In the Center Ring (Part 26)

Every time I think I’ve reached a point of moving into the era of the Disney Afternoon, Hanna-Barbera seems to get in the way. Digging deep into unfamiliar territory, I’ve discovered yet another string of circus episodes churned out by the animation grist-mill in the 1970’s and 1980’s. We’ll try to dart through them as quickly as possible. During this period, skill of execution is often lacking, but a few show at least the glimmer of some respectable writing. At present stage of research, there’s enough here for a full chapter today, plus at least four more left for next week, I’ll take them in no particular order, skipping around according to taste, so if an episode is passed that you know, it may possibly appear next week.

Two circus episodes aired on the same day? It really happened. I’ll give them to you n bad news – good news order, saving the better one for last. We begin with “The World’s Greatest Animals” (Inch High, Private Eye, 11/17/73) – I’ve generally found what episodes I’ve seen of this series nearly as aggravating as the later “Inspector Gadget” – who may have taken lessons in being ego-centric from this guy. The title character is always preposterously sure of himself, though always on the wrong scent – yet in an unfunny way. Many other detective types could be incredibly wrong yet confident, and yet deliver punch lines that would at least register a smile with the audience. Inch never seems to have a line that reads anything but predictable and corny, and, with all episodes stretching material to a half-hour more suited for a 10-minute short, he tends to become quickly irritating and boring. H-B tried to find obstacles for him to play against his diminutive size, but even these rarely seemed incredibly clever or creative, and generally fail to capture the imagination. Inch was never a Tom Thumb, nor an Incredible Shrinking Man, when it came to delivering the goods.

The slim plot of this half-hour has B.T. Farnum, world’s richest man, in ownership of the greatest home, greatest car, greatest everything – except for his circus, which is only the Second Greatest Show On Earth. He reasons, how can you have the greatest show unless you have the greatest animals? But the world’s greatest animals are not for sale. Thus, he hires two thigs to steal all the animals for him. The favorite disappears from the Kentucky Derby. A Rajah’s prize tiger disappears from under his eyes. Even the world’s greatest goldfish is pilfered from the bowl of Inch’s own boss – making his assignment to the case a matter which is “personal”. Inch as usual is chosen for the job because all other agents are out on assignment. Also as usual, he immediately goes off on a tangent hunch that is completely off-base, believing that the thief must be a “pro”, so interrogating a golf pro. This only results in him being driven down the fairway, clinging to a golf ball. He somehow ends up inside a kid’s toy balloon, adrift in the zoo, where the world’s only pink elephant is kidnapped right under his nose. When the pachyderm is delivered to Farnum, the villain comments with one of the only memorable lines of the episode: “I won’t even ask how something that big passed under a nose that small.” Inch’s niece Laurie suggests that Inch stake out a dog show, where the World’s Greatest Dog is on display. Inch repeatedly calls the theory a wild goose chase and a total waste of time – but when the lights go out at the show, they come up again with a disappearance. Inch’s St. Bernard mount Braveheart is missing, with Inch aboard, having been standing right in front of the display area over which the “World’s Greatest Dog” sign was posted, in a case of mistaken identity. Inch’s mutt is presented to Farnum, who only believes that the dog is the world’s greatest when he hears a talking voice emanating from him. It is only, of course, Inch, trying to make an arrest. Eventually, the bad guys wind up in a pursuit of Inch, who briefly winds up on the end of a balancing pole of a tightrope walker, but surprisingly does not take to the trapeze, high dive, lion’s cage or cannonball act. Instead, he spends much of his time popping around in well-buttered condition in a popcorn machine, and stuck in a cone of cotton candy. Without much in the way of complications, his radio call for assistance is answered by Laurie and an officer in a helicopter, and the bad guys are captured. The goldfish is returned to Inch’s boss, who finally has to utter a “thank you” instead of an insult. The case closes without a payoff or punch line.

The Ringmaster (Speed Buggy, 11/17/73) – A fairly entertaining outing with a decent script. Speed (a talking race car) and his human crew become lost in a swamp, while attempting to reach the race course of a bayou auto race. They approach a remote island surrounded by swamp water, with only one bridge. The island has a sole human inhabitant – a demented ringmaster, who has pitched camp along with a team of various menagerie animals. (No explanation s offered as to why, under such remote settings intended to keep away from public view, the ringmaster has erected an entire Big Top, compete with the usual trapezes, tight wire, and other miscellaneous props which do not seem to figure in any way into his nefarious plans – but it provides the needed excuse for use of standard circus cliches.) The tallest member of the ringmaster’s “army” of animals is the giraffe, who carries a small television camera on his head to act as lookout/sentry. (Although giraffes generally make no sounds, H-B unnecessarily provides the animal with a bloopy voice effect, probably courtesy of Don Messick. Why?) The giraffe spots Speed Buggy’s approach, its camera alerting the ringmaster. The ringmaster flicks a switch to raise a drawbridge feature on the bridge, but is a second too late, the bridge rising after Speedy has crossed it. (Careless of the ringmaster to leave the brifhe down in the first place.) While the gang, finding the ringmaster’s camp, merely ask for directions to leave, the ringmaster insists they’ve seen too much, and can never leave. Speed reverses direction and attempts to zoom away, but the ringmaster pulls out a small multi-note pitch pipe, which he refers to as his “calliope”, and blows several notes. His troop of animals outrace and surround Speed Buggy, picking up the little car by the roll bar upon an elephant’s tusks. Speed and his crew are soon locked together inside a barred crcus wagon. The ringmaster of course can’t resist demonstrating his master plans. With a false building front constructed for the practice of his animals, each beast serves a function in carrying out a master caper. At respective note signals from the pitch pips, the giraffe performs video surveillance through an upper-story window, disclosing an empty office. A gorilla crosses over to the building on a phone wire, then leaps through the upper-story window. A gator also enters the building via the basement, through a sewer grating. A zebra kicks down the front door, and the gorilla and gator wheel out a large safe. The elephant climbs atop the safe, then jumps on it, stomping until the safe door pops open. A cheetah grabs the container of top-secret documents inside, and makes a speedy getaway, delivering the box to the ringmaster. While the contents of the documents intended to be stolen are not elaborated upon, the ringmaster claims their secrets will allow him to create entire armies of similarly-trained beasts, and rule the world. (Is it, perhaps, the design for some kind of cloning device?) Speed and the gang are briefly left alone, allowing enough time for mechanic Tinker to remove Speed’s rear wheels, allowing him to grind his rims against the wooden floor of the cage. He cuts two large parallel grooves in the floor, then changes direction by 45 degrees to cross-cut two more grooves across his original path. A square panel falls away from the floor in the middle, providing a hatchway to set them free. (How does Speed himself get out of the cage, seeing that the hatch is only as wide as his rims, not wide enough to permirt passing of his chassis? Well, maybe the cage could be unlocked from the outside?)

Speed tries for the bridge, but finds it still raised, providing no escape road. Speed inhales, holds his breath, and blows, over-inflating his tires as a floatation device. But the gator appears on the ringmaster’s command, and blocks a water escape. Retreating back to the island, the gang can’t seem to shake the gaze of the giraffe’s camera, until they decide to hide under something – right under the ringmaster’s big top. Unfortunately, the camera spots them just as they duck under the canvas. The exits are quickly blocked up by the animals, and the inevitable chase occurs inside the otherwise empty arena. One of Speed’s team is shaken loose from the high wire by the gorilla, but the girl of the team places a large rubber seal ball under him, to bounce hm back up to another platform. Speed is pursued by the cheetah, but in the confusion, upsets the ringmaster, causing him to drop the “calliope” whistle. Several animals trample and trounce the instrument, bending its pipes. The ringmaster retrieves it, and, hoping it still works, blows a command to the gorilla. The note comes out sour, and the gorilla not only does not recognize it, but is irritated by it. He pursues the ringmaster, who drops the instrument, while the gang cheers that now, one of the army is on their side. The girl tries other whistle blows, which fortunately still seem to work, and within moments, the ringmaster is surrounded by his troops, hung upside down by a rope around his ankles. The girl states the only terms she will accept from him is unconditional surrender. The scene fades to the race course, where Speed has apparently finally found the bayou race. He approaches the finish line, but struggles, stating he’s glad it’s the finish, because he’s almost finished. And no wonder – as he slowly rolls across the finish line, needlessly still towing two circus wagons full of the animals and the villain, to be delivered, respectively, to the zoo and the authorities. Tinker says Speed has earned a well-deserved vacation. But Speed doesn’t hear him, getting an early start on his R&R, by falling sound asleep.

Stop Horsing Around (Hong Kong Phooey, 10/19/74) – Two million-dollar race horses are stolen from the track in mid-race. Henry the janitor (aka Hong Kong Phooey) gets wind of the crimes from the police switchboard. Skipping his usual costume-change in the filing cabinet, he follows (with the help of his cat Spot,) horseshoe tracks to the circus, where two horses appear in a clown act, each with spotted rumps like an Appaloosa. Phooey mingles into the act in clown costume, and is handed a bucket of water to throw around. A mis-aimed toss washes the spots off one horse’s rear, revealing it to be one of the stolen race horses. The two clowns are discovered to have sold them to the ringmaster. (These crooks are pretty pathetic, swiping priceless ponies instead of worthless nags, yet selling them for chicken feed into routine circus work.) Phooey’s chase predictably finds him on the high wire, the trapeze (from which his fall is broken by landing in the lap of the Fat Lady, who considers his presence an honor), and the lion’s cage. The crooks are finally chased into a barred wagon, where Spot drops the iron gate, putting a close to the case.

Stay Awake Or Else (The Tom and Jerry Show, 9/6/75) – Essentially a reverse-angle remake of “Sleepy-Time Tom”. Tom is employed as a clean-up man under the big top, supposed to keep the arena and cages in spic-and-span condition. However, he s not on the job tonight, arriving in the back of a milkman’s truck, wearing a party hat and blowing a party horn, exhausted from a wild night of goings-on. The ringmaster threatens that if Tom doesn’t tend to his duties and stay awake, he will lose his job. Jerry, overhearing, has the opposite reaction of what he would do in the theatrical days, and instead of trying to get Tom booted out, plays good Samaritan to try to keep Tom on the ball. But it is no use, as Tom is simply too sleepy to be awakened by horns, drums, or any amount of loud sounds. Jerry resorts to painting wide-awake eyes on a pair of glasses lenses, placing the glasses on Tom’s nose. With marionette strings, he manipulates Tom into a dusting frenzy, controlling the wires from a position atop a circus wagon. When the ringmaster calls for sweeping, Jerry fastens a pair of roller skates on Tom’s feet, places a broom in his hands, and pushes Tom around the arena. However, Tom gets away from Jerry, rolling free, and proceeds into about a three-minute free-for-all of rolling under sittng elephant rumps, into lion cages, upsetting the acts of a strong man and a pyramid of acrobats, up as ramp, onto the high wire, down into a cannon, and a bounce atop the steam of the calliope pipes (which play the series’ theme song), finally coming to a graceful stop in the spotlight of the center ring – all while sound asleep. The Ringmaster offers Tom a lucrative contact, which Tom’s paw signs – pushed from within by Jerry – while Tom continues to blissfully snore away. While, comparative to many, this is probably one of the better episodes of this incarnation of the series, it is only the palest shadow of the team’s former glory under their original directors. Standards and practices massively hampered the ability of the studio to offer the action and violence of the original theatricals, and the network was after a different vibe of friendship and partnership between the characters. One has to wonder what Bill and Joe themselves thought of this travesty of their original vision, and it is perhaps no surprise that little seems to have been said by them about it as the years passed on.

The Carnival Caper (Heyyy, It’s The King, 10/22/77) – This series, one of the better later efforts of H-B, originally telecast as part of the “C.B. Bears” hour, played on the vibe of Fonzie and the Happy Days gang, in jungle animal form. Again, carnivals and circuses are confused, this one seeming to be 90% circus, 10% carnival. A high-striker provides the first scene, with the large ape of the King’s gang trying to ring the bell. The proprietor asks him to wait a second, while he oils the gadget to make it even easier for him – while instead, an assistant fastens a spring between the sliding vertical weight of the striker and the wagon tongue of a circus wagon to prevent the weight from rising too high. The gorilla doesn’t know his own strength, and not only knocks the weight and bell skyward off the tower, but causes them to drag along the circus wagon into the air too. The gang’s hippo (Big H) announces he’d like to try, too. The astonished proprietor and his assistant simply hand him a prize doll without even having to lift the hammer, saving him the effort and themselves the further trouble. The gang next takes in the act of Elmo, the Laughing Hyena. Elmo is not a big drawing card – a country clod in long overalls and farm hat, whose laugh is nearly as weak as Hardy Har Har’s. The hyena of the King’s entourage (Yukker) recognizes Elmo as a distant relative. That night, they converse with Elmo at his cage. Elmo feels he is just a buffoon, and is never allowed to roam free, being either in his cage or on a leash. The King sets his sights on freeing the prisoner. After closing, the King and his gang slip into the menagerie tent in search of Elmo. They keep finding all manner of animals besides a hyena. Big H peers into an enclosure, and discovers, of all things, a porcupine, who shoots a wall of quills at him. Big H is cornered against the wall of a wagon, and the quills narrowly miss him, tracing an outline in his image around his person, as they lodge into the wagon wall. Big H sighs in relief and walks away, as we discover the quills have done more lasting damage than expected, cutting a hole in the wagon wall in Big H’s silhouette, which falls away, revealing Elmo inside the wagon. An escape is attempted, but the circus owner appears, with a pair of hardy roustabouts. A scuffle occurs, and most of the gang are thrown out forcibly through the tent wall. But a mistake is made in the confusion, and the circus owner holds in his grip not Elmo, but Yukker. The owner decides to use Yukker as bait for the rest, setting Yukker up in a cage suspended from the ceiling canvas of a medium-sized tent. The King, Elmo, and the male members of the gang return to find the prisoner. The ape reaches up to yank Yukker down, despite Yukker shouting that it’s a trap. One yank, and the whole tent topples down atop the gang. The circus owner and roustabouts appear outside, zipping closed the folds of the tent with a zipper, and drag the tent and the whole gang away.

We now see the King and the rest of the prisoners in a cage, with Elmo back on a leash outside. Elmo is led to the big tent for his performance. The two girl cheerleaders of the King’s entourage appear outside, wondering where the boys are. As they discover our heroes under lock-up, the King requests a harpin from one of the girls to pick the lock. He has trouble, however, manipulating the instrument, and the ape notices. Effortlessly, the ape bends two of the bars away, stepping outside the cage to give the King a hand. The King comes close to losing his cool, wondering why the dimwitted simian didn’t just do that in the first place. The gang are free, and stumble across the costume tent. With the array of wardrobe changes within, the gang decide to infiltrate the show to save Elmo. A series of botched rescue attempts ensue, with Yukker as human cannonball, the gator as a motorcycle daredevil, and the ape on trapeze, before a live audience. All attempts end with the gang member dropping Elmo, but always in a position where it appears that Elmo has performed a daring stunt with them, drawing a round of applause from the crowd. Elmo has never heard such ovations, and the lure of show business begins to rise in his blood. The King finally reaches Elmo himself, urging Elmo to join him in getting out of there. But Elmo is too stage struck to want to leave, and the ringmaster appears with a contract, offering Elmo top billing. Stars appear in Elmo’s eyes, and he signs on the dotted line. By the next performance, Elmo has his own dressing room with a gold star. The King comments that he has a feeling they won the battle, but lost the war. Elmo appears from the doorway in fancy duds and sunglasses, and the gang announce that they stopped by to sat Hi. Elmo doesn’t have the time of day to offer them, indicating that his public awaits, but to see his secretary for some free tickets. The King can only comment, “Well, that’s show biz.”

The Silliest Show On Earth (The Robonic Stooges, 1/28/78) – Another very weak short, from a series that began from a very weak premise. The Three Stooges as robot crime fighters? It would have taken some incredibly-talented writing to pull this idea off successfully – something that H-B just didn’t have at hand. Plus, the passing (or other unavailability?) of the original Stooges for voice-overs didn’t help, although a gallant effort was made to copy their style by Paul Winchell and supporting cast. A trio of acrobats known as the Bongo Brothers are out for revenge at being fired, determined to kidnap the circus’s performers and close down the show. Their methods are rather direct, cutting in through the tent roof, swinging down on trapeze, and spiriting-off performers through the same hole in the tent. Despite the obviousness of it, they merely place the kidnapped performers into a holding wagon until all the acts are captured, with intent to carry the wagon off to an undisclosed secret lair. A call goes out for the Stooges’ assist. They appear as vendors among the grandstands, and someone shouts for a large order of everything available. Moe pulls several buttons on Curly’s belt, converting him into an automatic dispensing machine of everything ordered, which shoot out from under the “C” on his shirt from within his hollow torso. But it seems that all Curly succeeds in doing is covering everyone with a spray of cotton candy. The Bongos appear, absconding with three balancing horseback riders. Then, the Bongos hop upon an elephant, and attempt to ram the central tent pole with him to bring the big top down. The Stooges mount another elephant, and dispense a vat of peanuts for him to suck into his trunk, loading him for use as a substitute for a machine-gun. Somehow, the Bongos have done the same thing with their steed, and out-gun the Stooges with peanuts, driving them back. The Stooges are blasted through the bars of a cage, into the enclosure of a circus wild man. As Moe tries to think of their next move, the wild man grabs his hair, lifting Moe’s signature coiffeur clear off his scalp, suspended to it by a cord. Moe runs, and the hair snaps back, winding up displaced as a beard upon his chin. Moe grumbles at the things a super-hero has to go through. For no apparent reason, the Stooges climb a ladder up a pole, the rungs of which collapse under their combined weight. (After all, I guess they are made of metal.) Curly winds up stuck in the cannon. Moe tries to blow him out with robonic breath, by blowing into the back-end of the cannon barrel. All he does is inflate the metal barrel instead of dislodge Curly, the air then escaping from the barrel like a toy balloon. The barrel dislodges from the cannon mounting and flies through the air, outside the tent, where the Bongos are making their exit with the full contingent of prisoners. The cannon sweeps up the bongos, prisoners, and wagon, which all wind up balanced on the top of the rear end of the cannon barrel, with Curly’s feet on the ground below them, still wedged from the waist up inside the muzzle. The chief calls to instruct them to deliver everyone to headquarters, and the film ends with Curly waddling his way toward the chief’s office, with everyone and everything else balanced atop him.

The Robonic Stooges episode is missing from the internet, perhaps mercifully.

It barely seems worth mentioning Space Circus (Casper and the Angels, 9/22/79), the first cartoon I’ve encountered naming itself a circus episode, but featuring no sign of circus acts whatsoever – instead only about a carnival, and a routine one at that, containing no hi-tech outer space gadgetry, making the title of the episode a double misnomer. Keeping Hairy Scary out of the way of the “Angels” (two female space cops) while they clean the apartment, Casper takes Hairy to the carnival. Casper tries his hand at baseball pitching, intending to knock down three milk bottles. The third one is rigged to stand up again at the pull of lever, so that no one wins a prize. Hairy catches on, and tells Casper to give it another try. The bottles topple, but when the carney proprietor reaches for the lever to set the rigged bottle upright again, Hairy sticks his nose in the way, frightening away the proprietor. Hairy passes a teddy bear to Casper which he won fair and square. However, the bear is snatched away from Casper by someone in the crowd – as it turns out to be stuffed with smuggled diamonds, intended for pick-up by a notorious jewel smuggler. The remainder of the episode leaves the carnival entirely, as the two ghosts pursue the smuggler in a getaway space ship. Perhaps the most distressing moment in the script is Casper actually attempting to scare the villain with a pathetically-weak “Boo”, and merely getting laughed at instead of the usual reaction, “A ghost!” Hairy takes over the scaring chores, while Casper scatters diamonds out a porthole as a Hansel-and-Gretel trail for the Angels to follow. This series seems to offer the worst voice-choice for Casper in the character’s history, sounding weary and with practically no personality. Perhaps the series title is a misnomer, too – “Hairy and the Angels” would have been more appropriate, but would have received no audience recognition for lack of a marketable character in the title.

Out of chronological order, to end on a higher note, we have Don’t Monkey With Buford (The Buford Files, 12/2/78) – Animation quality was going way down by the time this one was produced, with heavy use of Xerography and a sketchy, stilted look to everything. Plot idea, however, is not at all bad. Buford, the aged bloodhound in a rebel cap, and his human friends have received an invite to the circus, from Duchess the Wonder Dog, a circus-performing hound almost as ugly as Buford, and an old acquaintance of him from an undisclosed former case, for whom Buford carries a torch. Buford is lost in dreams of his lady love as the humans transport him by car to the circus grounds. Buford dreams himself a circus strong man, lifting heave barbells effortlessly while he merely yawns. A call for help is heard from a cage, where Duchess yells, trapped inside the cage with a (billed in gold lettering on the cage itself) Ferocious Lion. Buford enters the cage, the lion drawing back in awe as Buford strikes a heroic pose. Buford reaches his paw down the lion’s throat, where its shape is seen grabbing upon the tail of the lion from the inside. Standards and practices being what they were, Buford pulls, and, rather than seeing the grizzly results of the lion turned inside out, the lion simply folds into himself up to the jaw line, and completely disappears. Duchess declares him a hero and delivers a kiss, as Buford awakes from his dream at the announcement of their arrival at the circus grounds. The grand parade is forming outside the tent. One rider is a small chimpanzee atop an elephant, who curiously, emits a sneeze and wipes his nose, as if he has a case of the sniffles. Buford noses around, and also encounters what appears to be a mile-high long tall Texan – actually, a midget on stilts. Duchess and her trainer arrive, and the trainer asks the circus owner for a favor. Duchess wears an expensive diamond collar, which is not insured for public exhibition, so the trainer asks if it can be stored away somewhere in safekeeping during the performance. The owner takes the collar to his private wagon. Inside, an assistant sits at a desk on guard, next to a vaulted room with a loud alarm installed. After demonstrating the alarm and deactivating it to permit entry, the owner shows a steel safe inside, to which only the owner knows the combination. He bends down, twirling the dial, to open the safe and deposit the collar inside. However, as he does so, a small pair of eyes watches in the shadows of a barred window of the wagon, The safe and vault doors are locked, and the alarm reset. The performance takes place that evening, but the owner’s assistant meanwhile hears the odd sound of a sneeze from somewhere behind the locked door. Hearing nothing more, he assumes it is someone passing the window outside, and continues with his reading. When the performance is over, the collar is found to be gone, despite the door and safe still being locked.

Buford responds to the astonished gasps of Duchess, and begins nosing around the crime scene. He discovers what appears to be monkey hair caught on one of the bars of the wagon window. The owner’s assistant mentions the sneeze he heard, and all signs point to the sneezing monkey from the parade as having slipped through the bars on the elephant’s trunk to avoid setting off the alarm, and pilfered the collar. The local sheriff is satisfied with this theory, and attempts to arrest the monkey’s trainer. But a monkey operating a combination lock? Something doesn’t seem plausible. Buford does some more sniffing, and discovers in the wardrobe tent a small monkey suit. Only one person of the circus troupe could fit in it – the cowboy midget (who, it is discovered at the end of the episode, just happens to be allergic to the monkey hair of the suit). Buford takes off after the stilted midget, grabbing hold of one ultra-long pantleg. The midget is separated from his vertical props. Grabbing a springy flagpole, the midget is propelled up to the high wire. Some comic action ensues, as Buford winds up riding bicycle across the wire, then pursuing on trapeze. Both villain and hero take several bounces off a safety net, loosening from under the midget’s shirt collar Duchess’s diamond collar, worn around the midget’s neck. Both finally land in the lap of the sheriff, who arrests the culprit and confiscates the incriminating evidence. Buford receives a reward kiss from the appreciative Duchess. That evening, Buford howls at the moon, blowing away cloud cover overhead which forms a heart-shaped opening, revealing the plane with Duchess aboard departing through the sky. Buford waves a fond goodbye, still carrying Duchess’s picture postcard, as he returns to his Southern bayou home, the heart outline in the clouds remaining above him as he trods along, for the fade out.

No guarantees, but I hope to finish up Hanna-Barbera’s 70’s and 80’s next week, and finally move on to more advanced TV animation.