by Rachel Newstead
(Note: in my ongoing series on The Flintstones, I’ll be discussing the individual cartoons in order of production, not airdate. “The Swimming Pool” was the first episode produced, but the third aired)–R.
The Swimming Pool
Original Airdate: Oct. 14, 1960
Writer: Warren Foster
In short: Fred learns a pool, and his buddy, are soon parted (I can’t believe I wrote that…)
“Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…”
How familiar those words are to us now. It’s hard to believe we’ve been singing them for close to fifty years, and even harder to imagine what it must have been like for audiences in 1960, their Philco sets tuned to a still all-black and white ABC, to witness something brand new: a half hour, prime-time, animated network sitcom.
It didn’t matter that the premise wasn’t original (more on that point later). What Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera did with it was; they dared to make a cartoon sitcom for adults, with all the trappings of its live-action brethren: laugh tracks, grown-up commercials (courtesy of Winston cigarettes and Miles Laboratories) and jokes more old-school vaudeville than grade-school playground.
To be fair, Hanna and Barbera weren’t venturing completely into the animated unknown. They had been producing cartoon shows for prime time for three years already: Ruff and Reddy, Huckleberry Hound, and Quick Draw McGraw were hugely popular; grafting the conventions of the sitcom onto such a program was the next logical step.
“The Swimming Pool” looks like a first effort, as rough and primitive as the era in which it was purportedly set. It’s like an early Bob Clampett cartoon–a jumble of mismatched shots and wildly varying character models, to the point that the characters look like entirely different individuals from scene to scene. But like Clampett’s cartoons, it’s also pretty damned funny, thanks to an A-list staff which included Warner’s alumnus Warren Foster, who, with Mike Maltese, made his way to the new Hanna-Barbera operation in 1959.
Foster came to H-B after a long, profitable association with director Friz Freleng, for whom he’d written the Oscar-winning Speedy Gonzales, Birds Anonymous and Knighty Knight Bugs. TV.com and the IMDB credit Mike Maltese and former Colgate Comedy Hour writer Artie Phillips as co-writers with Foster, which seems likely considering the very Maltese-like wordplay and the sitcom-y, “battle of the neighbors” plot (undoubtedly provided by Philips). They take a standard sitcom situation, based on the homily that one should never enter into any joint venture with a friend, and manage to squeeze more humor than one would expect from what was even then a clichéd situation.
One contribution that certainly cannot be underestimated is that of character designer and layout man Ed Benedict. Benedict’s work on Tex Avery’s The First Bad Man (1955), itself a sort of proto-Flintstones, is well known, and his angular style did much to establish the look of the show–his characters were simple without seeming crudely done, flat yet visually appealing, despite his abandoning Disneyesque curves for the sharp angles of UPA.
His design style is far more apparent, however, in the minute-and-a-half “pilot” for the network and sponsors (done sometime in the spring of 1960) than in the eventual episode, which I’m sure contributes to the uneven nature of the artwork. There must at one time have been more scenes in the original presentation reel than shown in the footage uncovered in 1993, because certain scenes we don’t see in the brief pilot (and I’ll point these out as we go along) follow Benedict’s earliest character models more closely than others. It looks as though scenes he originally laid out were simply traced over by the animators, while others seem to have been done from scratch; it’s a shame his designs weren’t more closely adhered to, as Benedict was capable of conveying a great deal of personality in a simple line drawing.
But as I’ve said numerous times in reference to The Flintstones, the writing is the “star”–as with the earliest Rocky and Bullwinkle or Simpsons episodes, a well-written cartoon can make audiences overlook, or forget outright, any technical flaws. You’ll soon see just what I mean.
We see Fred Flintstone in his first moments in animation, driving his Stone Age car. Already in the very first scene we can see the design inconsistencies: Fred when driving looks different from Fred getting out of the car, which in turns looks different from Fred in the house; in the earliest scene, his hair has the “messy” look seen on Benedict’s 1959 model sheet.
He’s bringing home a couple of “New York cut” dinosaur steaks (n0t, as should be noted, “New Rock”, as he might have said later–they hadn’t quite settled into the puns yet). But no sooner does he get inside his “split-level cave” than he starts to pick a fight with neighbor Barney Rubble–the steaks are missing. He sees Barney cooking a couple of very suspicious-looking steaks, and in a manner that we come to know as typically Fred for the next 165 episodes, comes to the wrong conclusion.
Determined to put a “fist full of fingers” in Barney’s mouth, Fred jumps the fence to retrieve “his” steaks, causing a tussle as minimally animated as possible (we only see the two of
them flying in the air, while the appropriate effects play on the sound track).
Of course, Wilma interrupts the meleé to tell Fred he’d actually left his steaks on the fence in his front yard. Not willing to let a little thing like his being in the wrong stop him from getting a few good licks in, Fred gives Barney one last wallop with Barney’s own steaks: “That’s for the next thing you do wrong,” he says. (A line I’ve always found funny).
The feud is on–as it enters day five, Wilma and Betty order a cease-fire (using the dreaded “mother-in-law invitation” threat), if not an outright truce. Barney arrives to retrieve some items Fred borrowed, but never returned. Unfortunately, one of them happens to be the ladder Fred is standing on. Fred gives chase, but when he jumps the fence this time, he falls into an incredibly deep chasm on the other side. Which, Barney tells the infuriated (and considerably bruised) Fred, happens to be a swimming pool.
Suddenly, the friendship is on again, as Fred, with typical Flintstone logic, insinuates his way into the pool deal by offering to build half of it in his yard, thereby giving Barney “his” half free. Which Barney digs and fills, of course, with the aid of a “Do-It-Yourself Pool Kit” Fred so generously provides (a shovel).
We get a couple of funny scenes in which Fred explains the advantages of owning a pool jointly, such as sharing the expense of maintaining the “cranafrazz” and the “fornisteen” (a bit of classic Warner’s-style double talk which has “Mike Maltese” written all over it). The next comes at the pool-accessories shop “Swim Togs ‘N’ Stuff” when Fred tries on an innertube that’s a mite too…erm…snug (or in the words of the wisecracking salesman, “Around The World In Eighty Inches”.)
Within a week, the new pool’s a hub of activity, as half of Bedrock’s population seems to be taking up every available square inch of water (including members of the “YCMA”–Young Cave Men’s Association.) All of whom are Barney’s friends, or friends of friends, and possibly even enemies of friends of friends, much to the irritation of Fred (even though, we learn, Fred hogged it just as much).
In a particularly funny scene, Fred walks his way across the “carpet” of people to argue with Barney, and continues to stand there yelling for as long as a minute, despite protests from the unnamed fellow he happens to be standing on. We won’t get into why tubby Fred didn’t cause the poor fellow to sink to the bottom and drown immediately…
Quicker than you can say “of course you know this means war”, the feud is on–again. Fred vows to do something about the “ungrateful ingrate” (a lovely bit of alliteration I suspect belongs to Maltese as well).
Fred fires the first volley by dividing the pool with a fence, to which Barney responds by taking out “his half” of the water. (Before Fred realizes it’s gone, naturally). Though the wives intervene in forcing them to tear the fence down and re-fill the pool, the fight continues.
A short time after “D-Day” (“Down With The Fence” Day) Fred overhears Betty and Wilma talking about Barney’s supposed upcoming pool-warming party–with seemingly no invitations to Fred forthcoming. When he confronts Wilma with this knowledge, she warns him not to try anything funny. It’s this scene that has a bit of dialogue I’ve loved (and imitated) from the first time I saw this episode, so many decades ago:
FRED: You’d think I’d make trouble for my close friend, bosom buddy, and lifelong pal? Is that what you’re “intimatin’”?
WILMA: No, that’s not what I’m ‘intimatin’! <Moves toward Fred’s face> That’s what I’m saying!
Ah, but even this early in the game, we know Fred well enough to figure he’s got something up his jagged sleeve–and he has. He gets on the horn (literally, in this case) to his buddy Joe at the pool hall, and tells him to show up in his policeman costume from last Halloween, and threaten to break up the festivities.
Of course, this is before Barney arrives at the door, birthday cake in hand, to let him know the “pool warming” is actually Fred’s birthday party. Barney, in one instant, goes from “knee high Gila monster” to “buddy.”
Later that evening, they’re partying like it’s a million and nine B.C.–and one irate neighbor, prevented from sleeping by the incessant noise and vibration, isn’t too pleased. The Bedrock police station, meanwhile, is deluged with calls, and dispatch a police unit to quiet things down. (I really love the giant- armadillo police car, by the way). And wouldn’t you know it? One of the cops bears a striking resemblance to Fred’s pool-hall buddy.
As quickly as you can say “mistaken identity,” Fred puts his big, fat, square foot in his mouth by smarting off to the real-cop-that’s-not-Joe, and sending him vibrating into the pool. As any student of Wacky Sitcom Situations 101 would know by now, now is naturally the time the real Joe shows up–without the policeman disguise–to tell Fred he couldn’t find it.
You can pretty much guess what happens from there: he’s run in for “resisting arrest, dunking an officer, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.. .” (and I have to say, the “et cetera” must have been a real doozy.)
Cut to Fred in jail. As he laments that he didn’t even get a piece of his own birthday cake, Barney arrives to let him know he’ll soon be out. In the meantime, he passes a piece of cake to a tearful Fred. Iris out.
In the “tag” at the end (the portion of the sitcom in which there’s usually one parting joke) Barney drives Fred home from jail, and both have the same idea: a dip in the pool. Changing into their swim duds (re-using the same footage from an earlier scene, Fred speeds toward the pool and dives in. Unfortunately, Barney forgot to tell him he drained the pool to clean it. So we close the curtain on our introduction to Fred Flintstone, as he grumbles indecipherably with his head in a bucket. Can we assume the feud is on again?
You know, a thought occurred to me as I was writing this: doesn’t it seem that Fred (and sometimes both Fred and Barney) end up in jail a lot in these first-season episodes? Or at least narrowly escape arrest: we saw it in “The Hot Piano”, and we’ll see it again in “The Prowler” and “The Babysitters”. I’m sure more will come to mind; at any rate, it serves to show that this version of Fred is a much more incorrigible character than he would later be, and a good deal more impulsive. The later incarnation is, too, but in a Lucy Ricardo way, not a Ralph Kramden way. Which brings me to an issue I wish to discuss in my Concluding Thoughts….
In my travels through the internet, if there’s one phrase I’ve come across that I never wish to see again, it’s “Hanna and Barbera weren’t original!” These cyber-critics point to the obvious influence of The Honeymooners on The Flintstones, but the more diligent often go through the trouble of listing the individual “offenses”: that Snagglepuss is an animated Bert Lahr, Yogi Bear is a combination of Art Carney’s voice and a baseball catcher’s name, Huckleberry Hound is part Andy Griffith and Tex Avery’s southern Wolf, and on and on.
Yes, that much is true. But so what? Why aren’t the Warner Bros. characters these same fans love so dearly leveled with the same criticism? Or those of any other Golden Age studio?
In the classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, incidental character and star alike owed a great deal to movies and radio. Bugs is a pinch or two of Disney’s Max Hare and a whole lot of Groucho Marx, with a bit of Leo Gorcey for good measure. Daffy got his trademark “Hoo Hoos” from Hugh Herbert; Foghorn Leghorn got his bluster from The Fred Allen Show‘s Senator Claghorn. Even the names of the latter two sound the same if you say them fast enough. Crosby, Durante, and Abbott and Costello–or reasonable facsimiles thereof–did their stuff in the guise of various cartoon animals. Porky Pig was the result, originally, of an effort to on the part of Leon Schlesinger to make an animated clone of Our Gang.
Even Fleischer’s Betty Boop, his only “original” character, was a pen-and-ink Helen Kane, regardless of what any court of law might have ruled.
Get the point? The inspiration may have come from elsewhere, but the characters became distinct entities in their own right, as different from their source as a child is from its parents. This is what Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera did for us; we’ll likely remember Snagglepuss, Huck, Yogi, and Fred far longer than the people who inspired them.
Original or not, “The Swimming Pool” is a stumbling but promising start to a classic series. While there are fewer classic lines than in later episodes, all of the familiar tropes are there: the bumbling yet well-meaning husband; the misunderstandings and miscalculations; the on-again, off-again sparring between Fred and Barney, the “modern Stone Age” gadgets, the battle of wits with the wives. Almost from the onset, we know about these people and get a quick outline of the situations–and jokes–we can expect as the series goes on.
The “Barney practices spear fishing” scene, the scene used in the original presentation reel, occurs at about the 11-minute mark in the finished episode. If you want to see pure, unadulterated Ed Benedict designs as shown on his original model sheets, look here–it’s probably as much as 75% “retraced Ed.” When Wilma walks out of the house, has her conversation with Betty, and gets frightened by Barney, it’s Ed Benedict’s 1959 Wilma we see there–and nowhere else. She plops the tray onto 1959 Fred’s stomach, but the next scene is 1960 Fred. In every case, his design of the characters has more…well, character.
Such are the economics of television production, I suppose–the style that gets used is the one that’s the easiest to animate, regardless of how pretty it looks. It almost makes one wish Fred could have debuted on the theater screen, not the TV screen.