Rhino // 1969 // 450 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // March 25th, 2004
He can't do a little cause he can't do enough.
Once upon a time in the phantasmagoric world known as the 1960s, Saturday mornings were reserved exclusively for the kiddies. Mom and Dad, hung over from the previous night's cocktail party with the swarthy new neighbors, would sleep in, hoping that the shame of the suggested "wife swapping" wouldn't damage their country club application. Any teenagers in the house were busy figuring out how to make pipes out of everything and anything while wondering if Paul was really dead, or just the Walrus as had John suggested. So the wee ones were left to their own devices, to sugar coat their pre-sweetened cereal, mix a little Swiss Miss Cocoa into their already syrup-laden chocolate milk, and toss a tablespoon or two of Flintstones vitamins into the diabetic delight to make the meal nice and healthy. They would then carry this saccharine repast to the TV room and flop down on the floor. As the set warmed up, they'd shovel as much dense dietary death into their mouths as they could. Soon, with sound and image pulsating in 19" clarity, the manual manipulation of the dial would commence, usually resulting in a discovery of unbridled delights. Colors would collapse and collide with each other, creating a spectral spectacle of surreal silliness. Synapses misfiring from a lack of insulin and an overabundance of visual stimulation, the psychedelic symphony continued. Dragons fought witches. Little boys talked to their opinionated golden flutes. Trees got tangled in each other's branches and magical toadstools smoked big cigars. Together with the nutritionally void vittles clinging to the inside of the adolescent's intestines, the perverse pleasantries of this live action lunacy carved out a small hunk of their under-developed brain and then just sat there. Waiting. Wanting.
Anyone who grew up during this time remembers where they were when they first experienced Sid and Marty Krofft's fantasy freak-out known as H.R. Pufnstuf. Along with The Banana Splits, they helped launch a whole new version of an old ideal in children's programming. Instead of giving the youngsters animated characters and re-dubbed foreign films, the new panacea was live action. And no one avoided pragmatic realism better than the famous puppeteers who fashioned a perverse universe out of candy colored craziness. New to DVD, H.R. Pufnstuf: The Complete Series gives one a doorway into the initial instigation of juvenile cranial coiling created by the Brothers Krofft.
In order for someone to fully appreciate the geo-political parameters at work in an episode of H.R. Pufnstuf, ones need to diagram the struggle for power between the differing factions that make up the tiny nation's ideological dynamic. On the side of good, we have Mayor and Chief Law Enforcement Officer H.R. Pufnstuf, an eight-foot tall fluorescent green dragon who walks on two legs, wears cowboy boots, and speaks with a southern drawl. Two deputies aid him, little puffin-like creatures called Cling and Clang. These mini mute misfits are always getting into trouble. Together they man the Rescue Racer, a wild contraption that Living Island's elected government uses to aid and abet its citizenry. Among the decent folk relying on the Mayor and his civic prowess are Dr. Blinkey, a wise if often absent-minded owl who seems to know a lot about all the sciences. Judy Frog is a local entertainer, wearing the sequined vest, bowler, and black leggings of a cabaret chanteuse. Pop Lolly runs the candy concern and has to fend off hordes of hippie ants (that's right...hippie ants) that want free sweets. The Clock family, including Grandfather, Grandmother, and little Alarm, handle all the issues regarding time. There are even some talking trees (known as Society, Groovy, and...Redwood, the Injun) and the Four Winds, all of whom come together to help in the fight for right.
But on the side of evil, like guerilla revolutionaries living in the jungle (except in this case, the jungle is a huge creepy castle that talks, mostly about how ugly its chief resident is), are Witchiepoo and her henchmen, Orson the Vulture and Seymour Spider. As the sole person in tune with the dark forces of the supernatural on this tiny isle, you'd think Ms. Poo would be a powerful and feared despot, ruling the rest of the animated minions with mystical mandates. But apparently, even with an armada of evil trees (who she refers to as...evil trees), a bushel basket of badass mushrooms, a couple of skeleton guards, and the very definition of a ding-bat, she still can't seem to get ahead. Her collection of wands always seems to misfire. Her major mode of transportation, the Vroom Broom, is prone to crashing. And her loyal subjects are more retarded than reliable. Orson is a wimpy wuss who's more than willing to blame his mistakes on Seymour, and our spaced out spider (check out his flashing freaky eyes, dude) is dedicated but dumb, fouling up even the easiest assignments.
On the outskirts of the events on Living Island are several, ancillary associates, friends, and family that help fill out the economic as well as social structure of this community of real life cartoon creatures. Ludicrous Lion is a medicine show salesman who can't seem to make a buck, thanks in most part to the fumbling foolishness of his sideman, Pierpont Pony (AKA Polka Dot Horse). Pufnstuf has a superstar sister named Shirley who makes movies for the pompous producer, Akim Toadinoff. Dr. Blinkey's house is a threat to most of the residents as well since it seems to constantly have hay fever and is always sneezing, causing horrible gusts of wind.
Add into this mad menagerie a young 12-year-old boy. Jimmy was playing along the shore of a bay when a boat called over to him (yes, a floating, sea-worthy boat...just play along) and asked if he wanted to take a ride. Little did Jimmy know that Witchiepoo had sent the ship, hoping to trap him and his companion. You see, Jimmy has a best friend that never leaves his person. His close confidant is long and hard and sometimes requires both of Jimmy's hands to play with. This pocket pal, this blow-on friend, is called Freddy and he's a...magical, golden, diamond encrusted flute. When Jimmy escapes the boat, he and Freddy wash up on Living Island, where Pufnstuf takes him in. Thus begins a friendship (and a kid show series) that will last a lunchtime. Also beginning is the ongoing personal struggle of Witchiepoo. She constantly tries to find ways of capturing Freddy. She needs that flute in a bad, obsessive-compulsive way and will do anything to get it. So Pufnstuf must not only run the day-to-day operations of Living Island, but also thwart the witch's covetous capers. Some of the adventures the gang gets into are as follows:
"The Magic Path"
Mayor Pufnstuf wants to help Jimmy and Freddy get off his island, so he suggests they follow the Magic Path of Gold back home. But Witchiepoo has other ideas and will stop at nothing to see them fail.
"The Wheely Bird"
When Witchiepoo flute-naps Freddy, Pufnstuf and Jimmy need a plan to rescue him/it. With the help of local physician/scientist Dr. Blinkey, they use a mechanical bird as a Trojan horse to sneak into the sorceress's lair.
"Show Biz Witch"
In order to get close to Jimmy and his magical flute, Witchiepoo and her henchmen disguise themselves as the famous rock combo The Three Oranges. They wail on the Living Island classic "Oranges, Smoranges."
"The Mechanical Boy"
Hoping to get Jimmy to obey her every command, Witchiepoo turns him into a robot. But thanks to Pufnstuf's efforts (and the clock people's time machine), Jimmy is returned back to normal.
"Box Kite Kaper"
When Mayor Pufnstuf announces the kite-flying contest, Living Island is agog. But the competition has another purpose. The daffy dragon hopes to build a kite that will carry Jimmy and Freddy back home.
"The Golden Key"
Flim flam artist Ludicrous Lion sells Jimmy a map that supposedly leads to a golden door -- and a key that will open it. When Jimmy starts finding what he needs to escape, Witchiepoo flies into action.
"The Birthday Party"
Jimmy is depressed because it is his birthday. Pufnstuf throws him a surprise party that Witchiepoo crashes. With Freddy trapped in her castle, the mayor and his minions are to the rescue again.
"The Horse with the Golden Throat"
When Ludicrous Lion's sidekick, Polka Dot Horse, accidentally swallows Freddy, it's time for a trip to Dr. Blinkey. Eventually Witchiepoo shows up to exploit the situation.
Pufnstuf's legendary actress sister, "Shirley," arrives on the island for a visit. Her producer, Akim Toadinoff, decides that Jimmy and Freddy would be perfect for his movie. But Witchiepoo has aspirations of fame herself.
"You Can't Have Your Cake"
Using the old "witch in the cake" conceit, Witchiepoo steals Freddy. Pufnstuf asks the North Wind to freeze the fiend so Jimmy can rescue the flute. When she finally thaws, the ill-mannered witch is out for revenge.
"Dinner For Two Please Orson"
Depressed that she doesn't have a man in her life, Witchiepoo is down in the dumps. But when she meets a 72 year old Jimmy (aged because of a time machine glitch), it's true love.
"Flute, Book and Candle"
When he accidentally touches one of the poisonous mushrooms on the island, Freddy is turned into a fungal flute. Dr. Blinkey needs a spell from Witchiepoo's black magic book to turn him back.
"A Tooth for a Tooth"
Witchiepoo has a bad tooth and it's killing her. She disguises herself to have Dr. Blinkey pull it. Using a love potion to make her friendly and helpful, Jimmy and Freddy try to steal her beloved motorized Vroom Broom.
"The Visiting Witch"
The Boss Witch is coming to Living Island for an inspection and Witchiepoo is not ready. She kidnaps Pufnstuf as a present for the priestess. But when the hag is a no show, Jimmy must take her place to save the day.
"The Almost Election of Witchiepoo"
It's time for Living Island to elect a new mayor and Pufnstuf runs unopposed. But Witchiepoo sees a chance to gain legitimate power, and runs as well. Of course, she'll use underhanded tricks to win.
"Whaddya Mean the Horse Gets the Girl"
Jimmy wants to make a movie to finance his "Get Rid of the Witch" fund, so Shirley Pufnstuf and Toadanoff are back. But it's Polka Dot Horse who is named the leading man, and must save the day.
Jimmy falls and suffers from amnesia. Pufnstuf and Dr. Blinkey try to help him get his memory back by recalling events from the past. When Jimmy wanders off and runs into Witchiepoo, she tries to do the same thing.
And that's it. Jimmy never left Living Island. He stayed with Pufnstuf and the rest of the gang and lived happily ever after.
"Once upon a summertime, just a dream from yesterday..."
Either Sid and Marty Krofft are the most insane, unhinged individuals ever to be given their own parking space at NBC studios, or they are so jaw droppingly brilliant that someone like Stephen Hawking better hope they never try to explain string theory to the rest of the world. Having spent years in Las Vegas and the nightclub circuit, they took their talent and transposed it upon all manner of entertainment entities. They were an opening act for Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra (that's a concert worth seeing...) and filtered foreign marionette mandates into their own nightclub tomfoolery, turning even the most inanimate dummy into a warped depiction of delirium. Far worse than the permanent pineal damage done to people worldwide thanks to Coca-Cola, Shake-a-Pudding, Space Food Sticks, and McDonalds combined, the live action children's programming fostered by this fever dream duo has resulted in more misguided imaginations and non-drug related adolescent acid trips than fluoridated water, horror comics, or any other Communist backed plot. Like a Cold War inside your brain, the twisted TV of S. and M. was ripe with rich weirdness, overblown primary color cerebrum shifting, and blatant paisley pandering to create a totally original, incredibly askew vision of amusement. It has survived decades of outright attacks, obvious imitation, and nostalgic poetic waxing to end up, 36 years later, a staple of childhood memories. Generations have grown up with their cotton floss fiascos in regressive primal screaming and still think they were/are the better for it. Just another example of the brainwashing as pleasant pain easing offered by those crazy Kroffts.
Now, those who think Pufnstuf and his gang are the result of long nights with a beer bong or peyote button are just plain goofy. After all, people can find dope references in anything -- The Wizard of Oz, Yellow Submarine, Requiem for a Dream. Heck, anyone who actually watches (and enjoys) the majority of mind numbing nonsense that passes for prime time programming today needs to ease off the "herb" garden, pronto. No, the Kroffts weren't on some hallucinogenic when they created their shows. They did not feel the need to feed their head. These guys were twisted from the beginning (and still seem to be a tad detached from reality even now). After all, what kind of show would you expect from a couple of creative carnies who thought that Les Poupees de Paris (billed as the first "adults only puppet act"! Egad!) was proper entertainment for a World's Fair? You see, Sid and Marty always looked past the obvious and into the obtuse, reading between the lines of the lines to decipher even more morbid meaning out of the most routine arrangement. They tossed Alice aside, broke the looking glass, avoided all the other fairytale fluff, and remembered just whom that trippy drunk dormouse hung around with. That's why most of their shows resemble a journey through the Mad Hatter's inner psychotic tendencies. No, narcotics were not part of the picture. If anything, the brothers wanted to make their own cathode ray LSD, mixing a love of entertaining with wonderful stories told in magical detail to instill their vision with wholesome peculiarity. They succeeded royally. Pufnstuf, along with his companions in programming like Sigmund, the Sleestaks, and Wenie the Genie, reinvented children's television, turning it into a magical world where anything could happen, everything was a story, and classic show business conceits were relied on to keep everything grounded.
Their success, though, could definitely be chalked up to a bit of "right place, right time" luck. Television goes in very cyclical cycles, and during the mid '60s no one wanted a live action kids show, let alone one featuring such psychedelic puppets. In the '50s, the majority of children's television was non-animated. Winky Dink and You, The Pinky Lee Show, Andy's Gang, and The Howdy Doody Show all wowed the wee ones with human hosts interacting with hand held sidekicks. But just as quickly as the comic/prop based entertainment was a hit, it seemed to flounder under the onslaught of animated superheroes and cartoon adventure shows. Partly as a response to the outcries from parents that hand-drawn TV was now "too violent" and focusing far too much on the outrageous and surreal, the creative team behind the majority of the complained-about media, Hanna-Barbera, decided to give the complainers what they wanted (while keeping their wealth of cartoons free and clear). They approached the Krofft puppeteers (Sid and Marty) and asked them to fashion life-size figures for the live action portion of their new show The Banana Splits. When the wild creations proved to be a hit, the brothers knew they needed to be in business for themselves. They spearheaded the second great renaissance in non-animated children's programming. Their string of hit shows (from The Bugaloos to Lidsville, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, and Land of the Lost) continued to challenge the cartoon mentality and ruled the airwaves until the mid-'70s. Network and syndicated producers rushed to jump on the ballyhoo bonanza with such arcane creations as The New Zoo Revue and Dusty's Treehouse.
Then suddenly (thanks in no small part to the pathetic attempts at imitation like The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show and Big John, Little John), live action was arcane and uncool again. Some blame punk. Others take disco to task. But the reality was plain and simple -- it was time for a downward run on the roller coaster of the business called show, and the changing tide meant more Japanese and Korean based cartoon crap. Networks gutted their expensive gambits and popular favorites rapidly fell by the wayside. As the '80s evolved, "kid vid," as it was labeled, was in a horrible slump, reeking of attempts to restart it by everyone from political action committees (who wanted Saturday morning shows to be more "educational") to cable channels who could afford the luxury of micromanaging their programming down to an exact, demographically appealing product. It took Paul Reubens, in the guise of his famous Pee Wee Herman character, to save live action from itself. His elliptical, bizarre Pee Wee's Playhouse was classic children's fare with an arch self-realized irony that played far better to young adults and parents than the little pint-sizers. But it was also all Krofft, from the talking entities of all variety and genus to the desire to incorporate imagination and magic over hard merchandise placement. Oddly enough, the most recent use of the live action format has been in the pre-puberty teen dream dramaramas of such so-called comedies as Saved by the Bell, Kids, Incorporated, and The New Mickey Mouse Club. Heck, half of our popular culture would be instantly gutted had TV not fancied real people again.
The Kroffts knew they were on to something when they started. They realized that, if they could really tap into that live action market, they would potentially have a built-in audience for life. Local television programmers understood this conceit very well and always placed a high value on children's programming. Locations like Chicago fostered their own historic, legendary creations. Ray Raynor had a morning kid's show (Ray Raynor and Friends) where he sang songs, showed cartoons, did crafts, and sometimes concocted wild comedy skits. Garfield Goose and Friends was the brainchild of puppeteer Fraiser Thomas. This demented show starred a quacking fowl who believed himself king of the world. One of the longest running programs in the history of WGN (at one time, the waiting list for tickets to see the show was booked 10 years in advance), Bozo's Circus featured the classic clown, his kooky sidekicks, occasional live acts from the local theaters, and the all-important Grand Prize Game (kids threw ping pong balls into a series of numbered buckets to win fabulous prizes). Even the afternoons were filled with fun. Cartoon Town, which later changed its name to The BJ and Dirty Dragon Show (how's that for a name to inspire some questionable inferences?), featured renowned artist and puppeteer Bill Jackson, dealing with a manic menagerie including a angry fire-breather, a polymorphous lump of clay called Blob (who could be molded into anything Jackson wanted), and a weird conglomeration of characters with such strange names as the Lemon Joke Kid, Mother Plumtree, and the Thumptwangers. The audience was there. The loyalty was built in. All they had to do was tap it.
For the Kroftts, H.R. Pufnstuf was the proper spigot indeed. This was and still is classic children's television without exception or equal. Aside from Pee Wee, who is always more amusing in his adult rather than infantile modes, no one has come close to matching the Kroffts' crocked style (the recent Weird Al kids show was close, but no cigar smoking mushroom) or perverted pleasures. This doesn't mean that Pufnstuf is exceptional or even great (hey, what kids show is truly a media masterpiece?). Indeed, sometimes it wallows so wonderfully in its own excess that it becomes insular and obtuse. But what it does do so absolutely spectacularly is bubble with youthful vibrancy and energy. H.R. Pufnstuf overflows with ballsy imagination and subsists on exact writing and pitch perfect performances to, somehow, find a way to magically move viewers outside themselves and into this whacked-out world for 22 minutes. The Kroffts' great contribution to television is the instilling of feature film scope and spectacle onto the small screen. They never got too lost in their own cosmos to visually connect with their target audience and loaded the landscape with so much wit and wildness that all ages could belly up to the bedlam and take a hit of high-strung silliness. As they continued on with other live action programming, many of the things that seemed to make the dragon Mayor and his living islanders such a source of specialness seemed to diminish. By the time of such stagnant offerings as Electro-Woman and Dyna Girl (which became kid vid's first jiggle fest), almost all the magic was gone. But when they didn't know what they were doing, when they were merely babes in the ratings woods of television, their third eye blind expressions of fun and frolic became the makings for timeless, twisted treasures.
As a show, H.R. Pufnstuf is a personality-jolting gem. There are a great deal of show-specific idiosyncrasies, little asides, and narrative mainstays that crop up throughout. Scholars have indicated that, while the initial idea was pure Sid and Marty, the real nuts and bolts of the show was turned over to sitcom veterans and show business professionals to flesh out the concept. These men really minded the fun factory while the fanciful fantasizers concentrated on the "big puppet picture." As a result, Pufnstuf does have a feeling of weekly variety familiarity to it, almost comedy revue in nature. We get repeated jokes (Witchiepoo bonking poor Orson on the head when she casts spells), constant slapstick (residents of Living Island seem to literally communicate with each other through slapping and poking), and the inclusion of songs to highlight human stars Jack Wild (Oliver's Artful Dodger) and Billie Hayes's (Living Island's witch was also Mammy Yokum in Broadway' Lil' Abner) plentiful talents. And there are even the old boob tube standby formulas (amnesia, the padded focus on a single ancillary character) that help provide potential story arcs. Thankfully, the DVD presentation by Rhino gives us the complete series here (no portioned out partial packs) so we can see the whole show, Pufnstuf in toto as an absolute concept. It really lets one gauge how successful the series was in translating its ideas into entities.
The first thing that strikes you is how short the show's run actually was. Though repeated ad nauseum by NBC, the Kroffts only created 17 original shows (16 if you void "Jimmy Who?" as merely a glorified clip fest). Repeats and fractured memories seem to create their own, incorporated offerings, but the truth is far more hemmed in. Pufnstuf and Jimmy only ran a few scant weeks and then that was it (except for a movie that blew the whole thing up to big budget buffoonish proportions). So everything that everyone remembers as special or specious about this show is contained in a mere six hours of run time. Next, the performances come into the spotlight. Everyone here is excellent, never once destroying the magic with audience asides or winks. Jack Wild, who mixes Davy Jones with Judy Carne to become the ultimate asexual cockney child star, makes Jimmy the sole precocious brat who's actually not an itchy irritant. Maybe it's his thick accent and/or wide-eyed optimism, but Jimmy can always turn a frown, if not upside down, at least a little sideways. Billie Hayes, on the other hand, is Witchiepoo, a crass, crazy, comic classic. It's the kind of over the top tyrant performance that kids instantly respond to and adults ponder in their later, more lucid moments. She and Wild are the stalwart show business trouper aspect of the series, a "never say die, make 'em laugh and tap their toes" level of mentality that never lets up...or the audience down.
But it's the effects, the puppetry and the panoramas that linger after watching an episode of Pufnstuf: the marvel of Witchiepoo's castle and Dr. Blinkey's House (both of which look just as good in full scale as the do in miniature), the rapid eye movement of the manic characters, the close association with famous archetypes (Ludicrous Lion = W.C. Fields, Dr. Blinkey = Ed Wynne). And let's not forget the fun. Fun is paramount virtue numero uno in H.R. Pufnstuf and it saturates everything in the show. From the art and set design to the most minor of details, H.R. Pufnstuf is an amazing amalgamation of expressionism, surreality, and pop art sensibilities all rolled into a spleef of splendor and toked on slowly. (Sorry.)
Right out of the box, the Kroffts announced their intentions to avoid the whole good versus evil formula and instead, embark on a more child psychological comfort versus disappointment ideal. After establishing the abandonment concept with the pre-credit sing-along narrative (the whole witch/boat stuff), Jimmy is always trying to get back home. The first episode, "The Magic Path," indicates how rapidly this dogma will be exploited and twisted. Witchiepoo turns the road home (the aforementioned "path") into a dark and dismal trail of death. Jimmy could, apparently, traverse this twisted turnpike and still get home (she didn't destroy the way as much as muck it up), but he instead chooses to stay with Pufnstuf and try another escape avenue. Such distresses are around every bend in this complex series and make the struggle between white and dark magic all the more powerful. This weird dynamic shows up in the rest of Disc One's offerings as well. "The Wheely Bird" is an outlandish take on the Trojan horse that incorporates some strange social satire ("Make Candy, Not War") within its search for Freddy context. "Box Kite Kaper" is that age-old idea that anything can happen in a cartoon taken to ridiculous ends (Jimmy can really fly home on a kite?). "The Golden Key" merely repeats "Path"'s lead-up and let down deconstruction, and "The Birthday Party" is an excuse for huge musical set pieces and multi-character interaction. If there are two certifiable classics here, they are "Show Biz Witch" and "The Mechanical Boy." Each have their show stopping tunes: for "Witch," it's the blazing balderdash called "Oranges Smoranges"; in the case of "Mechanical," it's the title number, a robot dance bit of buskering by Wild that transcends its simpleton style to be a real winner. But each episode also has nice, direct storytelling with good introductions and fine payoffs.
Disc Two also has its own wacky winners. "The Stand-In" introduces Pufnstuf's sister Shirley (a Temple clone with red pigtails) and her Boris Badinoff-as-a-bullfrog producer Akim Toadanoff. The onset material is priceless, and Witchiepoo's pounding at the call for "MAKEUP!" is still as funny as when the gag was first fossilized. "Dinner for Two Please Orson" is a Witchiepoo tour-de-force, giving Hayes a chance to warble a wicked ballad ("The Loneliest Witch in the World") and introducing Grandfather Time's futuristic wayback machine. Jimmy as an old man is kinda cute (even if they dubbed Wild with another, far more feminine voice), and the romance angle is handled well. But the rest of the shows here can't live up to this level. "The Horse with the Golden Throat" is a clunky old routine (someone swallows a valuable object) and it never really pays off. "You Can't Have Your Cake" is obtuse and circular, going forever around and never making its intended point. The mushroom Freddy is the only highlight of "Flute, Book and Candle" (he looks very creepy) and Witchiepoo's change of heart (thanks to a love potion) makes "A Tooth for a Tooth" something different, if not necessarily better. Jack Wild's drag act as the Boss in "The Visiting Witch" is hilarious, but not much is done with it. This episode should have been more insane and self-referencing. Instead, it merely peters out.
The cheerful, childish song "Pufnstuf for Mayor" (which Wild turns into "Puf-a-stuf fa MAAA-ya") highlights one of the best shows of the series. Seeing how Living Island functions in combination with some zings at the electorate (who are easily swayed by speeches and songs) makes "The Almost Election of Witchiepoo" a fantastic outing. "Whaddya Mean the Horse Gets the Girl" features the return of Shirley and Toadanoff, along with a spotlight for Polka Dot Horse (who gets his stage name Pierpont Pony here). Again, the mimickery of movies is spot on and the ending allows Horse to really play the hero. Sadly, Disc Three ends with "Jimmy Who?" a tired, sitcom premise (amnesia) that even more routinely incorporates clips of songs from the series as a way of waking Jimmy out of his mental malaise. While it's nice to see the material again, it's odd that a show with only 16 installments would resort to a highlight reel so soon. Maybe the Kroffts knew something the home viewers didn't. Maybe they'd run out of ideas. Or maybe they didn't know where to go with the show. How much longer could the 17-year-old Wild play 12? How much more disappointment could they foster on the lad before the audience backlash occurred? When was the right time to pull the plug and more importantly, if they continued, could they keep up the level of professional polish? Like that out of reach realm that sits behind your eyes as you laze in the grass on a humid summer's day, H.R. Pufnstuf went before it really had time to connect in the sense memory of millions. Its status as a classic is more for what it meant to people versus what they actually remember about it.
In a world (and for 1968-9, a time) almost bereft of magic for children, H.R. Pufnstuf tried to capture delight in a diode and transport it out across the airwaves and directly into the hearts of kids everywhere. One of the reasons these shows have stood the test of time is their genuine desire to entertain; the absolute sincerity and endearing compassion that Sid and Marty had for their underage audience. Like a far more warped version of Fred Rogers (who had his own arch Land of Make Believe to contend with), they knew that the imagination of a child will follow you anywhere as long as you provide the pretty paints and glitter glue. Thanks to the far-out pop art poems of the late '60s, Sid and Marty combined Peter Max and other graphic illustrators together with their own individual iconography to bring their vision of a live action animated cartoon to life. Even with Pee Wee's Playhouse and other modern charmers, no one can match the Kroffts for the sheer epic nature of their undertaking. On a small budget, with limited experience in the medium themselves but able to cull some incredible talent out of the Tinseltown pool, they proved ideas could conquer all. Thanks to Rhino, this TV anomaly has been preserved for future generations to gloat, gawk, and giggle over. Not everyone will "get" H.R. Pufnstuf. There will be those who think the entire series suggests something Satanic or sordid, but the truth is much more mundane. Sometimes, people with a pure aesthetic vision come along and shake up the system with their own eccentric ideals. Sid and Marty Krofft are such unique kid vid voices. Not only did they redefine a genre, but simultaneously reset the benchmark for the better as well.
Rhino's treatment of this series on DVD is reverential as well as practical. For a show this old, one can hardly expect pristine transfers. For the most part, the visual elements are intact and presented superbly. All the anarchic imagery employed by the Kroffts is captured in eye-popping and pleasing fashion. There is a huge flaw though, present on Disc Two. The episode "Flute, Book and Candle" is offered in a hideous nth generation disaster that looks atrocious compared to everything else. The colors are muted and dull and the amount of video damage is extensive. Most of the 1.33:1 full screen shows have minor wear and tear, but this horrid installment is unacceptable. No explanation is given as to why this singular entry is so appalling, but those looking to complete their Krofft collection with a pristine Pufnstuf set will be very disappointed. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo is lively and listenable. Pufnstuf can occasionally be a cacophony of sound and effects, and distortion is the usual result of such monstrous mixing. But not here. The elements blend nicely and there is no audio anxiety to be found.
Rhino also goes against the grain of most companies putting out television box sets by actually including some stellar bonus material. Beginning with Disc One, there is a commentary on "The Magic Path" featuring Sid and Marty themselves and their occasionally out of focus memories. They love their show and spend more time in respectful awe than actually making quips. Marty keeps hinting on how Jack Wild made his life a living hell (apparently, the Brit and his older brother lived with him while making the show), but we never get the requisite closure on the anecdote. The same thing happens in the 22-minute interview with the brothers on Disc Three. They spend a lot of time patting themselves on the back and those cryptic comments about Wild just keep coming up. Wild himself addresses the topic (but never says what happened, darn it) on his own interview feature, and his heartfelt love of the project really comes through. He is a man who has obviously battled a lot of demons in his time (he wears his life all over his wounded, worn face) and recalling the Pufnstuf days seems to lighten his load. Billie Hayes, in her separate Q&A, is the old show biz pro, a ham trying to deflect importance while garnering raves as she dances around the issues discussed. She has nothing but love for everyone involved in the show and seems occasionally uneasy about addressing the more "scandalous" elements therein. Film historian Hal Erickson gives some good background on the kiddie show craze in his talk and discusses many of the backstage shenanigans that went into making the show. A final eight-minute snippet of the brothers' first foray into television, 1957's Irving, shows their magnificent marionette work in a rather faded, aged film clip.
This critic always seems to be screaming for additional commentaries, and the truth is, nine times out of ten what companies cast onto alternate tracks is mostly crap. For many TV people, their time on the tube was a "been there, done that, now let's never think of it again" pitstop on their way to future career fulfillment. So when a commentary is recorded, the participants spend more time reliving than revealing. But listening to Wild and Hayes speak about Pufnstuf indicates that they have a fondness and a freshness of perspective that surpasses mere knowledge and waltzes into the realm of life affirmation. Hearing them gossip and recollect together on one or two episodes would have been wonderful. Just seeing them together again in the same shot would have been nice. But Rhino doesn't make that happen.
And what about the little people who worked on the show, are they still around? Why not give them a chance to speak? H.R. Pufnstuf was so much more a show about characters than about live action actors that it would have been nice to get their perspective. But such information is in short supply on this DVD set. It would have been a fitting tribute to a classic bit of foolish fluff. But at least we have the extras offered.
It's amazing how shows from your youth stay with you. I was eight when Pufnstuf hit the air and it completely freaked me out. I used to marvel at Jack Wild's wistful performances and cockney drawl and wondered why none of my friends were as cool as he. When Lidsville (another Sid and Marty madcap adventure) made its debut, I instantly became a devotee of this new warped world from the bizarro brothers. While this land of talking hats had its moments, it never matched Freddy flouting or Jimmy's chimney sweep stage presence. Time passed and the call of puberty made the Kroffts' cosmos a babyland of childish cheerfulness. For years, I never gave these misguided merriments from my past any cognitive concern. Occasionally, songs and phrases would come to my mind ("Oranges, Smorages" or the ever-popular theme song), but I didn't make the connection between recall and caring. Then, around my mid-30s, I picked up a VHS copy of the Lidsville series. As the four heads whirled and the freakish images from the past paraded across the screen, it was like I had experienced some strange electroshock therapy. There it was again, a show I had obsessed on for months, a concept that perplexed as it pleased me. Poor Butch Patrick, surrounded by talking fedoras and complaining chapeaus, all trying to avoid Charles Nelson Reilly's ridiculous mincing magician Hoo Doo. Add Billie Hayes in yet another Krofft creation, the androgynous Wenie the Genie, and suddenly all my adult psychosis made sense. I now knew why I was nuts! I guess it is safe to say that, part of who I am today is the direct result of seeing Jimmy and his magic flute flit around Living Island with an oversized lizard that spoke like Andy Griffith. Who needs therapy or long stints in psychoanalysis? If you're like me, just pick up a copy of H.R. Pufnstuf: The Complete Series and give your brain a drain today. You'll be glad you did.
H.R. Pufnstuf: The Complete Series is found not guilty and is free to go. Rhino is charged with a single Sorry Installment Indictment. They are fined 100 gold buttons and sentenced to 30 days cleaning up after Cling and Clang. Case closed.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 450 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Interview with Sid and Marty Krofft
* Interview with "Witchiepoo" Billie Hayes
* Interview with "Jimmy" Jack Wild
* Interview with TV Historian Hal Erickson
* Sid and Marty Krofft pilot from 1957, "Irving"
* Pilot Episode Commentary with Sid and Marty Krofft
* TV Land Spots