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"The biggest waste of time since The Bullwinkle Show!"—Hans Conried
Fractured Flickers, Jay Ward and Bill Scott's first and only live action series, came hot on the heels of the success of their groundbreaking cartoons Rocky and his Friends and The Bullwinkle Show. Transposing the same kind of wacky wordplay, outrageous satire, and lowbrow slapstick that made those shows so successful to the fertile territory of Hollywood's Golden Age, Fractured Flickers wittily bulldozed through a wealth of silent film heritage by adding comedic dubbed voices and sound effects to re-edited films.
Jay Ward fans will rejoice to find that all 26 episodes of this occasionally inspired, often humorous, and always bizarre series have been included on VCI's new Fractured Flickers three-disc set, available for the first time ever on home video.
Facts of the Case
Hosted by Hans Conried (The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T), each half-hour show combines a half-dozen or so "fractured" silent films with new voice work provided by Bill Scott, Paul Frees, and June Foray, the talented actors who brought to life many of Ward's animated characters. These segments are tied together by Conried, who introduces the concept each week, offers self-deprecating comments about the show, and conducts an interview with a well-known celebrity.
An inspiration for What's Up Tiger Lily? and to a far lesser extent, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Fractured Flickers may have been far ahead of its time in terms of concept, but unfortunately, it fails to make the grade where it counts: in the consistency of humor. While I significantly enjoy these other, comparable efforts, I found the experience of watching Fractured Flickers quite disappointing, and I couldn't help but feel that the show simply did not live up to its potential. For every Fractured Flickers segment that works, there are at least three that fall completely flat, a fact made all the more depressing considering the usually hilarious talent involved.
Generally, the best segments come in quick hits. Phony movie trailers, advertising parodies, and my favorite bit, a recurring "One Minute Mysteries" that invites the audience to solve along with a Hardy-less Stan Laurel, don't have enough time to wear themselves thin, and easily shine as the best parts of the show. Still, a lot can be said for some of the show's longer high-concept pieces, which explode the conventions of silent film genres in the same way that Ward and Scott's Dudley Do-Right parodied the melodramatic Mountie films of the 1930s. Some of the more inspired of these segments include recasting Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame as "Dicky Dunston, Boy Cheerleader," and altering John Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into the story of a seltzer salesman looking for the perfect soft drink. While many of the essentially "one joke" segments go on far too long, several of them do work with the kind of anarchic craziness you might expect from a Ward-Scott production.
Unfortunately, such moments of brilliance are few and far between, a shortcoming that seems to stem from the limitations of the source material. As the already fragile concept is stretched to the breaking point over the course of the series, Fractured Flickers starts to get extremely repetitive, especially when you begin to notice the same clips being recycled over and over. While the early shows mostly concerned themselves with fracturing dramas, later episodes rely too heavily on footage that was already humorous before Ward and Scott got their hands on it. A non-stop parade of pre-Wright Brothers plane designs, car crashes, and myriad slapstick bits (including those with well-known comedians like Buster Keaton) become redundant when jokey voices are added to "make" them funny. The worst among these is a recurring bit with a supposed director giving instructions over a film as though he were directing it in real-time—a boat overflowing with men sinks into the ocean while the frazzled director says "No, this isn't what I wanted! Clear the deck and try it again!"
Much better are the Hans Conried host segments. Between tossing off one-liners to keep the show moving, his interviews with such luminaries as Rod Serling, Ursula Andress, and even Bullwinkle are a nice break from the silent film shenanigans. Eschewing the kiss and schmooze celebrity suck-up for a pre-scripted conversation, these humorous dialogues have Hans trying to foist his songs off on Allan Sherman, or feigning ignorance of Fabian's stardom because he spends all his time watching silent films. It's not all one sided though, as the celebs poke fun of the concept of the show and Hans's skills as a host.
Not surprising for a show that mainly consists of recycled silent footage, the bulk of Fractured Flickers looks pretty poor. The flickers themselves are very scratchy, with poor contrast and major source artifacts, but since part of the show's charm lies in the damaged film stock, this is forgivable. The host segments fare much better, with few noticeable incidents of nicks or dirt. Presented in mono, the soundtrack is perfectly adequate, and barring some hissing and a few audio problems with the very first episode, the dialogue on this set is entirely clear. There are no extras besides some unrelated VCI previews and some text biographies.
In Fractured Flickers, Jay Ward and Bill Scott created something oddly nostalgic yet distinctly of its time. While brilliantly simple in conception, it just doesn't work so well in practice, which is a real shame. Curious parties will be more than happy with a rental, while only die-hard Jay Ward fans should really consider a purchase.
Guilty of erratic comedy and not living up to its potential, Fractured Flickers is hereby banished to the back of the vault, where it will collect dust alongside the very films it fractures.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
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