Monday, December 13, 2004
Top Cat - The Complete Series
Most animation aficionados cringe at the thought of post-MGM Hanna Barbera efforts, with characters that are bland and underdeveloped (and which sometimes venture into the downright annoying territory, Yakky Doodle being a particularly egregious example) and with horrendous animation. The short subjects created for various TV syndication efforts are generally unmemorable, with the possible exception of Quick Draw McGraw (apparently missing in action due to Baba Louie's accent, political correctness runs amok again). H-B's later efforts such as Wacky Races and Scooby Doo were downright painful. And interestingly enough, their prime time efforts were nicked at least partially from live action shows, the most obvious examples being The Flintstones' heritage arising from 323 Chauncey Street (if you don't know that address you haven't been watching enough classic TV) and the subject of this review, lifted from Fort Baxter.
The Bilko connection to Top Cat is of course reinforced by Maurice Gosfield's appearance in the voice cast. Top Cat was more or less contemporaneous with another memorable Bilko spinoff, Car 54 Where Are You?. In Car 54, Nat Hiken neatly transplanted several alumni of Bilko to the Bronx, and basically turned Joe E. Ross and Beatrice Pons loose for hilarious results. In a lot of ways, Top Cat works far better than most other Hanna Barbera efforts because it leverages the New York City feel for a touch of edginess often absent in other animation of that time frame. Some of Bugs Bunny's best unsung moments were in cartoons set in New York, including "Bowery Bugs" and "Baseball Bugs".
The voice cast of Top Cat includes not only the late Mr. Gosfield, beloved as Doberman on Bilko, as Benny The Ball, but Arnold Stang as the title character, Marvin Kaplan as Choo Choo, Leo De Lyon as Brain and Spook, John Stephenson as Fancy Fancy, and Allen Jenkins as Officer Dibble. The cast's New York twangs really add local color to the show, unlike other Hanna Barbera shows which merely featured recognizable voices such as Paul Winchell's or the considerable talents of Daws Butler (Mr. Butler's voices to my ears were a touch too generic, and his tones were always a bit measured. I'd contrast this with Mel Blanc, who could do a wonderful screaming voice when the occasion called for it - think of "Big House Bunny". I particularly like Marvin Kaplan's characterization of Choo Choo, and Mr. Kaplan mentions in an interview in the special features that Choo Choo went to CCNY, a delicious tidbit that fits perfectly with the character.
The plots of the Top Cat shows are generic Bilko-type escapades, with the occasional "doing a good deed" plot common to shows looking to temper the farcical element. Car 54 was faced with similar issues because of the objections of various critics to the absurdity of the situations in the show. The usual stolen diamond capers and similar archtypical Hanna Barbera plot devices were present, however, there were other shows in the canon which concerned romantic misadventures of Top Cat and Choo Choo (along with running gags about Fancy Fancy's love life). The one hallmark of the shows I noticed going through them was that the writing was definitely on a higher plane than most Hanna Barbera shows, and unlike the Flintstones and Jetsons, the adult appeal is still definitely palpable.
The big test of this was of course my young'uns. They haven't started getting the adult jokes in Rocky and Bullwinkle yet (nor for that matter Sponge Bob; they couldn't understand my disappointment in the recent feature when I noted that Squidward's part was nonexistent). My brood has quite embraced Top Cat, liking the "gang" comedy and its gentle urban humor. As for me, it was a great blast from the past watching this, and I didn't find myself tiring of it quickly, as so many boxed sets of childhood favorites have done to me (the most amazing example of which for me was Fireball XL5, a show I positively drooled over as a kid, along with the rest of the Gerry Anderson canon; I got through about five episodes of it before fading out).