Family 2200 A.D.” (a Jetsons ripoff including among others a robot clone of Astro named “Orbit”), “Jabberjaw”, and any number of Scooby-Doo incarnations, which series were so mass-produced that I’ve completely lost track and tolerance for them. Ruby-Spears was probably also guilty of such sins, in “Fangface” ad the like. Readers are welcome to fill any such holes in coverage in their comments.
That aside, we now turn to better days in the 1980’s. After years of television idleness, with no new animated wraparounds being produced for episodes of The Wonderful World of Color/Disney, the Disney studio finally broke loose with new productions in half-hour blocks, first with a pair of product-oriented projects for Saturday mornings, Adventures of the Gummi Bears and The Wuzzles, but then finally turning to its library of well-beloved characters in 65 episode daily syndication packages, beginning with the well-remembered Ducktales. Such series and the progeny of other star-packed projects which followed would eventually coalesce into a powerhouse two-hour daily block known as “The Disney Afternoon.” Disney’s acquisition of ABC TV would further allow it to begin co-programming of select episodes of its new series into Saturday morning run, making its programming available every day but Sunday (still reserved for the “Wonderful World”). The studio’s exposure was truly at a maximum – as, it seemed, was its popularity.
Armstrong (12/24/87) is in some respects one of the less well thought-out episodes of the series, jumping to a crisis without any real explanation. Gyro Gearloose invents a robot of the title name, (a golden humanoid not unlike Star Wars’ C3P0, but with a number of light bulbs as features of his head. The robot not only proves himself handy at housework around the mansion, but can fly a plane better than Launchpad McQuack, handle accounting efficiently enough to replace Scrooge’s entire staff, etc. Scrooge is able to snooze away the afternoon, while the robot handles all his business decisions on the phones in Scrooge’s office. But without explanation, the robot suddenly develops not only a yen for Scrooge’s fortune (deducing by mathematical process of elimination the combination to Scrooge’s money bin), but a megalomania for taking over the world, by linking up power plants with communications satellites to remotely control all things powered by computer. (Why? The writers seem to think this is just the normal thing robots tend to do when they inevitably go haywire, without provocation.)
Scrooge and Gyro are held prisoner behind an electrical force field devised by the robot at Gyro’s house, while, at the mansion, Huey, Louie, and Dewey wonder why their uncle and the robot haven’t shown up at breakfast. They place a call to Gyro, but are rudely told not to come over, in a voice impersonation of Gyro by the robot. Knowing something odd is afoot, the boys jump on their bikes to investigate at Gyro’s. The robot uses whatever’s handy and mechanical to remotely attempt interference, but all that is around is toys from a toy shop, which the kids quickly neutralize by turning upside down. Not so easy, however, to infiltrate Gyro’s house, as the robot has installed high fences and laser beams that melt the boys’ bikes. The only one left to turn to is Launchpad, who they intercept just before the ace pilot, feeling unneeded and useless, is about to leave town. By now, the kids have deduced the robot’s control over things computerized, and warn Launchpad that he probably can control Scrooge’s helicopter. But Launchpad still has his old biplane, which he’s been using lately for water drops in helping the forest service. Launchpad assures the kids it has no hi-tech doo-dads – just up and down. Launchpad and the boys hop in, and attempt to assault the security compound by flying over its defenses. Using spy cameras and radar, the robot detects their approach, and programs anti-aircraft missiles from a local military base to target the biplane. Reacting in panic, Launchpad accidentally disconnects the handle from his control stick, and in attempting to reconnect it, jostles the plane into evasive maneuvers that cause the first missile to miss. More missiles follow, together with a squad of fighter planes. Launchpad sets the plane into a downwards loop, letting the missiles follow him until they come up under the nose of the fighter planes – with explosive results that remove the threat. His plane makes an unexpected crash landing directly atop the roof of Gyro’s home, knocking out the satellite dishes controlling the robot’s power linkup. Launchpad climbs down from the roof to attempt to enter the house, but is met by a haymaker punch swing from the robot that misses its mark. Launchpad scrambles back up to the roof and his plane, but the robot extends a telescoping arm and grabs Launchpad by the foot. With nothing else to hold onto, Launchpad clings to the handle that releases the bomb bay doors of his plane – letting loose a full drop of water from its belly. The robot is drenched, blows all its light bulbs, and explodes in a short-circuit. Scrooge realizes (at least temporarily) that the cost of efficiency can sometimes be too high, and settles back into a normal robot-less existence with the boys and Launchpad at the fade out.
Robot Robbers (9/25/87), based on a Carl Barks story, aired on the next day’s broadcast, and is something of a sequel, much better thought-out. McDuck enjoys seeing his name associated with success on every page of the newspaper’s financial section – except one, which announces that Flintheart Glomgold has been awarded a municipal construction contract with a bid far outclassing that of McDuck Consrtruction, promising to complete construction in a matter of days instead of years. Scrooge attends a groundbreaking ceremony to see how his old arch-rival intends to ever meet his outrageously-low winning bid. Glomgold announces to the crowd that he has a “little secret” – well, then again, maybe mot so little – as the doors to a ten-story tall holding shed open, to reveal a quartet of gigantic robots, who march out obediently, and begin to demonstrate amazing feats of physical strength that make major construction look like their idea of child’s play (one example being taking the mixing cylinders of cement mixers off their mountings, and squeezing them to pour whole floors of concrete in a matter of seconds). Scrooge is aghast to find at the controls of the lead robot none other than Gyro, now working for the competition. Gyro reminds Scrooge that since the Armstrong incident, Scrooge had him promise never to build another robot – for him – but never said he couldn’t build one for someone else. Gyro assures Scrooge that these robots have no danger of turning to the evil ways of Armstrong, as they have no mechanical brain, but are completely controlled by a human driver in the head cockpit. Scrooge still insists that he and Glomgold must be crazy to take chances with these contraptions. Glomgold tells Scrooge all his years at the top are making him go soft, and he’s lost the talent of taking chances to make gain. Scrooge begins to wonder if there’s a hrain of truth in Glomgold’s gloat, and if he is slipping.
The two kajillionaires little realize that there is another attendee at the ceremony who wasn’t invited – Ma Beagle the matriarch of the Beagle Boys (her name a play on notorious historic female gangster Ma Barker). She sees better uses for the robots than construction – namely, destruction, of Scrooge’s money bin. At night, she slips into the storage building with the robots, climbs into the cockpit, and, learning to fly by the seat of her – dress – crashes through the building’s doors, making off with one of the robots. She pilots the robot to the maximum- security prison where three of her “boys” are doing time, and raises the roof with the help of the robot to spring them in a jail break. Returning to the scene of the crime, she slips the boys into an upper story window of the holding building at the construction site, allowing them to make off with the other three robots. The Beagles are now an unstoppable team, and celebrate by laying a little waste to the city before concentrating on the business at hand. Ma Beagle in particular takes her time with a little “window shopping”, allowing the robots to raid jewelry and expensive clothing stores to increase her own wardrobe. These crimes of course go far from unnoticed, and Scrooge gets a little chance to rub an “I told you so” in Glomgold’s face, as even the fiery-tempered rival realizes there is no hope of resolving the problem without the two tycoons reluctantly joining forces. Launchpad is summoned, and the idea strikes him that Gyro’s last robot short-circuited in water. With a few aerial taunts of “Nyah nyah” and some verbal insults shouted at Ma Beagle, the infuriated Beagle Boys take the bait of giving chase to Launchpad’s helicopter, as our heroes make a beeline for the municipal dam, flying over its top from the dry side. Ma Beagle realizes it’s a trap, but can’t stop her determined boys from climbing over the dam face – and submerging completely into the reservoir on the other side. At this moment, radio communication is established between the helicopter and Gyro, the inventor alerting the boys that this time, he made the robots waterproof! The Beagles rise from the water unscathed.
No more wasting precious time for the Beagles, and it’s on to the money bin. Our heroes regroup as they are joined by Gyro, and watch the horrific sight of the robots smashing away at the concrete facades of the money bin, reducing it to the steel encasement of its interior vault. Only Gyro sees promise in this development, as the efforts of the robots are beginning to take a toll on them, draining them of needed power. Unable to crack the vault, the Beagles realize they must find a way to recharge. Our heroes are one step ahead of them, and head to the municipal power plant, where Gyro channels all the power of the city into one set of voltage wires – enough of a jolt to overload the wires and batteries of the robots. The Beagle sons fall for the trap by wiring up to the high-tension generators as Gyro releases the full current, shorting out three of the robots. But Ma Beagle still retains control of her robot without taking the juice. Loading her sons into its head cockpit with her, her robot takes after the good guys as they pile into Launchpad’s helicopter. Glomgold finally proves of use in the pair-up of forces, as the boys lead the remaining robot back to Glomgold’s construction site. The helicopter lands inside the storage building, and the robot follows. While the robot stomps on the landed helicopter inside, Ma Beagle fails to notice that the good guys have already gotten out, and are on a platform high above the building’s floor. Glomgold presses a button on a remote control, sealing the building’s outer door. He pulls a lever, and a calculated trap is laid, as quick-drying cement pours down from two flumes, catching the robot’s feet. The robot winds up waist deep in cement, as the Beagle Bots exit the command cockpit too soon, also winding up waist deep in the sticky stuff as it hardens fast upon them. Ma Beagle makes a hasty exit out a window, suddenly remembering one of her boys from South America who’s overdue for her to pay a visit, while her three sons are carted away to prison, still partially encased in blocks of cement. The crisis is over – but not its aftermath, as Glomgold is handed by the chief of police an order for the robots’ permanent dismantling, and a further order to rebuild half the city. Without his robots to do the work, Glomgold is reminded by a smiling Scrooge that McDuck Construction is happy to be of service in such tasks. “How much will that cost?”, asks Glomgold. “How much ‘ya got?”, asks Scrooge. Glomfold accuses Scrooge of being a low-down, ruthless rat. “What can I say”, responds Scrooge, “You bring out the best in me.”
And then there was “Gizmoduck”. He first appeared in a prime-time special, originally entitled Super DuckTales, eventually segmented into a five-installment serialized form in the daily syndication package. The complicated story centers on a plot of the Beagle Boys to obtain Scrooge’s fortune, by doctoring plans at city hall to have a freeway constructed right through Scrooge’s money bin. Forced with the task of moving his money because “You can’t fight city hall”, Scrooge seeks out a super-accountant to make sure none of it is lost in the move. A professional “bean counter” seeks to move up in the world – one Fenton Crackshell, whose unique talent allows him to count in a split second the accurate contents of bean jars filling from a chute, to ensure that each jar receives the exact desired number of beans. Despite having no other form of “accounting” experience, he forces his way into Scrooge’s office for an interview. “Give me a shot”, begs Fenton. Scrooge obliges – with a blunderbuss. Out of habit, Fenton is able to count the exact number of shotgun pellets zooming over his head as the shot misses. Scrooge tries him again, tossing a pocket full of change of various denominations briefly into the air. Fenton counts $1.78 – to the penny. Fenton is hired, but places Scrooge’s fortune in peril by misunderstanding the phrase “liquid assets”, and hiding Scrooge’s fortune at the bottom of a lake. Still, he proves inventive, by rescuing the fortune with a bank of high-powered super-fans and dry ice, freezing the lake solid, to be carried to the money bin’s new location by Launchpad and a squadron of other helicopter pilots, carrying suspended below them a massive pair of ice tongs. Now with the money back inside the bin, Scrooge seeks Gyro’s help for a super security system to keep intruders out of the bin. Gyro invents a transformer-style robot who converts from a van into a missile-wielding destruction machine, named GICU2. The device, however, is not well-tuned, and can’t distinguish between crooks and Scrooge and Gyro, labelling them as “intruders” too. Fortunately, Gyro has also invented a wearable suit of mechanized armor for a robotic security guard, which he refers to as his “Gizmoduck” project.
For security purposes, he programs it to activate at the speaking of a word that no one in his right mind would still use – Blatherskite. Wouldn’t you know it, Fenton’s favorite expression is “Blatherin’ blatherskite”, leading to the suit automatically assembling itself around his person. He uses the gadget-laden suit, featuring missiles, artillery, auxiliary phone, and waving flags, among other what-nots to meet any occasion, much like the endless devices of Inspector Gadget, to foil the robot blocking access to the bin, as well as to retrieve Scrooge’s number one dime (which he accidentally used for a phone call) from a bank heist performed by the Beagle Boys. He becomes a public hero, and an idol to Huey, Louie, and Dewey – though no one even knows his real name, and even Fenton’s trailer-trash mother (the only one who can get him out of the suit with her television remote control) continues to treat him with total disrespect for his accomplishments. The plot starts to get really silly as Scrooge, Launchpad, and Fenton even face an alien invasion in which the money bin is abducted into outer space. Fenton proves the worth of the human race by out-counting the alien supercomputer in charge of the planet in a contest of counting nuts and bolts, and eventually returns Scrooge and the bin back to home base, destroying the new freeway in the process. Fenton finally reveals his identity to Scrooge, and is hired for a permanent security position on top of his accounting duties. Finally feeling like a somebody, Fenton musters the courage to face off against his mother, ordering her to respect him – as well as to get the trailer cleaned up.
Fenton would appear as Gizmoduck recurrently throughout the final season of the original show. He would also make crossover appearance on “Darkwing Duck” in Tiff of the Titans (10/19/91), then later appear in the 2017 “Ducktales” reboot series on Disney XD. Yet, no one ever explained how he managed the oddest feature of his super-suit – a pair of skinny robotic legs that ended in the axle of a single unicycle-type wheel. Where in the world did he put his real feet while wearing the suit? How uncomfortable.
Disney’s work is far too extensive to cover in a single chapter of this series, so more will be dealt with later. Though taking a jump in chronology, I will end this week’s installment on a high note, by calling attention to a Max Fleischer homage which our readers – and this author – had virtually forgotten. Darkness On the Edge of Black (story: Bill Kopp; dir.: Jeff DiGrandis) was an episode of Pith Possum: Super-Dynamic Possum of Tomorrow, an element of the short-lived 13 episode Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show, one of the first Disney Afternoon shows to only run once a week instead of in a daily spot. Many elements of the show were Disney trying hard to be John Kricfalusi, using as many extreme takes and gross-out gags as Disney executives would allow. Somehow, it didn’t quite work, as the new style seemingly just wasn’t in the Disney bloodlines, and the show frequently misfired or overshot, never really settling into a comfortable groove. The Pith Possum segment was often the strongest element of the three-cartoon half-hour format, being at once a take-off on DC’s two most classic properties – Batman and Superman. Pith’s super-persona is pure Batman, complete with dark cowl, boy-wonder style sidekick Obediah, and super-car shaped like a possum, as he patrols the Northwoods community of Possum City. Even episode titles always play upon the “Dark Knight” image, with blackness emphasized in the name of every episode. By day, however, the image changes to that of Superman, as Pith portrays mild-mannered “Coffee boy”, gofer of a great metropolitan tabloid, his main attraction being to a human female ace reporter named Doris Dear (who is modeled as closely as possible to a standard Kricfalusi girl), while receiving no attention from her, due to the need to hide his secret identity.
From the moment this episode begins, there is something remarkably familiar going on. The tree-trunk facade of the Possum City Bank may ring no bells, as clouds of dust emerge from destructive goings-on inside – but a shadow emerging at the doorway is instantly recognizable – a dead-ringer for the ominous shadow of the flying robot bandit seen in Fleischer’s classic second Superman episode, The Mechanical Monsters! In direct parallel to the shot order of Fleischer’s original cartoon, the scene dissolves to close-up on a master control board in a hidden lair (where, this time, various woodland critters clinging to dial faces take the place of the handles upon knobs turned by the operator of the robot controls). A heavy wall panel of massive thickness (this time wood instead of metal) pivots from the wall in drawbridge-style to admit the sinister shadow, which, as in the original, pauses in a hovering position in the center of a large room, then lowers itself to the floor, at first only seen from its feet. The camera slowly pans up to reveal the “monster” – a towering robot with wing panels that fold into its arms. This time, however, instead of a mechanical head and torso, we witness a monster whose body is fashioned from a tree trunk with squatty green foliage resembling hair. The device lumbers its way over to a tree trunk in the ground, the top of which pops open to reveal a holding chest (nearly identical to the steel vault which held jewels and other stolen goods in Superman’s epic). But, instead of dropping the loot out of a hatch door in the robot’s back, the monster opens its mouth, and lets the loot roll out off an oversized wooden tongue. A few more lever pills from a mad lumberjack at the master controls, and the robot assumes its place of rest along a wall lined with an army of similar robots, again in the same manner as the Superman original. (Some of these shots come so close to matching the pace and look of the original, one can only speculate how much of the drawings were traced from a print of the original film, with the knowledge that copyright on the Fleischer classic had lapsed.)
Similarities continue as newspaper headlines flash news of the “Robot lumberjack” crime wave. A new shot has a gorilla police chief having his assistant make a call on the hot line for Pith Possum, setting up a running gag of only getting a busy signal from Puth apparently leaving the phone off the hook. Meanwhile, more direct shot parallels to Fleischer display an exhibition to match the jewel exhibit of the original – here featuring priceless samples of hardened tree sap. Coffee boy and Doris are on hand to report the story, when one of the robots forcibly kicks its way through the wall to gain entry. It proceeds to the stage to commit its robbery (adding to its arsenal of equipment a buzz saw to cut away portions of the tree trunks holding the sap, and a vacuum cleaner hose to suck the samples into the robot’s hollow insides. Doris snaps photos, but instead of climbing into the robot for a ride, she is sucked into the robot by the vacuum hose (the robot exhibiting a visible heart-throb at what a “looker” she is). Looks like a job for Pith Possum. Instead of a telephone booth, Pith chooses a storeroom with translucent window for his costume change, as in “Superman #1″ – but gets some laughs from the window silhouettes, when a removal of his shirt reveals nothing but skeletal bones inside, and Pith breaks from his dressing routine to briefly entertain the audience by creating shadow puppets of flying birds. Pith makes connections with the Possum-mobile when Obediah runs him over outside the gallery.
They pursue the flying robot by ground, Pith telling Obediah not to fire upon the machine, when Pith’s x-ray scope glasses confirm that Doris is still inside. The Possum-mobile chews its way through the drawbridge-door of the lair, where Pith discovers the mad lumberjack, with Doris in his power. The lumberjack, as in the Superman film, commands about a dozen robots to attack Pith. The fight is considerably more violent than Superman’s, more closely resembling a street brawl within a fight cloud. “Quick, Obediah! Hand me my trusty….Ooof!”, says Pith, as he is dragged back within the fight cloud, and subjected to various clinches and blows that prevent his further speaking. Obediah stands confused for the longest time, trying to guess how to complete Pith’s unfinished sentence – then finally brightens as he remembers the “Robot Deactualization Disruptor Ray! Of course!” Obediah produces the ray, and disintegrates the front-line of robots – but the ray gun runs out of juice, and deflates like a used tube of toothpaste. The lumberjack climbs to a command tower overlooking the room, where he sends a bound Doris on a conveyor-belt ride toward a wood chipper, and stands poised to press a red button that will activate a room full of robot reserves to conquer the world. However, the red button doesn’t work, as Obediah has pulled an electrical cord from its socket at the base of the platform. Pith puts the lumberhack out of action with a “lights out” sucker punch, then dashes to intercept a falling Doris from the chomping rotating cylinders of the chipper. Doris attempts to reward her hero with a kiss, but cozies up to Pith a bit too close, knocking him off the platform, and (offscreen) into the mouth of the wood chipper. Doris grins with embarrassment to the camera as if to say “Me bad”. The final shot returns to the police station, where the dimwitted force is still oblivious to all that has transpired, still getting busy signals on Pith’s hot-line.
Next Time: A cliffhanger?????? Wherever my instincts lead me.