Saturday morning cartoons on network TV that are completely devoid of educational content? That will never happen again, says Appellate Judge James A. Stewart.
"Danger is my business."
After you bring Batman to life, what do you do for an encore? Bob Kane, the legendary comics artist behind the Caped Crusader, followed up with two TV cartoons, Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse and Cool McCool. Both cartoons were heavy on parody, with Courageous Cat mocking superheroes while Cool McCool took on the secret agent men of TV and movies. Its hero was played by Bob McFadden with a voice and mannerisms that evoked Jack Benny.
Cool McCool premiered on NBC in September 1966, with 20 episodes playing over and over again for three years. Each 22-minute episode featured two Cool McCool cases and a flashback adventure with Cool's dad Harry ("my pop the cop") and his sidekicks, Tom and Dick. A show with three six-minute stories was fleshed out with minute-long opening and closing credits sequences and two interstitial bits (a few of them are repeated a lot) that feature the show's rogues gallery ganging up on McCool. These 20 episodes are shown complete on Cool McCool: The Complete Series.
As you can imagine, these weren't elaborately plotted capers. Cool's cases start out with a bang (often with an intriguing teaser that'll remind you of a full-length TV spy adventure) then jump to the all-too-quick-and-easy resolution. Two Cool cartoons, "Fine Feathered Fiends" and "Sniffen, Snoozen and Sneezen," even had plot hooks that turned up later on The New Avengers: birds trained to commit crimes and a sleep gas that could knock out an entire city. Harry McCool's cases, meanwhile, were simple affairs (like the one in which a crook catches Casey's 1,000th home run ball and won't give it back) that usually cut right to the chase, which usually involves silent comedy standards like the pie-in-the-face routine.
While the structure of the show wasn't conducive to in-depth storytelling, it was rerun-ready. Throw out the credits and the interstitial bits, and you have three six-minute cartoons that fit easily into the formats of local TV kiddie shows like The Chuck McCann Show in New York City. In fact, many cartoons by co-creator Al Brodax (like Snuffy Smith and Beetle Bailey) had already run on Chuck McCann's show. Hence, McCann seemed to Brodax a natural choice to do voices on the Cool McCool cartoon series.
While he didn't play Cool, McCann (Far Out Space Nuts) did many of the other voices, from boss No. 1 to villains like Hurricane Harry and The Owl. The show was the start of McCann's career as an actor, one heavy on voice work. In his episode introductions, he shows us that, at age 72, he's still got the voices down pat. In two of the episodes, he has a few surprises to point out for alert viewers.
If you're at all curious about the early days of television, you might find McCann's commentaries and feature appearances the best part of Cool McCool: The Complete Series. The best one is the 26-minute "Chatting With Chuck," which includes two black-and-white sketches from McCann's days as a New York kids' show host as the actor speaks in front of fans. In "McCann on McCool," he talks about how he came up with a wide range of character voices through "hybrids," starting with a famous voice (Sydney Greenstreet inspired Hurricane Harry, for example), then putting his own spin on it. In commentaries with two episodes, McCann recalls his TV show; among his reminiscences is a story about his elaborate readings of the New York Daily News funnies during a newspaper strike. There's some repetition between the episode commentaries and the featurettes, but overall I found these extras fascinating.
McCann is accompanied in these features by voice actor Wally Wingert (Family Guy), who interviews McCann with a sense of awe and does his own McCool impression in a retro-style music video, "The School of McCool."
Now back to the actual show. Cool McCool obviously was done on the cheap—note the repetitive interstitials, the limited animation and simplified backgrounds, and the use of only three voice actors. It may remind you of two other 1960s shows: Batman and Get Smart, not to mention the Pink Panther and Bullwinkle cartoons its stylized-but-simple animation style often mimics. The villains do have close parallels to Bat-villains: the Owl and the Pussycat resemble Penguin and Catwoman, while Jack-in-the-Box and Dr. Madcap reminded me of The Joker and Mad Hatter, respectively. The Rattler, who controls the plant world, and Hurricane Harry, whose "windbag" breath carries a lot of power, don't seem to resemble any of the Batman TV villains, though. While Cool can screw up like Maxwell Smart and one catchphrase, "Sorry, that will never happen again," recalls Smart's "Sorry about that, Chief," McCool seems much more resigned to the fates that make him out to be a fool even as he saves the world; in that, he seems at times like a simpler version of contemporary underdog heroes like Adrian Monk and Due South's Benton Fraser.
Cool's team includes a cigar-chomping boss, No. 1, who seems to be ready to off the agent himself; a lovestruck Miss Moneypenny type, Friday; an overalls-clad gadget genius, Riggs; and a junior assistant, Breezy. He gets the most help, though, from his Cool Mobile, which seems to have a mind of its own even as it comes to his rescue each time he (or any character) whistles. It always saves the day in the end, but you never know whether it'll send a cop spinning accidentally with its radar dish or be distracted by a lady car. Someone involved with this production seems to have birds on the brain, since a lot of gags involve birds running into or avoiding Cool or Harry when the heroes are sent flying.
The writers have a lot of fun with silly gags: Jack-in-the-Box watching the news to spot a chance to swipe a necklace, then commenting that "TV is so educational," or an inspirational sign, "Dig we must," near a prison escape tunnel in progress. The best part of Cool McCool is the way the writers build on the running bits. The cartoons end with Cool causing trouble back in the office, usually with a souvenir from his case going awry, and being ejected through the roof. This gag becomes more elaborate as the series continues, so its familiarity breeds anticipation rather than contempt. There's also a lot of play on Cool's catchphrases, like "Danger is my business." After a couple of episodes, the phrase starts to mutate, with variations like, "Danger is my business—and business is h-h-hot today!" There's also a tradeoff with the Harry McCool segments: one Harry segment finds the old-time cop lighting the Statue of Liberty, with the Cool cartoon immediately following showing the spy rescuing the statue from Hurricane Harry. The final episode has a few bonuses: some animation with photos, a twist on a running gag in the Harry McCool cartoon, and a last battle in which all of the villains gang up on Cool McCool.
The picture has grain and occasional blurriness. The jazzy score with traces of silent-era slapstick score and a Third Man-style zephyr isn't bad, but it's a bit loud at times; keep your finger on the remote.
You'll find a lot of things in Cool McCool that wouldn't fly in children's fare today, mostly revolving around a reliance on bombs and guns for gag value. There also are occasional stereotyped Chinese and Mexican characters.
Cool McCool will likely appeal to viewers who'd notice that the scene with Dr. Madcap tossing money out the window echoes Diabolik and those viewers who get a kick out of Police Squad-style parody silliness. Not guilty.
McCool, will you put down that growth ray gun? There may be a cactus in my face, but I can still reach the ejector button…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BCI Eclipse
• Episode Introductions by Chuck McCann
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