Friday, December 19, 2008

Calvin and the Colonel

While interviewing Eddie Fitzgerald I began looking through his blog archives. Even though he covers other stuff, including movies, music, and even theater play, I'm mostly interested in his thoughts on cartooning, both comics and animation.

Eddie have written about on writing in animation, both through his experience and also those of his colleagues. One of the debates going on in the animation industry is whether scripts should be used in animation or not. Many animation artists argue that since animation is a visual medium it should be "written" by storyboarding, which involves drawing rough sketch of where the characters are, how they're reacting, etc.

Fair enough. Animation with strong visual presence is more fun to watch and those that do not. Admittingly I do watch some animated sitcoms written by someone who would rather work in live-action, but I prefer cartoons written by someone who at least REALLY loves animation.

And with that here's a topic about one of the earliest animated sitcoms, written by live-action writers.

Calvin and the Colonel aired prime-time on ABC for one season (1961-1962). Initially the show aired on Tuesday nights at 8:30 e/p. Due to low ratings the show was put on hiatus after 6 episodes. Eventually the timeslot was moved to Saturday evenings (NOT Saturday mornings as many sources say), where it completed its run.

Calvin and the Colonel was created by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, and most episodes were written by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher. All four men worked primarily in live-action sitcoms and had very little, if any, involvement in animation.

Calvin and the Colonel was essentially the first live-action sitcom disguised as an animation series.

In fact, that was the sole purpose of this show. Gosden and Correll made names for themselves in radio with their Amos & Andy series, which was about a pair of stereotypical black men. It was later adapted into a popular TV series, featuring black actors playing the role.

However, the show ran into trouble. By the late fifties Amos & Andy was deemed racist and was forced to be taken off the air. Gosden and Correll, however, was not willing to back down and tried to figure out a way to bring the concept back. The result? Replace all the black stereotypes with talking, cartoon animals.

So in short Calvin and the Colonel was basically an attempt to revive "Amos & Andy" by replacing the characters with animals in order to get the show run under the raders of civil rights activists.

Most episodes of "Calvin" reused old Amos scripts with little changes. There were some original materials made, with Disney artist T. Hee writing at least one episode.

The show was produced by Kayro Productions, which also produced "Leave it to Beaver" and "The Munsters." However, the animation was done by Creston Studios, a studio that mostly stuck exclusively to animated commercials. Creston also did some animation work for Jay Ward Productions. As a result many people erroneously believe that this is a Ward output.

Animation wise the show was okay. The character designs are appealing and while the animation is primitive (this is a 47-year old made-for-TV animation) it's not as jarring as an average Hanna-Barbera show at the time. Unfortunately I only have black and white copies to go through (the show was made in color) so I can't judge the visual aspect properly unless someone can loan me color prints.

There are occasional visual humor in this show, even though its minor. One cartoony example is seen in one episode where Calvin uses one of the potted plants as an ashtray and as the ashes fell into the pot the plant weakened and died. I have no idea if these visual gags were in the original script, or whether it was added by the storyboard artist and it somehow got through to the final animation. Prime-time animation at the time worked differently than by the time Simpsons got greenlit, so who knows.

I think Calvin and the Colonel should be out on DVD. Unfortunately the closest it ever got to DVD release are the "Giant 600 Cartoon Collection" set. 8 episodes are featured there with varying quality. They're pretty cheap, though, so it might be worth looking into.

One episode of the series is on YouTube. Here's part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.

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