Chief Justice Michael Stailey is gonna make mincemeat outta that mouse!
Simon says, too much of a good thing may rot your brain.
When criminals in this world appear
Growing up in Chicago in the early 1980s, Underdog ran during the lunch hour on WFLD Channel 32, just after Bozo's Circus wrapped on WGN Channel 9. It made for quite the combination and left an indelible mark on those of us lucky enough to run home for lunch, rather than eat in the institutionalized cafeteria. I loved that Underdog's adventures were bite-sized serials which you could easily drop in on and not feel like you missed anything. After all, the storylines are pretty much the same. Some villain—Simon Bar Sinister, Riff Raff, Battyman, Overcat (often voiced by Allen Swift)—comes up with a genius plan to take over the city/population/world, implementing said idea on Underdog's turf. At the same time, our heroine Sweet Polly Purebread (Norma MacMillan)—being the investigative reporter she is—gets kidnapped by said villain and it's up to Underdog (Wally Cox) to save the girl, save the city, and save the day. Roll credits.
Let's face facts, Underdog was created by TTV (Total TeleVision Productions) for the express purpose of selling General Mills cereal. Why? Well, ad exec W. Watts "Buck" Biggers (yes, his real name) was responsible for the General Mills account with NY-based ad agency Dancer Sample Fitzgerald. Partnering with co-writer Chester "Chet" Stover, producer Treadwell D. Covington (yes, his real name), and illustrator Joe Harris, the quartet had already created King Leonardo and His Short Subjects and Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales when the concept of Underdog was introduced. Strangely enough, it was birthed from an episode of I Love Lucy in which Lucy creates a Superman suit out of remnant material to impress George Reeves. Animated over the border in Mexico using only a 10% experienced American workforce (gov't regulation), the remaining 27 members of the team had to be trained in the art of animation from scratch. To make maters worse, they were forced to beg, borrow, and steal supplies to meet their production deadlines, even going so far as using house paint to color the cels. Ever notice a similarity in style between the TTV shows and Jay Ward's Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons? No surprising, since they were all created in the same facility (formerly Tompkins Studio, later known as Gamma Studios) where commercials like Trix and Captain Crunch were also produced.
Premiering on 3 October 1964, the show ran two years on NBC, before switching over to CBS Saturday mornings for two years (1966-68), and then back to NBC for the remainder of its nine year, 124 episode run. Surprisingly, at the height of its popularity, General Mills pulled the plug on production (March 1967) and everything that followed was repackaged repeats. In fact, the entire TTV family of cartoons, which includes The Hunter, Tooter Turtle, Go Go Gophers, Klondike Kat, Commander McBragg, The King and Odie, and Tennessee Tuxedo were used as puzzle pieces in a variety of syndication packages that ran on various local network and cable outlets through the 1990s. TTV sold the rights to their catalog to Classic Media in 1995 and they have appeared in several DVD releases since then.
As a kid, I was a huge Underdog fan. Going through these episodes again, I quickly discovered my younger self had far more patience than I. Not only are the episodic stories repetitive, but their original magic is lost on a cynical 40-something. There are only so many times you can listen to Shoeshine Boy's transformational battle cry, Polly sing "Where oh where has my Underdog gone?", and "Simon says…" before your brain begins to conjure dark homicidal thoughts. Perhaps these Underdog shows on continuous loop could replace waterboarding as a more humane CIA interrogation technique. Just a thought.
Yet, for as much as I have grown to detest the featured series, the brief adventures of The Hunter, Tooter Turtle, Go Go Gophers, Klondike Kat, and Commander McBragg shine just as brightly today (if not more so) than when I originally saw them. The writing it tight, the humor is sharp, and voice work is exceptional. So though you may come for the main course, it's the appetizers and desserts which make this meal worth praising.
The Hunter is an anthropomorphic spin on Barry Nelson's 1952 TV series of the same name, in which a hard-nosed canine detective (comedian Kenny Delmar) travels the world solving crimes and mysteries. Of course, his nemesis The Fox (Ben Stone) is often behind every crime, and his friend the Irish beat cop Flim Flanigan (also Ben Stone) is there to ensure justice is served.
Tooter Turtle is a stab at educational animation, in that every time Tooter (Allen Swift) wants to be something other than what he is (an astronaut, race car driver, bullfighter, Olympic Champion, Robin Hood, etc.) he quickly learns just how complex their lives really are. And when things go from bad to worse, his friend Mr. Wizard (Sandy Becker) is there to safely guide him back to reality. Not every adventure is winner, but these shorts are so smart and so much fun.
Go Go Gophers wouldn't come close to making it past Broadcast Standards and Practices today, what with its blatant racial stereotypes, but I defy you not to laugh at the hijinks of Ruffled Feathers (Sandy Becker) and Chief Running Board (George S. Irving). Out in the wilds of the western plains, US Cavalry Colonel Kit Coyote (Kenny Delmar) and his sergeant-at-arms Okey Homa (Sandy Becker doing his best John Wayne impersonation) attempt to keep the peace as they tame the wild natives, which never works. These shorts struck such a chord with audiences that CBS repackaged all 48 episodes and ran it as its own Saturday morning series from 1968 to 1969.
Like Hunter and the Gophers, Klondike Kat followed the adventures of a wildcat Canadian Mountie (Mort Marshall) in continuous hot pursuit of a French Canadian mouse known as Savoir-Faire (Sandy Becker)—who's "everywhere!"—and his faithful sled dog Malamutt. Though a trail of destruction inevitably follows in Klondike's wake, his commanding officer Major Minor (Kenny Delmar) keeps putting him on the case, since "Klondike Kat always gets his mouse!" Though nothing more than a variation on Tom and Jerry, these shorts never fail to entertain.
My absolute favorite of these backup tales is without a doubt The World of Commander McBragg. From within the comfort of his English gentlemen's club, this retired dodgy adventurer (Kenny Delmar) details his various exploits to anyone willing to listen. While there's a kernel of truth buried deep within each tale, the stories themselves are elaborate whoppers and absolutely hilarious. Though these shorts suffer the most serious degradation in quality, their condition do nothing to dispel the magic contained within.
Presented in standard definition 1.33:1 full frame, Shout! Factory is the first to attempt a complete collection of Underdog in the series' original broadcast format and lineup. Given that many of the masters had been lost or destroyed, huge credit is owed to producer Cliff MacMillan and his team for using whatever source material they could unearth and cleaning them up to present this exceptional package. The Dolby 2.0 Mono tracks vary just as wildly, some of the reclaimed title sequences suffering terribly.
In terms of bonus features, we get a retrospective featurette "There's No Need to Fear…Underdog is Here!", an interview with co-creator Joe Harris, and nine episode commentaries from the likes of animation historian Mark Arnold, TTV founder Buck Biggers, modern voice actor Wally Wingert, classic voice actor George S. Irving, and actress Alison Arngrim. Just know that these commentaries are often limited to the segment they are discussing, thus lasting little more than 8-10 minutes. Still, it's great to get perspective on a show that means so much to so many.
Given the impressive amount of painstaking work that went into creating this collection, Underdog: Complete Collector's Edition will play extremely well to those with an emotional investment in the series and its characters. Sadly, I can't say it holds the same magic for today's kids, as my 5 year old niece and 7 year old nephew quickly grew bored and left the room. Then again, these are the same kids who value Phineas and Ferb, so there's no accounting for taste.
Not Guilty. Quite.
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