by Rachel Newstead
When I was fourteen and school had ceased for the summer, I’d escape the heat of those blistering southern Arizona days by sitting in the comfort of my parents’ air-conditioned living room…and recording television programs. But not quite in the way you’re probably thinking.
Home video recording in 1976 wasn’t exactly within the price range of the average consumer, so kids like me, if they wanted to do the unheard of and save a favorite program for later, were limited to recording the audio.
So I’d bring out my brand-new Admiral audiocassette recorder, plop myself in front of the set, and hold the microphone to the speaker until my arm went numb. I’d record any program that interested me, from sitcoms to documentaries to cartoons. It didn’t matter so much that I wouldn’t be able to see what took place on-screen–in a sense, listening to these homemade tapes was a bit like listening to a good radio show. Which, as anyone who reads this blog should know by now, is something I grew to appreciate very early.
One day while searching the channels for something new to record, I came across something I’d never seen before, yet which looked strangely familiar. It carried the stamp of one “Ponsonby Britt”, the unmistakable sign that the lunatics at the Jay Ward asylum were on the loose again. But despite the animated opening titles, this was not a cartoon.
When one hears the name “Jay Ward”, live-action programs don’t exactly spring to mind. But he did attempt them, in an effort to expand his studio’s comedic range beyond gags about a talking moose and squirrel. Most were promising, like Carrots and the King, a puppet show meant to capitalize on Time For Beany, and The Watts Gnu Show, somewhat similar in style and content to Jim Henson’s Muppet Show, only fifteen years earlier.
Invariably, Ward’s unsold ideas were either too far ahead of their time (such as his proto-Laugh In variety show, The Nut House) or too derivative, as the Carrots and the King project had been. Of course, at the Ward studio, ideas rejected in one format often reappeared in another: Carrots, the eponymous eight-year-old star of Carrots and the King, was accompanied on his adventures by “King” Waldo Wadsworth, failed actor and pompous charlatan. If this sounds a bit like Hoppity Hooper and “Uncle Waldo”, that’s because it is, in rough-sketch form.
Similarly, a segment of the unsold Watts Gnu pilot provided the inspiration for the one live-action program Jay Ward did sell: Fractured Flickers.
What, you might ask, is Fractured Flickers? Well, imagine a Rocky and Bullwinkle soundtrack dubbed over old-as-the-hills silent films, and you’re pretty close. Imagine Rudolph Valentino recast as an aggressive insurance salesman, or Lon Chaney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame as that diminutive ball of school spirit “Dinky Dunston, Boy Cheerleader,” and you’d be even closer. Add Hans Conried to provide sarcastic jabs in between films, and you’re right on target.
The acerbic Conried couldn’t have been a better choice, with his air of “have I really been reduced to this?” pomposity. “I’ve been asked to welcome you to the following program of Fractured Flickers,” he’d say. “Very well–this is Fractured Flickers–and you’re welcome to it!”
In the show’s 1961 pilot, he was to be even more caustic, playing down-on-
his-luck actor H. Carleton Fothergill, who only hosts the show because his agent lost him in a canasta game. In the later series, he’s toned down somewhat and pretty much plays himself, with more of a sense of quiet desperation in his barbs and less “Snidely Whiplash forced into community service.”
A wide variety of guests appeared on the show for mock interviews with Conried: Rose Marie, Rod Serling, early ’60s pop idol Fabian, even famed striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee (so selected, Conried says, because she’s “an expert on the art of pantomime.”) Fabian comes off as particularly wooden, but it’s hard to tell whether he’s genuinely bad or if it’s all part of the act. Nothing on this show, after all, was to be taken at face value.
Fractured Flickers was the twisted brainchild of Ward staff writer Chris Hayward, a silent-movie buff. He’d come to regret the idea, as it required more time and attention to detail than any program the studio had done to date–the headaches increased exponentially with each episode. Production proceeded much as would any Ward animated series, with the same voice cast (usually Paul Frees, June Foray and Bill Scott, with Conried sometimes providing narration) the same writers, and the same sound effects (provided by Skip Craig.) With the added complication, of course, of sifting through thousands upon thousands of feet of film on a very tight production schedule:
…Jay’s idea of a cutting department was two guys, once a week! Flickers was impossible. Every Monday morning we had to make loops of the pictures so they could record the dialogue that night; then that stuff would come back in to us each Tuesday morning. And at the same time we also had to dub the previous week’s show….” (Keith Scott, quoting Skip Craig, from The Moose That Roared, p. 226)
Compounding the problem is the unfortunate fact that not all the silent-movie clips used were in the public domain, but were owned by film historian Raymond Rohauer, who had been instrumental in saving Buster Keaton’s vast body of work from decay. He charged a fee for each film used from his collection, which ate into the already strapped budget.
The result was, to put it mildly, mixed–the first five episodes, which contain Tarfoot Of The Apes (their mangling of the 1918 Elmo Lincoln Tarzan film) the aforementioned Hunchback spoof, and the college football parody Cornell Goes Wilde, were classics–the rest were varying degrees of “forgettable,” with the occasional gem shining through. (I remember laughing myself sick over a minor sequence in the ninth episode, in which a Chico Marx-like character tells elephant jokes).
Certain bits age better than others–clips in which Bill Scott provides the voice of a Bob Newhart-like director are still funny today, even if you’re not familiar with Newhart’s comedy style:
“OK, we’ll go right to the love scene, and I want to see some real he-man lovemaking…uh, no, not you, Vera….cut away, Morrie….”
In all, some 26 episodes were produced during the 1963-64 season, syndicated to local stations through Desilu. It’s a noble effort, if at times a sloppily-executed one–shows like Nickelodeon’s Mad Movies and Mystery Science Theater 3000 certainly owe it a great deal, as did Drew Carey during every one of his “green screen” bits on Whose Line Is it Anyway?
As often happens with anything Jay Ward ever did, Fractured Flickers provoked its share of controversy, from the stars who appeared in the films being skewered (or their descendants) who felt the “fracturing” of those films did nothing but throw rotten eggs at their legacy. Lon Chaney, Jr., for one, threatened to sue for the Dinky Dunstan send-up of his father. That may well be why so few episodes were produced, and why they’ve seldom seen the light of day since. Having the right idea at the wrong time seems to sum up the whole of Jay Ward’s career.
VCI Entertainment, a video company which specializes in obscure movie shorts and TV shows, has the complete series on DVD, but here’s a glimpse, a taste, of what to expect:
I’m rather glad this fun little series is out on video; at my age I doubt my arm would be up to holding that microphone for a half hour….