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Sigmund and the Sea Monsters 1.3 – Frankenstein Drops In

I decided early on that we’d take a couple of days’ break from Freewheelers every few episodes, and this turned out to be a good idea. More on that later. So my son and I watched Sigmund tonight and enjoyed another episode written by Si Rose. I was really amused that he remembered what his mother had said about Johnny Whitaker’s hair last week. As though it was a brand new gag, he said “I’ve heard of long hair, but a rose bush?!”

He also completely adored the various fish and monster puns, including “peanut butter and jellyfish,” “abalone on rye,” and “ghoul in the family,” and missed an important plot development we had to wind back to hear because he was so busy laughing over Big Daddy calling his two older sons “yo-yos.”

Speaking of monster puns, here’s something cute. I love specially-made one-of-a-kind prop newspapers, press kits, and magazines. Big Daddy is reading an issue of Playbeast, and the front cover is some dopey piece of artwork, but look what’s on the back! It’s Orson Vulture from H.R. Pufnstuf standing in front of a chalkboard covered with math stuff. Evidently, Witchiepoo sent him to learn about cosines. We get no clearer picture than this grab. I wonder who else is in the picture or where it was used.

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Sigmund and the Sea Monsters 1.2 – Puppy Love

Forty-some years before working with dogs on Mutt & Stuff, Sid and Marty Krofft brought along a few four-legged friends to the Paramount stage where they filmed this silly show, and let things get really silly as Sigmund falls in love with one of the neighborhood puppies. Fluffy’s owner, Peggy, is played by Pamelyn Ferdin, who we remember from 1977’s Space Academy. She made two appearances on the show; it’s strongly hinted during Johnny Whitaker’s closing bubblegum rock tune that he has a schoolboy crush on Peggy, but sadly this really wasn’t developed on the show.

Our son adored this episode, from all the dopey puns (“Clam up? Some of my best friends are clams!”) to the climax, in which Fluffy brings several other neighborhood dogs to chase off Blurp and Slurp. Incidentally, this is the second episode in a row where the noise of all the sea monster brawling is dismissed as “prowlers.” Zelda, the housekeeper, is oddly unconcerned about all this potential crime.

Regarding the quality of these screen captures, as with the DVDs of Land of the Lost, the copies available are very badly in need of restoration and remastering, and suffer from color bleeding and blurs. The seventeen episodes of season one have been released twice in North America, by Rhino and later by Vivendi, but you can get both seasons, all 29 episodes, in a region-free four-disk set from Beyond in Australia. Amazon’s currently sold out of that version, but click the pic above and you can order a box set that includes the complete Sigmund along with H.R. Pufnstuf, Land, and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. That’s 105 episodes in one package for about $60. Not bad at all, even with the need for some extensive restoration work.

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Sigmund and the Sea Monsters 1.1 – The Monster Who Came to Dinner

When we first started this blog and our son had just turned four, I had planned to show him at least some of the entire Saturday morning Sid and Marty Krofft lineup, in the order the shows were made. That got derailed. He was so frightened by Witchiepoo, Benita Bizarre, and Hoo Doo that I knew that my ever-so-gentle son would absolutely hate the Ooze family in Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.

The Kroffts’ first three antagonists, after all, are ridiculous fantasy villains. They may have a few traits in common with real-world nutcases and narcissists, but our son’s not going to have to worry about blowhards like them until he’s much older and starts paying attention to politics (HEY-OH!). But the Oozes are a dark mirror of a real family. They’re dysfunctional and horrible and, if they were to move to Blackpool, they’d prove stiff competition for Monty Python’s Most Awful Family in Britain competition, but they’re close to what a real family could become in the worst circumstances. And though hilarious stupidity rules the roost in the Ooze cave, Big Daddy’s demented cruelty and Blurp and Slurp’s unreasoning bullying would be too much for our kid at the time.

He’s old enough now to see it and appreciate it as something completely unreal, even though these “family members” do their darnedest to shatter his image of how all families should be loving and safe. Last year’s pilot for the revamped Amazon series – I haven’t heard yet when it will begin broadcast, but I’m waiting! – sensibly focused much more on the human cast and never went into the caves or introduced Sigmund’s awful parents, just his two dumb brothers. So, in anticipation of the new series beginning sometime soon, I’ve picked an eleven-episode “greatest hits album” of some of this goofy show’s high points which we will watch over the next couple of months.

If you’ve never seen this series, it has Johnny Whitaker and Scott Kolden as two brothers who befriend the hapless and kind Sigmund (Billy Barty) after his family throws him out for incompetence. His family then has to get him back to meet the demands of a rich uncle. Johnny and Scott have to hide Sigmund from the prying eyes of their family housekeeper – Mom and Dad are eternally away – along with various neighbors and incompetent policemen.

When I was a kid, I honestly didn’t like this show at all. Seeing it again, when I was a teenager, on the Krofft Super Stars syndicated package didn’t improve matters. It wasn’t until adulthood that it finally clicked. There certainly are a number of indefensible, lousy episodes – particularly in the second season, when everybody involved with the show used up their last ideas – and nobody’s going to call this art, but at its best, it’s triumphantly funny slapstick, with Blurp and Slurp’s violence and under-their-breath grumbling devolving into clenched tentacles and the sort of physical mayhem totally absent from later seventies live-action children’s television.

Last night, I was still a little leery and cautious about this show, so we had a “prologue” talk about bullying and how absolutely nobody we’ve ever met is anything like the Ooze family. Perhaps I was being too cautious, but dads can be that way sometime. Tonight, we watched the first episode, which was written by the Kroffts’ veteran comedy scribe Si Rose, and he really enjoyed it. He did get antsy with worry when Blurp and Slurp chased Sigmund and the boys all around the house, but he liked all the fish-related puns and bad jokes (although he misheard one as “two shakes of a needle’s tail,” so that one doesn’t count), and of course he loved the climax, in which the two idiot monsters mistake the local sheriff’s police car for a cute, albeit standoffish girl monster.

Marie was alternately fascinated by just how much physical damage the suit actors seemed to be inflicting upon their costumes – these things had to last for seventeen episodes but they seemed to do everything to Blurp and Slurp short of setting them on fire – and by the remarkable hair shown off by Johnny Whitaker. Even accepting that it was 1973 and fourteen year-old boys had long hair then, the “random bush” on top of his head is a pretty amazingly seventies ‘do.

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Napoleon and Samantha (1972)

This morning, we enjoyed Disney’s 1972 film Napoleon and Samantha, which I’d never seen before. It’s a surprisingly heavy film for something that the company, these days, promotes as a nice, light, and breezy part of their back catalog. It stars Johnny Whitaker, one of the biggest child actors of the day, along with a rising star named Jodie Foster. Wonder what happened to her?

In the movie, Johnny plays Napoleon, a ten year-old kid who lives with his ailing grandpa in a small town. They take ownership of an old lion from a retiring clown (Vito Scotti!), which is a bit contrived, but you have to make allowances to get the plot going. Grandpa dies, and Napoleon asks an unemployed “hippie” named Danny to help bury him on a hill. Danny is played by an amazingly young Michael Douglas. If you thought he looked like a baby in The Streets of San Francisco, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Facing the orphanage, Napoleon and his friend Samantha leash up the old lion and undertake one of those “incredible journeys” that were common in the era, hiking up and down a few mountains looking for Danny’s cabin. They’re naive enough to think they won’t be missed, and that they won’t get into trouble. There’s a tumble off a high mountain peak, a cougar, and a bear to contend with on the way.

About which: I was conflicted about some of the events of the movie, but that wrestling match between the lion and the bear was downright impressive. Would any filmmaker today try anything like that? Even understanding that was a pretty old lion and a big crew of wranglers must have been right behind the camera, wild animals can be really dangerous. Just ask Foster: she was mauled, and permanently scarred across her back, by one of the old lion’s younger stand-ins!

But we were expecting a lighthearted adventure, and while the middle of the movie provides that, the first and last third of the film were each quite heavy. Will Geer’s grandpa character is marked for death right from the beginning, and it’s a huge weight on the tone. Last month, we watched an episode of Isis that dealt with death and I mentioned how, in tune with the times, the explanations were built around a discussion of seasons, calling it “Ecclesiastes by way of the Byrds.” Well, before he goes, Grandpa specifically talks about seasons, and at his small funeral on the hillside, Danny recites Ecclesiastes. It was the seventies, man.

But the climax is what really surprised me. Danny leaves the kids in the care of a friend at his cabin and hikes back to town to explain to everybody where the children are. Samantha’s family housekeeper fingers him as the weird hippie with whom the missing Napoleon had been seen, and he’s arrested by policemen who do not want to listen to him. Awaiting the police chief, Danny spots a wanted flier in the station. His friend is a dangerous criminal on the loose, who’s escaped from a mental institution.

It’s typical in Disney films of the seventies to have a climactic chase, with goofball cops having safe but hilarious accidents. But bizarrely, the director chose to keep Napoleon and Samantha completely offscreen, so Danny’s escape and race back to his cabin, with cops in pursuit, is a chase in the dark, a race against time. And sure, we know perfectly well that in a ’72 Disney film the children will be perfectly safe, but the director elected to ratchet the tension and desperation off the chart, and the wacky motorcycle stunts aren’t funny when the tone is deadly serious.

Our son was a good deal squirmier than usual, in part because he was looking forward to a late morning swim, but I think he felt the weight of this movie. He enjoyed it and thought it was “pretty cool,” and I enjoyed it and was intrigued by the wildly varying tone. It’s an uneven film, but I’m glad we gave it a try.

Some neat casting notes: Whitaker and Foster were reunited the following year in United Artist’s Tom Sawyer. His next film, however, was another one for Disney called Snowball Express, which also featured Mary Wickes, an actress who had a small three-line role here. After Express, Whitaker made a TV movie for Disney called The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle with his friend Scott Kolden. In 1973, Sid and Marty Krofft scooped up Whitaker, Kolden, and Wickes to star as the humans in Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. And you just know that they must have wanted Jodie Foster for the recurring part that Pamelyn Ferdin ended up playing!

Aggravatingly, The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle does not appear to have ever been released on home video. There’s another thing I’d like to watch with my son for this blog but can’t.

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Sigmund and the Sea Monsters 1.1 (2016 pilot)

Wa-hey! Of course Daniel and I sat down to watch this pilot this afternoon. It went up at Amazon Prime this morning (clicking the images should link you to Amazon so you can watch it yourself) and we just had a hoot enjoying it.

Considering that the Kroffts don’t have the greatest of track records in relaunching old properties (although, as I said the other day, I haven’t seen the new Electra Woman yet), there is every reason to be a little leery, but this worked completely beautifully. It’s silly and ridiculous and incredibly fun. It’s grounded in the real world, with some lovely location filming and an eyebrow-raisingly large clubhouse, and the new monsters look superb, retaining much of the original design with a lot more detail and different things that the operators and puppeteers can accomplish.

It’s also packed full of injokes for anyone who remembers the original well. Sid and Marty popped in, and so did Johnny Whitaker, “1973,” and the guitar part that opened the first theme tune, and it even credits Si Rose despite not really having a lot to do with the nuts and bolts of that original teleplay. The director is Jonathan Judge, teleplay by Garrett Frawley & Brian Turner.

The really big difference from the original series is that the principal adversary is a human played by David Arquette. He plays a salvage pilot called Captain Barnabas who insists that a sea monster ate one of his toes years ago. Instead of a busybody housekeeper from whom Johnny and Scott keep Sigmund, it’s their aunt, who dotes on the captain. And happily, there’s something for a girl to do in this one; Rebecca Bloom plays the boys’ cousin Robyn, who’s in on the secret.

Solomon Stewart’s Johnny is the pratfall-prone ringleader, and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf gets all the best lines as Scott. He had me laughing aloud a couple of times. (“What’s a net?” is a work of genius.) They kind of struggled to fit Bloom’s Robyn into things and give her a chance to shine, but she gets a great little scene, and Eileen O’Connell plays the clueless Aunt Maxine. There’s just a tiny, tiny bit of that Nick/Disney school in the kids’ performances – my daughter watched most of those programs from about 2002-2011, so I’ve seen a lot of that – but since this isn’t done before a studio audience, nobody’s playing to the rafters or being aggressively stupid as the boys in those shows are. This is a more grounded and believable environment, despite the supernatural premise, and the kids feel more like real people and not stage school talent.

Back in September, I explained that I didn’t plan to watch the original Sigmund with Daniel (here’s the story), so I’m glad he’s getting the chance here. Briefly, my issue is this: I’ve got no objection to the original series at all – unlike some of the ’70s Krofft shows, it definitely improved with age and time – but the downright delicious nastiness of the bullying Ooze family would really, really bother the heck out of my son. In this version, Blurp and Slurp are present, and stupid, and a little bit mean, but they don’t have that delightful, cruel spirit of the original, and they certainly never threw Sigmund out.

The danger in this pilot episode is being found by Captain Barnabas, and he does indeed trap Sigmund, to which my son immediately shouted “I don’t want to watch this,” followed immediately by a howl of laughter from a very well-timed gag. The slapstick throughout is perfectly kid-friendly, and Sigmund himself is of course instantly charming. He also loved Blurp and Slurp, who, thanks to modern special effects, can do things the original monsters could never do, and he was laughing at them, especially when they completely misunderstand the difference between trash and treasure.

At this stage, the show’s just a pilot, one of six kid shows under consideration. I really hope this goes to series. It’s got heart and brain and slimy defense mechanisms and I would love to see more. I’m not sure how long it’s available to stream, but definitely give it a play and, hopefully, a high rating!

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