The Perils of Penelope Pitstop: The Complete Series Review
Penelope Pitstop is a lot smarter than you might initially give her credit for. At first she comes across as a bit like an animated Paris Hilton – blonde, air-headed, more concerned with her make-up bag than anything going on around her, wears a lot of pink, with an older man trying to exploit a connection they have – but it soon becomes clear that there’s a lot more going on in that “lil ole head” of hers than it appears. She likes the world to think she's an archetypal damsel in distress, constantly pursued by the Hooded Claw, finding herself time and again in precarious situations, sudden and violent death bearing down on her at a great speed, with her only hope of rescue seeming to be the incompetent Ant Hill Mob, and yet she always manages to live to see another day. Her friends are useless: most of their rescue attempts end up with them stuck in their own problems, able to contribute only at most the occasional soft landing for our heroine, and even then it’s dicey. Perforce she has to rely on her own wits and… well, she’s still alive isn’t she? The whole ditzy-girl thing must be an act. She used it to her advantage in Wacky Races, crying out “hay-ulp” for assistance only to thoroughly screw over any fool who can to her aid, and she does so again here. I bet she even secretly knows who the Hooded Claw is and is just stringing him along for her own amusement.
As the title makes clear, the series is based around the legendary serial The Perils of Pauline. In that, the eponymous heroine, played by Pearl White, managed to get herself entangled in a whole assortment of different predicaments, menaced by such hardy cinematic staples as Indians and Pirates, with each episode seeming to end with her hurtling towards certain doom. Although it wasn’t the first such serial - The Adventures of Kathlyn preceded it by a number of months – it was Pauline who entered the lexicon of popular culture, and today all you have to do is mention the name for people to instantly conjure up in their minds the image of a girl tied to a railway track as a locomotive bears down on her, while a moustachioed villain chuckles evilly from the sidelines. Given its cartoon-like sensibilities, it’s perhaps a surprise that a direct animated copy of it didn’t come along until 1969 when Hanna-Barbera, who had based their entire company on adapting live action material into cartoon form, came up with this.
1969 saw two spin-offs from Wacky Races - Dastardly and Muttley in their Flying Machines being the other – but the adventures of Penelope were the stronger of the offerings. Initially, it doesn’t sound that promising: she was a tiresome character in the parent cartoon and the idea of a full series devoted to her isn’t that tantalising. The decision to include the Ant Hill Mob from that same show also wouldn’t appear the most obvious move, but it all comes together rather satisfyingly. The Mob are the Seven Dwarves to her Snow White, even having similar names (Clyde, Softy, Zippy, Pockets, Dum Dum, Snoozy and Yak Yak) and the Perils of Pauline format works well in the context of a slapstick cartoon series.
Each episode is based around a different location around the world. A large variety of settings are used to ensure the cartoon has a diverse look, and the perils Penelope faces are always geared especially to that particular locale. One episode she might be tied to a slide in a Department Store at the mercy of a toy train, the next she’ll find herself in the Arctic menaced by a particularly hungry penguin. The artwork, while never that detailed, does a good job in giving each instalment its own feel, and the stories move quickly enough along that each escape doesn’t last too long (the cartoon being, after all, just a series of set pieces). Although the gag of over-complicated traps had already been done in Batman, the relish with which the Hooded Claw describes each fiendish contraption gives them a humour that mixes familiarity of the cliché with enjoyment of the variation shown in each particular instance. Each episode does feel like it could have featured Pauline instead, ending on a cliffhanger that is reprised next week and with title music that sounds like it's come straight from the local nickelodeon. (Well, it should do – see The Disk for why this set lets down the side as far as this is concerned).
Penelope hasn’t changed much between series, with maybe a little bit more detail about her design being the extent of her evolution. The Ant Hill Mob have though. As mentioned, they each have their own proper characteristics now, and soon Dum-Dum’s laugh, Softy’s bursting out crying at every little thing or Snoozy’s habit of driving while asleep become as much a part of their identity as Clyde, their leader, giving them orders. Their car, Chugaboom, has now become a character in its own right too, its sniffing the ground and rearing up on its hind wheels to zoom off to the rescue coming across as a mixture of a bloodhound and a shire horse (the amount of times it gets squashed, bashed or broken apart, you wonder it puts up with it). The most fun to be had, however, is from Sylvester Sneaky AKA The Hooded Claw, perhaps the most diabolical fiend ever to walk this earth. As with Dastardly and Muttley, he is a villain you can’t help cheering for, especially given the winsomely annoying nature of his intended victim. (It makes one wonder whether HB were jumping on the subversive bandwagon at the end of the Sixties - this was a series, after all, which was based around a guy trying to kill an innocent girl, and was made in the same year as that infamous stoner Shaggy was making his debut). Despite the fact he is faced with constant failure, he is a very happy villain, constantly chuckling appreciatively at his own brilliance. Whether he’s waggling his eyebrows at the viewer as he confides his latest scheme or flamboyantly pulling on his disguise, he seems supremely confident that one day he'll get Penelope and sees these set backs as only temporary, with every episode ending with him promising “I’ll get you next time, Penelope Pitstop!” underlining the threat with his melodramatic laugh. As a bad guy, he encapsulates everything we have in our collective memories of Victorian-era villainy.
The Hooded Claw is played by Paul Lynde, who gives the character a smooth suaveness that contrasts pleasingly with Paul Winchell’s Dick Dastardly who could have otherwise come across a vaguely similar character (On a side note, look out for Muttley’s owner making what seems to be a cameo in one episode). Lynde was one of those performers that never quite fulfilled his potential – although he had a decent-ish career, including a recurring role in Bewitched and two shows of his own, it could be said that the height of his fame was appearing in the hallowed central square on Hollywood Squares, which is a shame as he gives a good performance here and is well remembered on the extras of this disk for his witty one-liners and dry delivery. He was among a distinguished cast on the cartoon – as well as Janet Waldo reprising her role as Penelope, there’s a certain Mel Blanc to be found among the credits, playing various minor parts. Paul Winchell also pops up as two of the Ant Hill Mob while Gary Owens gives the role of the hammy Narrator his all (scarily he talks the same in real life: see the Extras below). Completing the picture is Don Messick as other members of the Ant Hill Mob but, despite the relatively large cast (the Dastardly and Muttley show, by contrast, only had two performers on it), there is a uniformity about the voices that belie the fact five different artists were involved – it would be difficult to bet on more than three for the entire thing. The main voices are distinguishable enough, but the various members of the Mob all tend to gel together, and it’s just as easy to imagine they are all the product of one vocalist as three, which is a shame given the talent involved.
But that's not a real issue in what is generally a very enjoyable cartoon. As a collection of wham-bam moments it does its job, and the twenty minutes making up each cartoon never drag, the brave Penelope managing to escape from several precarious situations in each episode. The style of the art looks a little primitive these days, but it's all bright and varied enough to ensure that even today it has a lot to offer youngsters. Meanwhile the older fan will find it has stood the test of time, as has much else from the HB stable, remarkably well and makes for an entertaining, if affectionately indulgent, viewing experience. Just be sure to think twice before responding when you hear that familiar cry for "Hay-ulp" - chances are, by the time you get there, she'll already have escaped and scarpered off to her next destination, leaving you to clean up the mess. Damsel in distress? In her dreams.
Sigh. I wish I could say these episodes are flawlessly transferred but they're anything but. For some reason Warners (who have already caused controversy with editing classics: see Michael Mackenzie's blog) have seen fit to release an edited version of the series. What you get on this set are not the episodes as originally transmitted, but the syndicated versions which were broadcast during the 1970s. As a result, the opening music is different to how it should be (the theme that plays over the end credits is the correct version) and the cliffhangers have been chopped off the end of each episode. This results in each episode opening mid-story, with the Narrator's "As you'll recall, when we last saw Penelope..." appearing nonsensical now. An unnecessary and lazy approach to the series, this is a big disappointment for the fans.
Other than this, the disks are as much as any other in the Hanna-Barbera Classic Collection. All seventeen episodes are presented on three single-sided dual layer disks, with the packaging having new artwork from the series on both the main sleeve and the interior box which opens up. As well as the disks, the set also comes with a "Collectible Litho Cell", a piece of artwork by HB storyboard artist Bob Singer with background art by Hector Martinez (both HB stalwarts), held in a little cardboard sleeve which has details about it on the back.
The main menu has a rather ingenious amalgamation of various episodes, with small clips merging into each other. There is a Play All option as well as an individual episode selection screen, one for Special Features and one for Languages. All the episodes are subtitled but none of the extras are.
This is not one of the better transfers of the Classic Collection, with the image being consistently grainy. There is evidently some print damage as minor artefacts pop up regularly in the episodes, the result of which makes the cartoon look every bit its age.
Fine for what it is, the audio track of a cartoon thirty-six years old. Clear but not crystal sharp, it does its job.
There are commentaries on two episodes on the first disk. Featuring actors Janet Waldo and Gary Owens (who speaks in exactly the same way as he does on the series), designer Iawo Takamoto and two former members of HB Scott Awley and Scott Jeralds, these are nicely nostalgic. Although there is some burbling to found there (we get lots of "We love this show," particularly from Waldo), there are some interesting anecdotes to be had, particularly about Paul Lynde who was apparently, to use that old expression, a bit of a character.
The Players in "Perils"
A compilation of clips from the series identical in style to that found on the Dastardly and Muttley in their Flying Machines set. Each of the main characters - Penelope, the Ant Hill Mob and The Hooded Claw - get their own part and its all put together with jaunty music, making up an enjoyable if lightweight whole.
Penelope Pitstop's Spin Outs
Five minute featurette looking at the making of the show. Again, lightweight - we get nothing really about the making of the show, aside from the fact that Paul Lynde was a Very Funny Man. There's nothing about the animators, the source material, or anything else. Plenty of talking heads explain what happens in the series itself, some of whom also appear on the commentaries, and this is more like one of those First Look extended ads for films there are nowadays. A good summary of the series, but that's it.
On Disk Three there are trailers for the DVD releases of Wacky Races, Dastardly and Muttley, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, The Flintstones: Season Three, Samurai Jack 2, Top Cat and The Best of the New Scooby-Doo Movies. Samurai Jack looks a little out of place amongst that lot poor thing.
The series itself: not as good as Wacky Races, better than Dastardly and Muttley, even if the heroine herself is extremely annoying. The disk set would have been average if it hadn't been let down by the fact the episodes are cut, which is, frankly, unacceptable. If only The Hooded Claw had been as sneaky as Warner Home Video...