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H.R. Pufnstuf 1.12 – Flute, Book and Candle

The first thing that crossed my mind about what I might say about this episode is that the film print is a complete disaster. Every other episode in this set has been cleaned up and remastered and looks completely wonderful – every episode so far, that is – but this is a horrible, scratchy print with multiple skips and dropouts. What a shame, because it’s a good and funny episode.

But the most remarkable thing about it came when Jimmy disguised himself as a beggar asking for alms and Marie said, “Huh, he looks like the Artful Dodger!” I almost had to pause the episode for a few minutes to stare at her in bewilderment before I said “That IS the Artful Dodger!”

Casting Jack Wild in H.R. Pufnstuf had been a huge coup for Sid and Marty Krofft. He had been nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the film Oliver!, which was his first major role. Working in California for the Kroffts got him several other movie parts and a recording contract for Capitol Records. He also started drinking around the time he was making this show, at age 17, and he had squandered pretty much everything away, including any goodwill he might have had, within four years, at which point he was a full-blown alcoholic.

His records were never hits outside the bubblegum crowd (his cover of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” must be heard to be believed), and the Kroffts threw him a rope to guest star as himself in one episode of Sigmund & the Sea Monsters after nobody else in Hollywood wanted anything to do with him. The episode, as I recall it, was kind of pathetic, suggesting that in the alternate reality of Sigmund, Jack Wild really was a huge teen celebrity and his records sold by the ton. (A British equivalent might be all those mid-period episodes of The Tomorrow People that insisted that Flintlock, a group with exactly one dent in the top 40, was some kind of huge mega-act.)

Wild’s story really is a sad one, especially since – well, let’s be honest, a lot of what he does in Pufnstuf is not all that unique or amazing. But every so often, like in this episode, they write a song and dance bit for him. “The Moment That I Saw Your Face” is intentionally reminiscent of “Consider Yourself,” and Wild danced just magically, and had star power written all over him. He shouldn’t have been in California; he should have been on Broadway and the West End. He died from cancer of the mouth in 2006, way too young at 53, and with far too few moments of greatness captured on film.

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H.R. Pufnstuf 1.11 – Dinner for Two, Please, Orson

After the last episode being a kind of humdrum runaround, this one’s properly silly and entertaining again. Witchiepoo is lonely, and sings that her phone hasn’t rung since 1910 and instead of catching men, she just catches colds. Bored and depressed, she zaps the Clock People’s time machine for no other reason than to “keep a hand in.”

At that moment, Grandfather Clock is trying to send Jimmy and Freddy back to the day before they came to Living Island, but the explosion instead ages them sixty years. An amnesiac Jimmy with a long white beard sets the flute down and wanders off in search of hot milk and cookies. Witchiepoo finds him in the forest, feeds him, names him Prince Charming, and plans to marry him.

I’m not quite sure how clued in Sid and Marty Krofft actually were to the counterculture (a reasonable question that I’ll revisit), and nor am I sure how the best-dressed drag queens of 1969 were doing their makeup, but the sight of Billie Hayes with hideously garish “wedding” makeup atop her witch makeup really is amazing. I kept waiting for RuPaul to show up and tell her to sashay away.

As in “The Golden Key,” by the way, this is an escape route that ends for no good reason. The time machine is repaired, and the lovestruck witch is turned into a baby, so what’s stopping Grandfather Clock from going back to Plan A and sending Jimmy back in time?

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H.R. Pufnstuf 1.10 – You Can’t Have Your Cake

I was mistaken in thinking that Judy Frog only had a real role in the first episode. She’s one of the major players in this one, which sees her teaching everybody a dance called the moon walk. Only thirteen years before the release of Thriller, too!

This one kind of feels like everybody’s running out of ideas, honestly. It’s silly like it should be, but it’s just a very standard runaround involving a Trojan Horse birthday cake. The flute gets captured and they go get it back. Cling and Clang get a lot to do in this one, and Stupid Bat has some more screen time, but it’s pretty skippable.

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H.R. Pufnstuf 1.9 – The Stand-In

This episode introduces two new characters, Puf’s little sister Shirlee, who is a great film star, and her producer-director-boss, The Great Toadenoff. Their voices are based on Shirley Temple and Erich von Stroheim, and, in the way of children’s entertainment, the motion picture they are making is completely improvised and has a crew of however many of the Hippie Ants can be used in a scene. I love how charmingly naive kids’ TV and comics are about this, not wishing to complicate children’s understanding of how movies are made by introducing concepts like a script or a plan. Toadenoff just shoots whatever’s happening and apparently a movie will result and somebody, somewhere, will watch it.

This episode actually breaks from the formula, as Witchiepoo has no design on the flute this week. She just wants to answer the call for extras and stand-ins so that she can be a big star, too. She disguises herself as “Lola Lollapallooza” this week, and for once, everybody actually knows it’s her and execute their plan: to delay her on the film set long enough for Jimmy to get into the castle and steal her Vroom Broom.

They delay her by way of the classic vaudeville “makeup” routine, with Pufnstuf walloping her with a gigantic makeup sponge several times. Once the day’s shooting is finished, she and Puf have a rather charming conversation about how he shouldn’t think of her as a witch, but as a woman. Puf concedes that he never thought of her that way, and suggests that they make up. So yes, you saw this coming, but Witchiepoo knocking the blazes out of Pufnstuf with that sponge is still completely hilarious. I haven’t laughed like that since… well, since the last time we watched this show last week, probably.

The episode ends with Witchiepoo mourning the loss of her Vroom Broom, which she set ablaze trying to zap Jimmy. Daniel spent the next twenty minutes asking why she was crying and why she likes that broom so much. Then he wanted to know why Pufnstuf lives in a tree. Answers on a postcard, readers…

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H.R. Pufnstuf 1.8 – The Horse With the Golden Throat

This episode is absolutely hilarious! Daniel and I laughed up a storm during it.

So this time out, Jimmy absent-mindedly sets Freddie down on a stack of carrots that the Polka-Dotted Horse is eating. The horse swallows Freddie, wacky hijinks ensue. Except these really are funny. Highlights include the Peter Lorre Evil Tree finally telling the Bela Lugosi Evil Tree to knock off the poetry, already, and the ridiculous and wonderful resolution to the problem.

See, Dr. Blinky’s fireplace – that’s him in the back of the picture above, he talks like Edward G. Robinson – insists that he knows how to get Freddie out of the horse, but Blinky shushes him. Then Witchiepoo shows up, claiming that Seymour is deathly ill, leading Dr. Blinky outside, so the fireplace can explain his plan to Pufnstuf and Jimmy. It’s a simple plan: flood the house with smoke and make him cough it up.

Even expecting smoke, and for things to go somewhat askew, the volume of smoke that instantly fills the set is really freaking hilarious.

Some gags get repeated this week – Orson knocked out by a zapped lamp, Witchiepoo’s clothes being sneezed off by the house – but I’m pretty sure that any four year-old watching this didn’t mind one bit. What a little gem of a story.

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H.R. Pufnstuf 1.7 – The Birthday Party

This episode is gloriously, ridiculously silly. This time out, Witchiepoo knocks out most of the good guys with laughing gas, and leaves with Freddie, but also leaves Orson behind. He manages to gas himself and falls unconscious, face-first, into a plate of candy. Everybody else revives and finds Orson covered in candy spots and their latest rescue tactic is to convince the witch that there’s a dangerous outbreak of “redspotitis.”

So by now, we’ve pretty much got the H.R. Pufnstuf formula completely set: the witch contrives a ridiculous way to capture the flute, and the good guys contrive an even more ridiculous way to retrieve the flute. All that varies are the side jokes and occasional neat camerawork, like this one employing an uncharacteristic, high angle looking down on the party while all the good guys are dancing. Watching these in sequence, you don’t have too many surprises, but every once in a while, Hollingsworth Morse did something very unusual with his camera tricks.

And this one also has the great gag of two gargoyles in Witchiepoo’s castle so worried about “redspotitis” that they attempt to shake themselves free to run away. Their shaking brings the ceiling down on Witchiepoo and Orson.

Also of note: this is the first episode that didn’t spark any kind of frights in Daniel, even artificial ones. He grabbed his “bad guy cannon” once, to try and turn the baddies into ice, but otherwise, he stayed on the sofa and laughed and laughed.

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H.R. Pufnstuf 1.6 – The Golden Key

“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!

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H.R. Pufnstuf 1.5 – Box Kite Caper

Not much to say about this story, except to note how remarkable it is that they even attempted the big aerial duel between Jimmy and Freddy, floating on a box kite, and Witchiepoo and her gang, on her Vroom Broom. Every episode of the series was written by Lennie Weinrib and Paul Harrison, and they must have been supremely confident of director Hollingsworth Morse’s ability to actually convey what’s happening when both Jack Wild, on one stationary prop, and Billie Hayes, Joy Campbell, and Angelo Rossitto, on another stationary prop, have to act as though they’re moving around each other. They’re filmed separately, with only camera angles suggesting movement.

Sure, it’s primitive and phony, but what a lot of moxie to know how very limited the resources at Paramount Gulf + Western Studios were in 1969 and to say “We can do this.”

Daniel has mostly gotten over his fear of Witchiepoo. He’s realized that she loses, hilariously, every time, but he was still pretty restless tonight. We may try watching the next thing before dinner if possible, before it gets too late for him.

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