We live in a strange world. For several decades, Jay Ward’s Fractured Flickers was obscure and mostly unavailable, unless you were enterprising enough to track down 16mm prints or video bootlegs. Jay Ward fans would have been grateful for the opportunity to see just an episode or two.
But thanks to the miracle of DVD box sets of old TV shows, you can now walk into Borders and pick up copies of the entire series for under forty bucks. (Or get it for $32 at Amazon, if you’re so inclined–this is not a link that gives me a kickback, by the way.)
I bought my set last week, and have spent a chunk of the weekend getting reacquainted with the show. (I have bad bootlegs of a few episodes, and remember when the Showtime cable channel showed it about 25 years ago.) Having watched most of the episodes, I’m startled by my reaction to them–both what I liked and what I didn’t.
I assume that most of the people reading this are familiar with the show’s gimmick: The Ward studio took silent films (from forgotten dramas to classic comedies), sliced them up, added funny soundtracks, and turned them into sketches in a show hosted by Hans Conried. This was, I guess, a novel idea in 1961. And it can still be funny, especially when the comedy gets dada–one bit takes footage of Hitler, adds dubbing in Bill Scott’s Dudley Do-Right voice, and turns the Fuehrer into a teenage etiquette advisor. And a bit about “Dalt Wisley” and his “magical dictatorship” of a theme park remains one of the nastiest, funniest Disney parodies ever.
I laughed repeatedly while watching this stuff, and was struck by the fact that the show has not a 1920s feel so much as an LA-in-the-early-1960s flavor. (There are a lot of throw-away gags about places like Tarzana and Sherman Oaks.) But a little “fracturing” goes a long way (of course, it was meant to be watched in half-hour increments once a week–rather than the whole series in one long jag).
Like early Rocky and His Friends but unlike most other Ward shows, Flickers has a laughtrack (and cheesy sound effects), which doesn’t do a thing to make the proceedings feel more risible. The shows seemed to get gradually less clever over the program’s run, eventually devolving into what seems like endless clips of A) cars crashing into things and B) buildings collapsing.
And I admit to being prissy enough that I’m bothered, at least sporadically, by the slicing up of great silent stars’ work for what is, even at its best, cheap laughter. (Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, and Harry Langdon all show up a lot.) It doesn’t help that the Conried material often makes referencee to the offensiveness of doing just this. (I feel the same way about Ward and Scott’s later Crazy World of Laurel and Hardy compilation film, which was supposed to be a tribute but didn’t treat the films with that much more respect than Flickers gave its subjects.)
The one thing about the gagged-up silent films that remains reliably delightful is the voice work, by Conried, Bill Scott, June Foray, and Paul Frees–four of the greatest performers in the history of voice acting, and all at the top of their game.
So much for the Fractured Flickers themselves. I was surprised I didn’t like them more. But I was equally surprised by how much I liked the bits (one per show) in which Conried did comedy with a “celebrity.” The list of guests is an amazing cross-section of Hollywood has-beens, up-and-comers, and eternal second-stringers, circa 1961: Rose Marie, Allan Sherman, Gypsy Rose Lee (!), Bob Newhart, Annette, Fabian, Paula Prentiss, Sebastian Cabot, Paul Lynde, Barbara Eden, Ruta Lee (!), Edward Everett Horton, Cesar Romero, Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Bullwinkle Puppet, and others. Keith Scott’s The Moose That Roared says that the guests were determined in part by who was available when the shows were shot, but they lucked into an entertaining group of folks.
Some of the guests seem baffled by Hans; Hans seems baffled by some of them. In certain cases they both seem to be struggling with the material. The general cheapness of the production (Keith’s book says they were hobbled by having only one camera, and everything was shot on the world’s crummiest set) adds a strange, strangely compelling edge. I’m only slightly embarassed to admit that I like this stuff–and also like the bridging sequences with Conried, who’s one of the few people in Hollywood history who seems to have been incapable of being unfunny.
Some highlights of the celeb sketches: Allan Sherman (who looks entirely at ease) singing a song called “Give My Regards to Fay Wray”; Hans getting the Mickey Mouse Club confused with the Playboy Club while interviewing Annette; Bob Newhart griping about the fact that the show has been swiping his material and voice (which it did, repeatedly, courtesy of Bill Scott); and Hans and Ursula Andress reaching Theda Bara via Ouija Board. Here are some images from those moments:
A few other notes about this box set: Fractured Flickers‘ animated opening and closing credits and theme song remain so entertaining that I never skipped past them–in fact, I looked forward to seeing them each time. The set doesn’t come with much in the way of extras, but the print quality is excellent, and VCI, which produced it, seems to have taken its work seriously. There’s a statement before the first episode, with Rose Marie, explaining that they’d had to piece together the episode from multiple sources, and apologizing for the sound quality in the Hans-Rose Marie sketch. (In fact, it’s not all that bad–if they hadn’t apologized, I wouldn’t have noticed.)
Of course, the statement calls her “Rose Maria”–which seems, somehow, like a Ward touch.