Beany & Cecil: Special Edition DVD

There goes a good DVD

It’s difficult for me to believe that Beany & Cecil is mostly forgotten today. In the early 1960s, they were a dominant force in my life. I watched every Saturday morning cartoon episode over and over, formed a Beany & Cecil Club with my friends, begged for the toys for Christmas (my talking Cecil doll was a prized possession), and even washed up with Cecil bubble bath. Today, the cartoons that were a major influence on Ren & Stimpy, The Simpsons, South Park, and every other source of comic mayhem you can point to have been too long out of circulation.

The series’ format was deceptively simple: the nephew of an exploring sea captain adopts a friendly sea monster. Together they embark on adventures to the far corners of the Earth, tracking down strange creatures such as the wild man GoMan Van Go, and the Three-headed Threep. The style: classic animation scaled to a TV budget, but infused with the psychedelic humor of a mad genius.

To understand the zany appeal of Beany & Cecil, one must learn about their creator, Bob Clampett. More detail (a lot more detail) can be found in the disc supplements, but basically Clampett invented the Mickey Mouse doll, became a premiere animator and director for Warner Brothers, and created or helped develop all of the Loony Tunes characters.

When the animated shorts industry began to fade, animators like Jay Ward and the team of Hanna-Barbera turned to television, where they created the techniques of limited animation necessary for that medium.

But Clampett sought to create something new: a hybrid of cartoons and puppetry that eventually resulted in the creation of Time for Beany, a weekday 15-minute puppet serial. Shot live, Time for Beany gave the public a daily dose of the same anarchic humor as Clampett’s cartoons, and it became a huge hit – especially with the artistic community. Even as a child I’d been puzzled by the odd character design of the Beany & Cecil characters. Only now can I appreciate why: they were based on the puppets.

The episodes of Time for Beany on this DVD give a perfect illustration of the series’ strengths. The first is rather bland – because there’s not much Cecil in it. Beany himself is merely a send-up of a typical sweet kid, often serving only to be rescued from peril.

The other crewmembers are also rather one-note. The other, later episodes really catch fire whenever Cecil – or the anti-Cecil villain Dishonest John – is on screen. These are the two characters – the twin dynamics of the show – that we all tirelessly imitated around the schoolyard. One clip perfectly boils down a Cecil trademark: pissed off at an attack on Beany, Cecil goes ape and destroys a pirate ship set. His puppet rage is almost scary, but also hilarious.

During the late ’50s, a 15-minute daily show became a harder sell, but Saturday morning was becoming the playground of TV cartoons. Clampett easily adapted his puppets to cartoon form. After the puppet version, seeing Clampett with his imagination cut loose by the limitless limits of animation is almost too wild.

Many of the cartoons are almost free association, one bizarre gag feeding into the next, until they sometimes spiral out of control. I haven’t found any in the voluminous supplements, but I’d like to see some of the memos sent to Clampett from the network at that time.

Speaking of the supplements, this is one DVD where the extras overpower the main feature. There’s only a dozen cartoons and a handful of show bumpers included, leaving one hungry for a volume 2 (with more Time for Beany episodes, please).

Produced by Clampett’s son Robert, Jr. with Greg Carson, this disc is actually more of an interactive biography, detailing (as far as copyrights can take them) every aspect of Bob Clampett’s colorful career. Here you can find clips from his many aborted projects (a 1930s collaboration with Edgar Rice Burroughs on a proposed John Carter of Mars feature being a standout), artwork and storyboards, and all kinds of photos.

The audio tracks, culled from several interviews edited by Milton Gray, form a virtual oral autobiography of the man. In all, this is an exhaustive (and exhausting) document, one that hopefully will be successful enough to warrant a companion volume some day.

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