“This episode made no sense,” said Marie. And she’s right, but boy, is it funny.
Toadenoff and Shirley are back in this story. This time, everybody’s making a movie to – somehow – raise money for the Get Rid of the Witch fund, which raises again the question of who the heck the audience for films made on Living Island is. If only these movies could show up in muggle theaters, you know?
Anyway, for a while, this episode looks like a power struggle between Ludicrous Lion and Horse. Ludicrous is cast as a deputy in the picture first, but he bungles things so much – calling the director “Mac” didn’t help – that Toadenoff recasts the part. He gives Horse a new name, Pierpont Pony, and it goes straight to his head. Demanding, as stars do, that he be brought a drink of water – that Ludicrous bring the water – has everybody rolling their eyes.
Eventually, the writers remembered that they needed something to do with Witchiepoo, so she zaps Toadenoff into her castle to have him direct her movie, Gone With the Witch. This is possibly the silliest scene in the entire series, which is saying something. It’s an amazing scene because it requires Billie Hayes, who is a fantastic actor, to play Witchiepoo in the role of her younger self, and Witchiepoo cannot act. At all. She can overact so unbearably that Toadenoff can only shake his head.
But what makes this episode particularly weird is that it has the opposite problem of last week, where the writers got backed into a corner and had no idea how to get out of it except the cheat of turning time back. This week, Horse – I mean, Pierpont Pony – swallows the witch’s wand, zaps her, Seymour, and Orson into immobility, then loses his mind because he’s an egotistical star and starts zapping everything and the episode just ends because they ran out of time!
“The Golden Key” is the first appearance of a regular Krofft trope: the hero, trying to escape, is given every opportunity to do so, but gets delayed by a plot complication and the villain, solves the problem, and then gives up on that opportunity. This is really weird. The first episode of Lidsville has exactly the same construction, and so do a couple of other Krofft shows, and all the lousy 1970s cartoons from Hanna-Barbera and the like that riffed on Krofft plots did the same thing.
This time, Ludicrous Lion sells them a map off the island for ten buttons. The map leads them to three parts of a key, which act as a compass to a golden door. But they stop using the key when they find a sign that Witchiepoo has altered to point to her dungeon delivery door instead. After escaping and leaving Witchiepoo and the “gruesome twosome” locked in her own dungeon, they all go back to town, the episode finished, and this way off the island forgotten.
This is the first episode that attempts to give some scale to Living Island’s enormous size, and try as they might, they just can’t pull it off. All of the costumes and the sets for interior places simply ate up all the budget, so all of the Living Island exteriors are simply the same “bright outside floor” dressed with different two-dimensional cut-out trees and plants, and different little dumps of moss or something.
Earlier episodes established that the witch’s patch of the island is lit more darkly, but the Evil Trees and the talking mushrooms always seem to be in the same place. For suspension of disbelief, I’m willing to pretend that the same slightly redressed “sunny day” floor is intended to be lots of different areas, but come on, there’s only so many times you can interact with a cigar-chomping mushroom who cannot actually move around and who speaks with a Jimmy Cagney voice before you say “I’m in the same place, the witch’s castle is a hundred feet from here.”
Speaking of the witch, Daniel is firmly no longer frightened or unnerved by Witchiepoo, and looks forward to seeing how she gets her comeuppance each time. Whew! I never thought she was going to scare him in the first place!
This is one of the very best episodes of H.R. Pufnstuf. It’s the one where “The Three Oranges” sing “Oranges Schmoranges,” which is wonderful, and the one where Witchiepoo threatens to turn Orson and Seymour into “centipedes with bad teeth,” which makes me laugh every time I hear it. It introduces Ludicrous Lion, his Polka-Dotted Pantomime Horse, and Living Island’s resident rock band, The Boyds.
It also marked the first time that Daniel watched an episode without yelling too much about the mean old witch… for a while. This is a really funny episode for kids who like physical comedy, and between the sequence with the beauty salon chair going haywire and the lunatic Three Oranges act, he was roaring with laughter, and finally the witch was no longer an object of fear.
Until she dipped the kidnapped Freddy Flute into the vat of boiling oil and threatened to deep-fry him. It’s funny how the most innocuous thing can spark such a wild reaction, isn’t it? Freddy got dipped and he just exploded in tears. And from the cold light of adulthood, it’s so minor, just Billie Hayes dipping the inanimate Freddy prop into some water with some dry ice pellets or something in it, but credit Joan Gerber’s voice work for Freddy panicking and begging for help, I guess, because this kid just lost it completely, crying sadly for the poor flute.
Witchiepoo loses again – we tell him and tell him that she always does – and ends up in the oil, her magic wand droopy and out of charge. He laughed again at her comeuppance, and said that this was his favorite episode of the show. Since this was the first time it’s actually made him cry, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that.
Ludicrous is a weird and interesting character. You think that everybody on Living Island is a good guy except the witch “and her gang,” but he’s completely amoral and doesn’t mind sending Jimmy on a wild goose chase to earn the money – buttons – to buy something he does not actually own. This plot is never actually resolved, but I think I remember that Ludicrous has some more snake oil to sell in later episodes.