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Rankin/Bass Retrospective: Part 2 - King Kong & Smokey the Bear (1966-1969)

Updated on November 9, 2015

Note: While this article broadly covers 1966-1969, the following Rankin/Bass specials/films will be saved for future articles:
Mad Monster Party (1967), The Cricket on the Hearth (1967), Mouse on the Mayflower (1968), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Rankin/Bass continued to use the Videocraft name until 1968
Rankin/Bass continued to use the Videocraft name until 1968
Arthur Rankin in 1966
Arthur Rankin in 1966

While Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass had enjoyed success in 1964 with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it would still be a while before their holiday specials would really take off. In the meantime, Videocraft continued experimentation with the directions in which they could take their Animagic craft...

The Daydreamer

Release Date
Studio
June 1, 1966
Videocraft
Paul O'Keefe plays a young Hans Christian Anderson
Paul O'Keefe plays a young Hans Christian Anderson

With stop-motion and traditional animation under their belt, in 1966 Rankin/Bass decided to dip their toes in the waters of live-action. “The Daydreamer” is the tale of a 13 year old Hans Christian Anderson (“Chris”, played by Paul O’Keefe) who, after being told a tale of a legendary Garden of Paradise by his father, decides to run away from home to find it.

One of the characters Chris meets along the way is a rat voiced by Boris Karloff
One of the characters Chris meets along the way is a rat voiced by Boris Karloff

Not too long after he leaves, he is sucked into a whirlpool and transported to a stop-motion world populated by the characters Chris would eventually write about. These include the Little Mermaid (voiced by Hayley Mills), Thumbelina (voiced by Patty Duke), The Emperor (voiced by Ed Wynn), and a rat voiced by Boris Karloff.

The Daydreamer is overall an anthology film as Chris bounces from one story to another in search of the Garden of Paradise, before eventually finding the Garden in himself. The songs were composed by Maury Laws, who’d become a frequent contributor for Rankin/Bass’s later theatrical films.

The King Kong Show

Airdates
Channel
Studios
September 10, 1966 - August 31, 1969
ABC
Videocraft / Toei
Kong with Bobby on his shoulder and Susan in his hand
Kong with Bobby on his shoulder and Susan in his hand

Premiering at 10am on ABC’s Saturday morning line-up during the 1966-1967 season, The King Kong Show is an alternate retelling of the 1933 film, where instead of a documentary crew finding Kong, he’s instead found by a boy named Bobby Bond (voiced by Billie Mae Richards), son of Professor Bond (voiced by Carl Banas). The family, including Bobby’s sister Susan (voiced by Susan Conway) and their ship captain Englehorn, went on an expedition “Mondo Island” when they encountered King Kong, who saved them several times from the many perils of the island.

The King Kong Show's most prolific villains, Dr. Who and Mechani-Kong
The King Kong Show's most prolific villains, Dr. Who and Mechani-Kong

They befriend the giant ape, and thus begins their step into a crazy world filled with aliens, monsters, and giant robots. The biggest of which is the dreaded Mechani-Kong, build by the mad scientist Dr. Who (no relation to that Doctor Who), who wanted to catch King Kong for his own nefarious purposes.

Animated by Toei Animation, The King Kong Show was one of the earliest co-productions between an American studio and a Japanese studio. While there had been some earlier co-productions such as Kimba the White Lion the year prior, these were primarily American companies giving funding to Japanese studios for a product intended for Japanese audiences with an avenue open towards airings in the US; The King Kong Show was mostly the other way around. As such, it shares an art style similar to many of the early TV anime.

Tom and Swingin' Jack
Tom and Swingin' Jack

Each episode of the King Kong Show had three segments, with the middle being “Tom of T.H.U.M.B.”, a cartoon about a man who, along with his assistant Swingin’ Jack, are shrunk by a machine to about three inches tall.

Working for the Tiny Human Underground Military Bureau, they work as secret agents in a parody of the spy genre that was made popular during the 1960’s by series such as James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E..

The Ballad of Smokey the Bear

Airdate
Channel
Studio
November 24, 1966
NBC
Videocraft
Smokey the Bear balloon from the 1966 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Smokey the Bear balloon from the 1966 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

On Thanksgiving morning of 1966, with an average temperature of 49 degrees, the 40th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was broadcasted nationally on NBC (as it still is today). One of the new balloon additions to the parade was that of Smokey the Bear, paired with a marching Smokey on street level. Viewers were then informed to stay tuned, as a brand new stop-motion special starring Smokey the Bear would be shown on NBC later that very same day.

Though to call it a Smokey the Bear special would be generous, as while “The Ballad of Smokey the Bear” is an origin story for the character, it centers more around his older brother (voiced by actor James Cagney). Smokey’s brother tells the tale of how the forest a young Smokey and his animal friends lived in was suddenly set ablaze and their water supply poisoned, leading Smokey on an investigation that eventually points towards a gorilla with an affection for cigars who escaped from a nearby circus.

Promotional advertisement for the special
Promotional advertisement for the special

Being the third special to air on NBC’s “General Electric Full Color Fantasy Hour” (after Return to Oz and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), and especially after the success of Rudolph two years earlier, there were high expectations for the special. There was certainly talent behind it, as the songs (this was a musical after all) were written by Johnny Marks, composer for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But the special was panned by critics who felt that the animation was several steps below the bar that Rankin/Bass had previously set for themselves.

King Kong Escapes

Release Dates
Studios
July 22, 1967 (Japan) / June 19, 1968 (USA)
Toho / Videocraft
King Kong had previously been used in Toho's 1963 film "Godzilla vs. King Kong".
King Kong had previously been used in Toho's 1963 film "Godzilla vs. King Kong".

During the late 1950’s and throughout 1960’s, monster films were all the rage across drive-ins throughout America. Over in Japan, interest in kaiju films was equally as large, thanks to the likes of Gojira/Godzilla and Gamera. In 1962, the first collaboration between the two market emerged with Toho’s “King Kong Vs. Godzilla”, pitting the King of Monsters against the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Madame Piranha and Dr. Who
Madame Piranha and Dr. Who

Rankin-Bass, during production of The King Kong Show, sought the possibility of making a theatrical film tie-in. At the time, the rights still rested with Toho, so a partnership was formed to produce a live-action kaiju adaptation of the cartoon. Featuring a cast of both American and Japanese actors, directed by Ishiro Honda and with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya (two of the three co-creators of Godzilla), “King Kong Escapes” sees Dr. Who (played by Eisei Amamoto, voiced by Paul Frees in the English dub) hired by Madame Piranha in order to retrieve a rare radioactive element from the North Pole.

King Kong fighting Mechani-Kong in front of the Tokyo Tower
King Kong fighting Mechani-Kong in front of the Tokyo Tower

After his Mechani-Kong shuts down from the radiation, Dr. Who attempts to get Kong, who is residing on Mondo Island, in order to finish the job. On the island, a version of the events of the original 1933 film play out, until Dr. Who succeeds in capturing the ape. The film’s climax pits Kong against Mechani-Kong in an old-fashioned kaiju battle in Tokyo.

The film was released during the summer of 1967 in Japan, with an English release a year later, reportedly grossed $1 million in North America alone. King Kong would not be seen again on-screen until nearly a decade later with the 1976 remake, which notably took cues from the Toho films by once again depicting Kong using a rubber suit.

The Wacky World of Mother Goose

Release Date
Studio
December 2, 1967
Videocraft
Little Jack Horner and Humpty Dumpty
Little Jack Horner and Humpty Dumpty

After one theatrical stop-motion film, one live-action film, and a hybrid film, Rankin-Bass decided to try another film using traditional animation (after their TV film Return to Oz several years earlier). The Wacky World of Mother Goose sees the land of fairy tales come under siege after Mother Goose, voiced by Margaret Rutherford, decides to go visit her sister who has a cold. Count Walktwist, named so for his crooked legs, takes advantage of her absence by launching an attempt to overthrow Old King Cole and marry the princess Harmony. This leads to a series of events involving numerous fairy tale characters as some go off to warn Mother Goose, while other characters are on the side of Walktwist as he successfully manages to overthrow the King, all while the romantic subplot between Princess Harmony and Prince Robin unfolds.

Of course this description makes the film sound more exciting than it actually is. The animation is flat, choppy, inconsistent, and rather boring, the only thing setting it apart from a TV cartoon of the era being an ever so slight increase in the amount of movements for a character. Even so, it was a decent enough children’s matinee film to screen on weekends.

The Smokey Bear Show

Airdates
Channel
Studios
September 6, 1969 - 1970
ABC
Rankin/Bass Productions / Toei Animation

Three years after their Animagic stop-motion special, Rankin/Bass took another crack at Smokey the Bear with a Saturday morning cartoon series on ABC. Set again in a forest, Smokey, along with his animal friends Bennie the Rabbit, Gabby the Mountain Lion, Bessie the Pig, and Freddie the Skunk, patrol the forest to keep an eye out for fires, as well as learn life lessons. The show pulled double duty of not only showing the adult Smokey combating fires, but also (similar to the earlier special) show Smokey’s youth as he learned the lessons and skills he’d eventually need. Two adult Smokey segments would be paired up with one cub Smokey segment to fill out the half hour.

Smokey is voiced by his original voice actor Jackson Weaver, with the rest of the cast being filled by Rankin/Bass regulars Billie Mae Richards, Paul Soles, and Carl Banas. As with The King Kong Show, animation was handled by Toei Animation; animation supervision was handled by Steve Nakagawa, a former layout artist from Hanna-Barbera. Nakagawa would go on to supervise animation on Frosty the Snowman and a few other Rankin/Bass productions before returning to Hanna-Barbera in the late 70’s.

Running at 8:30am on ABC’s line-up, The Smokey Bear Show enjoyed the standard 17 episode run that most cartoons at the time received for a first season, before being canceled. It does hold an interesting footnote as being the first cartoon series dedicated to raising ecological awareness, but it didn’t exactly set the world on fire (though this is something Smokey may be glad about).

Next Time on Rankin/Bass Retrospectives...

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    • profile image

      grdaily 22 months ago

      hey awesome articles - looking for some writing on my blogs. email me if you like thedailyengage@gmail.com...im a 80s kid, but loved watching old films, such nice times...

    • Kevin Measimer profile image

      Kevin Measimer 2 years ago

      Keep up the good work. I was too young to see the shows in this article but looked forward to Rankin-Bass productions in the 1970s.

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