The squirrel -- and the witticisms -- are flying again


They're an unlikely pair, Bullwinkle the Moose and Rocket J. Squirrel. But -- as a recently released DVD collection reminds us -- of such an unlikely pairing is pop-culture history made.

At first blush, a jet-propelled rodent (scientific name Glauco-mys volans) and a giant two-legged cousin to Bambi (scientific name Alces alces) don't seem to have much in common. But looks can be deceiving.

Both were wide-eyed innocents and relentless do-gooders. Both were loyal residents of the great state of Moosylvania. Both had little patience for no-goodniks. And both sprang from the twistedly fertile minds of Jay Ward and Bill Scott, giants of animation and satire who doubtless would have had just as little patience with such labels, except as targets of their caustic and unswerving wit.

"Jay wanted it to be an adult series to be shown in prime time, but unfortunately, it was put on in the mornings," recalls June Foray, who provided the voices of Rocky (never mind that he was a boy squirrel), Natasha and just about every female character on the show.

"It was witty, it was sophisticated, it was a happy marriage between the voices, the look of the characters and the plot. The writing was wonderful. There was no condescension to children, but they loved it anyway. They loved the funny-looking characters and the great voices."

Those sure were the days, when Moose and Squirrel were busily keeping the world safe from notorious spies Boris Badenov and his seductive partner, Natasha Fatale; when Capt. Peachfuzz ruled the seas and Fearless Leader did his best to ensure the world was a rotten place to live; when the Kirwood Derby could make its wearer the smartest man in the universe and the long-lost Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayam could be found lying just beneath the surface of Veronica Lake.

Staying power

Luckily, those days have returned, with this month's release of the four-DVD Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends, Com-plete Season 1. The collection, 26 shows in all, follows our intrepid duo through two adventures.

In the first, "Jet Fuel Form-ula," the boys try to re-create the powerful rocket fuel Bullwinkle inadvertently discovered while baking his grandma's famous fudge. The second, "Box Top Robbery," tells the tale of our heroes thwarting Boris' attempt to undermine the global economy by flooding it with counterfeit cereal-box tops.

There are also generous helpings of Fractured Fairy Tales (Aesop's fables run through a blender); twisted history lessons from Mr. Peabody, the world's smartest dog and his boy, Sherman; and the melodramatic adventures of that paragon of Canadian virtue, Dudley Do-Right.

Not that Rocky and Bullwinkle ever really went away; generations of baby-boomers, reared on the series' deceptively amateurish animation, rampant punning and stinging satire, have long cherished it as a childhood memory that only improves with age.

When several episodes were released on VHS a few years back, boomers eager to relive their childhoods were delighted to discover that the advancing years only gave the jokes new meaning, as quips that flew effortlessly over their youthful heads took on new, subversively anarchic meaning. Even four decades after the show went off the air, visitors to Hollywood still flock to Dudley Do-Right's Emporium on Sunset Boulevard to buy T-shirts, mugs, ceramic figurines and all manner of moose-and-squirrel memorabilia.

Just what had Jay Ward and Bill Scott wrought?

Ward, probably after realizing his Harvard MBA wouldn't make him the life of any party worth attending, already had created Crusader Rabbit, the first cartoon made exclusively for television, when he teamed with Scott, a former gag writer for Bugs Bunny and the other Warner Bros. cartoons, in 1957.

By the end of the following year, they had created Rocky and Bullwinkle, and were ready for the unenviable job of selling the networks a show starring two seemingly mismatched mammals. Somehow, the executives at ABC were persuaded, and the series (known then as Rocky and His Friends) had its premiere in fall 1959.

Assumed kids are hip

If for nothing else, Rocky and Bullwinkle earned a secure place in entertainment history for its hilariously off-kilter use of voice talent. The stentorian tones of narrator William Conrad, who had gained fame on radio as The Shadow, lent an air of nobility to the show that was entirely (and lovingly) inappropriate, while Scott's take on Bullwinkle's clueless baritone has become synonymous with good-natured vapidity ever since the moose -- an honors graduate of Whattsamatta U. -- first spoke.

And Foray showed up everywhere, not only as all-American boy Rocky and all-European vamp Natasha, but as the princesses with the Brooklyn accents in Fractured Fairy Tales (as well as their foghorn-voiced mothers); the ever-imperiled Nell Fenwick, girlfriend to Dudley Do-Right; and a wide assortment of both good and bad witches.

"We were such good friends, making that show," recalls Foray, still one of Hollywood's most sought-after voices. "It was like going to a party every night."

Nothing quite like the moose and squirrel had been seen before, certainly not on television or even, outside of perhaps Bill Gaines' Mad magazine, in print.

The animation style, which varied from adventure to adventure, was crude enough to appeal to the young -- what kid wouldn't love a cartoon that he or she could do a better job of drawing? Jokes flew at a furious pace, challenging kids to keep up. And no sacred cow was spared; everything from the Cold War and coin collecting to celebrity worship and Walt Disney himself was skewered. Rocky and Bullwin-kle may have been the first television show to assume kids could be hip.

"I'm sure I probably didn't get every joke," says Ward's daughter, Tiffany, now manager and director of Jay Ward Productions (her father died in 1989, outliving Scott by four years). "But of course my dad would be there watching them with me, laughing along with my mom, so I probably got more than a lot of kids. That's how it worked; kids would work hard to get some of the jokes their parents were laughing at.

"At least," Tiffany Ward adds with a pause worthy of her father's comic timing, "I thought I got them. But I'm not sure that I did."

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