Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles
Review by KC Carlson
Interesting things were happening at Hanna Barbera in 1966. The largest provider of cartoons in the early days of original television programming was famous for its funny animal successes, notably Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, and Quick Draw McGraw, as well as their prime-time shows staring humans, including The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Jonny Quest. The success of the latter led some at HB to start thinking more about adventure-type programming for Saturday morning. They began to ease into that direction in 1965 with the heroic characters of Atom Ant and Secret Squirrel — mild (but silly) adventures starring funny animal characters. In 1966, they took things further with the launch of Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles — now finally available on DVD from the Warner Archive in a Complete Series collection, featuring all 18 episodes of this tremendously fun and unique animated series on two discs.
Saturday Morning Trendsetters
Originally airing on CBS’s Saturday morning line-up, Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles appeared alongside a number of similar adventure-oriented shows (new animated series featuring classic characters Superman, The Lone Ranger, and King Kong) as well as a new bunch of shows featuring superheroes (Underdog, The Mighty Heroes, and oft forgotten Super 6). The sudden fascination with superheroes no doubt largely came from the January 1966 debut of the live-action Batman program — an instantly huge success in prime time. Even more interestingly, Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles was the lead-in to another important HB show — Space Ghost and Dino Boy, HB’s first pure adventure show since Johnny Quest, and their first one for Saturday morning. As both Atom Ant and Secret Squirrel were still running in reruns on Saturday, you could actually see the HB transition from funny animals to adventure programming — all on the same morning!
As a transition show, Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles is a quirky, but fun, mix. Although getting top billing, Frankenstein Jr. actually appears in only one of the show’s three cartoon segments (the other two both feature the Impossibles). Frankie also gets short shrift in the show’s opening sequence — a marvelous pop-art explanation of the Impossibles and their powers under a driving rock beat, strobe effects, amazing graphics, and the ominous bass profound narration of the great Paul Frees, who was doing a lot of voice work for Hanna Barbera at the time. (Frees is all over this show, see below.) This is one of HB’s great title sequences. The only shortcoming is, with no real lyrics, it’s not a classic theme song. Here, watch for yourself:
Long Tall Robot
The Frankenstein Jr. segments take place in the mildly futuristic Civic City (looking very much like the 20th century version of the Jetsons’ Orbit City, without the flying cars and apartment towers). Kid scientist Buzz Conroy (voiced by Dick Beals, who specialized in little kid voices — animation fans know him best for voicing the WB’s daydreaming Ralph Phillips, Davey from Davey and Goliath, and as advertising icon Speedy Alka-Seltzer) and his father Professor Conroy (voiced by John Stephenson, the original Dr. Quest on Jonny Quest, as well as many HB “voice of authority” characters, including Mr. Slate on the The Flintstones) use their scientific background to fight supervillians with their inventions and gadgets. Their most fantastic gadget is Frankenstein Jr. (or “Frankie”, as Buzz usually called him), a gigantic and powerful robot with an amazing array of super-powers — many of which are activated using a control panel at the base of his neck — and operated by Buzz, who generally rode around with the giant flying robot, sitting on his shoulder. That’s a powerful iconic image for many youngsters of this era.
Frankie is voiced by Ted Cassidy, known best for playing Lurch on the original Addams Family TV show. He was also a much in-demand voice artist for HB, his deep, gravelly voice proving excellent for villains and monsters (like Godzilla, whom he voiced for that cartoon series). Frustratingly, the internets (including IMDb and the Voice Chasers voice actors database) credit both Cassidy and Paul Frees as the voice of The Thing/Ben Grimm in the original 1967 Fantastic Four animated series produced by Hanna Barbera. (Does anyone know for sure?)
Despite his name, Frankenstein Jr. is no relation to the original monster (mostly ‘cause he’s a robot). They have some superficially similar physical traits, especially their height — although Frankie tops out at 30 feet. Frankie has some stitching (for a robot?) at his wrists and his head and appears to be dressed in rags — except for his superhero-y purple cape and shorts, his bright yellow boots, and his orange “F” chest insignia. He also protects his secret robot identity (?) by always wearing a mask. He has a cute little antenna on top of his head, which is how Buzz usually summons him with his Radar Ring.
No matter where he is in the world, Buzz can summon Frankie just by pointing the ring toward the sky and activating it. After bouncing off random tall things (the Eiffel Tower, the Washington Monument, the Leaning Tower of Pisa (actually only about 180 feet tall, BTW)), the ray finally finds its way back to Civic City and the way-cool mountainside home of the Conroys, where it activates the door hiding Frankie when he’s not out superheroing. Yes, it’s true. When he’s activated, Frankenstein Jr. comes out of a closet. Your joke here.
Despite all his seeming invincibility and formidable powers — my favorite is the Giggle Ray, which can tickle villains from hundreds of feet away — Frankie can be easily subdued simply by clobbering him over the head. Of course, you have to be tall enough to do so.
Because every boy should have a dog, Buzz does. He’s a cute robot dog named Robar. Now I know where our Tekno the Robotic Puppy toy came from. Strange family, those Conroys. Wonder what happened to Mrs. Conroy? Maybe there wasn’t one, and Buzz is actually a robot, too! That would explain so much…
The Frankenstein Jr. cartoons are a lot of fun. There’s a big fight with a giant monster ever week! The cartoons are also pretty seriously adventure-oriented — especially for younger viewers. And the music is fantastic. Some of it was picked up from the original (and memorable) Hoyt Curtin scores from Jonny Quest! The villains are pretty generic (electrical monsters, alien brains, plant creatures, evil genies, junk monsters, and — of course — evil giant robots), but they are all straightforward and (mostly) credible threats. It’s only as an adult that you begin to see the absurdities…
The same can’t really be said of the Impossibles or their foes, who tend to be less serious and even more generic. In this case, the silliness is obvious right from the start. The bad guys are the main focus of the Impossibles series, right down to the episode titles. Each one identifies the featured super-villain, including the Bubbler, Beamatron, Smogula, and the Infamous Mr. Instant. My favorite was the Perilous Paper Doll, who was apparently made of paper, and folded himself into a paper plane so he could fly around. He could also become flat and slide under safe doors (because apparently, all safe doors have a crack between the door and the floor in the HB universe).
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Impossibles had the coolest gimmick of all 1960s superhero teams. When the Impossibles weren’t being superheroes, they were an internationally successful rock band — also known as the Impossibles! Thus tying into the other huge fad of young people in the 1960s — rock music! (The infamous Beatles cartoon show debuted the previous year on Saturday morning, and of course was a huge hit. [Aside: Want to legally see the Beatles cartoon show? You can’t! The Beatles’ company, Apple, bought the rights to the show several years back. They apparently intend to keep it under lock and key forever. And like many of the cartoons of that earlier era, there are several unfortunate ethnic stereotypes portrayed in the show, which would have to be dealt with in some way today.])
The Impossibles series was largely played for laughs, as the characters themselves all had odd powers and visuals, and all the villains were largely inept and seldom presented much of a real threat. In fact, the biggest threats to the Impossibles were the hordes of screaming teenage girl fans that caused trouble for them in their non-super guise. The lead teen girl (no matter what she looked like) was inevitably voiced by HB’s resident teenager, Janet Waldo (Judy Jetson, Penelope Pitstop, Josie in Josie and the Pussycats).
The Impossibles are Multi-Man, a tall, shaggy-haired dude (we never see his eyes) who has the ability to create identical duplicates of himself — an incredible visual effect accompanied by one of the coolest sound effects ever created by the Hanna Barbera studios (who were — and are — famous for their legendary sound effects library). Multi-Man has a cool red costume, with a small cape, and carries a shield with the letter “M” on it, for no apparent reason. (He seldom uses it.) Fluid Man is a jokey and excitable dark-haired teen, decked out in a bright green scuba-suit (with swimfins). He has the ability to turn into any fluid (which is inevitably colored green). And finally, there’s Coil Man, a chunky, levelheaded type with a purple super-outfit. He can form his body into super-springy coils, giving him an added ability to bounce. Apparently, they have no “secret” identities as they call each other “Multi”, “Fluey”, and “Coily” in or out of costume. No origin or background was ever given for the team.
I’m With the Band
Each cartoon operated under the same formula: The Impossibles are playing a concert or practicing (including a snippet of an actual way-cool goofy bubblegum pop song). I would kill for a collection of the actual songs used in this, as well as other, HB series that used faux rock music (aka bubblegum pop) as a part of their soundtracks. Hanna Barbera had an actual record label for a few years — used mostly for children’s records based on their most popular characters, largely featuring the real voice actors — but they did have a small roster of rock acts. There were a few soundtrack albums of this kind of music (including a now-legendary Banana Splits album) back in the day on vinyl, but very little of it has made it to CD or download (the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack, a few Scooby-Doo pop tracks, and a coveted HB boxset featuring much — but not all — of the music from this classic era — all now out of print). Samples of the Impossibles’ lyrics include “Meet me at Caesar’s Place!” and “Hey, you! Hiddy hiddy hoo!” Classic stuff!
Back to the cartoons: Inevitably, the Impossibles are interrupted by their boss “Big D” calling, pipe in hand, through the communicators in their guitars about nefarious goings-on in Empire City. The Impossibles drop whatever they’re doing and switch to their battle togs with their (magic?) battle cry “Rally Ho!” (Fluey, jokester that he is, usually yelled “Rally Ho-Ho!”) Frequently, they would perform this change in the middle of their concerts — which probably would have been pretty exciting in the days before there were actual light shows! Then, they would fly off in their futuristic flying car that just moments before was the futuristic bandstand that they were performing on. This amazing vehicle could also transform into a van, boat, or submarine, when needed. The Impossibles would then battle the villain de jour, returning six minutes later to finish their concert, including a reprise of their song, which would usually play off into the fadeout.
Coil Man was voiced by Hal Smith, probably best known for his live-action performance as Otis the Mayberry town drunk on the Andy Griffith Show. He was one of the most prolific voice actors in Hollywood, with many roles at most of the 1960s animation studios, including HB and Disney. One of his specialties was taking over the roles of characters whose original voice actors had passed away, including Elmer Fudd, Goofy, and Owl and Winnie the Pooh. He was also Goliath on Davey and Goliath.
Multi-Man was played by Don Messick. He and Daws Butler were the main voice actors for Hanna Barbera in their formative years, with Messick as Ruff the Cat and Professor Gizmo in HB’s first show, Ruff and Ready. (Butler played Ready.) Messick specialized in sidekick and secondary characters for HB, memorably voicing Boo Boo Bear, Pixie, and Astro. (He did lots of dogs, including the original Scooby-Doo, as well as the various incarnations of Muttley.) He earned a starring role with the voice of Ricochet Rabbit, one of my favorites. He was also frequently “the narrator” in many, many HB shows. One of his last regular roles was Hamilton J. Pig on Tiny Toons Adventures.
Paul Frees voiced Fluid Man, performed the narration, and played many of the villains in The Impossibles. (Many of the other villains were played by an uncredited Paul Winchell, the beloved ventriloquist and voice of Dick Dastardly and Tigger.) Frees was one of the greatest voice actors ever. He’s probably most recognized for being the “ghost host” of the Haunted Mansion attraction at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, as well as other attractions for Disney throughout the years. You also know him for his many roles in Rankin-Bass productions (most notably Burgermeister Meisterburger and his assistant Grimsby). He was the voice of both John Lennon and George Harrison in that Beatles cartoon series mentioned above. In advertising, he was the Little Green Sprout in commercials for Green Giant vegetables, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and one of the Toucan Sams for Fruit Loops (after Mel Blanc originated the role). Frees also did a killer Orson Welles imitation, which he was frequently called upon to use in some of his narrations. For Hanna Barbera, Frees also voiced Morocco Mole (working with Mel Blanc as Secret Squirrel).
The Impossibles Trivia
They had no drummer. I often wonder if Keith Moon would have been interested . . . Coil Man notably played bass left-handed (ala Paul McCartney) . . . HB eventually recycled the Impossibles’ powers and costume designs (with changed colors) for the 1979 Super Globetrotters series. (You don’t want to know) . . . The Impossibles frequently speak in puns, a trait largely credited to their writer, legendary cartoon scripter Michael Maltese, best known for his work on the Warner Brothers characters where he wrote (among hundreds of others) “Duck Dodgers”, “What’s Opera Doc?”, “One Froggy Evening”, “Duck Amuck”, “Bully for Bugs”, “Feed the Kitty”, the Bugs/Daffy/Elmer trilogy, and most of the great Road Runner cartoons. For HB, besides The Impossibles, Maltese wrote for Quick Draw McGraw, The Flintstones, and The Jetsons. . . The Impossibles was first developed under the working title The Incredibles. The concept may have also first surfaced as an aborted plan for HB to develop the Beach Boys into a Saturday morning cartoon at the time, information that I have not been able to substantiate.
Hooray for Warner Archives!
Warner Archives presents Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles as a two-disc DVD set, featuring all 18 episodes. (Unfortunately the original bumpers used between cartoons are not included, but you can find several of them on YouTube.) Also included is “Monster Rock: The Adventures of Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles”, a five-minute featurette about the show featuring current animation professionals and historians talking about the original series. (Note: This extra first appeared on 2009’s Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1960s Volume 1 DVD collection.) As with most of the Warner Archive releases, these cartoons have not been remastered, but for cartoons of their age, these prints look and sound remarkable — a big plus for a show that was was one of Hanna Barbera’s best-looking and sounding productions. I can’t rave enough about this release, and I hope that it does well enough to encourage Warner Archive to produce more HB 1960s sets. Most of their recent offerings focus on HB’s 1970s shows — still lots of fun, but there was a special spark to many of the company’s series from the earlier era. And if the rumors are true, The Herculoids — another fave — is being readied for release as we speak! Can’t wait! Rally Ho!
(The studio provided a review copy.)